At 5 o’clock in the morning, Denise Gahart is typically waking up her daughter so she can get her ready for school. And from there on out, chaos ensues. Between making lunch, feeding her animals, and arguing with her daughter over today’s wardrobe choices, Gahart is already thinking ahead to dinner time, and how much homework her daughter will have this evening. After running out of the house, usually at least five minutes late, Gahart is on her way to work. Once she arrives, she clocks in, says good morning, and fires up her dump truck.
Yup, that’s right. Her dump truck. For seventeen plus years, Gahart has been a local dump truck driver. She’s driven hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin roads, not to mention paved quite of a few of them as well. Gahart came by this trade honestly, her mother and father both drove truck while she was growing up, and she learned to drive truck before she learned to drive a car. Her mother owned a dump truck, and a trucking company, for several years, which Gahart ran after her mother was injured in a truck accident. This is the job she loves, and Gahart considers herself lucky to be able to earn a decent living doing what fulfills her.
Gahart describes herself as a person who loves to drive, period. She simply enjoys getting behind the wheel of her car, pickup truck, or dump truck, and cruising down the open road. When asked why Gahart chose to turn driving into her career, her response was, “There’s nothing better than having a job where it’s just you, your CB, and a radio. It’s awesome.” Other parts of the job Gahart finds particularly enjoyable is not having to deal with other people all day. While Gahart is a sociable person, when she’s in her dump truck she can tune out the world, if that’s what she desires, by turning up her radio, and watching the scenery fly by.
Gahart, however, is not the only woman who loves being a commercial trucker. Today’s roads and highways are seeing more women truckers than ever before. Women like over the road tractor-trailer driver, Sandi Talbott. Tractor trailers are what most of us refer to as semi-trucks, and over the road (OTR) means that Talbott, and other OTR drivers, are the people who haul loads long distances. Talbott has been in the trucking industry for over 34 years, and truly enjoys what she does for a living. Being able to travel the country, and see much of that country as nature had intended, is one of the major draws the trucking industry presented to Talbott. Having driven over 4 million miles, Talbott is considered one of the pioneers of women in trucking, and she’s seen places of this country that many others never will.
As much as women drivers like Gahart and Talbott love their jobs, there are aspects to being a truck driver that makes their lives difficult. Sheila Johnson*, another female dump truck driver, describes how her family life was affected by her career. “I missed a lot of family doings, my kid’s school functions,” Johnson says, “but I had to in order to make a living.” Driving truck locally, like Gahart and Johnson, means 14 hour work days, sometimes seven days a week, performing an extremely demanding job. Their particular type of trucking is seasonal, so although they may be home during the winter months, they are essentially absent during the spring and summer months. For long distance drivers, like Talbott, being gone for weeks at a time is considered typical. For Johnson and Gahart, being away from home is one of the biggest downfalls to their profession.
For Talbott, however, some of the biggest setbacks she’s faced had to do with equipment rather than long hours. Modern niceties like power steering, adjustable pedals, and air riding seats weren’t available when Talbott first started driving. Talbott, a southern sounding woman who is as tiny as she is determined, described having to actually stand on her feet in order to turn the corners in the tractor trailer she drove while her husband was alive. The advancements that she’s seen since starting in the industry have made driving a lot more attractive to drivers who might have otherwise struggled with certain aspects of the job.
Missing families and struggling with difficult equipment are all characteristics of driving truck, whether the driver is male or female. However, women in the male dominated world of professional trucking face their own set of unique challenges. All three of the women I interviewed had stories to tell of the negative things they saw, heard, or experienced as female truck drivers. Gahart described how the men she worked with tried to make her life as unpleasant as possible, “They spread rumors, saying I would sleep with anyone to get work over other, male, and in their opinion, more qualified, drivers.” She also talked about the dirty looks, snickers, and commentary on the radios (CB’s) that she had to deal with on the job sites.
Many female truck drivers experience the same treatment that Gahart did. Because of this treatment, many female drivers have to prove that they deserve the same respect that other drivers get from day one. Many women have to make quite an effort to show they’re “not just a pretty face”, Gahart says, and that, “we’re not trying to take the place of men”. It’s especially hard, she commented, because men come into the field and automatically get respect, whether their job performance demonstrates they deserve it, or not.
How each of these women handle the way they’re treated by their male co-workers is as individual as their personalities. While Talbott and Gahart feel that women have to engage a sort of façade in order to fit in with their male co-workers, Johnson refuses to do so. At 5 foot 8, with blond hair and blue eyes, Johnson doesn’t appear to be a tough cookie. But she stands her ground, and refuses to give in to the men who attempt to harass her. She says she’s had bad experiences with her male co-workers, but her way of handling it is to tell them, “You drive your truck, and I’ll drive mine.”While the women may disagree on the tactics they engage, they all agree that women have to possess a thick skin to be in this industry. Without it, Johnson says the men, “will walk all over you.”
Besides engaging that façade, Gahart didn’t respond to the harassment of her male co-workers. “Regardless of what I said or told them, it wouldn’t have mattered,” she says, “they wouldn’t have believed me. They had to find out on their own that the rumors weren’t true.” Instead, Gahart rode the bad days out, and now she says that she’s been in the field long enough that her co-workers have come to realize that her work ethics are solid, and that the behaviors they were attributing to her were not part of her values. Although she says it took a good five or so years, Gahart has earned the respect of her co-workers based on her work performance and experience. She no longer keeps her silence if there’s a situation happening that bothers her. And yet she’s only comfortable doing so now because she’s finally “earned” her place.
Indeed, what Johnson and Gahart deal with on the job originates back to WWII. During this era, the tone and objections to women working in a male dominated industry began to change. The article, “Stagecoaches to Truck Drivers-Women’s History Month” details how women held a multitude of trucking jobs during the war, from delivering mail here in the states, and over in Europe, to hauling supplies, and driving the trucks full of wounded men to base hospitals. Unfortunately, when the men came home from the war, they resented having women working in their industries, and the attitude that women were, “stealing men’s jobs”, can be traced back to this era.
Talbott, on the other hand, has had different experiences than Gahart and Johnson. Talbott tells me that, although she has seen and heard stories of women being treated poorly by their male co-workers, she herself was protected from that because she worked as part of a driving team with her late husband. On the rare occasion that Talbott ran into a problem, she responded by sticking to her motto, “If you act like a lady, you’ll be treated like a lady”.
All in all, Talbott was part of a generation of women who got into the industry because their husbands were truckers. These women were seen as “wives”, and as such were afforded a level of respect that solo female drivers were denied. Women, like Talbott, who were introduced to the industry as wives of truckers often took over the driving when their husbands passed away, became incapable of driving, or they divorced. Once these women began their careers as solo drivers, they were already known and respected in the industry. Therefore, they weren’t subjected to much of the mistreatment other women drivers were.
Following Talbotts generation of trucker wives came the women who were viewed as the more radical female truckers. They were seen as brash, loud, mannish women who tried too hard to fit into an industry that didn’t want them. However, this generation of women included female truck driver Adriesue, Bitsy, Gomez. Gomez was the founder of the Coalition of Women Truck Drivers. Through this coalition, Time Magazine reported in 1976, Gomez broke new ground by winning a law suit against a California winery because they refused to hire her for a trucking job because she was a woman. Because of Gomez, and her determination to be seen as an equal, women continued to find footing in the trucking industry.
Gahart and Johnson are part of the newest generation of women truck drivers. They continue to pave the way for women to be successful in the trucking industry. By refusing to be treated as something less, and demanding the same respect as their male counterparts, Gahart and Johnson honor the women like Talbott and Gomez, as well as the courageous women who first started hauling freight and other goods.
Today, women like Gahart, Johnson, and Talbott continue to fight against negative stereotypes and the mistreatment of women in the trucking industry. Talbott is Vice President, and the official spokeswoman, for the website REALwomenintrucking. The website’s mission is, “is to empower the women of trucking and those entering the industry through outreach programs, continuing education, advocacy, mentoring, networking, and ongoing support to promote retention, encouragement, and unity between both new and seasoned female drivers”. Through the continued dedication of these women, the trucking industry is becoming more and more accepting of women behind the wheel and on the roads. Still, while these women want to encourage others females who are interested in becoming drivers, they also have some words of caution.
The responsibility that each driver takes on when they get behind the wheel of a truck is one of the strongest points that Talbott, Johnson and Gahart agree upon. Drivers of vehicles that can cause massive damages and loss of life have to be keenly aware of that fact. Gahart, Talbott, and Johnson have all witnessed horrific accidents involving commercial vehicles, and say the resulting aftermath is terrible. Therefore, they caution that anyone thinking of becoming a professional driver be absolutely sure that it is what they want to do, and to get the proper training for such a large responsibility. Talbott especially urges women who are considering a trucking school to do their homework, and to make sure the training it offers is sufficient for the real world application of the job. Too many schools, she says, turn out drivers who are unprepared for the job they are attempting to do. And those kinds of drivers, men and women alike, put everyone on the roadways in danger.
Despite their warnings, these women love their jobs. They each have found personal freedom behind the wheels of their trucks. Generations of women before them have paved the way for today’s women to thrive in the trucking industry. Today’s women in the industry continues to make headway for future generations to be considered equals in a field where they had previously been deemed unworthy. Though there are still serious problems for women in male dominated trades like trucking, courageous women like Gahart, Talbott, and Johnson stand tall in the knowledge that they perform their jobs just as well, and in some instances better, as anyone else in their line of work.
*Some names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.