Working, by Studs Terkel (BOOK TWO, Part Two – A Pecking Order)

Not sure if this is the best slogan…but hey.


Wow, this is quite a chapter. I don’t usually get a chance to comment on feminism and anti-work and how they intersect but this chapter doesn’t pull any punches on matters of gender and sexuality, so it makes it easy. That’s not surprising given that all of the interviewees are women and not men. And particularly they are lower-class women.

I think some of my lack of commentary for anti-work and feminism is that I don’t usually have movies, articles or books that tackle the intersection themselves. And when all you’ve got left of this site is just me talking about how my own job sucks, then that’s going to limit how much I can really get into matters of gender and especially with regards to work.

I’ve talked about feminism a few times (here and here most explicitly) but it’s nice to be able to do it from the perspective of women themselves and not just articles coming from the Atlantic about the lives of women within work. With those articles often (though not always of course) written by men.

Terry Mason (Airline Stewardess)

Mason is a fantastic introduction to a section that will be chock full of women commenting on how society (even if it’s the 70s) tends to treat them in certain roles. As a stewardess Mason is often flirted with, treated poorly by customers and higher ups alike and had the romance of travel crushed for her early on.

For starters there are such things as “appearance counselors” who, even at the sight of a black eye, will take certain women off the shift until they think they’re “ready to go back on” (p. 41). They all go to a specific schools for “stew” (stewarding for short) and that is where they’re taught to fit a very particular mode of being and appearance.

Everything from the way they look, how they dress, what they do with their make-up, even smoking:

They showed you how to smoke a cigarette, when to smoke a cigarette, how to look at a man’s eyes. Our teacher, she had this idea we had to be sexy. One day in class she was showing us how to accept a light or a cigarette from a man and never blow it out. When he lights it, just look in his eyes.

It was really funny, all the girls laughed. (p. 42)

That last part is the most uplifting piece of it: Even the women in these schools can discern that this way of producing human behavior for a job is ridiculous on its face. But since “Everything is is supposed to be becoming to the passenger” (p. 42), there isn’t a lot of room for the women’s laughter to mean much in the way of resistance.

The whole idea of producing women who always smile, always wear makeup, always say “I’m sorry, sir” when they make a mistake and never talk back to the customers (though this part doesn’t always work)  is a machine that’s hard to beat. The women can maybe laugh while in class, but while they’re at the job they’re supposed to love, they have to smile all of the time, always be understanding, etc.

The romance of travel entails being decked up and wanted by many male passengers but the reality is that you’re trained to be that way, it isn’t natural. And the men themselves are often nothing special. Sure, some of them are rich but according to Mason, that alone never interests any of them. Maybe when they’re celebrities, but other than that…

According to Mason, “The majority of those who make passes at you, you wouldn’t accept a date if they were friends of yours back home.” (p. 43) So meeting men through through flying isn’t particularly glamorous and Mason also says during the interview that after you go to enough places on a plane, it just loses its luster.

Mason tells an interesting story that got me thinking:

One day I went down to the area of swinging bars with two other girls. We just didn’t want anybody to know that we were stewardesses, so we had this story made up that we were going to a women’s college in Colorado. That went over. We had people that were talking to us, being nice to us, being polite.

Down there, they wouldn’t even be polite. They’d buy you drunks but then they’d steal your stool if you got up to go to the restroom. But when they knew you weren’t stewardesses, just young ladies that were going to a women’s college, they were really nice to use. (p. 43

Although the situation isn’t explained in any more depth I think changing a few words would have done the trick nicely. “…just young ladies that were going to a [nearby] women’s college.” My theory is that the men wouldn’t treat women who are just traveling and passing through because there isn’t much social repercussion to it.

But women who actually live nearby are more likely to talk about how the men treat them. And even if that’s just limited to their own social groups it’s still a bigger risk than someone who’ll just be there for a night or two and likely won’t be back anytime soon (if at all).

Mason mentions the union she’s in which is a division of the pilot’s union. One of the benefits from the union is that she can’t work if they’re stuck in a particular place due to weather and 13 hours have passed. Before this Mason mentions that she had worked for thirty-six hours straight. There’s a lot of problem with unions (both contemporary and historical) but I’d call that progress if I’ve ever seen it.

Another part of this interview that interested me was how class differentials played a role in Mason’s job:

Sometimes I get tired of working first class. These people think they’re great, paying for more, and want more. Also I get tired of coach passengers asking for something that he thinks’ he’s a first-class passenger. We get this attitude of difference from our airlines. They’re just dividing the class of people. (p. 45)

Elaborating further, Mason details how the stewardesses are supposed to wait hand over foot for people in the first class but only give the least amount of appropriate effort for anyone else. She says it’s not fair and tries to hang up the coats for coach like she would for anyone in first class.

On one hand it’s an admirable way to show equality, but on the other, damn that sounds exhausting.

As such, I wouldn’t blame any stewardess for saving the “hands over feet” routine for just one class of people. And in any case it really sounds like it’s more a problem of class-based expectations than anything else. You could still keep those divisions but try to make it so everyone should be treated equally.

But on the other hand, doesn’t it make sense to treat people better who have invested more of their own money into the airplane than other people? I’m not arguing for the fact that we have a very (very) class orientated society, but shouldn’t people who pay more get more? Then again there’s also the perspective that we’re all paying for the flight and just because you pay more doesn’t mean you should be treated any better.

I see both sides on this debate, I guess.

Lastly, the topic of emotional labor comes up quite explicitly in this interview:

It’s always: the passenger is right. When a passenger says something mean, we’re supposed to smile and say, “I understand.” We’re supposed to really smile because stewardesses’ supervisors have been getting reports that the girls have been back-talking passengers. Even when they pinch us or say dirty things, we’re supposed to smile at them. That’s one thing they taught us at stew school. Like he’s rubbing your body somewhere, you’re supposed to just put his hand down and not say anything and smile at him.

That’s the main thing, smile. (p. 46)

The life of these women isn’t too different from the lives of women today in some ways. Many are still expected to smile as much as possible, deal with constant abuse and turn a blind eye to it. It’s gotten better in many ways (the #metoo campaign is a great example of that) but it’s still a much lingering problem and is reflected in professions where emotional labor mixes with our gendered expectations towards women.

A toxic mix if there ever was one.

Beryl Simpson (Airline Reservationist)

Simpson’s interview is brief (and she’s talking about her job in the past tense because this is a job she used to do) but she manages to pull very few punches in the process. Most of her complaints come from how mechanized the job was, how reliant the job was on computers instead of her own abilities and the strictness of times.

Whether it was a matter of her break times, when she got into work or how long she was talking on the phone Simpson was being monitored for precision. Simpson never felt like she was really a part of anything meaningful and instead all she felt was that she was a part of the computer that she (supposedly) worked with.

One of the moments that hit me the hardest was when Simpson talked about the culture of her past work:

I remember when I went to work for the airlines, they said, “You will eat, sleep, and drink airlines. There’s no time in your life for ballet, theater, music, anything.” my first supervisor told me that.

Another agent and I were talking about going to the ballet or something. He overheard us and said we should be talking about work. (p. 50)

I don’t think I’ve heard many things as insidiously oppressive as that.

Jill Torrance (Model)

Torrance is an odd mix of attitudes when it comes to her line of work. She’s thankful for the fact that she can live a fairly good life while putting in minimal effort. But she also doesn’t take a lot of fulfillment from her work and struggles to think of what else she could do in her life that she would be good at.

The stereotype of the ditzy model who doesn’t think much is undermined in this interview. Torrance is an obviously intelligent, self-aware and interesting person who struggles with her life like many other people.

One thing I have to keep reminding myself lately is that even if my writings never become successful (and by extension me) I still probably wouldn’t be happy, or not as happy as I think I would.

I don’t know if realizations like that make me happier or sadder. But in any case it’s true that success won’t get rid of mental health issues or make you feel completely fulfilled, at least not forever. Eventually people need new stimulus in their lives, whether that be a new job or a new pet or a new partner or a new project to work on in their spare time.

Torrance earns $50 an hour (the highest you can get where she lives) but still finds the work stressful:

Someone will call you at seven in the morning and say be ready at eight thirty. Can you be there in forty minutes? You’re a basket case trying to get your wardrobe together and be there on time. You’re having a cup of coffee, suddenly the phone rings and you have to run. It’s terrible. (p. 51)

A lesson from this: No matter how much your work pays, it can still stress you out and make you unhappy. At a certain level of income, money stops making you happy (or as happy as it would before you got to that level) and buying material things and having extra spending money only gets you so much happiness by itself.

A further stressor for Torrance is the fact that she often feels guilty if she turns down jobs. There are times where she wants to just say she’s sick but then she runs the risk of the agency she’s working for firing her or passing on her for future jobs.

This was a funny exchange between Terkel and Torrance:

What’s your first reaction when the phone rings in the morning and it’s a job call?

Oh, crap. (p. 52)

An interesting tidbit from the interview was Torrance’s claim that most girls who end up doing modeling are from “very poor families”. In Torrance’s experience the women she met were from Ohio or Indiana, not states well known for their particularly high levels of wealth or income, I’m presuming. I’d also think that a big part of it (which Torrance herself mentions) is that the glamour of the job attracts particularly poor women who want a better life for themselves.

Another thing Torrance mentions is the lack of needing any sort of training. There’s no need, according to Torrance, to go to charm schools and learn make up. According to Torrance, you just learn a lot of the necessary tricks of the trade as you keep working. I don’t doubt that there is something to Torrance’s words but I’d also figure that some women are more of a natural than others and maybe some of them want to avoid the pain of the learning process through money.

Here’s Torrance’s overview of her job:

My feelings are ambivalent. I like my life because it does give me freedom. I can have half a day off to do things I like. I couldn’t do that if I had a normal job. I could never be a secretary. I make as much money working three hours as a secretary makes in a week.

If I had to sit in an office for eight hours a day filing, I would find that more degrading than modeling.

I don’t look down at secretaries. Most are talented women who could do better jobs than their bosses probably, but will never get the chance—because they’re women. (p. 54)

I love how Torrance balances criticizing her own choices but still keeping a positive look on what she could be doing instead. And on top of that she still respects the choices made by other women and understands the lack of recognition they are getting in their careers because of their gender.

Torrance makes a comment about women’s liberation and wanting to join them but says they dislike advertising and make-up too much for her to attend their meetings. They told her that if she wanted to join the movement she needed to stop being a model. I think these brief asides highlight some important problems with 2nd wave feminism.

Anne Bogan (Executive Secretary)

Bogan wins the “I’m actually happy with my job” award or this chapter! Seriously, no one else in this chapter is unambiguously happy with their job but Anne is. And I mean, good for her. But it’s also a pretty short interview so I don’t have too much to say here besides comment on what exactly makes her happy.

She likes being treated more equally than the other secretaries and treated better than she was before…though you might think that would make her reflect on the way the class structure works in the building she occupies. And perhaps more disconcertingly she states that she “adjusts to the bosses moods” and that marriages would be better of that way.

That’s perhaps one of the most conservative statements I’ve seen in this book so far…so congratulations on that.

Roberta Victor (Hooker)

CW: Mentions of rape, sexual assault, violence, etc.

So, just to make things clear, I don’t pick the descriptions for these interviewees. On this one, I’m not particularly pleased with the choice Terkel has gone with, but I’ll give him some slack since I’m not sure if sex-worker had really come into vogue yet. Victor herself never self-identifies as a hook or calls other girls hookers, only call-girls or streetwalkers.

This compounds the problematic nature of Terkel designating Victor as a hooker, but I’ll move on.

Victor is perhaps the most interesting person thus far in the book and certainly the most interesting person in the chapter. She’s appropriately also the last person interviewed so Terkel saved the best for last. Before I forget, there’s also some interesting overlap with women talking about other people in this chapter. We’ve already seen Torrance talk about secretaries but there’s also Mason talking about some women wanting to be a model, etc.

Victor started being a prostitute around the age of fifteen and the interview covers her time as both a call-girl and a streetwalker. The call-girl portion of her life (6 years or thereabouts) is marked by safety, reliable clients, a network of support via other call-girls. While the streetwalker portion of her life consists of threats against her life, rape, prison time, entrapment and a lot more. The bridge between these two for Victor was drug addiction, specifically heroin.

Eventually Victor would look worse and worse because of her dependency on hard drugs. She wouldn’t be able to ask as much, rely on the same clients she used to be able to and thus eventually had to do streetwalking. She sees it as a lower form of prostitution but I had never really thought of the differences between one or the other.

Then again, as Victor herself points out there is clearly a difference in conditions and how safe you may feel. But then isn’t it the same sense of safety which led Victor to drug addiction and eventually streetwalking? Obviously that’s not a necessary part of being a call-girl, but Victor was hardly alone in that pursuit, as she says herself.

Drugs stopped being something she and her friends did when they were bored and instead became something they did whenever they felt the urge. She would put almost all of the money she could into it just so she could keep fueling her addiction and it wasn’t until a near-fatal incident with a dealer that she decided to get clean.

…But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As with Torrance is becomes quickly apparent that the stereotype of a sex-worker being stupid or completely out of control, having no choice, etc. is incorrect. Victor decided at a young age that she knew what she was supposed to be in society as a woman and wanted to use that to her own advantage. The way she talks about being a call-girl, you would think that the men are the ones who are being exploited, not her.

And to be clear, I don’t necessarily think Victor is being exploited. Well,  not anymore than someone who is forced to work in a factory when they don’t want to be there.

Victor herself makes this point later in the interview:

You become your job. I became what I did. I became a hustler. I became cold. I became hard. I became turned off. I became numb. Even when I wasn’t hustling, I was a hustler.

I don’t think it’s terribly different from somebody who works on the assembly line forty hours a week and comes home cut of, numb, dehumanized. People aren’t built to switch on and off like water faucets. (p. 65)

Victor starts the interview by making a point that’s pretty obvious to me: People aren’t just asking her for sex.

Some men wanted her for emotional companionship. Other men wanted her for a fantasy. Some of those fantasies included sex, but not all of them. She gives this wild tale of this guy who would light a bunch of candles, turn off all of the lights and hide in his coffin (yes, you read that right) and then scare women as they came in his bedroom.

This got him off…I guess.

But of course many men did want sex. And for that Victor talks at length about turning herself off, numbing herself, trying to feel some sort of power by manipulating the men and faking orgasms. Or she could feel powerful by reminding herself (at least when she was a call-girl) that when the newspapers talked about how virtuous these men were, she knew better.

Specifically, Victor was a call-girl for rich folks in Manhattan.

But she started around 15, as stated previously, and Victor makes the jump seem logical:

I learned from the society around me, just as a woman.

We’re taught how to hustle, how to attract, hold a man, and give sexual favors i return.

The language that you hear all the time, “Don’t sell yourself cheap.” “Hold out for the highest bidder.” “Is it proper to kiss a man good night on the first date?” the implication is it may not be proper on the first date, but if he takes you out to dinner on the second date, it’s proper.

If he brings you a bottle of perfume on the third date, you should let him touch you above the waist. And go on from there. It’s a market place transaction. Somehow I managed to absorb that when I was quite young. so it wasn’t even a moment of truth when this woman came into the coffee shop and said, “Come on.”

I was back in twenty-five minutes and I felt no guilt. (p. 58)

From there Victor details her time attempting to fall in love with a Jazz musician who avoided her. She started fooling around with other men to make her jealous and kept chasing that felling of closeness and intimacy. Victor saw other girls as threats (which she pointedly says all women are taught) and generally felt unwanted because of her stature, despite the fact that she was athletic, intelligent and outspoken.

No man would want her and as society teaches us, that’s more important.

Victor talks about her first trick involving herself and another woman. The client (a man) wants the two women to have sex with her before Victor has sex with him. The two women fake their sex and the man gets off almost before Victor can even touch him. …This is quite a story, though I don’t know, it just makes me feel weird that they pretended to have sex with each other. Shouldn’t the other person get what he paid for?

But then again as long as he climaxed, maybe it doesn’t matter. I’m sure if you actually do this for a living you’d have a very strong opinion about this but as I don’t I’ll just denote my own intuition about this and move on. And at any rate I suppose I don’t blame anyone for pretending when they’re already pretending to enjoy something.

Speaking of pretend, Victor goes into some depth about the routines of it all, the preparations she had to make as a highly priced call-girl. They involved long baths, beauty parlors, going shopping for expensive clothing, etc. You had to look the part as much as you had to play it for what Victor did.

Even though she was originally excited by all of this, Victor grew eventually numb to the process, “emotionally, sexually numb” (p. 60) and though she tried to enjoy her free time when she wasn’t pulling tricks, she eventually decided to involve herself in drugs. Many of her friends did it and she found herself bored without her job keeping her (artificially) busy.

And the bottom line for Victor was:

The work becomes boring because you’re not part of the life. You’re the part that’s always hidden. … You leave there and go back—to what? Really, to what? to an emptiness. You’ve got all this money in your pocket and nobody you care about. (p. 61)

And so like many drug addicts, Victor turned to drugs to fill that void in her. It makes sense. We all do things to fill the emptiness inside of ourselves when we’re not working. We’ve all been told that we need work to fill our lives with meaning but when we don’t have it we try to fill that void with (if not alcohol, drugs or late nights) music, sweets, entertainment and something, anything, that can make us forget how dismal the rest of our lives are.

I may not be into drugs (and never have been) but I’m still addicted to plenty. I’m addicted to people, I’m addicted to sweets, I’m addicted to constant stimulus via the internet (and especially Youtube, in the form of Let’s Plays, music, informational videos, etc.). I’m addicted to learning, writing and seeking out interesting experiences.

Not all addictions are bad…but heroin is probably not the best one, that’s for sure.

And so Victor found herself  on the streets and not pretending anymore. She tells Terkel that she wasn’t getting paid enough to fake her enjoyment anymore. She was in constant fear of being entrapped by the police, sent to prison, killed by whoever hired her, etc.

She compares the two situations (call-girl and streetwalker) in terms we can understand given Terkel’s earlier interviews:

It’s not too different than the distinction between an executive secretary and somebody in the typing pool.

As an executive secretary you really identity with your boss. When you’re part of the typing pool, you’re a body, you’re hired labor, a set of hands on the typewriter. you have nothing to do with whoever is passing the work down to you. You do it as quickly as you can.(p.  62)

Victor goes into some detail, explaining how she went from the streets to prison. How a cop had sex with her and then busted her. How she went to Mexico and helped manage a whorehouse while also teaching English to children during the day. It’s quite a lot to comment on, but I’m honestly running out of steam and I feel I’ve given Victor her due.

I’ve certainly given her due more than society did, that’s for sure.

Not that that’s a high bar to match.

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