My inspiration and friend, Bitsy Gomez, died this past week. She epitomized sisterhood and the wide open spaces of early women’s liberation— she was our Mama Bear, one of the sexiest, boldest, butchest straight women I ever met— a pistol of raw courage and unblinking truth-telling.
The 1970s was not the era of celebrity-feminism, to say the least. There was a working class feminist movement, a feminist movement inside Labor, and inside the Teamsters. We were as outrageous in our way as the punk rock you heard tearing apart your transistor radio.
It makes me laugh now to remember how completely UNWELCOME we were inside the Teamsters. They thought we were all a bunch of dykes who needed to be taught a lesson... blah blah blah... but there were also allies, and the Labor Movement was changing, it had to. The young people coming to work, at new companies like UPS (yes, that was new at the time!) had a really different attitude.
The mainstream press discovered Bitsy for a hot minute, which was both aggravating and thrilling. The 70s articles you’ll read below are quaint, the way the media treats feminism as a “curiosity,” but they’ll give you a feeling for the times, and for Bitsy. The stories played down the challenges, the violent and outraged reactions, the risks. The sweet victories were extra, extra special. The grind of the work and the activism nearly destroyed everyone on some level-- you won’t see a story about that here. We weren’t saints.
One of her friends asked me if I had any “G-rated” stories I could pass on to her grandchildren. Bitsy raised a lot of kids, so I imagine that’s a crew!
I wrote back: "All my stories are a little risqué or defiant because that was our life at the time. Bitsy was no prude.
"The thing that made her special was her incredible compassion and her way of getting right to the heart of what was really happening, no hypocrisy or flim-flamming. She. Had. Your. Back. She saw the best in you. I love how uninhibited she was, and nurturing. When I was 19, she was 33, and there’s something very special when “the older woman” takes you under her wing, if only for a moment. I’ll never forget her— I’m still looking for that spark."
Story Below from: “Women Truckers”
TIME, April 26, 1976
The Sexes Column
Adriesue (“Bitsy”) Gomez, 33, is a “gear-jamming gal with a white-line fever.”
A woman truck driver form Los Angeles, she is also a pain in the axle to a traditionally macho industry. Her fledgling 150-member Coalition of Women Truck Drivers, an offshoot of the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Organization for Women, already has organization cells in Dallas, Atlanta, and central California.
Two weeks ago, Gomez won a $6,000 Fair Employment Practices Commission Settlement from a California winery on the grounds that she had been turned down for a trucking job simply because she was woman.
Bitsy is out to change the industry’s tractional attitude toward meal truckers. Some docking areas still have MEN ONLY sings, and many truck stops routinely refuse to let women truckers us the showers, Worse, says Gomez: “When you lose your job to some 18-year-old punk boy after ten years, it makes you real mad.”
Bitsy has another major gripe. Women truckers, she says, often have to pass a “sleeper test”— having sex with a foreman or male driver — to get a job.
“I’ve had trucking foremen tell me not to frustrate the other driver or they’ll get someone else to do the job as required,” she says.
Archie Marietta, president of Teamster Local 208 in Los Angeles, says that he has never heard of the sleeper test. (ha, ha, ha. What a pig. Memorable. - SB)
“But if Bitsy is a good-looking woman,” he says, “I wouldn’t be surprised if some drivers didn’t try to use it.”
To lessen chances for sexual harassment on the road, the Coalition is demanding separate rooms for male and female drivers on overnight stops, and relay driving (with just one drivers on each stretch of the run). The coalition’s other demands: on-the-job training for women, no special tests for drivers already licensed in their categories by the state (Women truckers charge that the tests are used to weed out female applicants), and adjustable seats and pedals so women cannot be disqualified for being too small to drive a large truck.
The industry’s major complaint about women is that they are too weak, though few women truckers can be described as frail. Says Roger Kennedy, terminal manager of a grocery wholesaler: “We’ve been reluctant to hire women because the job involves unloading heavy cases at Ma and Pa grocers. But Bitsy has sure got our attention, and if we find a qualified woman, we’ll be glad to hire her.”
Gomez admits she is a near fanatic about trucking. As a girl in Chicago, she played hooky from school to watch truckers unload, and at drive-in movies she usually watched the freeways instead of the films.
The mother of three, she is separated from her husband, and driving is the most important thing in her life. “A good truck is to a woman what man ought to be,” she says— ‘big and strong and takes you where you want to go. When a woman gets into a semi, it makes up for all the crap women take in our society.”
Story below from: “Keep On Truckin’” by David Chagall
WOMEN’S WORLD, May 1977
Adriesue “Bitsy” Gomez fell in love with trucks when she was four. She would tie a wagon to the back of her tricycle and practice backing it up.
One time she saw tractor-trailer rig backing into a grocery store. While her playmates walked on to kindergarten, Bitsy waited and watched. When her friends walk past the store several hours later on the their way home, Bitsy was still there, entranced by the majestic machine, by its power and by the cavernous trailer that seemed to be bigger than the whole world. For her curiosity, she receive a paddling at home and a schooling from her teacher.
But her fascination with trucks and trailer grew. It stayed with her even after her marriage to a musician, after three children and after jobs as a cocktail waitress at a couple of posh Chicago night clubs.
She rubbed shoulders with entertainers and stars— people she met through her job or her husband. There were always parties, glitter, and the high life. Bitsy, though, was still smitten by the small of diesel fuel and the smooth gliding of gears as the 18-wheeler builds up speed.
More than anything else, Bitsy wanted to drive trucks. Her chance came after her divorce. She packed up her three children and headed west to California. Bitsy couldn’t afford to go to a professional truckers’ school, she she worked around the Los Angeles Produce Market, loading and loading trucks.
One day at the product market, Bitsy met a woman from Minnesota who drove her own truck. She hired Bitsy as a relief driver, running produce between Los Angeles and St. Paul, and that was how she learned the profession.
Bitsy, 32, is a full-fledged trucker. At five-foot-two and 105 pounds, she fits no stereotypes. Her brown hair frames a pretty face. She is feminine, refined, and conversant. And she is also an activist. Bitsy is a founder and a leader of the Coalition of Women Truck Drivers, a group that has fought sexism and discrimination, forcing trucking firms and the government to consider women for their driving ability and not their gender.
Trucking experts estimate that there are about two million divers hauling freight across the nations’ highways in those huge rigs called “semis,” and about 25,000 are women.
The trucking industry just isn’t the muscle industry it used to be, “ says Teamster official Fernando Muniz. “Today’s equipment is a lot easier to handle. The women we have in the Teamsters are very, very good drivers. They do the same job as any man. They’re competing time-wise, getting up in the middle of the night when they have to and doing everything else the men do. Women today are more self-reliant. They get out there and do whatever they have to.”
For Bitsy and women like her, getting a Class One license (needed for long-haul trucking) and some solid experience is not guarantee of steady work. Generally in the trucking industry, job longevity is rare. During the past 10 years, Bitsy’s longest stretch for any one trucking company has been six months. But periods of unemployment are not the only annoyances endured by women truckers.
Sexual harassment is a very real thing for the minority of women trying to make a living in the macho romanticized world of trucking.
“First you hustle like mad to get you Class One license,” Bitsy explains, “then when you apply for a job, they can make you take road test. Even though most companies can wave road tests for drivers with Class One licenses and don't normally ask a man to take them, as soon as woman shows up it becomes mandatory.
“So you go out with the guy for you read test and you get 20 miles outside of town, then he tells you to pull over. Now he tells you— ‘Either you put out or get out.’ That’s what we call the “Sleeper Test.” When you don go for it, as soon as you get back to town they tell you you flunked their road test.”
In some instances, even when a woman lands a good job she can come in for sexual antagonism. Two national trucking companies operate what amount to brothels on wheels.
“They say they’re running married couples, but it’s usually just a driver and a victim. They hire single women and then give them to the guys running the best times, the ones with the best records. It’s like a reward,” says Bitsy.
They [male truckers] are a friendly on the whole, eager to exchange stories of highway conditions, police traps, and other useful travel gossip. But when you mention women truckers, the eyes grow hard. “They’re a bunch of broads,” is a common reply.
“At least a dozen different companies have put men into my truck. First you hire on as a solo and then at the last minute they stick a man in with you. Maybe two of those times they had legitimate reasons— like buzzard was coming up— and they felt they needed a second driver on board.
“But it still doesn’t let you get more than fifteen miles out of town before you go to shift gears and a hand comes out of the sleeper, slips around your waist and a voice says, ‘Honey, pull the thing over and come back here with me. I can’t sleep!’
“That’s when you jump up and tell him to go put that truck where it will do him the most good. Or you drop a dime to call the boss and you tell him: ‘What are you paying me for, to drive drck or ball this dude?’
“And when he says, ‘To Drive!’ I say— ‘Swell!’— ‘then put put him on a Greyhound or I’m coming home!’ And usually they will pull him off the job right then and there.”
For the most part, though, truck driving is a dream come true for Bitsy Gomez.
“There’s a very special feeling with a truck,” she says. “It’s part of your identity. You are the driver of that truck. People will often remember your truck before they remember you. You could be talking to somebody at a truck stop, telling them how you once worked for Calder out of South Texas , and they’ll say, ’Oh yeah, didn’t you used to drive that white van?’ They place the truck before the face.
“A drivers’s identity is tied up with his truck. Just got into any truck stop and you can pick out a steel hauler from a bull hauler just by looking at them. Steel haulers look like blue collar workers, bull haulers look like cowboys, furniture haulers wear little green jumpsuits that say MAYFLOWER LINES on them— just sitting around a truck stop, you can nearly always match the drivers to their trucks parked outside.
“Of course you can’t be in love with you truck 24 hours a day. Some days you feel like getting out and shoving the whole damn thing over the side of a mountain. When your reefer (refrigeration unit) goes out in the middle of the Mojave Desert after you’ve been running three days and nights and it’s Sunday afternoon when all the repair shops are closed, that’s when you start looking for a farmer to sell you some dynamite!”
The person/machine identity has its problem sides. Women truckers report how some men resent their attachment to their truck and become jealous of it.
“They hate the fact that the truck gives you a living,” she theorizes. “It supports you and takes you wherever you want to go. When a woman stays home, does a man’s laundry, sews on his buttons and sends him out for the haircut when he’s shaggy, she’s polishing him, right? So when you’re polishing you truck and sharpening it up, some dudes will stand around whining about it and it’s obvious they’re competing with that truck.
“Some drivers have this big masculinity thing with a truck, like a biker with his bike. But if a woman has her own truck too, where does that leave him? It blows his macho identity. One former boyfriend actually told me, ‘You love that truck more than you love me. Go park that thing or I won’t be here when you get back.’ I feel sorry for anybody who’s that hung up, it’s just tough. Trucking is my life and my identity, too, so they better get used to it.”
When you press for their feelings, they may crack wise how a woman’s place is at home, or on her back, “breathin’ hard.”
To speed the industry’s foot-dragging, Bitsy helped organize the Coalition of Women Truck Drivers as an offshoot of N.O.W’s Los Angeles chapter. Passing the word cross country by CB radio and notices tacked up at the truck stops— letters, wires and telephone calls poured in. Today the Coalition has 500 active member and double that number of affiliates. New chapters are operating in San Diego, Santa Maria, Dallas, Atlanta, and Seattle.
Shout Out: Thinking of Bitsy makes me think of the other friends, pioneering women truckers and dock workers in the 70s. Some I’ve been in touch with all these years, others... I can only hope we find each other online, and that they’re as beloved as I remember them. Sharon Cottrell, Mary Deaton, Stephanie Batey, Melody Lacy, Anne Mackie, Jennifer Vail... just a few from the hit parade!
Photos from Top:
TIME Photo caption: “Trucker Gomez wilding a push rod: White line fever and a macho world,” Photo by Jim Collison
Women’s World Photos: by Jeneau Alsin, in Agoura, CA
Bitsy dancing at her grand-daughter’s Sweet 16 not too long ago! She was such a good dancer... and a barefoot warrior! Thanks, Linda.