Lady Truckers

"Women Truckers Are a Special Breed - Tough, Romantic and Independent.
A Special Report by Hank Whittemore, St. Louis Post-Dispatch Parade (Sunday "magazine" insert), July 10, 1988, pp. 4-5.

More than 100,000 women now drive big trucks, but there's one thing some still feel they need: 'I want respect, that's all'

Bouncing on the air-cushioned seat high up in the cab of her 13-speed Kenworth tractor, pulling a 48-foot trailer bound for the West Coast, Darlene Dwyer is "running hard" over the long, flat highway as the Florida sun goes down. She is in control of an enormous machine on 18 wheels, carring 40 tons. At the same time, she is a lone female driver in a world of macho male truckers who see her as a vulnerable object of prey.

"This is Biscuit," she yells into the CB radio, using her "handle" to call another woman trucker on the road.

A male voice breaks in: "Hi, sweetie! Where are you?"

"No sweetie in this truck," Dwyer retorts. "I'm a driver!"

"Want to fool around? Make love?"

"No way, cowboy!" she says, clicking off the CB unit and turning to me as we roll on: "A lot of these guys still have the notion that every female out here is fair game. To be honest, it's lonely and tough on the road."

The number of lady truckers is rapidly growing, from less than 2 percent of the total drivers a decade ago to about 4.2 percent today. Of 2.5 million truckers hauling rigs of various sizes, just over 100,000 are women. "There has been steady growth," says Ron Roth of the American Trucking Associations. "I think women are not so overwhelmed by the hardships anymore."

The new female drivers include many wives "riding team" with their husbands. Some, married to men who are not truckers, drive "short haul" and return to their families each night. Those women who pull the big rigs alone, over long distances for weeks at a time, are mostly single or divorced.

"I don't recommend it for all women," says Helen Jones, 49, of Hendersonville, Tenn., who started riding with her husband four years ago after raising a family. "It takes a special kind of person who can withstand the stress. You have to enjoy physical labor and love the outdoors."

Jones and her husband run from a loading dock in Ohio down to Florida, Louisiana and Texas. They alternate behind the wheel for roughly 1300 miles without stopping, except for short breaks, in 23-hour stretches.

"Handling the truck doesn't take tremendous strength," she says, "but it requires lots of stamina and concentration. When I'm driving, my husband is in the sleeper [inside the cab, just behind the seats], and so I'm on my own. And I'm constantly thinking ahead in advance of any trouble.

"What if one of my tires blows? What if that car suddenly pulls in front of me? And some days, when the wind is howling and there's freezing rain, you wish you were anywhere else. But what did our great-great-grandmothers do? They went across this country in covered wagons!"

At the Vero Beach, Fla., truck stop, Darlene Dwyer rolls into a vast lot where dozens of tractor-trailers are parked in rows. As she deftly backs her 62-foot rig into a space, several male drivers gather to watch. "Hey," one calls after she hops down, "did you just drive that big ol' thing in here? By your little ol' self?"

"Nah," she says, grinning. "I had Captain Kirk beam me down!"

Dwyer, 29, is a single woman who operates her own tractor, driving alone. Over the last eight years, she has logged 900,000 miles across 48 states. Every few months she returns to Lockport, N.Y., where she grew up, but otherwise, as she puts it, "I've basically been living out of my truck." Under contract with North American Van Lines to pick up and deliver cargo, she does all the physical loading and unloading by herself. She can repair wiring, adjust brakes, change fan belts, fix hairline tire leaks and even blend her own fuel. A strong, muscular young woman, Dwyer says she can be as "feminine" as any other female, but that would only invite more hassles. "If I wore a skirt, I'd just be asking for trouble." Instead, she wears a driver's uniform shirt over a pair of jeans, uses no makeup and keeps her hair pinned. Referring to the grease all over her hands and face, however, she laughs and adds, "Of course, right now no guy would go near me!"

Another trucker, Norma McNamara, 33, of Portland Maine, recalls the time a male driver at a Midwest truck stop kept "hawking" her to join him in his motel room: "I told him no, and he got very angry. I went for dinner alone, but he went out to the lot and pulled my tractor-trailer pin. When I drove off, the entire load crashed to the ground behind me!"

Interview and rides with dozens of female drivers hauling heavy rigs reveal that since the 1970s they have been producing a significant chapter of the women's movement. In addition to facing male hostility and being treated as sex objects, they have struggled to overcome strong doubts about their capabilities.

"There's still resentment because driving the biggest trucks used to be something only a man could do," says Marlene McNeill, 49, of Hayward, Calif. "Now that is being taken away from them" McNeill, who drives for Safeway, raised seven children before she got into trucking in 1973. At the time, she was the first woman to work out of the local hiring hall. "I'd walk up to the loading dock," she recalls, "and all the guys would glare, as if to say 'What is *she* doing here?' They gave me four 55-gallon drums and said, 'If you can load 'em, you can haul 'em.' So I got the dolly while they stood back and watched. I had to climb up to push that thing over, but I passed the test. I knew that I couldn't break down or quit, because I was representing any other women who would come along."

"I want their respect, that's all," says Patty Balagot, 32, of Newark, Calif., "because I'm good at what I do. I want them to say to each other, 'Leave her alone, she's okay. She's a driver!' But it's hard for men, when they're in a group, to do that."

Lady truckers who drive alone speak of having to maintain a "split personality" in terms of how they appear and act. Says Galagot: "I like to wear dresses and high heels when I go out on a date, but out here I need a gutter mouth to fit in."

"I don't want to be the stereotype of the grubby, macho trucker," says Marlene Day, 35, of Fort Wayne, Ind., who is lead driver of a Peterbilt Conventional, riding with her husband. "So I work hard at trying to preserve myself. I keep my nails done and wear diamond earrings. If I can't wash or shower, I give myself an alcohol bath to take the grime off. And I use extra deodorant or perfume. Otherwise, you can easily lose yourself."

For all the women drivers, there are common motivations for taking on this rugged way of life. Married or not, driving a big rig means a chance to gain economic independence. Nationwide, truckers gross and average of $18,200 a year, but senior union members who drive company trucks can gross up to $50,000. As an owner-operator, Darlene Dwyer grosses up to $130,000 annually but spends as much as $32,000 a year on fuel alone. Her fixed costs, including payments on her truck, amount to $110 a day before she starts driving. Other expenses, plus income taxes, dring down her net income to perhaps $35,000.

Each woman I met on the road also spoke of a desire for personal freedom and a quest for adventure. "I love to drive and I've always wanted to see the country," says Marlene Day. "And althoug my husband and I ride together, I run the business as owner-operator. It's a big challenge."

"Part of it for mre is having an independent streak," says Norma McNamara. "I drove long-distance by myself for the first four years, but even though I'm married now with two children, I still love to drive." Working short haul, she wakes up at 4 a.m. and drives a big rig from Portland to northern Maine and back.

"My sister takes care of the kids," she says, "and my husband, who is in the warehouse business, is very supportive.

"I'm not incapable of other work," adds McNamara. "I just choose to make my living this way. Most women drivers are professionals doing a job. We're just earning money by driving a truck instead of working, say, in a bank. We don't like to be confined that way."

The entrance of more females into the trucking industry has coincided with severe driver shortages caused, in part, by the chaotic price wars that followed deregulation in 1980. Many veteran male drivers have retired after company cutbacks or closings. Others, who were owner-operators, have bowed to competitive pressures and quit the road. In their place have come less-experienced male truckers, who often accept low rates in order to obtain loads. Some of these new owner-operators, the older men complain, give the entire industry a bad image: taking drugs to stay awake, behaving wildly at truck stops (where "lot lizards," or prostitutes, are plentiful at night) and generally "raising hell" on the nation's highways.

By contrast, lady truckers are regarded as a counterbalancing, positive force. "I feel safer out there with the majority of those gals behind the wheel," one man told me.

More important, perhaps, is the fact that customers have been increasingly asking for lady truckers to haul "sensitive" loads. Both Darlene Dwyer and Marlene Day have become experts in the handling of tricky freight such as computer systems, Grand Prix cars, medical equipment and valuable works of art.

Despite the obstacles, life is improving for women truckers. Most truck stops now have separate shower facilities. Gone are the days, mostly, when a lady driver had to find a man willing to "stand guard" for her outside a men's room.

Another sign of women's influence is the more domestic atmosphere of the sleeping compartments in the tractor cabs: Now there are double bunks, hot and cold running water, portable toilets and microwave ovens, not to mention cuddly stuffed animals as well as live pets.

Because of the difficulty in finding qualified drivers, trucking schools are actively seeking to enlist women of all ages. "They're going after the female labor market," says Kathleen Coy, an executive at North American Van Lines, "and the industry is looking at predictions that within the next several years many of the new drivers will be women."

Most will become employees of the companies, earing union wages. Of the 1.6 million heaviest rigs on America's highways, less than 20 percent are driven by owner-operators. Only a handful of these entrepreneurs, perhaps 9,000, are women; and the vast majority of those are part of husband-wife teams. Single women like Darlene Dwyer, who drive their own trucks by themselves, are in a small but special category. Dwyer may be an exception to the rule, but she is the quintessential lady trucker.

"No matter how lonely it gets out here, I'm always aware that I'm running my own business," Dwyer says. "My *life force* comes out of this truck. Last year I met a male driver, at a truck stop of all places, and now we're engaged. We plan to run together when we get married. But he knows how much my work means to me and that the truck comes first in my life because it supports me. This is what I love, what I do, what I am."

The sun has gone down, and we are back on the road in darkness. Dwyer shifts by ear, as if there were diesel fuel in her blood. On the dashboard, dozens of luminous dials are potential warnings of trouble with temperature, pressure, water, fuel, oil, electricity, brakes, axles. Dwyer is alert to it all, not to mention the potential dangers on the highway itself. It's impossible, she reminds me, for an 80,000-pound rig going 60 mph to stop on a dime.

"I prefer to be out here at night," she says. "I love it when the road is clear. There's more freedom."

A self-confessed workaholic, Dwyer drives 10 hours at a time, with as few breaks as possible. Late at night, when she wants to sleep, she pulls to the side of the road or finds a shopping center where she can park. But then she is back up at 5 a.m. and, after brushing her teeth with water from a jug, she keeps on running.

At age 21, she answered an ad for a co-driving job and got her training all over the country from a few veteran male truckers. Along the way, she survived a wreck in Utah after her rig slid on ice and nearly rolled down a ravine. She has walked miles for help after mechanical breakdowns, and she learned to handle all the paperwork involving mileage and taxes. To buy her first tractor, a used model, she put down $1,000 and paid off the remaining $28,000 in two years. Her hands are callused and tough from physical labor, but she shares with all truckers a sense of romance, because she has seen so much beauty from behind the windshield. Relishing her hard-won feelings of freedom and, yes, even the power, she seems to embody the motto instribed on the back of her Kenworth cab: "Without dreams, there is no need to work. Without work, there is no need to dream. Go for it!"

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