In 1973 I was teaching and feeling somewhat trapped. In my spare time, I began to write short articles about women, their careers, and the lack of equal access to power positions. As a member of the National Organization for Women (NOW), I became a fierce women’s advocate. Most teachers worked summers to make a living and I was no exception. I typically taught summer school for extra income but this summer I wanted to do something different.
I came up with the idea to write an article chronicling my endeavors in applying for positions traditionally dominated by men, specifically focusing on the recurrent theme of rejection. The intention was clear: document each instance of job denial, and in the event I did get hired for one of these jobs, write about my journey of navigating through uncharted territory.
I was stunned after filling out my first job application at a local gas station. The manager was looking for a woman. “We’re installing the first self-serve gas pumps in the state and I need to enlist a woman to instruct fellow women in our community on the skill of pumping their gas You’re hired.”
I suited up and went to work. Two other employees, both men seemed miffed that I was hired and wouldn’t have much to do with me. I knew what they were thinking; this is men’s work and not something a woman should do, pump gas and change tires. Initially, I was hesitant to take on the challenge but the prospect of documenting this unique experience intrigued me. I also loved the thought of teaching women how to pump gasoline.
During my first week of work, the majority of women rejected the idea of even getting out of their cars. I tried to reason with them. "You will save five cents a gallon. It could be fun. I'll teach you how it's done."
“What if my hands get dirty?” they asked. “I don’t want the gasoline on my hands.” Excuses flowed but toward the end of summer, over 95% of the ‘regulars’ were jumping out of their vehicles to gas up. I knew their names and gradually learned more about them. I started to believe that the simple act of pumping their own gas brought a sense of satisfaction to these women. Embracing a newfound independence at the fuel station, I wanted to think they felt a sense of empowerment. I loved this job.
My two colleagues at the service station gradually warmed up to me. James, one of the initially irritable men, developed a liking for me, and during our conversations, he revealed a personal struggle—he couldn't read. We had a lot of downtime at the station, so I encouraged him to acquire some basic decoding skills. Armed with my small chalkboard and flashcards, we dedicated an hour each day to working on his new love for phonics. As the summer concluded and I bid farewell to the gas station to return to teaching, I felt a sense of accomplishment; James had progressed to reading at a 3rd-grade level and women were pumping gas! Not bad for a summer job.
Dr. Marilou Ryder Author and Professor UMass Global