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The first female railroad conductor in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and a single mom to three incredible kids, Robin McRee Eaton lives feminist values with humor, humility, and clarity. As one of my oldest friends, I relished the opportunity to hear her talk about questions and thoughts I’ve had for years.
Robin: I’m so flattered, but I honestly think you can find someone much better to interview! Frankly, I spend most of my days just trying not to screw my kids up too much and doing laundry. Not very glamorous or liberating. 🙂
TC: (See what I mean about the humility and humor?)
Tell me all about your job. What do you do, how long have you been doing it, what was it like when you started and how has it changed/how have you changed, what’s a typical day like?
From what I remember, when you started out, you were, as a woman, kind of a shock to the RR system. Are there other women doing what you do? Were there when you started? What’s it like to be a woman on the RR?
Robin: I am a transportation department employee, specifically a certified conductor and a licensed locomotive engineer. I work for a class 1 railroad in Chattanooga and I was brought on in May 2003. It is my understanding that there had been two women trained before I was hired, but neither had completed the training and actually gotten qualified, so I was the first woman conductor in Chattanooga. Since then, there are 7 women…one now works all the time in the tower as a yardmaster, so really six. The total number of transportation workers (conductor & engineers) in Chattanooga is a little over 200. So, there are only six women represented out of about 215 employees.
As a conductor I do many different things. We have yard jobs (which I’m working right now) and road jobs (like when I was taking trains out of state). The jobs are different, but I do the same basic elements it just depends on the work needed to be done. I handle line switches, couple cars, couple air hoses, hang EOTDs (end of train device), remove EOTDs, tie hand brakes, untie handbrakes, watch shove movements and many times have to do so riding the end of the shove. You can think of it this way: an engine has, say, 30 cars and needs 5 each in 6 different tracks. The conductor is on the ground lining the rails to the right track, tying a brake so when they leave it, it doesn’t roll away, talking on a radio telling the engineer how far they have to go before they run out of track or run into something (you can’t see 30 cars behind you in and out of curves) etc,. all the dirty, grunt work really. And it doesn’t matter what the weather is. Today it poured rain and I came home soaked and ready for a hot shower! When I work as engineer, I’m the one running the engine and basically making it go and stop when the conductor says so. There’s more to it than that when you’re on a mainline and going through the mountains and have 10,000 tons of train, but…basically they let me drive the train and blow the horn.
When I first started it was a culture shock all the way around. I was used to sitting at a computer in an office and then I’m outside in the rain climbing up and down and riding the sides of cars. The railroad is a dangerous environment. There are people killed every year doing what I do and there are thousands of tons of steel moving all around you at different times and it’s intimidating. You can’t be scared, but you have to respect the heavy equipment you’re on and around. Added to the fact that I felt a tremendous strain for being the first female…it was an uncertain time for me. I felt like everyone was expecting me to not be able to handle the physical work and many times I wondered if I could. The schedule is also a rough adjustment. We’re union employees and jobs are held by seniority, so if you have little seniority, you work what is called an extra board. Basically, if someone takes off, they fill that job from the extra board. You may work first shift today, second shift tomorrow, you don’t know when or what until they call and tell you and then you have an hour and a half to get there. On the road it’s the same, except you’re waiting to find out what train you’ll take, but it could be 7pm or 3am, you get an idea of looking at the list of what’s planned, but never know until you’re called. So, it was all an adjustment for me and also for the men I worked with.
I don’t know what all was said by management, but I found out after I’d been working awhile and gotten to know some of the guys that when I was training some of them had supervisors say to them, “You’ll have Robin next week so be sure and watch yourself.” Many of them were worried about sexual harassment claims. They would say things like, “All she has to do is say I said something and then she’ll get her settlement and I’ll lose my job.” Again, this is what I’ve had people tell me after I’d been working awhile and they got to know me. Nothing like that was ever said to me, but many of the men were uncomfortable working around me and that I could tell. I think after they saw that I wasn’t there looking for a settlement or special treatment, that I just went to work and did my job, just like they did, most of them were fine to work with and I’ve never had many problems. Basically, the work has always been the same, but it took time for the men to get used to a woman being around. Hell, you can’t blame them to a certain extent. Some engines in the yard don’t even have bathrooms and they were used to just stepping outside and pissing on the rail, all of a sudden they had to worry about me being around somewhere and what to tell me if they needed to step off.
How have I changed?…hmm, this is a hard one. I think I’m much more thick-skinned and independent. The truth is, one of the hardest things about the railroad is the isolation. The schedule, or lack thereof, cuts you off from friends quickly and even family to some extent. It’s a hard life and, for me, it is even more so because of being a woman and single mom. There aren’t any other people to talk to who understand. Most of the women I work with have grown children and the one woman who has young kids has worked the yard mainly and is married and has a husband. You have to find a balance in life and it’s extremely difficult to juggle a family and career especially when you have nothing to go by and you’re just making it up as you go along.
I’m sure the men I work with feel the same pressure, but I feel like it’s just viewed differently by society when it’s the woman who is away from home and children because of work. I’ve had conversations before with women trying to explain what I do and why I may/may not be at a school or sport function and I’ve heard comments like “I could never work like that and be away from my kids.” To me, I take it as they see me as somehow a less loving mother or that I don’t try to put my kids first and this breaks my heart because my kids are absolutely everything to me. It’s just, where else am I going to make the kind of money I do with a high school education? Even though I’m divorced, I was always the breadwinner and even now I’m the one who has to make sure they have health insurance, dental insurance. I’m the one paying for the orthodontist, trying to save to help them go to college. I also hear “oh, that must be nice to get away.” No. No, it sucks that I have to miss my kids’ programs, holidays, birthdays…yes, if I go to Kentucky when I get there I go to a motel, but it’s not like I’m on vacation! It’s a company hotel and I may be there for 10 hours or 30 hours. I’m not going out to fancy restaurants and shows, I’m trying to sleep so when I do get a train home I’ll be rested enough after being gone for 35 hours to do what I can’t do stuck in po-dunk KY.
TC: I love this. I love getting to know you this way.
You talk about how society views women who work (the breadwinner) differently but for your kids, having a single mom as a RR conductor and engineer is normal – what do you hope you are teaching your children about women and about gender roles?
I feel like you were one of the first feminists I knew. (Well, you, Melisa, Debbie, and Erin were like a pack of feminists to me and it was so fun to experience this kind of consciousness for the first time.) What is the difference between feminist theory and feminist living (if there is one) – in your opinion?
Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not? How does your relationship to feminism impact what you do/how you live your life/what you teach your kids? What has feminism done for you (if anything)?
Robin: The truth is I’ve struggled with answering your questions because it’s not something I give a great deal of thought. “Feminist,” to me, has always conjured up an image (usually a woman) who is actively working to bring issues to light so they can make things better. I don’t even know what “feminist theory” is or how many there are or where I would fall in any of the categories. Honestly, I spend most of my time doing the best job I can at work and being the best parent I can to the 3 greatest kids on the planet…and laundry. I do a lot of fuckin’ laundry. I guess I’m a feminist at heart, but I don’t see myself as a game changer. I’m not involved in making legislation or social awareness organizations. When I try to bring attention to an issue at work, it’s usually because I see something not right or not fair and, well, it pisses me off. I doubt it makes a very large impact, but it makes me feel better. I feel like if I’ve made one person stop for just a moment and think about what it’s like from a woman’s perspective, it was worth the letter I wrote or the words I said or whatever happened.
The basic feminine needs are one of the harder things to deal with in the environment in which I work. Some engines don’t have bathrooms (ones that are used locally) and it takes some planning on how you’re going to get to a restroom when you need to, where you’re going to carry your feminine items in the meantime, etc. on a road train there are times I’ve been on an engine for 13-14 hours. We can’t perform service after 12 hours, but you’re on that engine until they get you a ride home or to the hotel. 12+ hours with little more than a port-o-potty to use and a male co-worker sitting across a console from you. It’s not fun. So, the environment is such that you learn to compromise when you have to and, maybe it’s that I’m older or have been there long enough, speak out when you don’t.
My company has spent a lot of effort, time and a great deal of money these past few years on celebrating the diversity in the workforce. I can tell you that I honestly believe the upper members of management take this extremely seriously and I think it will be a good move in the end. However, this culture was not built overnight and it will take time to see the changes. My belief is that change comes from awareness and education and I feel like all I can do is raise awareness when possible and try to educate them on what workers, specifically women, are up against. The tricky part is picking the battles.
I don’t know if you’re friends with XX on Facebook, but he had a link to an interesting article a few weeks ago. It was an obituary for a woman and started off about her cooking, her love for her kids and (would you believe it!) she was some kind of scientist, too! Anyway, it was talking about how women are still seen first as homemakers and mothers and like it’s amazing that we can, you know, be smart and successful, too. It’s not outright discrimination anymore. It’s much more subtle and sophisticated. Many men don’t even realize what they do. It’s meant to be a compliment almost, but actually degrading nonetheless.
This article caught my attention because the week before I had an experience with a supervisor that left me dumbfounded. Last month we had a particularly busy day and I was exhausted when I got home that night. The next week, one of my supervisors came up to me and thanked me. I asked what for and he said last Friday for working so hard. I said, “Oh, yeah, I was beat when I got home that night.” He worked my ass off and I was sore all evening. As I was still talking he said, “Well, I’d offer to massage it for you but…” After I finished what I’d been saying it dawned on me what he’d said and I was shocked. He’d never say that to one of the men I work with! I haven’t dealt with this guy much and I was so floored that I really didn’t know how to handle it. A few days later at the end of our job briefing before going to work he came over and slapped me on the knee like we are buddies. See, this is the kind of stuff where I get frustrated. Will I deal with him? Yes, because I’m on guard now around him and will be ready should something like this happen again. The truth is, I don’t think he has any idea how he came across or that he was out of line. I think he probably thought he was giving me a compliment. This is what I mean in picking battles. This is my life, my income…this is also his income. I don’t want to raise hell about something and get them in trouble or even cause them to lose their job, but I also refuse to work and be uncomfortable so there’s things we still have to take and times we have to draw a line. Unfortunately for me, I’m like that Ani song where she draws the line but “it ends up running down the middle of me most of the time.”
I doubt my kids give much thought about my career or my being “a woman in a man’s world.” I hope as they get older and become aware of issues regarding gender, that I’ve communicated honestly with them enough over the years about my experiences that they are open minded in dealing with others regardless of gender, race, religious background, etc. and focus on the true character and actions of people. You know, the stuff that actually defines a person. I talk with my kids openly about issues facing women so when they grow up they’ll have a solid foundation on which to build. I want my kids to be comfortable in their own skin, see no limitations because of their gender and know that it’s not just alright to respect and stand up for themselves and their beliefs, it’s necessary.
TC: Here’s a question from the vault…I remember when I started to transition, you were very honest with me (which I deeply appreciate). I think I remember you saying something like: “I don’t get it but I’ll support you. But I want you to know that one of the things I always admired about you was that you were a woman doing men’s things and if you become a man, you’ll just be a guy doing guy things…” or something like that. So, first question: do you remember that conversation? Am I paraphrasing you accurately?
If so, first, I want you to know that I’ve thought about that for years. And the thing I love about it is the honesty of it. It feels true (for me and for our dynamic). And it never hurt my feelings. It just felt transparent. And important to point out. And brave of you to say, because you also weren’t trying to stop me or to talk me out of it, you just saw something that made me unique (for lack of a better word) and you pointed to it. That was cool. (And I imagine this question/that dialogue could spark all sorts of commentary from folks across the gender spectrum but I’m less interested in that and more so the fact that you put it on the table, that we could talk about it – that it was a kind of acknowledgment of something deeply unconscious for both of us.)
So, I’m wondering, what did it mean for you/for our friendship for me to transition? I mean, was part of our friendship (back in the day) based on the fact that I was a woman doing manly things (it seems like you admire that quality – and I know I admire the shit out of you because you are a woman doing manly things – among many other things, but that is one big one) – did you lose something when I transitioned?
Robin: Our conversation…I’d say it was fairly accurate. I do remember that conversation and the truth is: I didn’t understand why you needed to do it and I was hurt. At the time, I was the breadwinner of a family, I was one of very few women doing a “man’s job” and I guess I always felt like you were one person who understood and related about being a woman, but not a very feminine woman. For me, it goes back to a sense of isolation. I had you on my team and we were kinda in it together so I knew it was ok…I knew I was ok. When you started your transition, it made me feel like you were saying it wasn’t ok anymore and I felt like you were turning your back on women. It is ok for a woman to not be feminine, but it’s outside the norm and that’s where I live and I felt abandoned.
The thing is, I have always loved you and respected you and admired you and I trust you. Trust you so much that I can and will say whatever I feel needs to be said because I know you can take it and I know, or think you know, that it’s always coming from a place of love in me. Of course, I’m no expert on transgender identity now, but I’m not as ignorant as I was then and I realize a little more what you went through and why you did it. For me, though, it came down to: is TC going to be the same person I became friends with: honest, funny, kind, intelligent, etc. etc. wonderful wonderful things etc. If so, then what the fuck do I care what gender you are? You’re the one who has to live your life, not me. For me, so long as you’re the same person, I don’t care about the shell. You’re the one who has to look in the mirror everyday and like what you see. So, I guess I do gravitate to women doing manly things, but it’s not on a conscious level. I think humans in general want to feel a sense of belonging and they find it in many different ways. For me, it eases a sense of isolation I carry around and makes me feel like there are others who understand and it means I’m kinda ok doing what I do.
TC: Who were/are your role models?
Robin: As far as my role models: In general I like people who’ve lived a hard life because they’re much more interesting. People who go against the grain and live for a personal conviction. I guess there are a few dozen people I could name, but the truth is I don’t actually look up to anyone because we’re all fallible. Some people impress me more with how they handle life and I learn from them what I can, but in the end I think we all have to muddle our own way through and hope we get more right than not and have the help of some really awesome friends like you along the way. …and Oprah, you gotta love Oprah.
TC: How do you want to be remembered?
Robin: How do I want to be remembered?…I just hope somebody does.