By Tara Baron
Cars. The dominant symbol of masculinity for over half a century. As a women who does usually adhere to stereotypes, I do come with exceptions. I’m not exactly sure what a transmission does, I do not see the appeal in NASCAR and if a mechanic ever told me “You have a simple problem. Your gasket and your piston rings are shot. So what you got are holes in your cylinder, which causes compression,” I’m probably going to stare blankly and reply “Sure…” But when I took a job as an office assistant in a car dealership I knew I wouldn’t need those skills. I’d be pushing papers all day; all I’d need to know was how to use a copier. I didn’t think that being a woman in a generally male-oriented industry would make a difference either.
It was the phones that first hinted otherwise. The office was equipped with phones that held dozens of lines, meaning it had lots of buttons and flashing lights. Trust me; it was intimidating. But what bothered me about them was the obligation to answer and the swift reprimand received if they rang more than twice. The image of half a dozen office workers diving for the phone disturbed (and sometimes amused) me. At the time I chastised myself for hating such a normal, typical task. I couldn’t say why it aggravated me. My mother told me it was just because I had problems with authority, but I still felt the nagging of wrongness.
My angry revelation came with the Tent Girls. For one month a year, our dealership has a huge sale in which we need to sell 1,000 cars. To accomplish this, more people are hired for the office, salesmen are pulled from other dealerships and about ten to fifteen girls are hand picked by the owner to be Tent Girls. I’m not exactly sure what their “official” title or duties were, but I do know that an average day for a Tent Girl was full of arduous tasks such as sitting under a tent outside, flirting with the salesmen and disregarding the prudish, and up until this point, strictly enforced dress code. The gossip at this place was already parodying the most complex telenovelas, but with the arrival of the Tent Girls came fresh life to already classic games such as “who’s got VD?” and “who’s the baby’s daddy?” But however many friends or illicit lovers they made, they were still a source of complaint. Every day the topic came up “Why are they here?” One day when someone asked this question I lifted my head and said, “We all know why they’re here.”
I had realized, that with the exception of three, the only women hired in this car dealership worked in the office or lazed under a tent.
The Tent Girls were entertainment and we, the office girls, were subservient secretaries. I had stepped into a world where the phones were my highest domain, not because I worked in an office but because I was a woman. What also infuriated me was that no one else seemed to be outraged. I once brought my feelings up to a friend who also worked there, and her reply was “Well, yeah, I see it too. But the place pays well.” The older women working there seemed completely complacent and oblivious to what I now couldn’t ignore.
The dealership was a time warp to a 50s world of unyielding gender roles, where stout and sun burnt men could imagine themselves to all be Carry Grant’s, and the women were the pretty but nameless faces in the background. A part of me wanted to believe that this car dealership was the last alcove of masculine dominance, that cars were the final frontier to be equalized. But in the realization of how subtle oppression can work, how I tried to ignore my unease with every coming paycheck, I know it is not. My experience has shown me that though many battles have been won for rights and respect of women, the war still rages.
Tara Baron is a freshman English major who’s wondering why her “check engine” light is on. Email her at tbaron1[at]ithaca.edu.