When Peggie Carlson began her memoir about entering Minnegasco's blue-collar work force on the heels of the Equal Opportunity Employment Act of 1972, her intention was to write an "angry feminist book." But from the first scene of The Girls Are Coming (Minnesota Historical Society Press), where she struggles to understand her stoic, mush-mouthed Scandinavian partner Elmo, Carlson knew she had a comedy, albeit an odd one. Some of her experiences on the road to becoming Minnesota's first female licensed pipe fitter are frightening and disturbing, but Carlson finds humor in the physical threats, unwanted sexual advances, and incidents of overt and unintentional racism.
Carlson downplays her courage and tenacity and instead recounts her past as a fish-out-of-water story. Blue-collar life in Minneapolis in the mid-Seventies comes across as a strange world, but Carlson leaves any larger conclusions about gender, work, and race to the reader. As a result, The Girls Are Coming is at times a slight book that leaves the reader hoping for more, but often the details speak to the larger ramifications of Carlson's experience. The history of the civil rights movement is often told as a history of ideals and great leaders, and it feels somewhat novel to hear from one of the more ordinary people who brought an abstract notion like equality to life.
CITY PAGES: Your first week on the job, you were set up by co-workers, who sent you to a home in Richfield where you were attacked with a knife by a crazy, racist old lady. Did you ever get to the bottom of the conspiracy?
PEGGIE CARLSON: It was frightening while it was happening, but in the end I was more angry than frightened. She really was old. I was 22; I felt strong. I knew once I got a hold of her arm that I could take her on. I was still shaking with fear because she had a knife aimed at me and she was not happy to have a black person in her house.
I never had any proof [of being set up], but I would have given everything I owned in a bet because of the guys' attitude afterwards. They were clearly staring at me, waiting for a reaction. There should have been a note on that card to skip that house. The guy who normally had that [assignment] book knew not to go there because he was a black.
CP: You seem to have made a conscious decision when you started not to be confrontational about any racist or sexist treatment. How do you feel about that decision now?
CARLSON: Well, I was clearly a chicken. [Laughs] I did it in part out of fear. I thought if I started to fight--I don't know--I might get killed. And I've always felt in part that in dealing with racism, if you acknowledge someone who is blatant about it, then you're telling them, Yes, I hear what you're doing. But if you ignore that person, it's almost as if you're saying to him that what you've said or what you've done has no meaning to me.
CP: There is a frightening moment in the book when a co-worker takes you on a detour through the woods of the Minnesota River valley. It's clear he was trying to intimidate you but unclear how far he was going to go. When you think about that now, what do you think was happening?
CARLSON: In retrospect I think he expected me to approach him. I think he was probably one of those people who thought that all black women were exotic and that I would certainly want this white male. I don't know, because I never pursued it. I was very frightened. I always kept a distance and yet I still worked with him.
CP: So the incident has more to do with sex than race.
CARLSON: Oh, it was sexual. One time he was drunk at a safety meeting and he stabbed a hunk of meat on my plate and said in a loud voice, "Peggie, you dirty dog, why don't you come home with me tonight?" You could have heard a pin drop.
CP: What happened that made you realize that this work was something you really liked to do, something you were good at?
CARLSON: "Like to do," is something of a stretch. What I discovered is that I could do it. I have five brothers and a dad and my assumption was that there were some things that girls wouldn't be able to do. That's pretty much how I grew up. And even though we were moving through a time when there was more power for women and minorities, [I thought] this was a lie. In the back of my mind I thought I would never be able to take apart an engine.
I was shocked to find out it wasn't that difficult. Most work was done with machines. I think that's the big secret. The real reason why women weren't welcome was because they didn't want us telling their wives. A lot of those men going home demanding a beer and a meal hadn't done anything.