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“There Grew Up this Whole Culture and Feeling of Sisterhood:” Shelley Ettinger Recalls Working for the Ann Arbor Bus Company

Although the 1970ís saw an increase of women entering non-traditional and unionized jobs, many skilled and building trades remained effectively closed to women. As a result, in many cities throughout the 1970ís and 1980ís, private and city bus companies provided important opportunities for women interested in non-traditional jobs. Boasting large numbers of women and lesbians and an atmosphere of social tolerance, these jobs were seen as gay-friendly and provided female workers with a strong voice in union politics and a sense of community and solidarity. Shelley Ettinger became a bus driver in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1977. Encouraged to join by other lesbians, Ettinger remembered an atmosphere of female and lesbian camaraderie that expanded beyond the bus yard into social gatherings and soft-ball games.

Listen to Audio:

ETTINGER: By 1977 I was looking for a job, I had finished with school, and I was friends, I mean it was a small lesbian community then, not that big a town anyway I mean you knew almost everybody. And the lesbians who worked at the bus company started pushing me, saying come on, come on, come on right. And it was possible to get hired fairly quickly, so finally, it had not appealed to me at first. And I am not, I was never a big physical, never an athlete or big butch or anything, but eventually I said okay. It drew me in and I decided to try it.

The whole time I worked there was before they had buses with power steering. The only physical test they had was you had to get in the bus without the power on and be able to turn the wheel and make sure you could do it. So I passed that test.

I was hired right when a strike started in July or August, probably July of 1977. The union was so strong at that point that there was no question about whether I would have to report to work anyway. It was understood that if there was a strike I would just wait until the strike ended. And in fact I joined the picket lines and took part in the strike. I had become lovers that summer with someone whose brother was a bus driver there. He had been my bus driver on the route I that took as a passenger and then I found out he was her brother and then he was my picket captain. It was very cool. And there was not gay baiting. And there was not divisiveness. I remember it as a union that worked hard and succeeded at building unity, at there not being, you know racist incidents, or sexist incidents, or anti-gay incidents. I hung out with the lesbians mostly, we had a gay caucus. And there was a black caucus, there was a lesbian and gay caucus, there was a women’s caucus, and yeah it was a way of getting to know a lot of different people. And it was wonderful, and we I don’t know, we all adored each other, we really did. You know, there was also, of course softball. There were the summer softball leagues that you know was part of lesbian life.

The mix of lesbians there were sort of the younger, radical lesbians who had come from the university more or less. And then there were more like middle aged and older you know workers. Mostly butch women who, you know, were bus drivers and who maybe in a different place and a different time would have been in the closet or not been especially open. But here there grew up this whole culture and feeling of sisterhood, among all the women period, but especially among the lesbians.

Source: Interviewed by Miraim Frank 9/11/98
Courtesy of Miriam Frank