The Feministing Five: Jessica DuLong

Jessica DuLong likes to get dirty. DuLong is a marine engineer on the John J. Harvey, a retired fireboat on New York City’s Hudson River, and one of the few women to ever do her job anywhere in the United States. DuLong spends her days below deck in the engine room, steering the 80-year-old boat, which was built to carry and pump water to extinguish fires on other vessels, and which pumped water to rescue crews at the World Trade Center immediately after the attacks on September 11. But despite being below deck and out of sight, DuLong is in charge: as she explained it to me, the boat is built such that whoever runs the engine room runs the show.

DuLong fell into marine engineering by chance but quickly fell in love with it, and her new line of work has become something of a lens through which to see American history and culture. In her new book, My River Chronicles, DuLong writes about the experience of transitioning from a dot-com desk job in the Empire State Building to a hands-on engineering job on the Hudson. Using the fireboat as inspiration, she writes about the role of manual labor in America’s history, and about its dwindling role in our culture today. As an observer who used to make her living creating websites, she raises important questions about the role of physical work in our increasingly virtual world, and has some fascinating insights into what it’s like to be a woman working in a traditionally all-male field. DuLong’s book was recently released in paperback. She also contributed to Steady As She Goes, a of essays about seafaring women, and blogs regularly at the Huffington Post.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Jessica DuLong.

Chloe Angyal: How did you become a marine engineer, and how did you come to work on a fireboat?

Jessica DuLong: The best way to explain to explain it is that it happened purely by forceful accident. It was not my intention at all. At the time, in 2001, I was working in the Empire State Building, as a dot-commer, producing content for websites. I think my title was “Director of Content and Site Development.” It was that heyday of the dot-com frenzy, and I was working seventeen hours a day and basically very rarely left my office. A colleague invited me to come down to a fireboat for a work party, their first volunteer day. I had no idea what he meant by a fireboat, but he said, “come down and get dirty.” I had been doing something hands-off for a really long time, so the idea of getting dirty was really appealing to me. So I him up on the offer and showed up on Saturday, and pretty quickly, I was perched on top of this big diesel engine – there are five diesel engines down in the engine room – and I was using a power saw to cut off heating pipes that were no longer being used. And that was either the beginning or the end, depending on how you look at it. I ended up getting these blisters on my hands, and the feeling of doing something real – the pipes were there and then they weren’t – and the feeling of being in a complex maze of equipment was just incredibly appealing. I just fell for the boat. Pretty shortly after that, my dot-com company imploded, so I was out of work, and I was offered a chance to try out engineering. So there I was, standing at the control pedestal for the first time, trying to figure out if I had the wherewithal to do this kind of work. It went well enough that I came back the next day. And that’s how it started – it completely transformed my life.

CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroines, and who are your heroines in real life?

JD: Bone, from Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. With the character of Bone, Dorothy Allison used the power of story to give voice to the experience of poverty in this country, in a way that completely transformed my world. The character is really compelling in a lot of ways – the brutally honest way that she writes her own story and the vulnerability that she reveals about her own life are even more transfixing when you realize the brutality that she’s confronting from her family members and her stepfather. It’s really easy to recognize the overt expressions of power that we see out in the world, and sometimes you have to do a little more digging to find the more subtle versions of power, that are historically the versions that women have had access to. So I find this youthful character, this incredible coming of age that she goes through, and seeing her process as she does that, really compelling.

In real life Dorothy Allison, for doing that work, is definitely among them, and other authors who have spoken to me in other ways. One poet is Joy Harjo, who wrote this devastating poem called “The Woman Hanging from the Fourteenth Floor Window,” which I read in high school, and it’s the same sort of thing I was talking about with Bone. There’s this reclaiming – you think that the woman who’s hanging from the thirteenth floor window has no power, but she does. So, Joy Harjo, for transforming my thinking about the short-term nature of power. Also, Jill Soloway, who wrote Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants. She made this incredible point that really challenged my own views about the making of points in the media. She says that men make points and women make, I think the quote is, “something roundishly holistic.” I’ve been thinking a lot about that, and about the effect that has on the number of women’s bylines and the number of women commentators. Whether you’re talking about online or TV or print, the gender disparity that we see and the numbers of people given that platform in the media is really interesting when you consider this notion of pointy things or more roundishly holistic things.

CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?

JD: The thing that fits that bill right now is this book by Joan C. Williams, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter, which is coming out in a few months. I am really digging into it and it’s making me a combination of fulfilled and angry at the same time. She explains really clearly how masculine norms affect all of us in the workplace. The masculine norms in a white collar workplace, especially in a high-technology environment, are about “how many hours can you work? How much sleep can you go without?” One guy is quoted as saying that it’s like a badge of honor when you order pizza and don’t get up from your desk for twelve hours.

Williams is explaining very explicitly some of the undercurrent, hard to identify, gut-level intuitions, she’s explaining those very clearly and with research backing it up, and it’s very powerful. It’s making me really inspired that someone actually put words to these issues, and infuriated that we have not come further at this point. And the other piece of it is that she is taking what I believe to be a very strong stance, and she’s adding a new element, class issues, to a narrative that so often is only viewed through a gender lens. I think that the interactions between class and gender are just so crucial, and have been largely neglected, in the academic world and in cultural commentary. It’s sort of a secret in this country that we have a class system that is firmly entrenched and that has major consequences for people’s lives.

The other story that made me want to scream, in a good way and a bad way, was the New York Times story from July about how manufacturers in this country are struggling to find skilled workers. It made me want to scream for joy because finally, in this really big news platform, people are acknowledging this problem that has been around for a really long time, but it also made me want to scream because it did not convey the fact that this has been a longstanding problem, or the reason that it exists in the first place, which is that American society has lost respect for hands-on work. We’ve basically been telling our kids that the only way to have success in life is to go to a four-year institution, and to try to get a white collar job. But as we’re learning, those middle-management white-collar jobs are not by any means recession-proof, so there are a whole bunch of kids who have an inclination and an interest in pursuing hands-on work, and who have the potential to be the next innovators of the next technology that we need, maybe green technology, and instead of allowing them the space to tinker, to explore how materials come together and how they come apart, we’ve been pushing kids to go the liberal arts route, and then they end up in jobs they don’t like and the country is worse off because we don’t have workers to do the jobs that are crucial to a sustainable economy. So I was thrilled that the Times was covering this but I was frustrated that they weren’t covering the fact it’s been a problem for years and years; this is not a recession problem.

CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?

JD: I think the greatest challenge facing feminism today is the greatest challenge facing everything in politics today, which is that real issues are getting drowned out by the nasty partisanship that has completely taken over media at every level. We’re so quick to polarize, we’re so quick to turn things into red and blue, and when we do that we all lose. One of the things that I’ve been working really hard to do, especially as someone who grew up in a blue-collar world, then got the fancy education and shifted into the white-collar world, is to act as a bridge, to be able to foster communication between people who don’t often have the kind of conversation that could actually change things. And I think that class issues are crucial to the landscape of America, and I think it’s doubly important when you’re talking about gender issues, because gender issues are already ghettoized, so dividing an already small is even more dangerous. In feminism, there’s already been a lot of dispute and a lot of distance between working class women and upper class women and I think it could make all the difference in the world for conversations to happen across those lines and to try to mitigate that gap that just stands in our way.

CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?

JD: Spearmint ice tea, cheese and Kamy Wicoff. I am really struck by what She Writes is doing, and I think she’s doing a tremendous service for women.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted August 7, 2010 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    I completely agree with Ms. Dulong’s summation of the nature of white collar work itself. Here in DC, every think tank or important-sounding agency has to justify its own existence to keep itself financially afloat. However, the work each does is sometimes more about making a living and a reputation and far less about helping others.

    I was not born into this particular culture. My parents were working class Southern, so this liberal, often liberal activist mentality I encounter on a daily basis now that I’ve moved North is something often utterly foreign. And it probably always will be. One hopes that the recession will encourage others to adopt alternative strategies, but it’ll take a long while to get the point across to many.

  2. Posted August 8, 2010 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Stay in school.

  3. Posted August 8, 2010 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    I like hearing about people who enter non-traditional fields, and as an adult (and over most “dirty” or “uneducated” stereotypes of work) I have a lot of respect for people who work with their hands, make tangible objects, sweat, or get sore muscles for a living.

    That said I am sure that there is much more to becoming a ship engineer than DuLong lets on, like long hours of study, training and testing. It’s quite a bit to fall in love with on the first day and seemingly just show up for work.

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