Sep 7 2013 9:30am

Working-Class Heroines are Something to See: Blue-Collar Heroines

Sunrise Point by Robyn CarrAfter writing about Blue-Collar Heroes, it was natural to consider the other side of the equation—blue-collar heroines. Marrying up is so common there is a word for it—hypergamy—so it was natural to find quite a few blue-collar heroines. Depending on your definition of “blue collar,” it can either mean that the individual does manual labor or just skilled manual labor, but for this article, I elected to go with the definition of skilled manual labor.

There are numerous jobs that women do that require a skill and involve manual labor, but so many of them fall in another category called “pink collar.” Pink collar is a term coined during World War II when women worked as secretaries, clerks, or typists. Since that time, the classification has been used for all jobs, both blue and white collar, typically held by women such as nurses, teachers, waitresses, secretaries, phone operators, receptionists, retail workers, child-care providers, librarians, and hair stylists.

There are numerous pink-collar heroines who have worked as housekeepers, maids, waitresses, cooks, and hair stylists. In the last few years, Robyn Carr has written about heroines like Paige Lassiter from Shelter Mountain, a former hair dresser now working as a waitress, or Nora Crane from Sunrise Point, who has very little formal education and two children to feed and who seeks out work in a family orchard harvesting apples. In Forbidden Falls, Alicia Baldwin who lost custody of her children because of her work as an exotic dancer.

These type of stories are always interesting because in many ways they duplicate the life of many women today, struggling to make ends meet, not only trying to support themselves but also their children. Many of the jobs are low-paying and are only interim jobs until the heroine either marries or goes back to school. Where are the women working in higher-paying jobs such as mechanics, electricians, inspectors? I wouldn’t say the heroines were impossible to find, but they did seem somewhat rare. And sometimes the heroines have to deal with archaic attitudes along with their new job responsibilities.

Blue Smoke by Nora RobertsNora Roberts has frequently writes about women working in progressive careers. Reena Hale from Blue Smoke is an arson investigator after working her way up through the fire department. Cilla McGowan, a former child star, now restores old houses and is quite successful at flipping houses. Then there is Catherine aka CC from Courting Catherine. CC is a car mechanic with her own garage and considered the “best damn mechanic in Maine.”

Susan Andersen puts her own spin on a woman knowing her way around an engine in Exposure. Emma Sands never planned on working on cars but after her run in with the local garage owner, she understands why the women are leery of taking their car there:

“I’ll tell you what’s going’ on,” she said firmly and crossed the garage to stand directly in front of the gigantic man. Her head tilted back so she might look directly in his startling blue eyes. “I’m pretty sure I had a piece of carbon break loose and start hittin’ the top of the piston,” she said. “So I came in here to get it flushed out. But did this idiot—" She gestured expressively at Bill Gertz. “-squirt a bit of water in the cylinders or give it a bit of combustion cleaner to eat it up? Oh no, cher.” Her brown eyes flashed fire, and Elvis found himself taking a step closer. “No, he decides a rod bearing has come loose. A rod bearing! He can’t show me this loose rod bearing, you understand, but I’m not supposed to worry my pretty little head about it” She all but spat those last words out. “But, no. I mustn’t do that. We’re only talkin’ about hundreds of dollars difference in the damn bill.”

Heroine Hannah Napier from Home for the Holidays by Sarah Mayberry is an outstanding mechanic—so much so that she manages the garage for the owner, but that still there is always someone that questions her knowledge:

“Be honest. You’re not coming back, are you?” she asked.

He frowned.

“Right. Let me guess—you don’t trust me,” she said, contempt in every line of her body. “What could a woman possibly know about cars, right? What was it you said last night? Leave it to the experts? Was that it?”

She was bristling with aggression, her chin high. As he’d thought when he first set eyes on her, she was trouble with a capital T.

“Like I said, I’ve just started looking.”

A muscle flickered in her jaw, then she swung back toward the car. As though he hadn’t announced he needed to leave, she started talking.

“Tires have got another two years in the, depending on the kind of mileage you do. Suspension is independent, double-wishbone at the back. Brakes are discs all round, and it’s fitted with ABS. It’s a six cylinder, and with the turbocharger you’re looking at zero to one hundred in about 9.8 seconds.”

To Hannah, it never matter that her sister made more money, because Hannah had always been satisfied with her career and her life, until her sister and her ex-fiancé changed that:

And more than anything—perhaps even more than the pain of betrayal and loss—Hannah resented being cast as a victim. It wasn’t until her life had crashed around her ears that she’d understood how much pride she took in her independence and her unusual vocation and her own unique, take-no-prisoners view of the world.

Next of Kin by Sharon SalaMilitary jobs can be considered blue collar, especially for the junior enlisted. One of my favorite books in 2012 was Next of Kin by Sharon Sala. While Mariah Conrad is no longer in the service because the Humvee she was driving hit a landmine, gravely injuring her, the skills she learned continue to impact her life:

And then all of a sudden the bear shot out of the woods, bellowing and running toward them far faster than Mariah would have believed possible. At that point, At that point, instinct took over.

She swung the gun to her shoulder and took aim, only to realize Beth was in her line of fire. Dragging her weak leg, she stumbled to the far end of the deck as fast as she could go, and once again took aim, this time at the side of the oncoming animal.

Kristan Higgins has several heroines who work in the blue collar industry. Posey Osterhagen from Until There Was You owns a successful architectural salvaging company, although some people call it a junk yard. But she's not just a pencil pusher.

Of course some people want to pigeonhole women into working as secretaries, or file clerks even when they show some initiative like Darcy McDaniel from Hot Wheels and High Heels by Jane Graves:

Forget being a clerk. She could become a repossession agent.

All John had done to go after her Mercedes the first time was get the key from the finance company. If she hadn’t interfered, he’d have just driven it away. All that had been required was a key and driver’s license. Like she couldn’t handle that? Amy did say John had been trying to hire another repossession agent. He just didn’t realize that someone was right under his nose.

A sense of excitement built inside her, making her feel like a prospector who’d happened onto a view of gold. She pictured checks for hundreds of dollars rolling in with dazzling regularity, in contrast to her piddly biweekly salary. . .

“No way” John said. “You get that out of your head right now. I am not teaching you to repossess cars.”

Darcy leaned forward and rested her forearms on his desk. “Just give me one good reason why you won’t.”

“I don’t have to give you a reason. I’m the boss.”

She sat back in her chair, eyeing him with irritation. “It’s because I’m a woman, isn’t it?”

“That doesn’t help your case any.”

“Are you really that sexist?”

“It’s not sexism. It’s just a fact that in this business, the bigger and badder you are, the less likely people are to give you any crap.”

Can you think of more blue-collar heroines?


Leigh Davis, Blogger

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North American Word Cat
1. North American Word Cat
I love Erin the nurse in After Hours by Cara McKenna. Nurses aren't always working class but Erin status as a nurse is just staring out and she is struggling to make ends meet.
Carmen Pinzon
2. bungluna
Mercy Thompson is a mechanic, though not a romance heroine.
3. Kareni
Ah, bungluna, your mention of Mercy Thompson reminds me that Anna (from the Alpha and Omega series) is working as a waitress at the start of her story.
Maggie Boyd
5. maggieboyd66
I love Grace Monroe from Nora Robert's Rising Tides, who is a waitress and housekeeper.
Jennifer Proffitt
6. JenniferProffitt
I loved Ashley Miles from Lori Foster's Murphy's Law. She's a cleaning lady working in Quinton Murphy's law firm (hence Murphy's Law) and she's spunky and wonderful. I loved this duology in general—first book: Jude's Law, which introduced Lori's MMA world.
North American Word Cat
7. Laurie Evans
Lori, from Victoria Dahl's Start Me Up. She's a mechanic, and owns an auto body shop.
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