Crux of the plot: It’s 1946, and the men returning from World War II have reclaimed their jobs, displacing the women who filled them in the meantime. All except for a girl named Mezzulah, who is a crack electrician at a Boeing factory and has a deep passion for airplanes in general and a talent for aircraft design. Various members of the town pressure her to give up her job to some worthy, unemployed man, to act more like a girl, but she doesn’t see any reason to comply.
Will she give in, or will she stand up for herself and what she believes?
In some ways, the question feels archaic. These days it’s accepted in this country that women can work as well as men. In watching the play, we see Mezzulah’s uncle, a Boeing manager, argue with and then bully her, telling her to trade her job on the manufacturing floor for a place in the typing pool. And we shake our heads thinking how much more advanced we are these days. Certainly today, a talented girl could hold down a manufacturing job without these ridiculous pressures. We know from the outset that, even if Mezzulah is forced out, history will prove that she was right all long. Why, it’s all history now; the questions wouldn’t even come up.
Not surprisingly, I identify with Mezzulah. For all of my career I’ve worked in a field that’s distinctly male-dominated. I’ve never felt that my gender hindered me — if anything, being a smart and capable female has helped me stand out. But I do have two tales to tell.
Personal tale #1: In 1991, a few months after I joined Oracle Corp., a California-based developer of databases, I ran into a very senior person there, near the 13th floor espresso machine. I can no longer remember his name, but I knew he was a fellow MIT alumnus. At one point in the conversation, he noticed my MIT ring — my Brass Rat, as it’s nicknamed. The Brass Rat is odd-looking, distinctive, hard to confuse with another school’s ring.
And he said, "Where did you get that?" — as if I’d perhaps borrowed it from a boyfriend. Not unpleasant, but genuinely curious.
I said, "It’s mine."
I said, "I went to MIT."
I don’t remember what he said, but I do remember the look of surprise and confusion on his face. And I remember feeling surprised and confused too: Surely he knew that there were girls at MIT, surely he’d met others? I imagine I looked as embarrassed as he did.
Personal tale #2: In 1983, when I was applying to MIT, one requirement was an in-person interview with an alumnus in the Pittsburgh area. I drove with my mother down to Sewickley to meet with my interviewer at his large, posh house. Because we wanted me to seem ultra capable, Mom and I arrived early to seek out the address, then I dropped her at an Eat ‘n’ Park to wait while I went back by myself for the interview, as though I’d driven the 40 miles from Butler all by myself.
The interview went fine — we talked about my high school experiences, why I wanted to attend MIT, nothing unusual. And at the end of the interview I asked this gentleman what he thought: Would I be accepted? He said he expected I would. I was female, and my grades and SAT scores were fine. MIT needed females.
The result of that interview was that I spent much of the next four years wondering whether I was really good enough to go to MIT. Maybe I was as smart as the other girls there, but was I as smart as the guys?
Of course, these things that happened to me happened decades ago, in the eighties and early nineties. People wouldn’t act that way now, would they?
Sure they would. Recently, I heard of a shop floor manager who needs very much to hire a mechanic, but he refuses to hire a particular capable one who wants the job solely because she’s a young woman. His position is wrong, and it’s illegal. And he doesn’t understand why.
So Mezzulah’s struggles with the questions that face her — What is her role in society? Is she good enough to keep her job? Is she worth as much as a man? — are not questions from another time after all. Girls and women are still asking them today.
Photo: Theo Allyn as Mezzulah. Photo credit: John Schisler.