By LEVI WORTS/Montana State News
In Virginia, one of the biggest prisons is being built. Upwards of 250 men are working on the project. Among them stands a 92-pound, 5-foot “boy,” according to the other workers. Head down, he silently works shoveling concrete alongside the larger men.
During the lunch breaks the workers drink moonshine and tell stories through the cigarettes dangling from their lips. The boy lifts his head just enough to see them, watching each of them take their turns drinking. When the shine is passed to him he takes two big swigs, not saying a word. This boy has every reason to keep his head down and not speak because, unknown to the other men, he is actually a she.
Her name is Elizabeth Bullis. Every day before she goes to work she hides her hair under a hard hat. She puts on make-up of dirt and grime, rubbing it on to hide her face. She smokes cigarettes and spits alongside everyone else. For eight months she hides among men who don’t believe a woman can do this job.
10 years later, Bullis sits at a table, her hair fully visible and glowing make-up on her face. She takes a drink from a beer and says, “I did what I had to do.” She takes a moment to reflect and adds, “I’m happy I did it.” She sets the beer down and starts at the beginning. The intensity in her voice speaks to her resilience.
After a fight with her parents, she threw a pack of socks and underwear into her car and drove away from Lincoln, Mont., her home town. Driving straight through, 2,167 miles later, she arrived in Virginia near Bristol. Cash was low. However Liz was determined and walked on to the construction site looking for a job.
“The money was good,” she says, but it was not good enough. “I was shoveling mud, didn’t have food, splitting packs of smokes, struggling over nickels and dimes,” all while she remained undercover.
“I had to act more rugged so I wouldn’t get sexually harassed,” she says. One worker asked after she drank her portion of moonshine that day, “For as little as you are, you can do that?” Bullis simply said, “Well, I work right alongside you like everybody else.”
“I was Slim’s mudder. I would bring him the wheelbarrows full of mortar and bricks,” says Bullis. One time another mudder started getting into her way. What was Bullis’s answer? “I knocked his bricks over,” she pointed to where she was working and said, “I’m down here if you wanna talk about it.” The man never got in her way again.
Bullis also recalls a time another guy started giving her trouble. “I waited until he went into one of the port-a-potties. Then I drove a crane up to the door and left him locked in there for about an hour,” but she says, “I’m Liz Bullis and I don’t take any shit.”
She makes it quite clear that “It was a sexist community,” and for a while, only the man who hired her knew secret. However, despite her painstaking attempts to hide her gender, some of the men began to figure it out; one of these men was Slim. Bullis admits that she never knew Slim’s real name. He kept her secret, just like his name, to himself and didn’t bring it up.
Slim would even defend her with his fists. When another man saw through her disguise, and started causing problems, Slim proved his loyalty. “[The man] asked me out, so Slim and me kicked the shit out of him after work.” Bullis once again stresses the levels she was willing to go to, but on a positive tone adds, “Everything happens for a reason.”
Despite all of her grit, she was still a woman. So, on her final day on the job she showed up with her hair curled and visible and make-up on. She wore a white turtle neck and tight jeans that highlighted her femininity. “I have never so many guys eyes open and mouths drop,” says Bullis.
Her visual statement ran like a shockwave through the men. “They came up and shook my hand, you know, after swallowing their pride,” says Bullis. “Being as little as I am and being able to do what I do,” pausing briefly to flip her hair, “It was good for them to know that someone that beautiful can do that work too.”
– Edited by Michele McDonald