Amy Shuler Goodwin just wanted to ride on a trash truck.
More specifically, Goodwin, a mayoral candidate in Charleston, West Virginia, had hoped to participate in a formal ride-along with trash truck drivers, all employed by Charleston, in order to learn more about the daily lives of the city’s workers.
During her time in the public sphere, most recently as the former West Virginia Deputy Secretary of Commerce, ride-alongs of this nature were normal and insightful; The Democrat’s ride-alongs with medics, firefighters and police allowed her a first-hand perspective on the work of the people she served. As Goodwin puts it: “You can’t manage a city from city hall.” Ride-alongs help lawmakers understand how policies and practices impact the jobs and everyday lives of city workers.
JB Akers, a Republican mayoral candidate, had already taken such a ride with the city’s waste management employees in November. But Goodwin’s December request for a ride-along, albeit it a seemingly innocuous and otherwise quotidian for mayoral candidates, instead came to represent the gender bias still facing women in politics.
After Goodwin requested permission for a ride-along with Charleston’s Public Works Department, current Mayor Danny Jones called her husband. Jones wanted to ask Booth Goodwin, a former U.S. Attorney, for his opinion on the matter—and, essentially, permission for his wife to participate. Why Jones did not contact Goodwin herself was not clarified.
“Amy wants to ride on these trucks,” Jones told Booth Goodwin. “I’m worried about her. Aren’t you worried about her going?” Despite Booth Goodwin’s insistence that his wife was fully capable of riding on the garbage truck, the mayor refused her request for a ride-along. Instead, he invited her to join in on the relative calm of a Public Works staff meeting—an invitation that Goodwin politely declined.
“To then call my husband to check in with him about what he thought,” Amy Goodwin marveled to the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “I’ve been married to this person for 20 years, and I can’t ever remember—besides getting a new puppy—checking in with him about anything in 20 years, and vice versa. So it’s frustrating.”
Jones later maintained that Goodwin’s request was denied because it was five degrees on the morning that she wished to go on the ride. He stressed that when he worked on the back of a trash truck as Assistant Director of Charleston’s Refuse Department, it was some of the hardest work that he’s ever done. What made Goodwin unqualified for that kind of work, and for cold weather, was unclear.
Eventually, following an inquiry from a reporter, Jones changed his original stance—but maintained his subtle sexism. “If Amy wants to do this, oh boy,” he remarked. “We’ll work it out. We’ll let her. I’m glad I didn’t let her that day; it was five degrees. It wouldn’t have made common sense to have had her do that day.” He then clarified that he would find a route for Goodwin that was not as tough as the route that Akers, the Republican candidate whom Jones endorsed, took back in November.
Jones’ interpretation of the route’s difficulty was not the only thing that distinguished Goodwin’s proposed trip from Akers’. When Akers rode on the truck, he did not ask Jones for approval. Instead, he turned to Public Works Director Brent Webster and the Deputy Director of Refuse for the Department, John Shannon. “I don’t know what [Jones] thought, in terms of why he would say yes, if he even approved it,” Akers said in a statement. “And I’m not sure if he did or not.”
Because of his role as a city clerk, Akers’ ride presented the city less of a legal liability for injury, which may have been the reason for the ease of his approval. Additionally, as Jones put it: “JB is in as good of shape as anyone who works at the city of Charleston. I mean he’s a very muscular person.” That said, Goodwin is in good shape and muscular as well—but she’s also a woman, which is apparently a hindrance to her ability to do things.
Even after approving her ride request, Jones didn’t slow his outdated gender politics. “I hope she knows what she’s getting into,” he remarked. “It’s just a very difficult job… We’ll let her do it, but these trucks have routes and they have a pace to keep up. So I assume she’ll be prepared to keep up the pace.”
She was. On February 23rd, two months after her initial request, Goodwin rode alongside city workers and picked up garbage on the West Side of Charleston. “I had no illusions that it was going to be easy, and I can tell you, it was not,” she said in a post-ride video message to supporters. “However, as I’ve said, this wasn’t about special treatment, it’s about equal treatment.”
Natasha Piñon is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a junior at the University of Southern California, where she studies political science and journalism. She also writes for The Daily Trojan.