How this Latina engineer owns her feminism, one mansplainer at a time

Patricia Valoy, a 29-year-old civil engineer, plans to beat the statistics that show mid-career women exit engineering at higher rates than they do other fieldsCREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Yana Paskova.

On a cool Friday night Patricia Valoy bounded into her mother’s small apartment in East New York, back in the old neighborhood. A telenovela blasted on the 20-inch in one corner; plantains simmered on the stovetop in another.

“Hola, Mami,” Patricia said, kissing her mother, Reyna, on both cheeks.

She sat down to eat at her mother’s table, surrounded by her younger sisters and childhood memories.

“We were like a witches’ coven coming up,” Patricia, 29, said as her mom brought chicken stewed Dominican-style, black beans and rice to the table. “It was just the four of us – all women.”

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To her left sat Jeannette, the baby sister, 24, who recently had graduated college and moved in with Patricia. Across the table sat the middle sister, Nidia, 26, who had been staying at her mother’s until she could find an affordable one-bedroom.

When Patricia was still a girl living in her mother’s Brooklyn home, she had no word for the feeling of righteous anger that filled her chest when she saw how her mother, her sisters and tias were treated – pushed around by their husbands, told there were places they shouldn’t go, expected to do poorly in math and science.

Years later she discovered feminism, and that was the word. “It explains everything you’ve been feeling,” Patricia said.

Her lessons in womanhood began around her mother’s kitchen table, where Reyna taught her daughters about “not taking s— from no man,” as Patricia put it.

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“I raised them to be independent from a young age” was how Reyna put it, as she took the head seat and scooped rice onto her plate.

Next to Reyna, Patricia is the center of this small universe. She is the Columbia University graduate, the civil engineer, the one to whom everyone turns. She paid part of Jeannette’s college tuition. Completed the forms to qualify Reyna for low-income housing. Interpreted for her aunts when they went into labor and needed to understand what the gringa nurses were saying at the hospital. It has been this way most of Patricia’s life.

“When Patricia was like 10 years old, she [behaved] like a 15- or 16-year-old. I could run to the store and leave her in charge. If I told her to stay in the house, she wouldn’t leave. This one . . . no,” Reyna said, as she nodded to Nidia, who rolled her eyes.

The daughters have applied their mother’s teachings in different ways. Nidia can’t be bothered with the Herculean task of trying to reshape sexism, while Patricia and Jeannette have long, meandering talks about “intersectionality” and “the patriarchy.”

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The windows of Reyna’s apartment were opened to the street outside to let in an evening breeze along with the sounds of life at the Sutter Gardens housing project. The women sipped on Reyna’s jugo: a mix of tea, Tang, vanilla and fresh lime, prepared the Dominican way. Recipes and traditions passed down.

Patricia claims a feminism that similarly has been inherited, although it would never occur to her mother to refer to herself that way. The white, middle-class women who formed the core of the U.S. feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s existed far away from the life of Reyna Valoy, 50. She was reared in Santo Domingo by an aunt after her own mother – shamed and abandoned by her boyfriend – committed suicide. Reyna began studying economics at the university but quit when she married; under the cultural code of marianismo, with its emphasis on female passivity, she was expected to cook and clean for her husband and his family.

When Reyna was 25, she and her husband moved to New York. She was pregnant with Jeannette; Patricia was 5; and Nidia was 2. Seven years later, Reyna left her husband, who she said had become a verbally abusive alcoholic.

“When I saw, especially this one, take everything in,” Reyna said, glancing at her eldest. “She start crying one time. She says she going to kill herself. I say, ‘Oh, no. My daughters will live happy.’

“When I said I am leaving, I meant it. I told him, ‘Don’t try to come back.’ He said, ‘You will come crawling back like a snake.’ I say, ‘Never.’ “

She had no job. She moved her girls, 11, 9 and 7, into the spare room of a friend’s house. Reyna and Jeannette slept in the bed, Patricia and Nidia on a pallet of clothes on the floor. Then Reyna enrolled in a welfare-to-work program and became a home health aide.

Where was feminism in all of that?

For years, Patricia harbored an anger for the hardships she perceived to be inflicted on her mother. She complained so much about machismo in Dominican culture that Reyna had told her she was getting too fresh, too mouthy and had asked: “What did we do so wrong that you’re so angry at your own people?” So Patricia dialed it back when visiting.

But both she and Jeannette agreed on certain principles: Women should not look to men to validate them. They both said things like, “I’m learning to love my bare face.” They monitored how television showsegy depicted women. Jeannette stopped watching “The Walking Dead” after her favorite character, Beth Greene, was killed off; she thought the gory death happened only to develop the storyline of a male character.

“When they’re talking about it, I just don’t listen,” said Nidia about the feminism of her sisters. “I mean, there are things that bother me, but I can’t do anything about it.”

“You’re letting the family down,” Jeanette said, teasing.

“Estupida,” Nidia spat out, eyeing her.

The chatter at the table stopped when a noise echoed through the window. Bang! Bang! Bang! Nidia picked at a chicken breast. Patricia jumped in her seat.

“What the f— was that?” she said before turning back to her dinner.

In her gentrifying neighborhood in a nicer part of town, Patricia had become unaccustomed to hearing gunfire.

In the decade since she left home, Patricia has become a woman with her own place, her own car, her own website and two cellphones. Her work cell is for calls from her colleagues at the firm where she is a civil engineer – one of two women in her department. Her personal cell is where she receives funny videos of her dogs from her Uber-driving fiance and texts on the latest injustice from her feminist friends.

And shares her opinions on Twitter:

June 22: #BirthControlHelpedMe take ownership of my reproductive and sexual rights in a society that is always trying to dictate how I use my body.

July 21: When you talk about how much you love your dogs and people get all “one day you’ll have babies and it will all be different.” Lady, please. I hope people know that I love my dogs to death, but I KNOW they aren’t human babies or interchangeable with human babies. But then again, I guess people find any excuse to remind women that they should have babies.

Aug. 5: Stereotypes of women in STEM are so damn played out, it’s pathetic that employers still hold on to them. #ILookLikeAnEngineer

Sept. 21: I hope that by the time I have kids they have a barbie that knows how to operate a crane and build walls.

Patricia’s phones were quiet as she ate with her mother and sisters.

Later, out of their hearing, she said how she hated the neighborhood as a teenager, sick of the dealers who ran drugs through East New York and disappointed by the high school that didn’t offer advanced math courses.

“All I wanted was to get the hell out,” she said.

– – –

Now her professional domain is in a building on Park Avenue.

In her beige cubicle, an African violet and succulents make do under a fluorescent light. The extra-large coffee is from Dunkin’ Donuts. Architectural drawings compete for space with a foot of files. The punch of color comes from a fuchsia cardigan draped over the chair, the touch of the personal from a photo of her and her fiance, Sammy Isaac, on a camel in Egypt.

A few days after dinner, Patricia was in her office hustling to prepare for a big meeting with a big client on a big project: repairing the restored Hoboken ferry terminal, damaged by storm surge from Hurricane Sandy.

Her work phone rang. She promised to the guy on the phone, the project manager, that she would reconcile electrical reports with architectural schematics from home at night if she didn’t get needed information until late afternoon.

As a young woman she felt extra pressure to perform and additional obstacles. Had her male counterparts had to deal with catcalls on construction sites as she did while working as an engineering intern? Did they know what it was like to so often be the only one in the room during a big meeting? Or to have their looks commented on by a senior executive?

Her personal phone buzzed. It was her fiance, Sammy, taking a break from Uber to play in the park with the puppy. She smiled at it before grabbing a handful of reports and heading to a meeting to prep for the larger presentation.

“It is a historical, beautiful, amazing building,” she said of the terminal, but the storm fried the electrical components. Patricia, whose background is in civil engineering, not electrical, had to learn quickly about amperage, wattage, wire trips and breaker panels in order to help manage the project. “This is major, major work,” she said while waiting for the others to arrive.

For two hours, Patricia led the team through a review of the agenda. She privately noted who had a seat at the table, as she always does: Three women, all engineers and two men.

“At work I’m not like ‘Hey! I’m a feminist,’ ” she said later. “They don’t know about my activism.”

– – –

Her supervisors wouldn’t have to look hard to find it. There’s her blog, Womanisms, with its posts such as “Workplace Sexual Harassment: What To Do When Your Co-Worker Won’t Stop” and “Why Feminism Can Be Scary for Some Women.” She started it four years ago, when she found herself “ranting” on Twitter about sexism and correcting anyone she thought was wrong. She got into a raging argument on Facebook with one of her white high school teachers, who blamed the poor academic performance of some inner-city children on their parents’ pathologies.

– – –

I came from a household where there was abuse, alcoholism and my parents didn’t speak English. You don’t know what I faced,” Patricia wrote to the woman before blocking her.

She has dialed it back in this forum, as well. “I don’t have the energy or the time,” she said, “and I can’t afford to lose my job.”

When she is paid to speak about feminism, which happens several times a year, she tells her boss she is going to talk about women and engineering. But the title of her presentation is more forthright: “Women in STEM: Fighting biases, discrimination and sexism – with feminism!” She clicks through a PowerPoint with a series of charts and images. One slide: Two “Avengers” T-shirts. The boy T is blue and reads “Be a Hero.” The girl one is red and reads “I Need a Hero.” Another slide: Racism. “Black and Latina women [in the sciences] say they regularly get mistaken for janitors” and “Asian women say they felt pressured to act traditionally feminine.”

“There was a time when I was angry at work, and now I just take a deep breath,” Patricia said.

It is at home, on the second floor of a brick walk-up in Queens, with the framed Wonder Woman poster in the living room and “Xena: Warrior Princess” queued up on Netflix, that Patricia is more fully a self-described “Dominican chica, feminista and civil engineer with a PhD in Men-Explain-Things-To-Me-ology.

The house was empty when she got home. Sammy was out driving Uber. Jeannette came through the door, back from walking Patricia’s puppy.

“Did you cook? Of course you didn’t,” Patricia said, only half-joking.

“I told Sammy today: ‘I’m not a maid,’ ” Jeannette said, not joking.

“Well, you are living rent-free,” Patricia said.

“You can go get a dog walker,” Jeannette told her. “And I can go to Mom’s.”

“In the ‘hood?” Patricia asked.

They looked at each other in the knowing way that sisters can and then turned their irritation back to one of their favorite targets.

The movie “Suffragette”:

“Excuse me if I’m not excited,” Patricia said. “When I see the photos of the suffragists, I love them and I also remember they weren’t actually advocating for me.”

The television series “Dr. Who”:

“It started getting gross in the way they treated women,” Patricia said.

“I loved ‘Supernatural,’ but it turned out to be really racist, sexist and queer-baiting like hell,” Jeannette said of another sci-fi show she watched.

“But I love ‘Say Yes to the Dress,’ ” she said of the campy TLC reality series where women choose their wedding gowns.

“You have to watch stuff like that sometimes,” Patricia said. “You can’t be so hard on yourself.”

– – – –

The next morning, at 7:15, Patricia slid into the passenger seat of Sammy’s Camry for a lift to the big meeting in New Jersey.

A crucifix hung from the rearview mirror. People always assume that he is a Muslim when they hear him speaking Arabic, but he is a Coptic Christian, an immigrant from Eygpt who arrived in New York a decade ago. In Sammy, who is 33, she saw something of herself. He has to deal with religious prejudice. She has to deal with sexism.

“Oh, my God, baby, I’m so sleepy,” she said, tired from a late night spent on work. But that did not stop her from venting about corporate maternity leave policies. Netflix recently had announced that employees who became parents could take a year of paid leave.

“I started to get into a research hole looking up maternity leave stuff,” she told Sammy. “Did you know, baby, that if your company doesn’t pay for your maternity leave, it comes from disability pay? . . . They want you to have children. They put it in your heads that it is the best thing you could do as a woman, but then they don’t provide you with anything. I mean, what about all of the other things you want to do besides have kids?”

Sammy was focused on the road. He turned the steering wheel – a red rubber bracelet on his left wrist read COURAGE; beside it a purple one read HOPE. He had briefly zoned her out.

Patricia’s salary is their steadiest source of income now. They split their bills evenly. Two hookah lounges that Sammy owned failed last year, and he was thinking about going back to school to train for information technology jobs. Meanwhile, he was driving 12-hour shifts for Uber and sometimes driving Patricia.

“So, can you quit your job, babe, and stay home with the kids?” Patricia asked.


“Uh, no,” Sammy said, pausing for effect. “I’m just kidding. The good thing about my job is that it’s flexible.”

“You will take care of the babies. You just won’t clean or cook,” Patricia said.

“I will cook something,” Sammy reassured, turning to look at her as he inched through traffic.

“You make good pasta,” Patricia said, satisfied with his response. Later, away from Sammy, she said, “He comes from this place where he listens and understands, even if he doesn’t think the things I think are sexist are a big deal, he tries to understand.”

He later reflected on the conversation in the car this way: “Patricia says a lot of things. That’s the thing about having a feminist wife.”

This is the area of her life that remains uncharted. How will she be a feminist and a wife?

Thankfully, the traffic was letting up, and it looked as if Sammy would get Patricia to her meeting on time. She is the kind of person who gets a stomachache when she is running late, which Sammy has learned in the six years they have been together since meeting at his 25th birthday party.

– – –

They are planning to marry next summer at a friend’s Los Angeles home, with a non-denominational minister officiating. She will have no bridesmaids. They will walk down the aisle together. Her dress is white, because it looks better against her skin than the gold she originally wanted. Her caterer is Homegirl Cafe, a group that trains young women formerly involved in gangs in restaurant service.

Patricia wasn’t intending to plan a feminist wedding, just one that she felt was true to both of them.

“Thank you for the ride, babe – even though you got lost,” Patricia said when they arrived, giving Sammy a peck on the cheek and hopping out of the car.

– – –

The client’s team – two guys in suits and three blue-collar maintenance men – was waiting when Patricia’s team entered the putty-colored conference room in a Jersey City office tower. She grabbed a doughnut hole and an opportunity for some chipper morning chatter. “They are worse than doughnuts, because you eat, like, 20,” she said, and then passed out the revised agenda.

Today’s count: three women – Patricia, the assistant project manager, subbing for the manager whose wife was in labor; and two electrical engineers – and nine men.

“Women are well-represented in this meeting,” the contractor said.

“In this meeting,” Patricia repeated, raising her eyebrows, as she looked at him.

Then they discussed the boiler.

“I’m an old maintenance guy,” said one of the old maintenance guys, “so I’m about fixing what needs to be fixed.”

Patricia nodded, took notes, flipped pages in the charts showing where the electrical power would come from to feed the boiler. Forty-five minutes later she was saying, “So that’s all I have for boilers.”

On it went, the methodical item-by-item punch list that a massive public works project necessitates.

“What’s left on the agenda? I kind of zoned out toward the end,” said one male colleague, to laughter, as the team broke for lunch.

A few minutes later, Patricia turned to the guy sitting next to her. He had been with the company for only two months, and this was their second time meeting. “How’s your lunch, Bob?” she asked. When she was told his name is Rob, she apologized but could not stop herself from adding, “We have a lot of Robs and Bobs and Dons.”

– – –

There was a time that Patricia imagined she would leave corporate America and become a full-time activist, working on feminist issues and encouraging girls to enter science- and technology-based professions. Now, her plan is to beat the statistics that show mid-career women exit engineering at higher rates than they do other fields. She decided she would stick it out. She would become a full-fledged project manager, running her own projects.

The feminist activism is still something she does on the side, but she has become less interested in engaging in public debates, in blogging and organized feminist networks.

She has a group of feminist friends, all of whom she met on Twitter, who seem to understand where she is coming from most of the time. They have a text message group where they share ideas and outrage and can-you-believe-he-said-that moments.

That night, she would text the group more photos from job sites that she has been collecting: “Men Only,” “Men Working,” “Train Men” and “Crewmen Lockers.”

“It’s like for no reason at all,” she would tell them. “They could all be unisex.” A woman from the group would suggest she use the photos as a call-out on her blog, which Patricia thought was a good idea. It might get other women to post signs that they, too, thought were sexist and maybe – eventually – new gender-neutral signs would hang instead.

First, though:

Patricia’s most pressing feminist assignment would be to finish this meeting. There was subtower 12, the clock tower and the incline to discuss.

She went back into the conference room and got back to work.

– – –

It took leaving her mother’s home to fully absorb its lessons. She is slowly realizing that the kind of feminist she is becoming is one not so different from her mother.

When she discovered the Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldúa, she read her book “Borderlands/La Frontera” 10 times.

“Nobody’s going to save you. No one’s going to cut you down, cut the thorns thick around you. No one’s going to storm the castle walls nor kiss awake your birth, climb down your hair, nor mount you onto the white steed,” wrote Anzaldúa, who died in 2004. “There is no one who will feed the yearning. Face it. You will have to do, do it yourself.”

The author’s wisdom sounded like Reyna’s voice echoing in Patricia’s ear.

“I used to tell them: ‘I don’t want you to hit anybody, but don’t let anybody hit you,’ ” as Reyna explained it during that fall dinner with her three daughters. She had worked long hours in the home of an Italian family to support the girls she raised alone. On the weekends, she took them ice skating and on long subway rides.

“She lived it,” Patricia said of her mother’s feminism. “She didn’t talk about it or wear a T-shirt.”

After dinner, as Patricia got ready to leave, kissing her mother on both cheeks, Reyna pulled off her knit cap.

“Mami, look at your hair,” Patricia purred. “It looks like Farrah Fawcett. You know who that is?”

Reyna’s silky curls flipped around her cheeks. “Mírame,” said Reyna, modeling a bit. Look at me.