The “copperheaded waitress,” Ella, lives her common life withstanding the struggles as a woman in a society that actively works against her (63). In Judy Grahn’s collected poetry, The Work of a Common Woman, she can speak on topics of the vengeful feminist narrative that dictates resentment against women who speak up or act out of the innocent, soft-spoken bubble placed upon women. In the poem, “Ella, in a square apron, along Highway 80,” the title indicates the story of a common working woman as a “copperheaded waitress, / tired and sharp-worded” (63). Women who work in the foodservice industry often are harassed through catcalling or unwarranted sexual advances that they feel they must endure in order to keep their jobs. Being described as sharp-worded may be seen in a negative connotation as rude or impudent for speaking their mind, their truth. This can grow to be a defense mechanism since the word ‘tired’ implies she has endured much of this harassment for a while.
As the poem goes along it becomes evident that she is not foreign to these advances and often responds back to not feel as though she needs to bite her tongue. Ella “flicks her ass / out of habit, to fend off the pass / that passes for affection” (63). The catcalling women endure as harassment are a common, everyday occurrence yet women are told to accept them as compliments. In a society that actively works against women and establish an inert gender hierarchy will go at lengths to pit women down even through menial remarks or gestures. By using her body, specifically her bottom, she can reclaim what is hers and use it to her advantage to fend off men quickly enough to not endure any feelings of remorse. Those feelings of remorse or guilt come from the idea instituted through society that women should be grateful for these “compliments” and thus at the very least give men the time of day and make small talk out of obligation.
Even so, Ella is human and has her own struggles, and it is exhausting having to constantly dismiss these advances. The struggles that haunt women leave her to understand “the necessity for pain, turns away / the smaller tips, out of pride, and / keeps a flask under the counter” (63). These unhealthy coping mechanisms of abusing alcohol has its faults, yet it is her way of coping, enduring a not only laborious but also menial job with everyday annoyances from customers. By deflecting the tips, she can keep her pride, a seemingly menial task that keeps her going as an independent woman. Another struggle imposed by society is the faulty government system of handling domestic and sexual cases. She is sorrowful of losing her child after “she shot [her] lover who misused her child,” hinting at rape or sexual abuse. Yet, “before she got out of jail, the courts had pounced / and given the child away” alluding to how the system that should have helped her gain justice after being wronged as a mother was further let down.