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Women Heroes

1. What qualities do Mary Dohey, Anna Lang, and Maria Scarpelli Iori have in common?

2. How has each woman suffered as a result of her heroic actions?

3. What rewards has each woman received for her heroism?

4. Do you agree with Stephanie Morris’ statement that these three women promote “an image unlike that of male heroes”? Explain.

5. Write a letter of congratulations to one of the three women in the article.

Women Heroes: Where Are They?

STEPHANIE MORRIS

ASKING CANADIAN WOMEN who their heroes are is unlikely to produce the names of Mary Dohey, Anna Lang and Maria Scarpelli Iori. Yet, these are three living Canadian heroes, each showing a different brand of courage, each promoting an image unlike that of male heroes. Their actions have sprung from the middle of very ordinary lives. Each one has made me aware that there is a price the hero pays, that she survives, in many cases, to face danger and unpleasantness anew.

MARY DOHEY 

When Mary Dohey stood before the Governor General of Canada in 1976 to become the first living recipient of Canada’s highest bravery award, the Cross of Valour, her mind flashed back to the foster mother she’d lived with when she was 5. “You’re no good,” the woman had shouted, “you’ll end up down in the gutter.” Dohey couldn’t help but think that she had certainly shown her.

Mary Dohey was 38 and on the job as an Air Canada stewardess when, on November 12, 1971, 20 minutes into the air out of Calgary, she was seized in the first-class lounge by a man wearing a black balaclava and carrying a double-barreled shotgun. With his gun pointed at Dohey, the man told the purser to deliver a note to the captain. “There’ll be no heroes tonight,” the 506-word note ended, “for tonight we all die.” 

Born in the Newfoundland outpost of St. Bride’s, she was the youngest of 14 children. She was orphaned at 3 and spent years in various foster homes, sometimes abused. But instead of becoming a victim or a criminal herself, she made goodness her goal. Devoutly religious, she is a registered nurse with a specialization in psychiatry and, at the time of the hostage-taking, had 17 years’ flying experience. As an Air Canada official remarked, “Mary, I’m glad he picked you because no one else could have pulled it off.” 

Mary Dohey lives alone and is still fearful after her adventure, but talking about it provides a kind of therapy. All her religious faith and professional experience came to her aid that day in 1971. She was able to forestall panic by praying as the man described his “mission” to destroy the plane and all its passengers. If it was not his mission, he asked, then why had he not been stopped-with his gun and his bomb-at security? Dohey tried to see things his way. “That makes sense to a tormented mind. I realized right away how sick he was.” In her mind she struck God a bargain. He might want her to die, but surely He didn’t want her to take all those people with her? She asked to be able to save the passengers, the crew, and finally, herself. That “bargain” with the invisible presence became her modus operandi.

For eight hours, Dohey sat beside the hijacker, alternately being threatened with the gun, being forced to hold the two wires of a bomb in the fingers of one hand and trying to keep him talking to distract him from his mission. “Role-playing” as she would have done with a sick patient, she told the hijacker her name and got his in return; she held his hand and eased his fears. When he was going to shoot her, she looked at him down the barrel of the gun and told him he didn’t want to hurt her.

It was after the plane had landed in Great Falls, Montana, refueled and taken off again that Dohey got her first inkling of how she might get the passengers off. She asked him if he had sisters or brothers, and he said no. She told him she had 13 of them and he laughed. That laugh told her he liked children, so she waited a little and then said, “Oh, Dennis, I hear the children crying.” The hijacker became upset at the thought of children crying and ordered the captain back to Great Falls to let the passengers off.

In Great Falls, everyone except the captain, two pilots, the purser and assistant purser filed off the plane, while Dohey still sat with the gun to her neck. Suddenly, the hijacker whispered to her, “Do you want to go, too?” She asked him what he wanted her to do. He said he wanted her to stay but that they would be flying “into oblivion.” “I was his security blanket; I felt if I left his side he’d go absolutely berserk.” The plane took off; Dohey was sure she would die.

At this point, however, the hijacker seemed to lose his will. He said he was going to dismantle the bomb, then ordered the captain down to a lower altitude and decided to walk out the back door of the plane. The captain convinced him to use an exit window instead, and as the hijacker tried to open the window, he put the gun down. The captain kicked the gun away and wrestled with him until the purser hit the hijacker over the head with a fire axe. The plane landed in Calgary safely with no injuries, save the unconscious hijacker, 10 minutes left of fuel supply, no ground contact and only 20 minutes ahead of a 48-hour fog-in. “How’s that for having God on your side?” asks Dohey triumphantly.

But God was not the one most people thanked. When the pilots got off the plane, they kissed the ground and then kissed Dohey’s feet. She was showered with public gratitude in a subsequent raft of letters. Dohey did not break down then on the ground or ever in public: suddenly, she had an image to live up to. The company doctor appeared with a bottle of Valium which she doled out to the crew and never touched herself. “I was still role-playing.” 

Dohey’s brand of heroism -where she actually had to set up a relationship with her assailant-was a very costly one in emotional terms. “I still look over my shoulder,” she says. “Even now, I think, ‘How did I get through it?’ I consider every day of my life a bonus.” She now feels she was picked by the hijacker not as a punishment, but because she would be able to prevent bloodshed. For Mary Dohey, the opportunity for heroism served to strengthen an already strong sense of self. And as much as she was prepared to die for others, she can be greatly impatient with weak people. “Whenever I hear someone say, ‘But he had such an unhappy childhood,’ I don’t buy it. We are still individuals; those bootstraps are yours to pull up on; you can’t expect anyone else to do it.”

ANNA LANG 

Anna Lang was the hero who nearly wasn’t named. When news reports first came of the rescue of two people from a river coated with flaming gas near Hampton, New Brunswick, on September 9, 1980, credit was given to two boys who were standing on the bank. Anna Lang spoke to her friend, Lana Walsh, whom she had pulled out of the river along with her 4-year-old son, Jaye Walsh, and said, “Look, you know and I know what happened, and that’s enough.” When she was notified that she would be awarded the Cross of Val our, she asked her sister if she thought it could be true.

Lang’s rescue of her two passengers, after her car was pushed off a bridge into the river where a gas tanker exploded, is more in the male tradition of an impulsive act of physical courage. Lang, 40, her friend, Lana Walsh, and Lana’s son Jaye were stopped at a red light on a bridge on their way home from exercise class. The car was hit from behind by a truck carrying 9,000 gallons of gas, fell 50 feet into the water and sank 20 feet. The truck followed the car into the river and the gas exploded.

She talks about the accident today as if it were a matter of fate. “I didn’t want to go to town that day. We were late coming back because we stopped for pickling spices. There were so many things we did that we don’t usually do.” One lucky fact was that they drove Lang’s car, not her husband’s, which had electrical windows from which there would have been no escape once the car was underwater.

“I think I floated out the window,” she says, two and a half years later. “I surfaced in the flaming river and swam to shore. In my mind, I was hollering at Lana telling her I was coming back, and Lana thought she was hollering at me, but we never heard each other.” 

On shore, she stripped down to her leotards and tights and dived back into the rings of fire. “The heat was tremendous. All I could think of was taking a big gulp of air.

It was like being boiled alive, but I guess because I was in the water I didn’t fear the fire.” She got hold of the child and towed both him and his mother to shore, avoiding Lana’s grasp. “I thought if Lana reached me she’d panic and grab me and we’d all drown.” As the trio approached the bank, they were helped in by the two boys, Eric Sparks and Jackie Chaisson.

Lang calls her act instinct. “The adrenalin is really pumping; it’s the instinct to survive,” she says, ignoring the fact that having assured her own survival she went back to save others. On the bank, she was afraid to look at Lana and Jaye in case they were hurt; she was in shock and tried to walk back to her car to get cigarettes. That evening, the blisters on Lang’s face and ears came up so she couldn’t see. Yet, she did not realize she had third-degree burns to her face and head for nearly a week.

Lang was not thinking of God or good behavior, not even of her best friend, she says. In hospital she cried for Jaye, and wouldn’t rest until he was brought to her so she could see he was alive. When she and Lana met again, Lang said, “I didn’t go back for you, you know; it was Jaye.” The other woman completely understood, since she herself had been most terrified about how her husband would react if anything happened to the boy. Anna Lang has not had children of her own, but raised two stepchildren. It could be seen as a mother’s protective response-yet, how many mothers would have the strength to swim three times through burning gas?

The most difficult part of the episode for Anna Lang has been its aftermath. Recovery from burns is long, painful and leaves plenty of time for brooding. She has just undergone the last of the operations to transplant skin and hair onto the right side of her face and head, where the skin is now smooth but still very red.

Lang was sent to a psychiatrist, but after three sessions, she decided that she was wasting her time. The best salve has been talking to Lana. She and her friend still travel that road into town and still talk over the details.

Since Lang retired from her job last year, she does crafts and gardens; but there are days when she doesn’t answer the phone because she doesn’t want to talk to anyone. Although she does not seem particularly introspective, Anna Lang knows she will never be the same after the rescue she feels she had no choice but to make. The incident marked her psychologically-and physically. “The public has a tendency to stare,” she says. “The lesson I’ve learned from it all is the cruelty of people.” 

Under all that public adulation, there is a darker side to heroism-a kind of public punishment. Both Lang and Mary Dohey have a long-lasting sense of vulnerability. Yet, the lesson heroes learn -that it is not easy to bear a mantle no matter how admiring the public is-in no way diminishes their courage. Anna Lang feels she would have done the same for anyone she saw floundering in the water, even a stranger. “It was just something I had to do.”

MARIA SCARPELLI IORI 

Less dramatic on a minute-to minute basis, but continual is the courage of Maria Scarpelli lori, President of Local 560 of the Canadian Textile and Chemical Union (CTCU). Now 32, Iori immigrated to Canada from Italy at age 15, and within three weeks was working at the Puretex Knitting Company Ltd. She spoke almost no English and had left school after grade 8. She had been working seven years when she asked for a raise. The owner promised it, but the next week her pay envelope was the same. She asked again, and found herself five cents to the good. “I was so mad,” says lori, dark eyes in a lean youthful face snapping into focus, “I said, ‘I’m quitting.’ ” Then she heard there was a man downstairs in shipping organizing a union, and she thought she could do the same. “I said, ‘I’m not going to quit, I’m going to do something for me.’ ” 

“Something for me” turned out to be something for everyone. What did Iori know abut unions at the time? “Nothing. When I get mad I don’t need to know what to do,” she says.

Almost 13 years later, she is a seasoned union leader and negotiator. Still on the job at Puretex, Iori has endured harassment and intimidation from company officials and lawyers, but has worked steadily to buoy up courage among other women workers, as well as keeping house for her husband and 3-year-old child. She was the winner of the 1981 Toronto YWCA Woman of Distinction award for labor, and is the heroine of playwright Rick Salutin’s television documentary, Maria.

“Money is important, but respect is more important,” says Iori. “I’ve seen women 45 to 50 years old working there treated like garbage.” Iori almost always uses the pronoun “we” in describing her work. While her singular anger fueled the fight, she is a hero in a collective movement. “I need courage from the other women, they need courage from me,” she says, making it sound very simple. It is hard to imagine how much courage is needed for immigrant women with little English to muster themselves to demand more, when everything around them tells them they ought to be grateful even for a chance to work.

When Iori was first organizing the local, she came up against the women’s fear that they would lose their jobs if they joined a union. She bargained with them: “She’ll sign if you sign,” and then, “I only need five more.” She ended up with signatures from 80 percent of the workers, more than the 65 percent required for certification.

“I’ve never been afraid,” said lori, “but I’ve been mad.” She was especially mad when, after the success of the union and a precedent-setting three-month strike in 1978 (over the company’s use of electronic surveillance in the workplace), the company used her maternity time off as an excuse to remove her from her position as a leadhand. She filed a grievance, but her responsibilities were reinstated.

Her life is always pressured, but she’s not the least sorry she started on this route: “I think we should have started sooner.” Recently, her sister graduated from school and is thinking about going to work in the mill, but Iori does not want her to. “It’s hard to work in a factory,” she says.

That realization is behind her efforts, as is a basic presumption of fairness. “I don’t know if you can change people,” she says slowly. “The rich are always rich. They don’t know what it is to be poor.” 

Much of her strength comes from family. “My father is an honest type; he wants to be respected and to respect others,” she says. “And my mother is a tough fighter on the picket line.” She did extra duty on picket lines when Iori was pregnant. ‘

She is not at all satisfied with her accomplishments. “The more you do, the more you want.” The union has been negotiating since November, and issues for the future include equal pay for women cutters and the management’s right to contract out work. Asked if she is still mad, Iori laughs. “Not now,” she says, “but when I see the company lawyer I will be.”

I see myself at the roadside before bodies floundering in a river-do I jump in? I see, through a bureaucratic haze, a wrong that should be righted. Do I add that to my pressing duties? “I gave at the office,” I say in my defence. Is a job, albeit with altruistic aims, or a family duty, enough?

The existence of women heroes, today – and tomorrow – finally hangs on the personal question: have we been tested, and have we failed? Will we be given the chance to become heroic, and do we wish it? The answers, too, will be personal ones. I only know that, talking to real heroes, I am left with the knowledge that, whether by force of circumstance, pride, upbringing or something mysterious called character, these women are people apart.

Reprinted from Chatelaine, April 1983. By permission of the author.