By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Sep 28, 2014 at 9:07 AM

It’s possible that Sharon McGuire was the first female garbage collector in the city of Milwaukee, but she was definitely one of the very first few.

According to Wanda Booker, sanitation services manager with the Department of Public Works, it’s difficult to verify because affirmative action reports show other women working in the department as early as 1974, but they were most likely office workers, not garbage collectors.

McGuire, who grew up on Milwaukee’s South Side and still lives there today, started working as a street and sewer maintenance laborer in 1976 and became a sanitation laborer the following year.

"It was never illegal for women to work in sanitation, but it’s a dirty and dangerous job that women rarely went after," says Booker.

Today, out of 382 trash collectors, only 23 are women – six percent of the staff. In management, six out of 33 managers are female.

McGuire says when she started working in the sewers her male coworkers weren’t comfortable training her to do the job.

"They didn’t know what do with me," says McGuire. "I was 120 pounds, 21 years old. I wanted to go down into the sewers, but they wouldn’t let me do anything but sweep. It wasn’t that they were mean to me, but I think they saw me as unusable material. It would be like a man showing up at a quilting bee."

The next year, McGuire started her career as a sanitation laborer, a position she held until 1983. During this time, she became the first female recording secretary of her union, Laborers International Union of North America, Local 61, and was the secretary for the Sanitation Affirmative Action Committee.

McGuire met another female collector during her second year on the job. The two worked together and became known for their hard work. They were rewarded with the highly coveted special collections routes which were easier and cleaner than the regular routes.

"I had a tire thing and she had a mattress thing. Even if they weren’t on our route, if we saw a tire or a mattress, we picked it up," says McGuire.

For the first 10 years on the job, McGuire was unmarried – this baffled some of the male garbage collectors because most women her age were hitched or divorced. Some thought she was a lesbian, some hit on her and some treated her respectfully.

"There wasn’t a women’s restroom at any of the dumps, so sometimes one of the guys would stand on ‘watch’ for me when I went in," she says.

And sometimes her male coworkers were harsh.

"One time a guy looked at me and said, ‘you know you’re taking a job away from a man and so you’re taking food out of the mouths of babies," she says.

Some days, McGuire says she went home and cried out of frustration. Friends told her to quit and take a factory job instead. But eventually the hurt turned to anger and she stayed.

"I’m Irish and I’m stubborn," she says. "And I’m a really hard worker."

McGuire on one of her special collections stops in September 1980:

McGuire says she didn’t feel the men’s behavior was sexual harassment. She understood it was new for them to have a woman on the job – something they would get used to over time.

Booker says that when she started in the department in 1986, some male garbage collectors still told dirty jokes during work or had nudie magazine pin-ups in their trucks or in the bathroom stalls.

"The culture wasn’t easy for women to adapt to. It was a ‘good ol’ boys’ network and it could sometimes be offensive to women," says Booker.

In 1990, McGuire married another sanitation employee – a supervisor – and the two had a daughter together in 1993. McGuire’s husband passed away when the child was only six years old, leaving her a single parent until she finally remarried four years ago.

McGuire worked for the city for 31 years, moving on to hold other positions and eventually becoming a sanitation supervisor in 1990. She retired in 2010 and has been spending time Up North in her cabin and traveling to places like Boston, South Dakota and Brazil.

"I didn’t go into this thinking I was going to do it forever – I went to school to be a commercial artist – but I stayed and the job gave me a very decent life," says McGuire.

A lot changed in the world of garbage pick-up during McGuire’s career. She saw the receptacles switch from garbage cans to garbage carts, which made her job easier (but also made the routes longer). Also, when she first started, people were not required to place their cans near the street or alley and so she often had to walk up a flight of stairs and into back yards to retrieve the receptacles. 

Also, the recycling program was implemented during her tenure.

McGuire says the job was dirty, even gross. She came home every day from work reeking of garbage and that she was unable to eat rice for many years because she saw so many disposed of rice dishes crawling with maggots.

In the 70s and 80s, wider-legged jeans were popular and one time McGuire witnessed a rat running up inside the pant leg of her partner. The rat ran above his knee where he stopped it, pummeling and squishing it against his thigh.

"After that I wore rubber bands around the bottoms of my jeans," McGuire says.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.