Carol Toliver: “My skills never got a chance to launch”

Interviewed by Molly Martin

Photographs by Vicky Hamlin

Tradeswomen organizers like to focus on our success stories. We want to show that women can do it and we want to encourage young women to get into the trades. But we often wonder to each other whether we send women into the hostile environment of construction with too little information about what it’s really like out there. We know that until women reach a critical mass in the industry we still face widespread harassment and discrimination on the job. One of the ways we’ve experienced discrimination is lack of training. Women have been complaining for decades about reaching the end of their apprenticeships and still not having the requisite skills to “turn out” as journeymen in their trades.

This is the story of one woman who tried every way she knew how to make it in construction and never received the on-the-job training she needed to become a top-notch journey level electrician.  Carol Toliver completed the apprenticeship in IBEW Local 595 and worked as a journeyman for years, but she never felt she acquired the skills she needed to become the skilled craftswoman she aspired to be.

Carol grew up in a small town on the Hudson River in Westchester County, NY. She says she got an excellent education there and went on to college at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, TN. At Fisk she participated in a student exchange program in 1978 that took her to Mills College in Oakland for a year. She met her future husband on her way to a rare book exhibit. She loved Oakland weather so much that she returned there for good after completing her last semester at Fisk.

She started working at banks and offices but two different companies she worked for moved out of town and so she ended up in a displaced workers program. That’s how she found out about the electrical apprenticeship. As part of the pre-apprenticeship program, students signed up for an apprenticeship.  She chose electrical, took the entrance exam, and forgot all about it.

Carol was working as a teacher’s aide and planning to go into education when her husband suffered a career-ending injury at his work as a butcher. He fell on a slippery floor while carrying a pallet of chickens from the freezer.

Within days of his accident she learned she had passed the test necessary to get a teaching credential and also had been admitted into the electrical apprenticeship. She realized she had to become the family’s main breadwinner to support her disabled husband and two children.  So she put her plans of going to school on the back burner and opted to accept the apprenticeship, with on-the-job-training and immediate income.

Carol was excited to be an electrician. Her apprenticeship class started on-the-job training even before school classes began. It was 1997.

When she got on the job she was surprised to find an atmosphere of chaos. It seemed like everyone was yelling all the time. She came from a teaching environment where, she says, there is a lot of support and repetition to help you on your journey.  In construction, she quickly learned, it was “jump in and make it happen.”

She was alone. “A lot of electricians have family members in the trade. I knew no one. It was a whole different world.I was a young Black woman, venturing into an environment that was predominately white men who, it seemed, all had some kind of connections,” she said.

The electrical apprenticeship is five years and consists of 8000 hours of classroom training and on-the-job training. There were two other women in Carol’s class of 25. “One dropped out and the other wouldn’t associate with me. I never knew why,” she said.

On the job Carol was often relegated to getting materials the first two years of her apprenticeship. She quickly recognized she wasn’t getting the same training as the men in her class. That’s when she started looking for help.

“I talked to everyone I thought could help–coworkers, apprenticeship directors, union officers,” she said. During her training she met with three different apprenticeship coordinators, trying to get help with her education. They each made her feel like it was her fault.

“My first program coordinator sat down in front of me with his pen and paper, crossed his legs and said, ‘Well young lady what seems to be YOUR problem?’ And I pulled out my piece of paper and pen and said, ‘this is my problem. I’m not getting the skills I need. I want to be a good journeyman. That’s my whole point of being here.’

“He said, ‘Well I don’t see what the problem is. You just have to apply yourself.’

“So I thought, ok I just have to try harder and I continued to ask people for help. I learned in the construction industry there’s a certain mindset that I didn’t have. Everybody just kept making the assumption that I wasn’t present and committed. I was. Maybe I needed a little more hands-on attention. But I think that was fair because most of the guys had worked on mechanical stuff. I had none of that experience as a female.

“When I talked to my second program coordinator I was very emotional. I was so distraught. I wanted to be a success. I wasn’t getting the training. I didn’t know who else to reach out to. Maybe he didn’t know what to do with me or how to handle it. After I expressed my concerns he just said, ‘You’re in the apprenticeship, you’re on a job aren’t you?’ He literally threw me out of his office. I was just devastated. I just said to myself I’m gonna keep trying.

“Then a new program coordinator appeared to be much more progressive. When I spoke to him his response was not as vocal but was essentially the same. He came on the job and talked to the foreman who put me with another journeyman. All we were doing was lifting heavy boards. So then I just realized that the help I thought was there for me was not there.”

Carol said her whole career was one of fear and frustration—fear of being laid off and not being able to support her family, and frustration that she was not learning the trade.

By the third year of the apprenticeship she had reached the “point of no return.” Her husband advised her to quit. “I was too stubborn and had put in too much time to consider that,” she said.

One journeyman she worked with, Marta Schultz, told her about Tradeswomen Inc., a non-profit dedicated to bringing women into the building trades. Marta, besides being an electrician, is a composer, playwright and singer. She wrote “595 The Musical” and skits about women in construction. Her theater group, the Sparkettes, performed at tradeswomen conferences.

“Marta is an experienced union hand and a feminist committed to supporting women in the electrical trade. She made sure that I learned under her watch, unlike many of my union brothers and foremen,” said Carol.

Life on the job didn’t get any easier after Marta, Carol and four other female electricians sued a contractor for discrimination and won.

Carol says the women of Tradeswomen helped her keep her sanity though tough times. She served on the Tradeswomen Inc. board of directors for many years, a place where her positive outlook and organizing skills were welcome.

During that time her kids were leaving home and her marriage foundered, not least because of changed roles and old expectations. “I did a lot of crying, a lot of self-medicating,” she said.

But she decided she had to stick it out, with the ongoing expectation that things would get better. They never did. When Carol turned out of the apprenticeship in 2002 she still did not think of herself as a capable journeyman. “My skills never got a chance to launch,” she said.

Fear of being laid off held her back. “The first couple of times when I told my foreman that I wanted to do different things (related to my craft) that week or the next week, I would find myself laid off.  I was terrified of being laid off and missing a paycheck. We had all this debt. I didn’t see anyone willing to help me and I got to the point where I stopped asking.

“Some of the contractors would give me a basic task I could handle which I appreciated, but I wasn’t moving forward in my experience.  Instead of saying ‘Let her try it,’ they would eventually lay me off.  Even when I was on a job where I became good at something, I would be put on another job and it was back to square one. Then they would send me on to the next contractor who would try to keep me on by giving me menial or not electrical-related tasks.”

After 17 years of working as an electrician, Carol made the decision to quit the trade and move on with her life. I saw her soon after and she was smiling. She finally felt free from the burden of fear and frustration. For a time she worked at computer repair and later she returned to a job in banking. She recently moved into a new senior housing complex in the East Bay.

Carol with a painting of her by Vicky Hamlin

Asked what she would tell women who find they are being denied training, Carol retained her natural optimism. “I would tell them to not be afraid to ask for help and keep asking until you get it.  You can do it, you just have to stand your ground and not let them get away with not training you.  Work hard, and remember your reason for being there.  Look for allies on the job.  There are some good brothers out there and women too. Seek them out early and often in your career. Be determined to succeed and you will.”

PostScript: Financial insecurity, inadequate on-the-job training and hostile work environment are major reasons given for dropping out of apprenticeship. Nonunion programs have a higher cancellation rate than union programs. Women and minorities tend to have higher apprenticeship drop out rates than white men, but all are close to 50 percent. However, apprenticeship completion rates compare favorably with college completion rates of 22 percent. *

 *Apprenticeship Completion and Cancellation in the Building Trades, The Aspen Institute, 2013

 

 

Advertisements

Celebrating Lughnasa in NoCa

The noises started in late spring, sort of an irregular popping sound, occasionally loud enough to wake us at night. It sounded like someone was bouncing tennis balls off the fence in back. What were the raccoons up to? It couldn’t be the opossums. One lumbered along the fence every evening as night fell. But she was quiet as she moved to another yard. 

My T-shirt reads: Polytheism. Why have just one imaginary friend

It took a few weeks before we figured out the noise was made by apples falling from our side yard neighbor’s tree. It just got louder as the little green apples grew larger, thudding onto the garden pavers, banging onto the metal shed roof.
When the tree leafed out last spring, Holly was delighted to find it’s a Gravenstein, the apple of her youth. Grandpa warned Holly and her sister not to eat the unripe apples. “They’ll make you sick.” But they just couldn’t wait. They ate them and liked them and never got sick. Grandma would make apple sauce for every dinner during apple season.

I come from apple country too, in Yakima, Washington. But we didn’t grow Gravensteins, which ripen earlier and don’t require the cold nights up north. Our Macintoshes and Red Delicious apples ripened in October and in my day school was let out so kids could help their families with the harvest. To me there is nothing like the taste of a ripe Red Delicious picked right off the tree. I never tasted a Gravenstein until I moved to California.

The iconic apple of Sonoma County was brought to the continent by Russian fur traders. It is said they planted the first tree in 1811 at Fort Ross on the Sonoma coast. Gravensteins ripen in July and August here. The tart fruit doesn’t last long and must be processed or eaten quickly. This year we had a bumper crop. Branches grew far over into our yard so that we had to duck under on our way to the recycling bins. 

By the third week of July the emerging red stripes on the green fruit told us they were ripe. Fortuitously Holly’s cousin Kerri is an apple aficionado. She lives in Roseville and travels to Santa Rosa annually to buy a lug of Gravensteins for pies. Her method is to process them all at once, coring, slicing, sugaring enough for each pie (seven cups of apples) and then freezing in plastic bags for the making of pies and crisps all year long.

Holly, Kerri and Diana on the disassembly line

Just as the apples ripened we were lucky to be visited by Kerri and her apple coring machine. She came with all the ingredients for making pies—sugar, cinnamon, flour, crisco. Holly’s sister Diana was here too, from San Diego.

Our first chore was to pick the fruit, reliving our childhoods. We gingerly climbed the six-foot ladder, each taking a turn and being especially careful. We were sobered by the recent death of a friend, Chris Jones, who fell from a ladder while hanging a gay pride flag in his yard in San Francisco.

Then we set up an assembly line, coring, slicing and sugaring. What music goes with apples? We chose Lady Gaga. You can dance and core at the same time. Then Kerri made three pies. One we gave to the neighbor, whose apple tree it is. The two others we ate with gusto. And we still have ingredients for many more pies in the freezer. Then Holly and I cut up the remaining small apples and made four quarts of apple sauce. 

And that’s how we celebrated the cross-quarter pagan harvest festival. Called Lughnasa by the Celts and Lammas by the Anglo-Saxons, it’s one pagan festival not appropriated by christians. The first of three Celtic harvest fests, Lughnasa is celebrated on August 1 or 2, about mid-way between summer solstice and autumn equinox. But, as with the other pagan holidays, we extend festivities for as long as we like. We will continue to celebrate the apple harvest at the Gravenstein Apple Fair this year in August 17 and 18 in Sebastopol.

Good harvest to you!

Fire Survivors Rebuild

Judy (L) and Pam

As Pam Bates and Judy Helfand celebrate their 40thyear together they marvel that they are still alive to do so. They nearly perished in the fire that destroyed their Sonoma County home in 2017 and killed 44 people.

A fire sculpture hangs from a blackened walnut tree. The farm was once a walnut orchard

“We were in bed hard asleep when a neighbor called to tell us fire was coming over the ridge. Then the electricity went off. Where we live that means you have no lights andno water,” said Pam. They barely had time to dress and throw a few things in the car. Judy grabbed photo albums. They gathered up the two dogs and the one cat they could find, let the goats and horses out of the barn, leaving the chickens locked in to protect them from predators.

Pam distracts a hen while she gathers eggs

Pam remembered, “It was really windy that night. As I was on my way down to the barn I looked up and saw undulating red-hot embers floating over my head. That was really scary. I could see an orange glow coming over the hill moving very fast.”

They drove out through flames; smoke so thick they couldn’t see the road in front of them. “I’ll never get over that experience,” said Pam. “We got through it but I’ll never get over it.”

Path of the fire

The fires burned for a week and when Judy and Pam were finally able to sneak back to their 20-acre property they found their house, barn and outbuildings had burned to the ground. The horses and goats were singed but still alive. They had lost only one cat, their parrot and the chickens. “And everything else,” added Pam.

All roughed in and ready for sheetrock

A year and a half later the couple has nearly finished rebuilding the farm they’ve called home for four decades. They bought a used motor home, parked it on the land and got to work, employing a contractor to build two yurts and a chicken house first, then the house and a garage/shop. Judy has planted a flourishing garden. The 25 new chickens are laying; many of the trees are recovering. Pam estimates construction will be finished by November. “And we’re still speaking to each other,” added Pam.

Pam and Judy’s temporary home

They met at a Women Against Rape meeting. “Judy was married to a man and seven months pregnant. I saw her across the room and thought she was beautiful,” remembered Pam.

The new garage/shop takes shape

Pam is a phenomenon in the tradeswomen community. She retired at 60 after 30 years as a union pipe fitter, one of few women to hang in through harassment and sexism till retirement from the trade. Judy is active with Racial Justice Allies of Sonoma County. She retired after teaching at Santa Rosa Junior College for many years. They have two kids, and grandkids who visit often.

The new house will have fire-resistant siding and roof.

Now green hills and blooming flowers mask the immense pain and suffering the fires inflicted on Northern California. For this old lesbian couple they symbolize renewal and a new chapter in life.

Searching for Cures

contentReading Cures by Martin Duberman was painful. Duberman details his fraught decades of searching for a cure for homosexuality through psychotherapy. The book thankfully ends with self-actualization and the blossoming of the gay liberation movement. But for chapter after chapter Duberman is bludgeoned with pronouncements by homophobic smugly complacent therapists that just made me want to bludgeon them. I know that therapy can be helpful (not conversion therapy!), especially since the gay and feminist movements mounted a successful critique over many years, but I’ve always distrusted the psycho industry. I wrote this essay in the mid-nineties. The theme was polyamory. It’s not a critique of psychotherapy but, reading it again after a couple of decades, my disdain is clear. I felt I’d been harmed more than helped. 

A Boomer’s View of Nonmonogamy

Like many of my generation of radical feminists who came of age during the 60s, I railed against the institution of marriage and practiced non-monogamy zealously. In that era of free love, opportunities for sex were plentiful. My subset of radical iconoclasts in college hosted organized and not-so-organized orgies, sex parties and porn viewings. Gay sex was acceptable and even avant guarde.  In the 60s and early 70s, when I was straight, non-monogamy was easy. I never fell in love with men.

Twenty-some years in the San Francisco lesbian subculture served as an excellent apprenticeship in the world of open relationships. Experience has tempered my early enthusiasm. Today lesbian polyamory—the loving of many women at one time—has for me more associations with community than with lust.

In the mid-70s, after a decade as a practicing heterosexual, the prospect of becoming a lesbian appealed to me for all sorts of reasons besides great sex. Without the constraints of het sex roles and family expectations, I reasoned, we lesbians were free to invent our own culture. Well, theoretically. With parents as our main role models, we tend to draw from the dominant culture. Then there was all that guilt about sex that females of my generation were stuck with. Still, we had more freedom than any previous generation of women to experiment with love and lifestyle. And we did.

Open relationships and casual sex were not unusual among San Francisco dykes I knew in the 1970s. Contrary to currently fashionable revisionist lesbian history which paints 70s lesbian-feminists as self-righteous Puritans, much sex was had by many. Perhaps the dykes partial to penetration were not the same ones who were writing theoretical diatribes, but I can testify we were not lonesome. As with many liberation movements, a whole subset of the lesbian community was committed to experimenting with nontraditional models of loving. Non-monogamy was politically correct.

I was a staunch believer in open relationships in 1977 when I got involved with a lesbian who already had a primary lover and a job that required waking at 4 AM. It took a year of crying jags and bedside bottles of bourbon to shatter my idealism, then two more years of break ups, hot secret rendezvous, and re-negotiations with the other woman to get free.

            She: OK, you can have her Friday, but I get her Saturday night.

            Me: What a rip! She’s always asleep by nine on Friday.

            She: Yeah, well, she can’t stay awake on Saturday either.

At one point, the other woman and I even resorted to sleeping together to get our lover’s attention.

Non-monogamy might work, I decided, if sections of the triangle were exactly equivalent or if relationships were all we had to devote our lives to. But for wage slaves like me with more to do than process relationships, having one lover at a time was the only practical option.  Besides, I’d fallen madly in love with a new woman.

Many years of serial monogamy followed. A five-year relationship with a perfectly wonderful woman ended when my commitment to monogamy failed. My lover had made it clear that the relationship would end as soon as I slept with another. She defined the boundaries, but I agreed that the intimacy we felt would not survive non-monogamy. She was the supersensitive type who knew what I was feeling even before I felt it.

            She:  Something’s going on and I want you to tell me what it is.

            Me:  Going on? What do you mean by going on? If it stays in my head is it going on then?

The contradiction:  I wanted to stay in the relationship, and I didn’t want to hurt my lover. But I developed obsessive attractions to other women and worried constantly about my ability to stay faithful. By then I knew better than to end our relationship by running off with another or lying and I never had an actual affair while we were together. Finally, though, I found the monogamous vow to be one I wasn’t able to live with any longer. Our parting was not without trauma, and healing took time, but my ex is now a dear friend.

Early on I observed that lesbians in my generation talked a lot about long-term monogamy, but few really practiced it. We acknowledged the two-and-a-half-year itch and the five-year itch, at which time it seemed natural to move on to a new love interest. The therapeutic community, watchdogs of lesbian culture and creators of relationship lexicon, did not disapprove as long as you were honest and made sure your lover understood your feelings (Don’t run off without telling her in couples therapy. That’ll be $40). Sometime in the mid-80s, in the wake of AIDS hysteria, therapists decided that we were not working hard enough at our relationships and that divorce was pretty uniformly a bad thing. No doubt lesbians broke up just as frequently thereafter, but our level of guilt rose dramatically.

While our subculture reflected the changes going on in popular culture at large, lesbians knew we were unique. That had become more apparent as we watched the gay men’s and women’s subcultures develop so divergently in the decades following Stonewall. In general, women shunned casual sex and valued emotional intimacy. Picking up a one-night stand was a tougher assignment than finding a gal who wanted to get married. Our interest in the intricacies of personal interaction made us highly evolved players in the realm of relationships. We talked endlessly about sex and love and all of our new discoveries, and we spent thousands on therapy.

In 1982, my lover of two and a half years dumped me, and then my mother died. My intense grief led to an existential epiphany. Suddenly I was hiking down the other side of that mountain of life, where the air is fresh and where the continuity of all our human connections creates a clear vision. Friends, girlfriends, ex-lovers and lovers—my established family—all assumed a much greater level of importance for me. Once they came into my life, I decided, they were permanent lifetime fixtures. Keeping them, maintaining relationships in whatever their changing forms, became my central focus. Instead of putting all my emotional eggs in one primary lover basket, I vowed to distribute them widely.

That web of constructed and nurtured relationships is, for me, polyamory. I love many women, and the boundaries of our relationships are not always clearly defined. Perhaps one problem is the dearth of available descriptive terms. To adequately represent the depth and breadth of our relationships in lesbianland requires many more categories than the two basics: lovers and friends.

Just as I began to feel a tinge of wisdom, an unexpected new pattern emerged in my forties. At the end of 1993, I wrote to my first woman lover:

Age has humbled me, especially in the realm of personal relationships. Remember when we broke up, I vowed I had done with nonmonogamy forever?  To my great surprise, I’ve spent the first half of my forties practicing something very like it, though not exactly. Now six years out of a relationship, I’ve always had lovers, but not in succession as lesbians usually do. These non-relationships seem to take place simultaneously and overlap each other. We move apart, then we might come back years or months later. The transitions tend not to be traumatic as they were years ago. We might break up as lovers, but it is always with the expectation of continuing a friendship or reconnecting as casual lovers in the future.

I’ve lived alone for the better part of the last decade rather arbitrarily, for it was never what I would have chosen for myself. I would prefer to live with people, though I’ve never aspired to live in a couple with a lover, which, to my dismay, remains our dominant model. Still the experimenter, I seek to invent new models, but there’s little support for that, at least among dykes in our age group. I do get lonesome for a daily presence in my life, but I don’t miss the “work” of relationships. Actually, I’ve come to believe that if it takes very much work, I’d rather not be in it. Still, I’m halfheartedly seeking Ms. Right, answering personal ads, and asking my friends to fix me up with single women. ….I find that I take affairs of the heart much less seriously than ever before. I’m seldom driven by the sexual obsessions that continually threatened to break up my 5-yr. relationship (is that a function of age or marriage?), and I’m much better at casual sex than ever, which I mostly think is good but sometimes makes me feel terribly jaded. Mostly I stand back and watch my own life with wonder and sometimes surprise (sometimes boredom), anticipating the next chapter.

            My specialty became distance. Not emotional distance, though some have argued this point. Rather, loving women who lived great distances away. The first lived in rural New Hampshire. We had been lovers briefly years before when she had lived in California. Our paths crossed again as tradeswomen organizers, and we kept meeting at the same conferences. The flame spontaneously rekindled when we began to work on organizing a national conference in 1988.

Fortunately, our affair coincided with a planned year’s leave from my work. I could stay with her for a month or two, then return home again before domestic strain or lesbian bed death began to set in. We had no expectation that our lover relationship would last forever, and in fact my returning to work in San Francisco was the beginning of the end. We couldn’t see each other often and the physical distance translated into emotional distance. It took another year for us to call it quits as lovers, with the full expectation that we might again become lovers in the future, since that had been our established pattern. Now solid friends, we’ve seen each other through many subsequent relationships. She has acknowledged her own pattern of serial monogamy and now tells lovers up front not to expect long-term commitment.

In the meantime, my sex partners included ex-lovers, old friends and new interests. All my relationships, even fuck buddies, required an emotional component, and I found I became disinterested in sex when the romance died. I allowed myself to be strung along for several years by a babe who maintained another primary relationship (hadn’t I learned this lesson?). I kept my head above water by telling myself I knew how to leave when it got too painful. She was one of those non-verbal types whose distaste for process eclipsed even my own.

            Me: I’ve wrestled in my own mind with the other woman thing, the age difference thing, those awful shirts you insist on wearing. I think I’d like to continue seeing you. If we have a relationship, what would it look like for you?

            She: Wow, look at the time! I think I have a tennis match. Gotta go.

Relationship discourse was futile, but I felt compelled to try periodically to explain my feelings. For two un-drama queens, we generated our share of dyke drama. Today, as I watch her dramas continue with others, I’m relieved we’re no longer lovers, and glad to call her family.

Overlapping love interests presented unique challenges. I found I needed some time to decompress after one before going on to another, although I didn’t always heed my own advice. At least once I was compelled to see three in one day and more than once I was caught in flagrante delictowith one lover by another. A familiar scenario from my youth was repeated—of waking up in the morning to a head of short dark hair on the pillow next to me whose face might be one of several. Fortunately, I’m a morning person who usually wakes before my lovers, so I had the advantage of a few private moments to get my bearings before murmuring the wrong name. I soon learned to avoid the emotional yo-yo effect of moving too swiftly from one to another by taking some time to myself in between.

When I began an affair with a New Yorker I’d met river rafting, my friends and even casual acquaintances pointed out that long distance love affairs had become my pattern, and what did that mean about my inability to commit? The therapist suggested this “avoidance of intimacy” meant I’d suffered abuse as a child by my father. Repressed memories failed to reveal an explanation, so I decided to relax and enjoy the present.

My dalliance with Ms. New York continued for four years, and while it often left me longing for the kind of daily connection that a local lover provides, I still swoon with fond memories. Our cross-continental meetings every month or two were adventures in a luscious sea of sexual abandon. Always on vacation, we could strip off all our mundane work-a-day worries and have fun. Issues did arise, and were discussed by phone, but didn’t become the focus of our time together.

Our relationship did not fit into any common lesbian-accepted categories. We debated how long an affair can last before it must turn into something else. I contended that, under the right circumstances, it could go on indefinitely, although without living examples, the case was a hard one to argue. Everybody I knew who’d engaged in long-distance affairs had broken up before too long. My lover imagined a different scenario:  the relationship just continues to mature, toward greater commitment, toward greater closeness, the goal being a kind of lesbian nirvana–moving in together. I was having trouble visualizing the ultimate emotional goal. My hunch was that the hot sex and passion were directly related to that distance. Could we sustain them if we lived in the same city?

            She:  The sex will just get better as we get closer.   

            Me: Do we just get closer and closer until we implode?

The ending?  More like an explosion. Our relationship was open, we both dated others, and we’d acknowledged that one of us might get involved with someone else closer to home eventually. It happened to be me. Polyamory, it turned out, wasn’t a model Ms. New York could live with. Now that we’re no longer lovers, we’re trying to figure out how to build and sustain a long-distance friendship without our most compelling element—sex.

For three years now, I’ve remained happily monogamous with a lover who’s newly out. Again, it was she who set the parameters. Our continuing discussion:

            She:  Sleeping with anyone else is a divorceable offense.

            Me: How about only once?  How about having sex with someone else at a sex club when your lover is present?  How about in a three-way with your lover and someone else?

            She: How about getting over it? 

Remaining monogamous has been easier for me in my later-forties. Perhaps peri-menopause reduces the quantity of sexual energy, or perhaps there are just fewer temptations. Since my lover and I maintain separate homes and separate busy lives, the time that we do spend with each other is highly valued as is the time we each spend alone.

In retrospect, I’m glad I haven’t lived by a strict definition of the parameters of relationships. The rules have changed according to my life’s circumstances, the preferences of my partner at the time, and the compromises we’ve made to keep us both happy.

We boomers came of age in the 60s, that heady era of principled experimentation, with an ardent belief in our ability to construct a new world. Because the feminist movement–with our enthusiastic participation–did fundamentally change our own lives, many of us retain that idealism. I’m still committed to building relationships based on our own desires and needs rather than traditional patriarchal models. The next generation of dykes will have a fresh perspective and vision.

The lesbian culture we’re building continues to offer a critique of the dominant heterosexual culture, even as our own relationships are influenced by it. As we blur boundaries and redefine relationships, we’re sensitive to the connections we make with each other on all levels. Our freedom and willingness to experiment will result in lots of new models that hets can copy.

I don’t regret any of my relationship experiments–even the painful ones. My only regret is losing contact with friends and former lovers, because I expect them to stay in my life forever in some form—maybe one we have yet to invent.

A Letter to Nell

Dear Nell McCafferty,

When I read your autobiography, I felt I just had to write you. Your recounting of the Irish feminist movement and the time of the Troubles informed and affected me greatly. Then I realized every old feminist, and especially lesbians, must feel the same. Have you received tons of mail from us since the book came out in 2005?41hrp4q266l._sx307_bo1,204,203,200_

I confess that last month I had never heard of you, or at least I don’t remember if I did. Here’s how I got to your book. We have a little grrrl gang here in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, California where I have just moved from San Francisco (about 60 miles away). We pass books around, and people in our neighborhoods have adopted the endearing custom of erecting mini-libraries, enclosures on posts rather like the old-style mailboxes only bigger and sometimes quite elaborate, painted bright colors with bells and birds and doors and windows. My block in this new-to-us neighborhood has such a library where anyone can leave a book or take a book to read. This is where we found a book by Nuala O’Faolain, the novel My Dream of You. I didn’t get far before I wikipedia’d her and found her life to be more interesting than her novel. So I ordered Are You Somebody? and read it. That’s when I discovered you. In the book she hardly mentions you and your 15-year relationship. What gives? So I wikipedia’d you and ordered your book Nell from the library. Funny thing, my library did not have it, nor did the San Francisco library. Had you been erased? Especially in San Francisco, a city with a large Irish population and some connections to IRA sympathizers, I would think your story would engage many readers. I can only guess at why your book may have been suppressed. Americans have a poor understanding of Irish history, or any history for that matter. Finally my wife, who does all the on-line ordering in our family, got your book. It is a used book with a lovely inscription on the flyleaf from one feminist to another.

Well, I should have heard of you! I’m an old lesbian feminist and a writer as well, though not famous by any means. But I’m a cog in that feminist wheel, as we all pulled together. As you were, I’ve been active in the struggle to legalize abortion, against sexual harassment and rape and all the other feminist issues, but my main focus has been to see to it that women can work at well-paying jobs. Paid work is the key to our independence and in the U.S. some of the best jobs are those reserved for men in the construction trades. I was a pioneer, one of the first women to get into the electrician trade, and I made a good career of it. I’m retired now and can look back on our decades of activism, our failures and successes with the hope of keeping the next generation from making the same mistakes. We call ourselves Tradeswomen.

At the moment, as you can imagine, I and my sisters are feeling pretty demoralized, though we are doing what we can to confront the ascent of what looks more and more like fascism. But reading your account of the Troubles and those hopeless years in Ireland helps me to imagine a light at the end of this tunnel. The images that stick in my head are of you standing next to and speaking to a lawmaker who is then assassinated, and of the woman, your neighbor, banging her garbage can in her yard—to warn of the cops—shot dead by them. I’ve never been good at remembering names but in my old age (I’m 69, born in 1949) I rely more than ever on visual images. 

That you are five years older made a world of difference at the time when we both came of age. Things were changing so fast in those days (not to say they aren’t now) but the progress of the feminist movement was a defining factor. And we come from very different cultures. In American schools we at least had some sex education. The Catholic church was not so powerful (I was brought up Presbyterian and didn’t take long to embrace atheism). My mother had worked as a stenographer, called herself a career girl and didn’t marry till in her mid-thirties. Unlike in Ireland, that was a choice American women in her generation could make, though they were paid less than men and were laid off when they married. My mother was born in 1913. I was devastated when she died at the age of 70, as you were when your mother died at 89, but I do know it doesn’t matter how long or well our mothers have lived for us daughters to experience deep grief.

Coming out as lesbian in my 20s was not nearly so hard as it was for you. I read in one of the obits for Nuala that the reason you were angry about her book  was that you didn’t want to come out as a lesbian to your mother. I was so glad you were finally able to come out to her before she died. I am the oldest of four and have a brother who is gay (one of three brothers). We had both come out to Mom before she died, but I wish I’d had more time to process with her. Her name was Florence, her parents were immigrants from Sweden and Norway. We discovered the feminist movement together and that and anti-war activism were central to our relationship in the decade before she died.

On my father’s side we are Irish. The Irish ancestor, Thomas Martin, is an enigma. He probably came over in the 1830s. We think he was from a Protestant family and likely illiterate. My wife Holly and I traveled to Ireland a couple of years ago with the American protest singer and radical Anne Feeney. I wasn’t able to discover more about my own Irish heritage but my brother is working at it and we may still learn where Thomas Martin came from.

 I was grateful that in the book you were so candid about sex and love. Some of the couples issues you describe, like the difference between one partner who wants quiet and alone time and the other who wants the company of others at home are all too familiar. And lesbian bed death, LBD we call it, we struggle to overcome. Also, all the changes we go through as we age. Menopause is different for each of us! I felt lucky to live through it with an older lover before I started, but that was in the early 80s when we were just starting to talk about it to each other and there were finally books we could read.

About Nuala—I realize both of you held back writing about the other and your relationship but from all I read it seems she was trying too hard not to be a lesbian. After I read Are You Somebody? I didn’t like her very much. I thought some parts of the book were just name dropping. When I compare it to Nell and wonder why it didn’t strike me the same way, I think it’s because your story supplies context. Or perhaps your context was just more interesting. No, I think your book is just better. And I’m writing to tell you how much I enjoyed it and how much I learned from you. It’s a shame your book was not distributed more widely but be assured that you are famous here in this little corner of Northern California among our lesbian grrrl gang. Thank you for writing it.

Slainte,

Molly Martin

Betsy Brown Traveled Around

Dear Readers,

In an effort to record the history of the Tradeswomen Movement and the stories of the first women to enter the construction trades, I’ve been interviewing some of my tradeswoman sisters. Here is the first of many to come. As a sister electrician, I had heard of Betsy Brown but I didn’t get to know her until she had founded the first (and only) union contracting business in San Francisco (and probably the state of California) owned and run by female electricians. 

BBrownElectrician Betsy Brown started her apprenticeship in 1979 in the Pacific Northwest where indoor plumbing and women’s toilets with locks were set up early on the construction site. So she was shocked to walk onto a nuclear power plant job in Texas and see (and smell) a quarter-mile-long line of port-a-potties. Betsy was, in the electrician’s lingo, a traveler most of her career because she had trouble finding work.

Betsy was born in 1951 and raised in San Francisco by a family of “Jewish Communist atheists.” It was a good life full of music and friends, she said. She was brought up on anti-war marches and union picket lines and she learned to be an organizer at a young age. She lived with her mother and three siblings for four years at her grandfather’s farm in Southern California while her father went underground during the McCarthy era of Communist witch-hunts. Her longshoreman father, Archie Brown, and two uncles had fought in the Spanish Civil War with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

Betsy got involved in politics early on. She said she got her organizing skills from her mother, Hon, a legal secretary. “Today I would call it project management,” she said. At 14 she was part of the Students Education and Action League, a multi-school anti-war organization. They put out a mimeographed newspaper. “We had the good fortune of the Board of Education deciding to ban the newspaper,” she said, which of course increased sales. She went to the police to get a permit for a march and they pulled out a file with her name on it. “Are you Elizabeth Brown?” Yes. “Are you Archie Brown’s daughter?” Yes. She was surprised to find that the cops already had a file on her at age14. She got the permit.

She was there in San Francisco during the summer of love in 1967 and lived for a time in the Haight-Ashbury. Then, at 19, she put her dog and guitar in her car and drove north. She ended up in Bellingham, Washington and spent the next period of her life in the Pacific Northwest.

Betsy was living on a little farm near Hood River, Oregon with her boyfriend, their two kids and two other adults when the collective decided they needed to get real jobs to make some money.  She saw an ad for the electrical apprenticeship and thought “Why not?” so she drove the hour west to Portland to take the test with several hundred other applicants. She couldn’t believe it when she was granted an interview where they asked dumb questions like, “Do you really think you can drive to Portland everyday?” Later she realized she had been chosen to fail. The all-white all-male unions were under pressure to diversify. Her testers thought no five-foot tall woman could possibly succeed at construction work. She proved them wrong.

The apprenticeship guys assured her that it would be months before she was called to work so she thought she would have time to wean her month-old son. Instead she was called up within two months to work on the new I-205 bridge across the Columbia River. She left her kids with the collective and drove to Portland. The first day on the job her shirt was soaked through with milk. Her journeyman noticed and commented, “Baby at home?” That was it. “The IBEW weaned my baby and they didn’t even know it,” she said.

To work on that bridge, you had to walk a plank about 16 inches wide out to where work was going on 60 feet above the river. The first day every eye on the job was on her as she walked the plank. She was terrified of heights, but would never admit it to anyone on the job. Her journeyman told her, “Don’t look around. Just keep walking.” Eventually the others all went back to their work. During its construction, three men died on that bridge.

I-205_BRIDGE
The I-205 bridge just before it opened. Photo: Clark History

The main job for electricians on the bridge crew was to keep the pumps in the cofferdams running. One day the pump quit and Betsy’s journeyman didn’t show up to work. So, with all eyes on her, the first-year apprentice had to take the skiff out on the river by herself, tie it up to the cofferdam and figure out how to get the pump started. Once she did that, she began to build a reputation as a good mechanic. Her journeyman had instructed her, “You just have to look like you know what you’re doing.” That was good advice, she said.

Quick thinking during another near disaster also sealed her reputation as one who stays calm under pressure. Out on the icy river in the skiff one day the engine died and she and the journeyman were getting sucked into the river out amidst the barges and platforms with the possibility of capsizing.Betsy was able to grab a rope and tie up the boat before it got far.

Later in her apprenticeship Betsy worked on a paper plant in Newport Oregon, a fun job where she got to bend lots of rigid conduit. Her apprenticeship consisted entirely of industrial work. She had never done commercial or residential work when a downturn hit and she got laid off. She had finished the required school hours, but not work hours and so was not able to turn out (graduate) as a journeyman. So she decided to try traveling. Except there was a catch 22. Apprentices are not allowed to travel (that’s what the term journeyman means). But there was no way to get the required work hours in her Portland local. Betsy convinced the apprenticeship to give her a travel letter by telling them the union had allowed it, then convinced the union that the apprenticeship had allowed it.

Betsy Brown on Newburg OR paper job
Betsy (L) with the other women on the Newport paper plant job

Someone told her there was work in Phoenix, so she went there. In Phoenix they said work was stopped because of rain. Betsy countered that in Portland if you didn’t work when it rained, you would never work at all. Then they said she would have to wait for the next apprenticeship class to start, which could be years away. They told her there was work on a nuclear power plant in Texas near Houston, so she went there. She arrived alone with no connections and no place to stay but the IBEW sister/brotherhood there took her in and made her part of their family.

The job was gigantic with a thousand electricians and a wide variety of other trades. That’s where she encountered the long line of smelly port-a-potties. The job sucked. There wasn’t enough work. Boredom stupefied. “You’d be excited to get to run 20 feet of pipe, then you’d have to wait half a day for the inspector,” she said. Her electrician husband, Jim, brought the kids down and the family lived in a “road trash trailer park, the only integrated housing in the town of Bay City.” She worked there November to August until she just couldn’t take it anymore. Heat, humidity, boredom and port-a-potties pushed her over the edge.

After she left Texas, Betsy joined IBEW Local 551 in Santa Rosa, whose territory includes much of Northern California. She found work at The Geysers where she finally turned out as a “journeyman inside wireman.” She ran for office and served on the executive board of the local, the first woman to do so. When she found out the dispatcher was discriminating against her and others she tried to organize a lawsuit but no one wanted to join. So she took her tools on the road again, signing the books at several San Francisco Bay Area locals.

Betsy Brown with Geysers crew
With the electrical crew at the Geysers out of local 551, Santa Rosa CA, 1984. Betsy was still an apprentice. She turned out as a journeyman on this job.

In San Francisco she got involved with the Two Gate Committee. Contractors had developed a system where union workers used one gate on the job and nonunion workers used another. Unions were prohibited from protesting with the traditional picket line. So workers from multiple trades formed an a-hoc committee to protest. The chant was “One gate two gates three gates four. A scab’s a scab through any door.” They organized a huge demonstration to protest the ABC, the nonunion contractors association, when their convention came to town. It was a huge gathering that lasted three days. A veteran of many demonstrations, Betsy observed, “It was so interesting to see how the police treated construction workers as opposed to war protesters. Police feel more brotherhood with construction workers.” The contractors sued two individuals in the committee and the Two Gate Committee then had to focus on their defense. Charges were eventually dropped and the committee disbanded.

Betsy next got a temporary job with the city of San Francisco as a traffic signal electrician where she worked for about a year. She said it was a great job, but she didn’t understand how much antipathy there was until she looked back on the experience. “(I used) whatever armor we put on to work with those assholes…because if you noticed it at every turn you’d go crazy,” she said.

On a jobsite, handing out two gate leaflets she ran into a woman from her old local in Portland, Jay Mullins, and they hatched a plan to start a contracting business, Thunder Electric. Betsy was still having trouble getting work and felt she either had to quit working out of the halls or go to work for herself. They started small. “We were two girls and a truck. We worked out of Jay’s garage.”

The IBEW business agent told them that as soon as they got big enough to hire a hand, they could be organized into the union. In the meantime, they worked on mostly residential remodel projects in San Francisco. In a serendipitous encounter at a bid meeting another experienced contractor approached Betsy wanting to partner with a minority contractor. It was a $250,000 job at the airport. “I said I don’t think I can bond this job. So he wrote me a check for $23,000 for that bid and after that he helped us get bonded. The hardest part of contracting is finding someone to float your bond. Once you have one bond, then you can get the next bond,” she said.

Thunder Electric
Betsy (L), Jay (R) and their business partner Mike

Jay and Betsy agreed they would take no jobs relating to incarceration or weapons. They worked on quite a few public works projects. As a San Francisco city electrical inspector I inspected at least one of their jobs—the upgrade of the North Beach sewage treatment plant. Thunder Electric had no trouble attracting and keeping experienced hands. “We were a good company to work for,” she told me.

Through luck and organizing ability they expanded their business until they were keeping 30 San Francisco IBEW Local 6 electricians working. Betsy found she liked working as an electrician far better than contracting, but she is most proud of being able to employ so many hands at union wages. She sold out her share of the business to Jay and another partner and some years later Jay dissolved the business. It remains the only Local 6 contracting business owned and run by women who started out as electricians.

Back in Portland Jay also found she had trouble getting work. “They don’t want you because you’re a woman and they don’t want you because you’re old,” she said.

Betsy really always wanted to be a farmer, and she gave it a go a couple of times. She tried apple farming in Eastern Washington but didn’t have adequate capitalization. After selling out of the contracting business she and Jim bought a small farm in Round Valley, California on the Indian reservation planning a peaceful farming life. Then her 19-year-old son got cancer and she had to find a job to support him (It’s a good story; he survived). She worked as a project manager for a contractor, then for an estimator.

Then she saw an ad for a job project managing a community center and housing project on the Round Valley Indian reservation. At the interview she asked where her desk would be. When they showed her she said, “Can you put a window right there?” They said sure and she took the job. She had learned from experience that you have to get everything you want right when you’re getting hired—salary, extra vacation days, benefits. “When they want you, you can get it, but after you’re hired you can’t,” she said. She took over the project management and was able to train a crew of local Native American tribal members to continue it. Now she is organizing a co-op of marijuana growers. Those organizing skills she learned as an activist and a contractor have come in handy in “retirement.”

No Human is Illegal

That’s the title of the newest songfest of the Labor Heritage/Rockin’ Solidarity Chorus. We will be presenting  on July 20 at 7pm at the First Unitarian Universalist church in San Francisco as part of Laborfest, the annual celebration of the labor movement that takes place in July (Laborfest.net). As part of our “opera” about immigration, Director Pat Wynne asked some of us in the chorus to read our own family stories. Please join us on July 20. Here is my contribution.

I come from a long line of white people. DNA testing shows I’m 100 percent European, mostly Scandinavian and Irish.

While I have wished for some colorful genes in my makeup, it turns out I’m really white. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a rich cultural background. My Swedish grandmother and Norwegian grandfather brought their culture with them when they immigrated at the turn of the 20thcentury.

In 1922, they settled in the Yakima Valley in Washington State, a place run by racist xenophobes whose mission was to make America white again by driving out Japanese and all nonwhites. In that period nativism ran rampant. In 1924, when the population of Yakima was only 20,000, 40,000 people came to a KKK rally where a thousand robed KKK members marched in a parade.

The xenophobes in Yakima and elsewhere were able to successfully construct a racial identity, the “white race,” made from hundreds of diverse cultures, people who spoke different languages and dialects, people who had themselves been the victims of oppression, as a way to successfully divide the population. My Scandinavian grandparents were American patriots. They were flag wavers. But they did not identify as the white race.

The Irish side of my family immigrated around the time of the potato famine of the 1840s, what the Irish call “the starvation” because the crops they grew and harvested were shipped to their English overlords, leaving them to starve. A million Irish people died during the starvation and a million more emigrated.

Tom Hayden said that Irish immigrants had more in common with blacks and slaves than the white rulers who starved and oppressed them. Before epigenetics became a thing, Hayden made the case that we have all been affected by the plight of our ancestors. “That the Irish are white and European cannot erase the experience of our having been invaded, occupied, starved, colonized and forced out of our homeland,” he wrote.

Hayden wanted to break the assimilationist mold among Irish Americans. He wrote,

“If Irish Americans identify with the ten percent of the world which is white, Anglo American and consumes half the global resources, we have chosen the wrong side of history and justice. We will become the inhabitants of the Big House ourselves, looking down on the natives we used to be. We will become our nightmare without a chance of awakening from its grip.”

The definition of white has changed significantly over the course of American history. Europeans not considered white at some point in American history include: Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, Irish, Swedes, Germans, Finns, Russians, French and Jews.

Now, a century after my grandparents immigrated, as militias form to “protect” the white race from foreigners, I choose not to identify as white. I don’t deny my white privilege, but I believe white is a false construct, again being used to divide us.

Just call me human.