My friend and sister writer, Pam Peirce, is doing deep research for a book about her Indiana family and came across an article in the 1903 Indianapolis News titled “What Hoosier Women are Doing.” It’s a list of occupations with numbers of women for each: “There are thirty-four women dentists in Indiana.” My guess is that it was compiled from the 1900 census. Pam passed it along to me, noting that in that year “Seven women carpenters belong to the building trades of Indiana.”
Unfortunately, the clipping is out of focus, but it is still readable. I can see that “Four women in Indiana are cabinet makers, and eight work in saw and planing mills. Indiana has two women blacksmiths and ten women machinists. Nine women work in the coal mines of Indiana. Two women are marble and stone cutters.” I wonder if any of these female crafts workers were allowed to join unions.
“Seven women carpenters belong to the building trades of Indiana. Four women in Indiana are cabinet makers, and eight work in saw and planing mills. Indiana has two women blacksmiths and ten women machinists. Nine women work in the coal mines of Indiana. Two women are marble and stone cutters.”
We know that women have worked in the trades since before this country was founded. Still, I’m surprised that Hoosier women had such a good representation in the trades in 1903. In contrast, there were about 6,000 washerwomen and 2,000 stenographers.
Pam also turned me on to a book, The Fair Women: The Story of the Women’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago 1893. The World’s Columbian Exposition included amazing exhibits of the results of women’s activities–in the arts, industry, science, politics and philanthropy. Most of these were housed in the Woman’s Building, which was designed, decorated and administered entirely by women.
In the book there is quite a bit of information about two women who were hired to do sculptures for the outside of the women’s building. One was Enid Yandell, who designed the caryatids, 24 identical female figures that held up the roof garden. It is said that the male workers with whom she shared a studio accepted her “without question.” One of the women managing the project said “Perhaps owing to the fact that almost all the workers were foreigners, and abroad it is not so unusual for women to do industrial work.”
At a party, Enid later had a wonderfully funny discussion about the propriety of women working with the widow of President Grant, who was prejudiced against Enid as soon as she heard that she was a “stonecutter.” Apparently the widow was still angry that her husband had spent too much time with a 15-year-old sculptor (Vinnie Ream Hoxie) who was doing a sculpture of Lincoln. Enid went on to have a career as a sculptor and in 1898 became the first woman to join the National Sculpture Society.
More sculptural work on the Women’s Building was awarded to 19-year-old Alice Ridout, who lived in San Francisco where she worked in the studio of Rupert Schmid. It took the fair managers months to convince her to come to Chicago to do her work on the sculptures they required, but she did it.
“Why didn’t the women’s movement ever embrace our struggle to bring women into nontraditional jobs? I never understood that and I still don’t.”
Susie Suafai, a longtime tradeswomen advocate, posed this question to me at the Women Build Nations conference in Chicago last spring. I can’t always catch up with Susie in the San Francisco Bay Area so I was happy to find her sitting alone at the conference where 1500 tradeswomen and allies convened in Chicago April 29-May 1, 2016. I sat down with her and learned things about her that I had never known in all our 35 years of working together.
Susie is a large woman, now with graying hair, and still formidable. She punctuates sentences with a chuckle. I guess she’s mellowed as she’s aged, but I remember her as powerful, brusque, businesslike, intimidating and a bit cynical. It seemed to me that arranging a meeting with Susie was like consulting the Oracle. She was the goddess of employment development. Susie was, and is, the one who understood the big picture, employment trends on a regional scale. Early on she learned the workings of the apprenticeship system, and understood them better than the men who ran it. I remember a workshop that Susie led in the mid-70s. She laid out the complicated apprenticeship system for us tradeswomen activists, taught us who were the men in power and how to approach them with our demands. Susie was passing on what she had learned to a generation of feminist activists.
Susie Suafai came to California via American Samoa and Hawai’i. She was studying history at San Francisco State University and fell into a job at Advocates for Women when she was asked to help prepare women for apprenticeship testing in 1974. Advocates, in San Francisco, had won one of two demonstration grants from the US Department of Labor to see if women could be recruited to construction work. The other was in Denver, Colorado. These were the first two federally funded experiments to recruit women to do this work. Susie went on to help place hundreds of women into union construction apprenticeships in the Bay Area and she later became the director of Women in Apprenticeship Program, which had spun off from Advocates for Women in 1976. She also spent about five years in Los Angeles working at the Century Freeway Project recruiting women into the trades. Electrician and filmmaker Vivian Price made a film about that project, called Hammering It Out. Susie was planning to be a history teacher but she ended up being an employment advocate, and there are many tradeswomen who credit her with creating their careers.
We are about the same age. I’m in my mid-60s and I am retired as an electrician and an electrical inspector but Susie continues working at her trade of employment advocacy. She’s now working part-time for Tradeswomen Inc. to invent new ways to bring women into the construction trades.
Now, about Susie’s question, which is also my question: why didn’t the women’s movement embrace the tradeswomen’s movement? First, when people criticize the women’s movement for leaving out tradeswomen, I always object. I say we were the women’s movement and we are the women’s movement. I never felt separate from the women’s movement. I always felt like I was in the middle of it, like I was part of it.
Like Susie, as a young feminist I thought that employment was the bottom line for women. If you couldn’t get a decent paying job you could not be independent. A young woman in my history workshop at the conference voiced the issue. “If you have a good job, you don’t have to depend on a man. Once you have a trade, you can be financially independent.” It’s the same thing we said to each other in 1970.
My mother had very few choices and worked as an underpaid secretary all her life. My generation had some better choices but not many. Most often cited were teacher, nurse or secretary. In the 1970s I found other feminists who agreed with me about the importance of work. We founded organizations and allied with lawyers and advocates willing to help us fight for laws and regulations to end employment discrimination.
Though I participated in the other struggles of the feminist movement for abortion rights, for childcare, for equality in marriage, for an end to rape and discrimination, I still felt the jobs issue was primary. And for women who did not have access to a college education, trades jobs and jobs in the construction industry made a whole lot of sense. Ours was an anti-poverty movement. We talked a lot about what we called the feminization of poverty. Statistics showed that female single heads of households were getting poorer. We thought introducing women to trades jobs could reduce that trend.
Our issue was not at the top of the feminist movement’s list and I think there were many factors that contributed to invisibility. Partly it’s about class. The leaders of the feminist movement, mostly college-educated women, could not imagine themselves doing construction work and they probably did not have family members who were construction workers. Few of us knew how much money union construction workers made. For many Americans the idea of working construction was considered a step down. But workers with union contracts make more money than nonunion workers. And, in general, “men’s jobs” pay far more money than “women’s jobs.” Susie figures she would have made a lot more money in construction than she did in the nonprofit world.
It wasn’t like tradeswomen didn’t try to fit into feminist coalitions. I made many attempts to collaborate with other women’s organizations like NOW and like the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women (COSW) of which I was a member in the 1990s. They didn’t brush me off, but they already had other projects. COSW was focused on domestic violence, a cause championed by local lesbian activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, and they had created a successful network of organizations. It made sense to not spread ourselves too thin. But at least I was able to expand COSW’s attention to the issue of on-the-job sexual harassment, a universal concern of tradeswomen.
Tradeswomen collaborated with feminist lawyers—in the Bay Area Equal Rights Advocates and Employment Law Center—to secure rights to equal employment. In these efforts we had great success during the 1970s. We joined in coalition with racial minorites to fight the dismantling of affirmative action laws and regulations. In this, too, we were mostly successful. But having laws and regulations on the books is useless when they are not enforced, a strategy employed by Reagan/Bush. At that point the returns on our activism diminished, as did our support.
Funders didn’t take us seriously. I remember traveling to New York in the early 90s and meeting with the Ms. Foundation seeking funding for our efforts. The young woman I met with seemed anxious to find a way to not fund us and to get me out of her office. She categorized our organizations as “associations” and so not fundable. But I felt her rejection had more to do with other factors.
The barriers to women in the construction industry were seen as too great to spend resources on for too little gain. In fundraising meetings with the Women’s Foundation in San Francisco Tradeswomen Inc. was told that projects they had funded to support getting women into the trades had failed in the past and they had decided too few women were impacted by these projects. Many just did not think it was possible for women to do these jobs and to be happy doing them. But maybe that’s because most of the organizers couldn’t see themselves being happy doing them. They (and we) had internalized sexism and self hate. But organizers were also practical. They (and we) strategized to find ways to impact the greatest number of women.
A big part of our campaign to get women into the construction trades rested on the ability to get the word out to women about the money that could be made in these jobs. We needed the help of feminist and labor media to spread the word. Until the turn of the 21st century labor unions in the trades wanted nothing to do with us. We were accused of taking men’s jobs. But I think feminist publications could have made more of an effort to tell our story. Whenever an article did appear in a publication with a big subscription base (as in Ebony), hundreds of inquiries came in. High wages were a big draw. But traditional women’s magazines were only interested in matters of style, such as makeovers for women with “hard hat hair.”
Our fortunes changed after President Jimmy Carter left office. While some nontraditional jobs like bus driver began including women, we soon realized our efforts at integrating the construction trades were failing after Reagan took office in 1981 and began dismantling affirmative action programs.
Susie corrected me: “It’s true we lost footing during the second half of Reagan’s administration but we also made some headway in the first four years of his administration. At the end of the day, Title VII (of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) was and is the law of the land and we were willing to and are still willing to challenge under Title VII.” It’s this optimism that keeps Susie going, and the conviction that we can still improve the lives of women by helping them make careers in the trades.
In retrospect, whether or not we were dissed by the women’s movement seems a moot point. The women’s movement was an amorphous collection of activists with little money and few institutions. The partner with real money and power that could have helped our movement succeed is the federal government. The institutions we built in the 1970s never recovered from Reagan’s slashing of affirmative action and job training programs. I believe our efforts to bring a critical mass of women (at least ten percent) into construction trades would have succeeded if the Carter Administration’s programs that we fought so hard for had been left in place. As it is, the percentage of workers in the construction trades who are female has stayed at around two percent, roughly the same as it was in 1981 when Reagan took office.
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When I read news today of Wells Fargo’s illegal banking practices that resulted in $185 million in fines and the firing of 5,300 employees (but no cost to higher ups–of course they blamed workers), it reminded me of Wells Fargo’s deep involvement in the financial crisis, their theft of citizens’ wealth and homes. Wells was one of the worst actors and our Occupy coalition targeted them in dozens of protests. Here is a year-end letter I wrote to friends from 2012. Several of the dedicated leaders in the photos have since died. Lest we forget.
Homes in Foreclosure
For me 2012 was the year of Occupy. During Thanksgiving week 2011, I had walked over to the Bayview, an adjacent neighborhood, to protest home foreclosures. The action was more like a neighborhood feast, with turkey and trimmings served up from tables set out on the sidewalk. I learned that there were eleven homes in foreclosure on one block of Quesada Street, and I joined ACCE, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. There I also saw some folks from my own neighborhood, Bernal Heights, and we began asking each other if there were home foreclosures in our neighborhood and wondering how we could find out.
Two days later I got a call from an ACCE volunteer. One of the foreclosed homeowners, 75-year-old cancer survivor and childcare provider Josephine Tolbert, had been locked out of her house while she was shopping. Still inside her house were diabetes medication, diapers for the child in her care, essentially everything she owned. An impromptu press conference was being called for the following morning at her house in Visitacion Valley.
I picked up a couple of my neighbors and we got there early to be greeted by a phalanx of rather sheepish looking cops who apparently thought we were planning to re-occupy Josephine’s home. Actually reoccupying was not a bad idea, one that we would use several times in the coming year. This time the idea was to get the word out and create public sympathy for Josephine, who explained that the bank had already sold the house to an investor.
I admit to walking around being outraged most of the time, but this situation really got to me. How could this be happening in the prosperous US of A? And why was keeping an old woman from getting back into her home the most important charge of the SFPD? Why does my tax money pay for the county sheriff to evict people from their homes so predatory banks can foreclose on them and auction their property?
That week we picketed a restaurant owned by the new owner of Josephine’s home, convinced him to sell it back to B of A, and got her back in her home. Our pressure helped her fight for an affordable loan modification. We won and I was hooked.
We discovered 88 homeowners on a foreclosure list in our own small neighborhood. Soon after we called a meeting at the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center (the center itself is a result of neighbors organizing since the seventies). Sixty-five people (many of them over 65) packed the dining hall, and Occupy Bernal was born.
Stardust and Tita
Wild Old Women weekly protest
They came in wheelchairs and walkers
Tax the Rich
Joined by Occupella and the Brass Liberation Orchestra
We learned that an audit of homes facing foreclosure by San Francisco’s assessor-recorder showed 84% of loans contained legal violations, but litigation was not working to save homes. These banks are now too big to sue. The only way to keep our neighbors in their homes was to act collectively.
Once we had the list of foreclosed homes we just knocked on people’s doors asking them if they wanted to fight the banks. By this time many folks had already lost their homes. Finding buildings empty with eviction signs on the doors saddened me. The banks’ greed had already changed the composition of my own neighborhood. Most of the people in foreclosure, we discovered, were people of color. Bernal Heights was becoming less diverse daily. This knowledge strengthened our resolve and shortened our timeline. It felt like we were rushing to save the character of our neighborhood.
People’s foreclosure stories were as varied and complicated as the banks’ scams, but they usually came down to disability, job loss, death, divorce. Hard luck stories with no safety net. You get laid off, you can’t make the balloon payment. You get divorced and need to refinance the home that’s already paid off and you’ve lived in for 40 years. Then you’re sold a pick-a-payment loan and you’re urged to pick the lowest payment, interest only with increasing principal. Suddenly your $100K loan turns into $400K. You submit loan modification papers and the bank loses them—over and over. Every time you call them, you must talk to a new person, explaining your case over and over. Your bank refuses to talk to you or they tell you the only way they can help you is if you stop making payments. Then they foreclose. They sell your home at auction. Without notifying you.
Here’s the thing: I got to know all these people personally and then I couldn’t look away. They are the face of this huge financial crisis that the perpetrators have survived. More than survived—they are making billions! But we are fighting back.
I could tell you about many more victories. The regular Saturday foreclosure fighter meetings typically attract 40-50 people. We learn with regularity that the pressure we have put on the banks has resulted in an affordable loan modification and that a family will not be evicted after all. People are fighting for their homes, and in the process growing from beaten and ashamed victims to articulate involved community leaders.
After a year of working at this we know that what brings the banks to the negotiating table is pressure from the community. The most effective thing we do is to call and email the banks when a home is at risk of being auctioned. Anyone can do it and I urge you all to join in these protests. Go to www.calorganize.org to sign up to receive updates and to join ACCE or make a contribution.
Here are a few highlights of our accomplishments in 2012:
ACCE members across California rallied to support the passage of the strongest anti-foreclosure legislation in the country, the California Homeowner Bill of Rights. In San Francisco, we built a Foreclosure Fighter group of over 150 active fighters. We’ve won over 20 permanent loan modifications resulting in close to $1 million in principal reduction. We’ve also stopped the auctions of hundreds of homes in San Francisco. We planned and executed well over 100 bank actions in the last year. A year after the launch of Occupy Our Homes and Occupy Bernal the narrative has shifted from blaming individual borrowers to blaming banks and demanding bank accountability. I’m proud to be an activist in this movement.
Rummaging through my mom’s scrapbooks from the 1930s I came across a packet of letters, a rare find. My mother saved minutiae from her life: bridge tallies, restaurant menus, cocktail napkins, greeting cards, dance cards, wedding invitations. But she saved almost no personal letters, although I know she wrote and received troves of them.
The envelopes are all addressed to Miss Florence Wick and marked on the outside: “Via the usual route,” “To be read on Friday,” “To be read on Saturday” and “To be read on Sunday.” Carefully opening the tattered envelopes, I found hand-written notes on stationery from the Neil House Hotel in Columbus, Ohio. They looked to me like love notes—from a woman named Edna L.
Haven’t we had fun with meetings and parties and “baths” and rushin’ ‘round! And what am I going to do without you when you are gone? You will just have to come to New York sometime soon so we can share some other experiences….
Love and a hug—Edna L.
What did she mean “baths”? OMGoddess! I had to call my brother Don immediately.
“Flo had an affair with a woman! I have proof!” I blurted. Perhaps I could have approached the delivery of this information differently, building up to the climax with more suspense. My brother’s lack of excitement revealed my failure.
“You’re making up things again.” He could have added, “just like Dad.” Our father was an accomplished teller of tales, amusing but not to be believed.
My wife Holly was equally suspicious. I hadn’t realized I’d built such a reputation for exaggeration. No one believed me. I just had to revel in my discovery alone.
I delved further, looking for more information about Edna L. I read the letters over. Edna sometimes signed her name Eddie or Edie, but she never included her last name. I love that she called herself Eddie, a definite lesbian cue. She illustrated the notes with endearing stick figure drawings. From the letters I learned that Eddie and Flo had roomed together at the national YWCA council meeting in Columbus. Eddie had written the notes during their time together and given them to Flo to be opened each day on the train ride home to Washington State. How romantic!
I read through all the accompanying articles and programs about the national YWCA council meetings that Flo had attended in Chicago and Columbus in 1937 and 1938, but I couldn’t find any mention of Eddie. I looked at every picture in the two scrapbooks. Flo had devoted two pages of one scrapbook to pictures of a woman who had died, kind of a shrine. The pictures show Flo and the friend on a camping trip in the mountains. The woman’s death photo, showing her body lying on a coffin-like bed, is in an envelope pasted in the scrapbook, but there is not a single clue as to who she was. I pulled up the photos to see if there was anything written on the reverse side. Nothing.
The woman in the photos looked rather morose. Could the dead woman be Eddie? Did Eddie kill herself after Flo spurned her advances? Reading the letters, I can see she was clearly smitten, but there’s no indication that Flo felt the same. I let my imagination run wild. My poor mother! She must have felt terrible guilt. No wonder she left no clues about the identity of the dead woman.
My brother seemed slightly more interested in this new theory and he agreed to help me research the dead woman’s identity. We found one clue in a picture that decisively ties the dead woman to Flo’s hometown Biz-Pro group, and from her letters we know that Eddie was from New York, so I had to abandon my romantic story about Eddie. However, I’m holding onto the suicide theory until we can identify the dead woman. I can totally see how my adorable young mother might have inspired unrequited love.