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.

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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.

Preserving Solidarity Forever: Women in the Trades

Address to the University of Washington Labor Archives gathering May 12, 2018

Tradeswomen sisters, friends and advocates! Today we celebrate the victory of our movement to integrate the construction trades. Women have achieved parity. Sexual harassment and sex discrimination are things of the past.

Just kidding.

The truth is that after nearly a half century of organizing, our movement has failed to achieve parity or even a critical mass of women in the construction trades. But we have made some amazing gains. I want to talk about that and I want to pose a question to you all.

4 activists
Jo Scherer, Molly Martin, Connie Ashbrook, Nettie Doakes. Jo and Nettie are longtime WWIT activists

Let me give a little background and then we’ll hear from the distinguished activists on our panel and in the audience. Thanks to Conor Casey and the UW Labor Archives we have a panel of veteran tradeswomen foremothers. These crones are woke!

Here’s my backstory. I grew up in Yakima, went to college at Washington State University in Pullman and then moved to Seattle (the big city) in 1974.

I know many of you are as old as I am and were here in the 1970s. For those who were not, let me try to paint a picture of the times. Does anyone remember the admonition “Will the last person to leave Seattle turn out the lights?” That was in 1971. Remember the recession? Boing, the main employer in town, had laid off thousands of workers and the city was in a funk.

I was a young person in my 20s just trying to survive. With a degree in journalism, I worked as a temporary office worker, as a parking lot attendant, as a community organizer in the VISTA program, as a reporter at The Facts newspaper, all the while looking for a job or a better job. When I couldn’t get hired as a cocktail waitress, I was offered a “job” as a topless dancer working for tips.

We lived collectively, partly to save money but also because we believed in collective living. Those big mansions on Capitol Hill made great collective houses. We struggled to pay for groceries and heat. But at least rent was much less expensive than it is now.

Tradeswoman historian Vivian Price wrote about this period: “Seattle was a magnet city in the 1960’s and 1970’s, attracting people who were interested in social change to move there…Seattle was on the cutting edge of social movements. It was a city known for being a center for the women’s movement, with a thriving lesbian and gay culture, a strong old and New Left, and a vibrant movement among communities of color. Activists from each of these movements crossed paths and in some cases supported one another’s efforts. In some cases, support became collaboration, to each other’s mutual advantages.”

The city was a cauldron of dissent. Left and communist organizations flourished. The Vietnam War continued. Angry discontented citizens demonstrated in the streets. Many people felt the only solution to our foreign policy crisis was to overthrow the state. Bombings were frequent.

At the same time community activists sought to build new institutions in sectors that were not serving us—women’s and poor people’s health care, medicine, the food industry, banking, transportation, living arrangements, marriage, work. The University YWCA became a focal point of women’s organizing.

The 1963 Equal Pay Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act gave us new employment rights, but they had not yet extended to the construction trades. We formed an organization, Seattle Women in Trades. We were just rabble—unemployed women who wanted good paying jobs. From the beginning we had two powerful adversaries—the contractors and the unions.

Our struggle was for affirmative action. We demanded access to jobs that had been denied to us. We saw ourselves as part of the feminist movement and also the civil rights movement.

In Seattle we collaborated with several other organizations:

  • Mechanica, founded in 1973 and connected with the YWCA, sought to help women find jobs in nontraditional fields
  • United Construction Workers Association, a group of black people led by Tyree Scott and Bev Sims who had been agitating for entry to the construction trades since the 1960s
  • The Alaska Cannery Workers Association, active since the 1930s, was made up of Filipino workers who traveled to Alaska to work
  • The Northwest Labor and Employment Law Office, LELO, founded by United Construction Workers, Alaska Cannery Workers and the farmworkers union, in 1973

Even at that time Seattle was miles ahead of other cities in regard to affirmative action. And this is the question I pondered for decades and I hope you will help me answer: Why was Seattle so far ahead? Let me pose some possible answers.

  • First, the Northwest has a history of radical dissent and union organizing that goes way back. We stood on the shoulders of those activists
  • Women, laid off elsewhere after WWII, were still working in the shipyards by the 1970s. I heard about women working mucking out the tankers.
  • The black freedom movement had a profound impact on women’s fight for equal employment. United Construction Workers led the way in the 1960s and early 70s with street actions.
  • Black men had filed a class action lawsuit in 1969, which resulted in the Seattle plan. It became a national model for affirmative action in the construction industry.
  • Radical Women, Clara Fraser and the fight to integrate Seattle City Light was crucial. I wish I had time to tell this story. Women who got in as line workers were subjected to horrific harassment. One woman, Heidi Durham, fell from a power pole and broke her back.
  • Mechanica and early feminist organizing through the YWCA.
  • Supporters within the city government created local goals and timetables for women in nontraditional jobs–12% in 1973.
  • Finally I credit individual humans. Pat Anderson, one of the original organizers of WIT, worked closely with UCWA, ACWA and LELO. She was the glue that held our coalition together. Pat died in 2009. I don’t want her contribution to our movement to be lost to history.

I say we failed to achieve critical mass, but let’s look at some of what we accomplished on a national scale.

  • Our 1976 lawsuit against the US Department of Labor (USDOL) gave us Federal regulations laying out goals and timetables for women and minorities in the construction trades.
  • We pushed for and won state and local affirmative action programs.
  • There had been no women, and then our numbers increased to 2.7 percent in the construction trades, about where they have remained ever since.
  • We succeeded in integrating some nontraditional blue-collar jobs like bus driver, mail carrier, police and firefighter.
  • We built coalitions with others in the civil rights movement.
  • We organized awesome conferences and trade fairs like the 39thWashington Women in Trades fair yesterday. Our next international conference, Women Building the Nation, will be here in Seattle October 12-14, 2018.
  • We collaborated with unions and the labor movement.
  • We worked to get women’s issues addressed in contract negotiations.
  • Through court cases, we made laws against sex harassment.
  • We implemented sexual harassment training of foremen, contractors and coworkers.
  • With few resources, we built organizations in many states and a national network of organizers
  • We addressed unmanly issues such as PPE and on-the-job safety.
  • We created publications like Tradeswomen Magazineas a way to tell our stories and interact with tradeswomen around the country and the world.
  • We built a vibrant diverse international movement still active today. I would argue that we changed the world.

I was one of the founders of Seattle Women in Trades. When we first started we were just a bunch of women who wanted decent work. Why did we want jobs in construction? Money. Trades jobs paid three or four times what “women’s jobs” paid, enough to support a family. Also we wanted an escape from confining office work. We wanted an escape from pumps and pantyhose. We wanted to build something. We wanted to break down the barriers.

panelists
Panelists Randy, Zan and Paula

In the 1970s we were lucky to have CETA, a federal job-training program. In Seattle we had Seattle Opportunities Industrialization Center, which had classes in electrical wiring, plumbing, carpentry. That six-month program was my destination. But women first had to reckon with sexism. I was asked if I could type and when I replied yes (the last time I admitted that), they told me I was not eligible for the electrical training program because I already had skills that would just go to waste. Fast-talking and possibly a threat got me in and that training was the basis for my career as an electrician.

My goal was to get into the electricians union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. But when I applied, I was rejected. They said I was too old. I was 26. That’s when I decided to move to San Francisco.

I arrived in San Francisco in the fall of 1976. There it was the same story. We founded organizations for women in blue-collar nontraditional work, but most of us were still wannabes. We still didn’t have jobs and the construction unions’ doors were still closed to us, though they were feeling pressure to integrate. I started a contracting business with a partner, and then joined Wonder Woman Electric, an all-female contracting company. Later, in 1980, I was able to join the union only because San Francisco was experiencing a construction boom and they needed skilled workers.

In 1976, with the help of several feminist law firms including Equal Rights Advocates and Employment Law Center in San Francisco, women sued the USDOL for discrimination. This lawsuit resulted in goals and timetables for women in construction trades, 6.9 percent at the beginning. Seattle was used as a model in the 1978 federal regulations. Of the eleven women who signed on to the lawsuit, three were from Seattle Women in Trades: Diane Jones, Mary Lou Sumberg and Beverly Sims. The others were from San Francisco, Washington DC, Fairbanks Alaska and Walla Walla WA.

When tradeswomen heard about the federal regulations, signed into law 40 years ago on May 8, 1978, we celebrated! We did the math and figured it would only be a few years until we achieved critical mass in the trades. We thought if we could just get to ten percent, we would be less isolated and might be able to change the male culture of the construction site. If Jimmy Carter had stayed in the White House we might have made it, but in 1980 Reagan was elected and he immediately began dismantling affirmative action programs. We still had the laws, but no enforcement.

The right wing successfully challenged our old organizing strategies. In the 90s and aughts in California and Washington anti-affirmative action ballot measures essentially made affirmative action illegal. We could no longer do targeted enforcement in these states. Affirmative action, the most important tool we had to fight employment discrimination, was effectively dead. Class action lawsuits had been an effective tactic in the 70s, but new restrictions have put an end to that.

Here’s my short answer to the question: Why was Seattle so far ahead?

  • People of color (men and women) paved the way for women fighting for affirmative action.
  • The first class action lawsuit filed in 1969 by LELO succeeded in creating the Seattle Plan, an early affirmative action plan.
  • We formed effective coalitions with other organizations. Tradeswomen were and still are a tiny demographic and coalitions are necessary.
  • Seattle’s kickass feminist activists built some of the earliest and most effective tradeswomen advocacy organizations. Some of them are here with us today.

We have some distinguished activists from the Tradeswomen Movement here today, women who have spent their lives in service to our cause. I’d like to introduce Connie Ashbrook, the founder and ED (retired) of Oregon Women in Trades and Nettie Doakes of Seattle City Light. Now let’s hear from the tradeswomen panelists: Plumber Paula Lukaszek, Ironworker Randy Loomans, and Plumber Zan Scommodau.

To cap off my trip to Seattle, I visited some of my old haunts with a friend from back in the day. I was surprised to see the Comet Tavern still there on the edge of Capitol Hill. So much else has changed in Seattle. When I told the bartender I’d danced on the bar the night Nixon resigned, August 9, 1974, he said, “This beer’s on the house.”

To watch the video of this event: http://www.seattlechannel.org/videos?videoid=x91548

Madeline Mixer

Advocate for Tradeswomen

My dear friend Madeline Mixer has died.IMG_6610

As the director of the Women’s Bureau District IX of the U.S. Department of Labor, and long after her retirement, Madeline was a friend to tradeswomen and women who sought jobs in nontraditional blue-collar work.

Madeline was an avowed feminist and for a time during the Reagan administration she lost her job because of it. Feminism ran in the family. She told me her mother, who lived to be 101, had been a suffragist and organized to get women the vote.

I think Madeline’s life goal was to make it possible for women to have access to jobs that could make them independent of men. Her own life experience as a divorced mother of a young child was the driving force behind her feminism. At the time women didn’t have so many options.

I met Madeline in the 1970s soon after I moved to San Francisco. As an activist trying to break barriers to women in the construction trades, I was pointed to Madeline’s office in the old federal building. There I found her in a small room with one secretary as staff. The Women’s Bureau (established in 1920) has been virtually defunded by recent Republican administrations, but even then funding was shallow.

Long before tradeswomen had an office or a staff, Madeline allowed us to use a conference room in her building for meetings on Saturdays. Fifty women might show up and we’d host a wide-ranging discussion that often focused on sexual harassment (we called it gender harassment then; there were no laws prohibiting it) and isolation on the job. We tackled the issues of race and class, strategizing how to build an organization and a movement.

Madeline understood the importance of communicating as a way to to support each other and organize. We had the idea of a newsletter for tradeswomen, something that could connect us and help women find jobs in the trades. We began publishing Trade Trax newsletter out of Madeline’s office. It was a monthly two-page tract that volunteers mimeographed, folded and mailed. We charged $1 to get on our mailing list and a couple hundred women paid their buck.

In 1980, while Jimmy Carter was still president, Madeline called me with the news that some big mucky muck from the Department of Labor was coming to town. She asked me to put together a proposal to fund a newsletter or magazine. We were granted about $5000 and Tradeswomen Magazinewas born. The grant didn’t pay for staff, only printing and mailing, and tradeswomen volunteers wrote it, then typed it into columns and pasted it up one Saturday every three months. We published it for nearly two decades. It was the principal way tradeswomen communicated with each other around the country and the world during the 80s and 90s.

Later, after she retired, Madeline funded, out of her own pocket, the newsletter Pride and a Paycheck, edited by Sue Doro, which is still being published.

In 1979, Madeline, along with Susie Suafai and other advocates, founded the nonprofit organization Tradeswomen Inc., still going today. It was Madeline who first thought of the term tradeswoman.

Madeline Esther
With Esther Peterson, director of the Women’s Bureau under JFK

I know there were many other projects Madeline championed, but she always kept us in her sights. When Tradeswomen Inc. foundered for lack of funding, as often happened, Madeline could always be counted on to slip us enough money to pay our staff person or to help us find grant funding to keep us afloat.

Madeline was an inspiration to us all partly because she never turned her back. In the early 70s she grabbed on to the issue of women in construction and didn’t let it go for half a century. Class tensions arose between tradeswomen and our advocates. We were a fiercely independent tribe and many of us didn’t trust government officials or academics or lawyers, even the ones clearly on our side. Not everyone appreciated the federal government and its representatives. But Madeline hung in there with us.

Our association was long and fruitful. We appreciated Madeline and we honored her frequently. At one event I introduced her as having witnessed more of my relationships and breakups than my own mother had. Madeline never lost her sense of humor. She reminded me that she was much younger than my mother. But, of course, she could have been my mother. We were about 20 years apart in age.

Madeline also roped her husband Joe into helping tradeswomen. He was an experienced grant writer and participated in many long fundraising meetings with us. Joe died in January after a short illness.

Madeline Mixer, never a tradeswoman herself, was arguably the most important brick in the house tradeswomen built. Her legacy of advocacy highlights the importance of collaboration. She never stopped believing in us.

Sonoma County Pride

It’s happening in the town of Santa Rosa this year for the first time in ages, a move from the River town of Guerneville. We rode downtown on our bikes (on Humboldt Street, the designated bikeway) and left them for safe keeping with the Bicycle Coalition valet service. We camped at Beer Baron where we met up with friends T and JJ so we could watch the parade and imbibe in the shade (temp is 89 degrees!)

One of the most creative contingents was Church Ladies (and Gents) for Gay Rights, dressed in big hats and long skirts, whose schtick involved waving white handkerchiefs.

IMG_6167

Lesbian square dancers rocked it, boys and girls in colorful skirts danced down the street. Parents and kids were big, as always.

 

I loved the couple with the 40 years together sign.IMG_6173 2

After the (mercifully short) parade, we walked around and checked out the booths at Courthouse Square. Our friend Ruth Mahaney sat at the Lesbian Archives booth where hordes of lesbians were competing to identify lesbians in old pictures of softball teams from the 70s. “I was lovers with her!” someone proclaimed.