"If you don't know where you come from, you don't know where you're going." Sister Addie Wyatt
Author: Molly Martin
I'm a long-time tradeswoman activist, retired electrician and electrical inspector. I live in Santa Rosa, CA. molly-martin.com. I also share a travel blog with my wife Holly: travelswithmoho.wordpress.com.
I’m writing this during a gentle rainstorm that has elicited delight among denizens here in Santa Rosa. Our weather station says it has brought a little less than an inch of rain. We are humbled when we think of raging floods elsewhere in the world but of course what we worry about at this time of the year is fire. Word is that the rain has dampened our biggest California fire, the Mosquito Fire, which has burned 75,000 acres in the Sierra foothills and is now 35 percent contained. This rain may not put an end to fire season, but we hope, as the fall equinox approaches, it marks the beginning of the end. This year the autumn equinox takes place on September 22, when the sun crosses the equator making night and day of equal length in all parts of the earth.
In Japan the equinox symbolizes the middle way between the seasons. This week will mark the start of Higan, a seven-day Buddhist celebration and national holiday in Japan during the fall and spring equinoxes. The origin of the holiday dates from Emperor Shomu in the 8th century. Higan means the “other shore” and refers to the spirits of the dead reaching Nirvana. It is a time to remember the dead by visiting, cleaning, and decorating their graves. The red spider lily signals shūbun, the arrival of fall.
Buddhist psychology is neither a path of denial nor of affirmation. It shows us the paradox of the universe, within and beyond the opposites. It teaches us to be in the world but not of the world. This realization is called the middle way.
If we seek happiness purely through indulgence, we are not free. If we fight against ourselves and reject the world, we are not free. It is the middle path that brings freedom. This is a universal truth discovered by all those who awaken.
The middle way describes the middle ground between attachment and aversion, between being and non-being, between form and emptiness, between free will and determinism. The more we delve into the middle way the more deeply we come to rest between the play of opposites.
When we discover the middle path, we neither remove ourselves from the world nor get lost in it. We can be with all our experience in its complexity, with our own exact thoughts and feelings and drama. We learn to embrace tension, paradox, change. Instead of seeking resolution, waiting for the chord at the end of a song, we let ourselves open and relax in the middle. In the middle we discover that the world is workable. From the book The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield
Here in Sonoma County at fall equinox we celebrate the end of those super hot days of summer. There was a day in August when we set a heat record of 115 degrees here.
We may still get some 90 degree days, but the withering heat is behind us and the cold of winter is yet to come. No more flex alerts! We look forward to enjoying the outdoors in this mild season.
Like all Californians we are conserving water during an ongoing drought. Our vegetable garden is not as robust and productive as in wetter years, but native plants thrive. Favorites include native Epilobium in bright reds and pinks, eriogonum (wild buckwheat), and a purple native aster given to us by a neighbor, still blooming happily without water! Birds of all feathers converge on our garden to eat the seeds of spent wildflower blooms.
Lately I’ve been walking around with my head in the 1930s.
I’ve been thinking about my mother and what her life was like as a young person. Mom was born in 1913 and graduated high school in 1929. She came of age in the 1930s. Born in 1949, I came of age in the 1960s. They were two very different worlds.
I thought I’d gone through all the evidence we’d found of our mother’s dalliance with another woman. Love letters we discovered revealed attempts at seduction, but there was nothing to prove that they had been lovers.
Then my brother called me. “I found pictures!” he said.
In an envelope in a forgotten file cabinet, Don found a slew of photos of my mother and her friends in the 1930s. Some were clearly pictures of the YWCA meetings in 1937 and 38 where our mother, Flo, met and roomed with her lesbian admirer, Edna Lauterbach (Eddie). Maybe Eddie is in the pictures! Of course Eddie is in the pictures!
I’m posting some of the pictures here and I hope readers will weigh in. I think these photos are from the 1937 conference where Flo and Eddie first met in Chicago. I’m pretty sure Eddie is in one of these photos, but which one is she? Here is what we know: Flo was 24 and Eddie was 37 in 1937. I know from the census records that Eddie’s father was ethnically German. I would love to know what she looked like.
The photos show groups of women, many with their arms around each other, hands on legs or shoulders. My mother had her hands on several of them. These women seem way more physically affectionate with each other than my generation of female friends ever were in public. Were they all lovers?
In her seminal book Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present, Lillian Faderman posits that women in “Boston marriages” and “romantic couples” did not necessarily have sex. She writes that “romantic friendships” between women were accepted in the Western world up until WWI. After that, as women’s status in the culture changed, these friendships started to become less accepted. Today girls and women are not encouraged to hold hands in public or to enter into romantic friendships, presumably because they might turn lesbian. Today if there’s not a sexual component, we don’t take the relationship seriously. But Faderman argues that in the past these relationships were as serious as those between men and women.
By the 1930s American culture was changing, but close physical friendships between women were still more accepted than they were in my youth. My mother couldn’t understand why my generation was so focused on co-ed activities. She told me she had much more fun with her girlfriends than she did with boys. Mom maintained life-long friendships with women. She even named me, her only daughter, after her best girlfriend.
Society was much more permissive by the time I was coming up than it was when Mom came of age. By the late 1960s, sex had become a hot topic. We thought about and experimented with sex all the time. For one thing, we had the birth control pill. For another thing, we had women’s and gay liberation. In three decades, our culture had changed. Women were now free agents. But women were no longer free to be so physically affectionate with each other in public.
From the moment we discovered the love letters, my question has been: Did Flo and Eddie have sex? From Eddie’s letters we know that she was crushed out on Flo. If any of Flo’s letters to Eddie existed it might be easier to determine how she was feeling. But even then we might not know whether they engaged in sex. Faderman uncovered letters throughout history in which women in nonsexual romantic friendships declared undying love for one another.
It’s not as if sex wasn’t going on. There were definitely lesbians involved in the YWCA, unions, and progressive organizations in the 1930s. Eleanor Roosevelt’s inner circle included women in Boston marriages, and Eleanor herself carried on a closeted affair with her press attache, Lorena Hickok. We know from their resurrected letters that they were deeply in love with each other, but there is no evidence that their relationship had a sexual component.
By the 1960s, physical closeness between women had become suspect. I have a lesbian cousin, Sandy, who is ten years older than I. That’s a whole generation in the gay universe. I’ve depended on Sandy to school me about her older gay generation. She was closeted. She worked for the YWCA in Seattle in 1963 and told me there were many dykes there. They all knew each other and they were all closeted. You had to be if you wanted to keep your job. Sandy had affairs with a couple of them. They did not feel so free to show affection in public as my mother’s generation of women did. They worried about being outed.
My guess is Eddie knew what she was doing when she wooed Flo in 1938. She wanted a lover. But, at least in the beginning, I believe Flo was oblivious. I believe she thought Eddie just wanted to be friends. Eddie may have been the first lesbian she encountered in her life. She was probably shocked when Eddie came out to her.
Eddie was a good romancer. She managed to lure Flo to New York City from Yakima, Washington in 1941. She bought Flo gifts, took her out to dinner and the theater, and squired her around the city. And that is when I imagine Eddie came out to her and declared her love. At least, had I been in Eddie’s shoes, that’s what I would have done.
A small town gal, Flo was pretty green when she first met Eddie at the YWCA conference in Chicago. She may not have even known what the word lesbian meant. By the time they met up in New York, Flo was no longer so young or naïve. She was 28 and had traveled to cities across the U.S.
I just had an epiphany. What if I’m culturally biased?
I see now that I’ve been evaluating my mother’s generation through the lens of my own. My generation thinks the word lover describes people who have genital sex. Maybe I need to redefine the term lover. Perhaps we should expand the definition of lover to include what Faderman calls “romantic friendships.”
My mother and her friends were activists in women’s organizations who enjoyed working and playing together. Maybe being lovers then was not all about sex. If we expand our notion, then we can imagine a culture in which physical affection extended to all. It’s fun to contemplate an army of female lovers.
Maybe for women like my mother the defining factor in a relationship was not sex. Maybe there’s a third choice: romantic friendship. Maybe I should stop asking whether they had sex. Maybe I should start with love.
Did My Mother Have an Affair With a Woman?Chapter 4
After I discovered love letters to from a woman to my mother in an old scrapbook from the 1930s, I endeavored to find out as much as I could about my mother’s admirer, Eddie. Who was she and what was her story?
Over a couple of years my brother Don and I uncovered some answers. A big breakthrough came when we discovered her last name in a letter stuffed in another scrapbook. Once we had that we looked her up in census records where we learned more details. She was Edna Lauterbach, born in 1900. She lived in Brooklyn with her family including two sisters. She worked in advertising and she was active in the Business and Professional Women’s group within the YWCA. She had encountered my mother, Florence Wick, at conferences in Chicago and Columbus in 1937 and 38 where they roomed together.
The letters convinced me that Eddie was at least a self-acknowledged lesbian who had a serious crush on my mother. There is so much more I want to know about her. Did she remain a closeted lesbian all her life? Was she part of a lesbian subculture? No doubt the environs of New York City afforded more possibilities than those of smaller towns. We know that, as in Berlin, gay culture flourished in the 1920s in New York City, the epicenter of the “Pansy Craze” and the accompanying “Sapphic Craze.” Eddie came of age at a time when gay and lesbian characters were featured in pulp novels, stage plays, radio songs and (before the Hays Code) in movies. Born at the cusp of the 20th century, she would have been just the right age to experience this flowering of gay culture in New York.
Did she frequent the lesbian and gay gathering places in Manhattan during the 20s and 30s? We know Eddie worked in advertising, though the census doesn’t tell us which firm she worked for. But we can assume she traveled daily from her home in Brooklyn to her work in Manhattan. My mother, Flo, was a small town gal from Yakima, Washington. But I imagine Eddie, who grew up in New York, to be far more citified and sophisticated. Maybe she taught my mom some things.
Did she know Eve Adams, the notorious lesbian café owner who was arrested in 1926, jailed, and later deported, and sent to Auschwitz where she was murdered? Eve Adams is a Jewish radical lesbian foremother, but I had never heard of her until I read her biography by the gay historian Jonathan Ned Katz. The New York Times recently included her obit in its Overlooked No More obituary section and she was profiled in the New Yorker.
Eve Adams (a taken name alluding to Adam and Eve) was friends with anarchists Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman and Ben Reitman. In New York she mingled with the likes of Margaret Sanger and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Adams came to the US in 1912 and spent four years hitchhiking around the country before settling in New York. I learned from Katz’s book that one of the places she visited was my hometown of Yakima. What drew her there at the height of the nativist backlash in 1922? I’m still trying to find out.
In 1925 Eve Adams published the first American book with lesbian in the title, Lesbian Love. In that year she opened a café in Greenwich Village called Eve’s Hangout, which became a destination for New York’s bohemian contingent.
Did Eddie visit Eve’s Hangout? I bet she knew about the place. She may have been afraid to visit, especially after Eve was arrested in 1926 by an undercover policewoman for “disorderly conduct,” a charge that referred to her alleged sexual advances and for having written an “obscene” book. But if I had been in New York in 1925 you can bet I would have checked out Eve’s Hangout.
Gay culture flourished in the Roaring Twenties in New York. Then in the 30s with the Great Depression and the end of Prohibition, a backlash began and gay culture went underground. By the time Flo and Eddie met in Chicago in 1937 you were taking a chance going into a gay gathering place, if you could even find one. I speculate that Eddie’s two sisters may also have been lesbians. The 1940 census finds them all still single in their 30s and still living in the family apartment on 88th Street in Brooklyn. I bet Eddie and her sisters had fun together in New York. Flo traveled to New York to visit Eddie in 1941 and, whether or not she met the family, I know she met one of the sisters, Gertrude. The three women saw a Broadway play together, the antifascist play by Lillian Hellman, Watch on the Rhine.
Was Eddie involved in the blooming lesbian feminist culture in the 1970s? She would have been 70 in 1970, but there were plenty of older women who joined the feminist movement, including my mother. Did Eddie continue to be active in the YWCA? The YW may not have harbored anarchists, but my mother and Eddie did rub shoulders with a progressive element who wanted to change the world. J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI went after activists in the YW, calling them communists, but the attacks never stuck, maybe because of the Christian in the name or because they were allied with wives of industrialists. Researching the YW for this series, I am impressed with all the organization accomplished, and the stance it took against racism, even in its early years. It is a fascinating history, yet to be compiled into a book. I believe my mother’s progressive anti-racist politics were formed in the YW, and my own world view benefitted from activism in the organization.
The YW was at the forefront of the most critical social movements including women’s empowerment and civil rights. The activism of Flo and Eddie set the stage for my generation’s second wave of feminism and our gay rights movement.
I thought I had reached the end of my Eddie research and speculation. But now my brother has unearthed a batch of photos of our mother and her YW pals. We’ve been able to place them at the conferences in Chicago and Columbus. So in a final chapter of this story I’ll ask readers to weigh in on the possibilities.
I first learned of the August Celtic harvest festival, Lughnasa, from the play Dancing at Lughnasa. Written by the “Irish Chekhov” Brian Friel and first produced in Ireland in 1990, the play examines the cultural war between the catholic church and the old pagan religions it sought to destroy. Did destroy.
Set in County Donegal in 1936, the tale is told by the boy, Michael, of the summer when the family life carefully constructed by his mother and her four sisters begins to disintegrate. Their only brother, Uncle Jack, returns from 25 years in Africa, where he was sent to practice colonialism as a catholic priest, and has gone native. Supposed to be a “visible saint, exemplar of ideal piety in a sea of persistent savagery,” he responds more to the drumming and fires of the pagan celebrations than to catholic doctrine. When the local priest learns of Jack’s pagan “conversion,” he fires Kate, the oldest sister and the only one of the five sisters with a paying job, from the school where she teaches. Two other sisters made some money knitting gloves until a glove factory opens nearby. Then the family, already dirt poor, suddenly has no income, destroyed by the church, patriarchy and capitalism in concert.
The movie version, made in 1998, starring Meryl Streep as the conventional Kate and the Irish actor Michael Gambon as befuddled Uncle Jack is well worth watching. If you require car crashes or murders or automatic weapons, you will be disappointed. But these actors do a fine job portraying this resourceful proud Irish family in a beautiful rural setting.
A newly acquired wireless radio works on and off and provides a musical background to the family’s drama. We hear popular Western songs of the day, but it’s only when Irish music begins to play that the five sisters’ feet set to tapping and they dance with wild abandon, even priggish Kate, proving there’s still some pagan left in the Irish culture.
Michael’s father, absent for 18 months, returns on a motorbike but does not intend to stay. He plans to join the International Brigades to fight for democracy in the Spanish Civil War. Uncle Jack asks if the catholic church is for the dictator Franco. Yes, says Gerry Evans, the father. “They would be,” answers Jack.
Young Gerry says the war will probably be over by Christmas. Old Jack replies, “They say that about all wars.”
Says Kate, “It’s a sad day for Ireland when we send off our boys to fight for godless communism.”
Fr. Jack says he has been called away from the church to “the god of light, god of music.” He hints at his homosexuality when asked by Michael to whom he sings. With a nostalgic expression, he says it is his African houseboy. Jack has been given a feathered baroque helmet by an African priest. Colorful and magisterial, with its tall red and white feathers, it could be a piece of African regalia. But it is a remnant of British imperialism. The hat, reminiscent of a prop from a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, has made its way from the British imperial army to Africa and back again. Ironic because the Irish themselves were slaves to English colonialism.
In the movie, on the night of Lughnasa, fires can be seen burning in the “black hills” of Donegal where bits of the old religions are still practiced. People gather to drink, dance, and jump the fire. From Fr. Jack we learn of the African goddess, Opis (pronounced Opee), the great chthonian goddess of the earth. The Chthonian deities are the manifestations of the Great Goddess, like Gaia or Ge. Jack explains to the family how the Ugandans celebrate the harvest festival. August is the time of the new yam and the sweet cassava. “The Africans cut and anoint the new yam and pass it around. They light fires and paint their faces and they dance and dance and lose all sense of time.” It is easy to see why Jack has renounced repressive catholicism for a freer earth-based religious experience.
Here in Santa Rosa there is good reason to celebrate the harvest this Lughnasa. Strawberries are at their peak and Holly has planted enough this year to have fruit every morning. The corn is as high as a Columbian mammoth’s eye (they were taller than elephants). We have just harvested the last of the peaches and Gravenstein apples. Eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, beans and cukes are happening. Figs are having a good year. Holly has harvested her herbs and is mixing up the medicine. Flower and pollinator gardens buzz with bees. Even as we strive to conserve water, our garden is happy.
I probably won’t paint my face (ok, maybe my hair) and I certainly won’t light any fires, but you may find me dancing around our garden on Lughnasa on the first day of August.
I think of summer solstice as the start of the dry season here in NoCal, but in ancient Egypt it presaged the start of the wet season when the Nile River began to flood.
Nile Valley civilizations acknowledged and celebrated the solstice, when the sun reached its highest point in the Northern Hemisphere, as the most important day of the year marking the African new year.
Celebrations commemorated the longest day of Ra, the sun god, as well as the rising of the star Sirius, which heralded the Nile flooding and divine blessings on the land of Egypt.
The ancient Egyptians recognized the importance of Sirius (one of the stars of the constellation Canis Major) as the brightest star in the sky, as well as the birthplace of the goddess Isis. They called this star Sopdet. The celebrations for new year’s day began at dawn when Sirius appeared on the horizon as the shining morning star emerging from the darkness of the underworld.
Goddesses were involved too. The great triad of goddesses, Isis, Hathor and Nut, was intimately connected with this “divine rebirthing” of Egypt each year, as depicted in detail on the walls of Dendera Temple in upper Egypt, built by Cleopatra. Traditional beliefs held that Isis was mourning her dead husband, Asar (Osiris), and that her tears made the Nile rise.
This festival is one of the oldest in Egyptian history, celebrated from archaic times all the way through to the Roman occupation of Egypt. Ancient Egyptians aligned the Great Pyramids so that the sun, when viewed from the Sphinx, sets precisely between two of the pyramids on the summer solstice. Here on my block we stand out in the street to watch the sun set over the Coast Mountain range.
How will I be celebrating the solstice? Well, my weather app says it’s forecast to be 100 degrees here in Santa Rosa on Tuesday June 21, so my daily walk will have to be early in the morning. After the longest day of summer solstice, the days will gradually get shorter until the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year. Some part of me is looking forward to shorter, cooler days, longer nights and the coming of winter. Now we just have to get through fire season.
Votes are still being counted but it’s clear now that the regressive forces of the police and sheriff unions and right wing organizations who have rallied against police oversight have won the June 7 sheriff election. The killing of 13-year-old And Lopez by a sheriff deputy in 2013 and the subsequent promotion of the killer caused people to rise up and demand an end to the militarization of local police. In Santa Rosa we saw large protests demanding change after the killing of George Floyd. This election is a setback but we won’t stop working for police oversight in Sonoma County. Here’s my letter to the editor that the local newspaper, which endorsed the apparent winner, declined to print.
Just as the killing of George Floyd is the symbol of police department disfunction in Minneapolis, the murder of Andy Lopez symbolizes disfunction in Santa Rosa’s sheriff department. The candidates for sheriff Eddie Engram and Dave Edmonds both represent the sickness in the department’s culture that supports the killing of civilians and the promotion of the killers as necessary to protect us. These insiders, crusading against badly needed police oversight, have made the Santa Rosa sheriff department an embarrassment. Our only hope of changing the culture is to elect Carl Tennenbaum, derided as the “outsider.”
I might have been 12 when I read Gone with the Wind, the only time I read a book with a flashlight under the covers all through the night. What kept me reading? Not the Civil War. It was the romance. I couldn’t wait till handsome, sexy Rhett Butler made the scene again.
Mom, a literary person who read books constantly, was not pleased. “It’s not literature,” she said. Later I thought that was code for racist. By that time, in the early 1960s, the novel had gained ill will for its Confederate perspective. Or maybe Mom was simply telling me that romance novels are not great literature. Maybe she had also read it all night under the covers. Maybe she, too, was embarrassed for liking it so much.
I know she liked it. The book I was reading was a first edition, collected by my mother when it came out in 1936. It was the bomb and three years later Mom engaged in a nation-wide contest to see who could guess which actress would be chosen to play the part of Scarlett O’Hara in the movie. White America was captivated. Black America protested and worried that racist caricatures would result in violence.
Although I was obsessed with Gone with the Wind and couldn’t stop reading until the end, I didn’t get addicted to romance novels like some women seem to be, perhaps because my literary mother steered me elsewhere.
Obsessed with Bridgerton
Sixty years later I find myself obsessed with the Shonda Rhimes Netflix series Bridgerton, which takes place during the late Regency era in England. Bridgerton is based on eight romance novels by Julia Quinn, about a wealthy family of the period (the early 1800s). The main characters are beautiful and super rich but, thankfully they are not all white people. Instead, some of the most powerful characters are people of color, including the queen herself.
Shonda Rhimes, the show’s producer, is right now the most powerful Black woman in TV land. She got famous with Grey’s Anatomy and has gone on to produce a plethora of shows. How do the folks in ShondaLand decide what to show us and how to show it? I’m imagining Shonda exclaiming, “Let’s make a series about rich English people and populate it with people of color! We can turn the 19th century on its head and give work to some Black actors.” (I might add POC writers, directors, producers and show runners. I see that Cheryl Dunye, the first Black lesbian to direct a feature film, is working on this project.)
It does feel like a subtle nose thumbing to the white supremacy rearing its ugly head all around us. But it’s more than just colorblind casting. Rhimes calls it “color conscious casting.” Miscegenation turns out to be an introduced element that maintains interest even when the plot turns to cliché as it sometimes does. Characters have been called “deeply shallow,” and the series “silly.” Like the romance novels the series is based on, the tropes can be overused. Still, like Gone with the Wind, Bridgerton is wildly popular. It’s the most watched English language television series on Netflix.
Is romance addictive?
Why am I binging? It’s the romance. I can’t get enough of these beautiful people falling in love. I don’t wish for them to have sex. There was a lot of sex in the first season of the series, and I didn’t care. I read that the actors, too, watching with their parents, were embarrassed and fast forwarded through the sex scenes. Regé-Jean Page, the handsome hunk of the first season, said he wasn’t wild about his family seeing so much of his bum (he does have a lovely bum and I did enjoy looking).
In the second season sex is more apogee. The characters spend time working up to it—the touch of hands, the looking into each others’ eyes. Shonda and the writers know how to orchestrate anticipation. In the early part of the second season, the main characters, obviously madly in love, barely touched and certainly didn’t kiss, though they got very close often.
The show has my attention not only because of the sexual tension, which lasts through the season. It also has no violence or murder. Rivalries, power plays, deception, class conflict yes. Also palace intrigue, family relationships, friendship between women, queer subtexts, Jane Austen tropes, fabulous costumes and interiors. We know not to expect car crashes, explosions or automatic weapons and for me that’s a relief.
Watching or reading romance is kind of like a drug. The feeling I’m left with is like the day after a night of passionate lovemaking. I keep replaying the scenes in my head with a smile on my face. I can see why it might lead to addiction.
I suppose that’s why romance still sells. A few writers of popular romance novels are making millions, and millions of women (and some men) are reading. Who cares whether we get addicted to romance? Maybe this doesn’t rise to the level of addiction. Except some christian diviners of moral behavior have labeled it addiction and are worried that romance novels will cause women to leave their husbands, who can never match up to those bodice-ripping heroes. It is a disease they say, just as porn has captured the attention of men. But I suspect these christians associate anything that gives women pleasure with sin.
if it’s sin, I’m all in. I can just add Bridgerton to all the christian sins I commit daily like being happily married to another woman. Now I’m looking forward with great anticipation to season three. Shonda knows what we like.
Before there were facebook groups, there was Tradeswomen Magazine.
Published quarterly from 1981 until 1999, Tradeswomen Magazine gave voice to a community of women all over the country and the world who were isolated and often harassed at work. We were pioneers, we had stories to tell, and the only people who truly understood our struggles were other women doing the same work.
Tradeswomen Magazine documents an important period in our collective history, of a time when we were just starting to break down the barriers to nontraditional jobs, a time when we had to fight to be hired, and a time when every day on the job put us at the cutting edge of the feminist movement.
We wrote about sexual harassment, racism in construction, affirmative action, trades training programs, health and safety, union apprenticeships, and we interviewed women about what it was like working in their trades.
Unfortunately, tradeswomen still struggle with many of the same issues we wrote about and discussed in the 1980s and 90s. That makes Tradeswomen Magazine not just an historic artifact, but also still relevant to the tradeswomen of the 21st century.
In the 1970s tradeswomen in the San Francisco Bay Area had been communicating through a mimeographed newsletter. In 1979 we founded the nonprofit Tradeswomen Inc. Then in 1980 the organization received a small grant from the U.S. Department of Labor with the help of Madeline Mixer, regional director of the Department’s Women’s Bureau. The grant allowed us to print and mail out two issues of a publication to individual tradeswomen and organizations across the country. After that, we depended on subscriptions along with volunteer labor to sustain the magazine.
We organized as a collective, usually with one of the collective members taking the position of executive editor. We did not operate by consensus–somebody needed to have the last word. The first editor, carpenter Jeanne Tetrault, had edited a newsletter and a book about country women. Jeanne convinced us that the publication should be a magazine and not a newsletter. People throw away newsletters, she said, but they keep magazines. This proved true. Over the years we’ve been contacted by many tradeswomen who saved all the issues and wanted to make sure we had copies of them all for the archives.
Eleven women composed our first collective. In the early years we met on a Saturday and typed our stories into columns, then cut them out and pasted them onto mock-up boards. The photographs were sent to a camera shop to be made into halftones for printing. After we picked up the magazine from the (union) printer, we sponsored a mailing party in which volunteers stuck a mailing label on each magazine, then bundled them into zip code bunches for bulk mailing. It was quite a cumbersome task given that we sent out about a thousand magazines quarterly. The mailing parties continued through the very last issue.
Over the two decades, hundreds of women participated in the publication of the magazine. It really was a community-based effort. Tradeswomen Inc.’s staff person took care of memberships, subscriptions and finances.
From the very first issue, carpenter Sandy Thacker, whose photograph graces its cover, provided photos. We agreed that these images of women on the job were as important, if not more important, than our words. Anne Meredith and others also supplied photos. From the beginning we made an effort to feature photos of women of color.
Executive editor was a burn-out job. After the first year, Jeanne Tetrault bowed out as editor, and cabinetmaker Sandra Marilyn and dock worker Joss Eldredge assumed editorial control. From 1982 to 1987 with the help of volunteers as well as Tradeswomen Inc. directors Bobbie Kierstead and then Sue Doro, Joss and Sandra produced 20 memorable issues.
Then a collective reemerged with carpenter Barb Ryerson as editor. We began exploring digitization. I took on the job of editor in 1988 and was joined by electrician Helen Vozenilek in 1989. Along with a bevy of contributors, Helen and I produced nine issues before we burned out. Then electrician Janet Scoll Johnson assumed the helm to publish 10 beautiful issues as we went to color covers. When Janet burned out, the Tradeswomen Inc. director, Bobbi Tracy picked up the slack, with C.J. Thompson-White producing two issues.
During this period Tradeswomen Inc. also had been publishing a local monthly newsletter, Trade Trax, to inform women in the local Bay Area about job openings and more timely events. We decided to roll the magazine and newsletter into one publication coming out six times a year instead of quarterly. I took the role of editor, tacking a calendar of the whole year on my wall to remind me of deadlines. It seemed like every day was a deadline! After producing five issues, I had to admit it was too much work to pile on my 40-hour work week as an electrical inspector.
We returned to publishing the magazine as a quarterly in 1996. I bought a roll-top desk set up for a computer, assembled it in my bedroom and called it my International Publishing Empire. I edited each issue and laid it out in a computer program called PageMaker, whose workings I understood just enough to get by. Many folks helped in the magazine’s last years, but the most devoted was Bob Jolly, a retired English teacher whose daughter had been a tradeswoman. Finally, in the 1998-99 winter issue, I wrote of my intention to pass on the job to another volunteer editor. No one applied for the job, and that became the final issue.
We saved all the issues of Tradeswomen Magazine with the intention of making them available online. Retired stationary engineer Pat Williams volunteered hundreds of hours of her time to digitize every issue. Thanks to Pat and every one of the volunteers who helped to make this publication a written piece of our history. The magazine can now be found in the California State University at Dominguez Hills Tradeswomen Archives: http://digitalcollections.archives.csudh.edu/digital/collection/tradeswomen. Actual copies of the whole set are available at the Tradeswomen Archives, the San Francisco Labor Archives and Research Center, and the San Francisco Public Library.
Tradeswomen Magazine was the first and only national publication written, edited and published by and about women in trades. I’m so proud to have been a part of its creation.
Serving on the board of a law firm with a bunch of high-powered lawyers turned me from an articulate leader to a person who doubted my own abilities.
The non-profit law firms, Equal Rights Advocates (ERA) and Employment Law Center (ELC) partnered with my organization Tradeswomen Inc. (TWI) on critical projects during the 1980s. Our goal was equity in employment and specifically integrating the construction trades which had excluded women and people of color from high-paying jobs.
I loved the lawyers at ERA because they thought outside the box. They understood that social movements cannot be all about litigation and they were willing to work with us to try other tactics.
Sometime during the ‘80s, after having worked together on a lawsuit, I was invited to lunch by the director, Nancy Davis and staff attorney Judy Kurtz (it was a cheap Mexican place South of Market near the ERA offices). They sat me down and asked if I would like to join the ERA board of directors. I was delighted. I was surprised. I was flattered. Could they really want a tradeswoman activist to sit on their board with a bunch of big law firm attorneys? Of course I said yes.
I was no stranger to boards of directors. TWI had been a 501(c)3 since 1979 and I served on its board. At that time, I was also on the board of Women in Apprenticeship Program (WAP) along with another tradeswoman, carpenter Tere Carranza. But this was different. I would be the lone blue-collar worker among 10 or 15 attorneys. I did understand that my role on the board would be “client representative” and I was happy that ERA sought out such representation. I vowed to be the best client rep ever.
Rooms with a View
ERA board meetings took place in the high-rise offices of big San Francisco law firms where the board members worked, usually in the boardroom, always with an impressive view of the city. I could not stop oooing and ahhing and realized I never would have gotten into these exclusive places otherwise (except that as an electrical inspector I sometimes got to inspect high-rise construction sites). Occasionally they would be held in the crowded, run down ERA offices in the slummy South of Market neighborhood.
Unlike the TWI board meetings, where the board doubled as the staff (we called it a working board), ERA board meetings benefited from staff backup. We got a packet of material with minutes, agenda and background information. We got the benefit of expert consultants’ advice. Meetings were well organized and informative. I rarely had much to say.
My presence was more useful for fundraising. I would come to meetings with foundation program managers dressed in Carhartts, hard hat in hand, a real live example of ERA’s final product—a woman with a high paying trades job. My individual fundraising contacts were few, and I had already maxed out the contacts I had. Friends, I feared, would avoid me on the street so as not to be asked for money to support TWI, which was always in debt.
Still, I could make calls to moneyed folks when a list was handed to me during fundraising campaigns. We usually worked in pairs, and one time I sat at lunch with my comrade and asked a patron for $10,000 (we got it).
These forays into the world of wealthy lawyers sparked a range of mixed feelings and increased my awareness of class. I was constantly comparing the wealth of ERA (actually a rather poor nonprofit) to the poverty of TWI whose continued existence its board of directors was also responsible for. I wished I could take the list of potential donors and ask them to support TWI (I never did, of course). I knew I could make a good case. The truth was that our two organizations collaborated and we were all better for it.
I was already conscious of the class differences between me and the other ERA board members, but the difference in the fortunes of the two organizations strained them further. I was the poor relative, grateful for any crumbs that came my way. The feeling was especially magnified when we met with foundations. I remember a meeting with the representative of the Rockefeller Foundation at a time when Tradeswomen’s fortunes were sagging, one of the several times the organization nearly went under for lack of funding. The Rockefeller woman was young, chatty, dressed in fashionable New York attire (I wore my electrician work clothes). I felt so desperate in her presence that I had to keep myself from prostrating myself at her feet to beg for money.
Poor Forlorn and Angry
I had taken on the identity of my poor failing organization. I felt poor and forlorn—and angry.
During my years on the ERA board I did speak up occasionally when I thought a working class or lesbian voice needed to be heard. Lawyers, even progressive ones, can be conservative. One time the board president, who was a woman of color, gave me a dressing down right in the meeting.
“You are not the only person here who has faced discrimination,” she admonished me. Her public criticism stung. I honestly don’t know what I’d said to set her off. But I suddenly became aware of resentment flowing toward me and wondered if others on the board shared her feelings. I had thought myself a powerless person in this group. Suddenly I had power, if only negative power.
The ERA staff did appreciate my perspective and when the board president stepped down I was asked to take the position. But I had lost confidence in myself and I turned it down. What had happened to me? I certainly knew how to run a meeting, a skill I’d perfected as a kid in 4-H. I’d been leading meetings of tradeswomen for years.
I had never been close to the staff, or board of ERA for that matter. Staff attorney Judy Kurtz and I had a good professional relationship; we had worked together on many projects. Then, as happens with so many organizations, the founder’s impending retirement in part led to a blow up. The suggested reorganization didn’t work; the woman chosen for a newly created position was, as they say, a bad fit. I confess when I tried to discuss tradeswomen’s issues with her, she seemed clueless. Some staff resented not being considered for the position. In good faith, the leadership had hired outside the staff, seeking more diversity. But we suddenly realized how fragile relationships within the organization had become. I quickly got to know the staff and talked to them trying to understand what was happening. It was a mess. (Another issue was the plan to hire part time staff, possibly to avoid paying benefits.) Everybody was pissed off and some relationships never recovered. When the board, looking for a scapegoat, took aim at Judy, I resigned.
Tradeswomen Inc.’s relationship with ERA continued after I left the board, but the new board of directors had different ideas about the mission and goals of the law firm. They eschewed any activities not related to policy and litigation. ERA had been the leader in building coalitions within the civil rights community. For a small organization and constituency like tradeswomen, association with a larger civil rights community was necessary to achieve even notice, let alone long-term change. We felt privileged to be part of coalitions working to achieve racial and gender justice.
Also, all of us were aware that the power of organizations like ours was concentrated in the East. We were doing amazing work out here in the West, but few policy makers noticed.
Noticed by Ford
Tradeswomen continued to push ERA to help us fight discrimination in the building trades, and we got a chance at new programs when the Ford Foundation took notice in the early 2000s. The program manager was a friend of someone and that’s how we got an interview with her. ELC was also interested in the promised $600K. Tradeswomen participated in meetings, but program ideas seemed vague. We kept trying to get a better sense of them. The ERA rep who was working with us came with us to Denver for a national tradeswomen conference. All was happy. We were sisters in struggle. Only later did we find out that ERA was awarded the money with no stipulations to create programs for tradeswomen. We felt used by ERA. ELC got left out of the loop and this resulted in strained relations between the two law firms. Some staffers cut ties with ERA entirely. All over money. Of course, Tradeswomen had learned this lesson in the past. Funders, and especially the federal government, make all of our organizations compete for a tiny sum of money they allocate to programs.
Lessons for the Future
What did we learn from our years’-long collaboration with ERA and ELC?
*Small organizations like Tradeswomen need to find partners. We can’t do it alone.
*Litigation can be crucial to civil rights movements, but cannot be the only tactic.
*Relationships are important, more important than money.
*In our “classless society” class is still a thing.
The envelope delivered to my small flat in San Francisco’s Mission District, shared with three other women, was fat with a far away return address. I knew what it contained even before opening the envelope—a cry for help—and I also knew there would be nothing I could do about it.
I was already involved in the tradeswomen movement when I relocated to San Francisco from Seattle in 1976. As a publicly identified tradeswoman activist, I would get letters from women all over the country complaining of horrific harassment and discrimination in nontraditional jobs. I felt powerless. We didn’t even have an organization, let alone a program to help. What these women needed was a good lawyer.
During the 1970s, we activists formed organizations all over the country. In 1979 we started a nonprofit, Tradeswomen Inc., to provide support and advocacy for tradeswomen, but we weren’t able to secure funding. With no staff we were run by volunteers—unemployed tradeswomen.
Enter Equal Rights Advocates (ERA), a law firm begun in 1974 by feminist lawyers with a focus on defending women’s employment rights. I remember sitting around on the floor in somebody’s living room in the late ‘70s strategizing about how to open up jobs to women that had traditionally belonged to men. That’s when I met Judy Kurtz, a staff attorney at ERA, and we began to collaborate. Later I served on the ERA board of directors for many years.
Looking at the Big Picture
Ours was an anti-poverty strategy. The feminization of poverty was a popular buzzword (still applicable today). Women, especially female heads of households, were becoming poorer and poorer in relation to men. Well-paid union jobs in the construction trades could lift up our gender if we could open them to women. Apprenticeship programs in the construction trades like electrical, plumbing, carpentry, ironwork, and operating engineer only require a high school diploma or a GED to enter. Then the training is free and the apprentice works and earns a wage while she is in school. There are no college loans to repay. We saw these jobs as a path to financial independence for women.
ERA had been part of a national class action lawsuit against the US Department of Labor which resulted in the creation of federal goals and timetables for women and minorities in the construction trades. New regulations took effect in 1978. The goal was to have 6.9 percent of the construction workforce be women on federally funded jobs. Having federal law on our side buoyed us while Jimmy Carter was president, but as soon as Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, federal affirmative action laws and guidelines were no longer enforced. We had to be creative. We decided to focus on the state level where there was still some commitment to enforcing affirmative action regulations.
Focus on California
Tradeswomen Inc. was fortunate to work with lawyers who were willing not only to take our individual cases, but also to help us strategize about using class action lawsuits to desegregate the workforce. We wanted to make law, to actually create change.
The building trades in California include about 35 apprenticable trades and each trade has a union with different rules, and each union has many locals throughout the state. Not a single apprenticeship program out of hundreds in the state was even close to meeting goals for women’s participation. What could we do to get them to comply?
By 1980 we had some history with all the players. Our partner, Women in Apprenticeship Program (WAP), was placing women into trades apprenticeships in California, working with the apprenticeship program directors and compliance officers.
The unions were a huge barrier to women but we chose not to take legal action against unions. Our goal was to work with unions, be part of the union movement. Besides, there were so many! So we decided to sue the enforcer.
Suing the State
The State Division of Apprenticeship Standards (DAS) oversees apprenticeship programs and is charged with enforcing affirmative action goals, but they would routinely give a pass to programs that claimed to have made a “good faith effort” to meet the goals. Partnering with Tradeswomen Inc., ERA filed suit against DAS for failure to enforce the goals. The lawsuit resulted in a requirement that the state produce quarterly statistical reports which allowed us to evaluate their progress. We might have had some small impact on the DAS, but we had to take them back to court for contempt five years later. Nothing had really changed.
Then we took on the DAS through the Little Hoover Commission, which investigates state government operations. The public testimony of many tradeswomen got attention, even an article in the New York Times. The investigation ended with DAS getting its funding cut by the Republican administration, which did nothing to help our cause.
Then came a period when DAS made a big turnaround on our issues. It was during the administration of Gray Davis, the Democratic governor elected in 1999. He was only in office for three years when the Republicans mounted a successful recall campaign against him. Davis appointed a friend of tradeswomen to head the DAS, Henry Nunn, a Black man from the painters’ union. Suddenly there was some funding to promote women in trades and we partnered with the state agency to sponsor some great programs, like the dedication of the Rosie the Riveter park in Richmond where we got to commune with the Rosies, and a trades day for Bay Area high school students. We loved working with the DAS staff, a bunch of smart feminists. But when Arnold Schwarzenegger took over as governor, he brought back into state government all the guys from the previous Republican Wilson administration, and Henry Nunn was axed. It did show us that the state could do the right thing with the right leadership. It also reinforced our impression that Democrats are way different from Republicans.
Part of the Civil Rights Movement
From the very beginning we saw ourselves as part of the larger movement for civil rights and we worked in coalition with other civil rights groups to publicize and also to defend affirmative action programs. In 1977 we were active in a coalition that formed around the Bakke case, which upheld affirmative action in college admission policy. We also partnered with ERA and other civil rights organizations to oppose proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action initiative in 1996 (we lost, and a proposition to overturn 209 in 2020 lost). Some of our partners in the West Coast coalition included Bill McNeill of Employment Law Center; Joe Hogan, retired OFCCP; Tse Ming Tam of Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) and their founder Henry Der; Eva Paterson of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights; and Superlawyer Brad Seligman. These are luminaries in the social justice sphere and we were so lucky to have their support.
Tradeswomen Monitoring Network
We also collaborated on other projects involving coalition partners like trades unions and the Human Rights Commission. We went to lots of meetings of DAS and its community body, the California Apprenticeship Council to make the labor community aware of their responsibilities. Susie Suafai, who had directed WAP, was hired to monitor the Oakland federal building project—one of the few projects to meet federal affirmative action goals.
This willingness of ERA to use staff time to advocate for us as well as litigate was a huge plus. Litigation was important to our movement, creating the original goals and timetables and affirmative action regulations so crucial for women’s entry into these jobs. But we knew well that litigation alone does not make a movement.
As class action lawsuits became harder to win, and courts were filled with Republican-appointed judges, litigation was a less effective strategy for change. Tradeswomen and ERA continued to look for ways to work together. In the early 2000s we applied together for a grant from the Ford Foundation. ERA received the grant, but Tradeswomen saw none of the money, nor did any program result as far as we could tell. We felt used and the relationship foundered. Another casualty of this fight for funding was ERA’s relationship with the Employment Law Center, a partner in the DAS suit and other related discrimination lawsuits. ELC was directed by Joan Graff, another hero in our battle for affirmative action. This is just one example of how the fight for funding pitted organizations with similar goals against each other.
The ‘80s saw the decline of affirmative action. The ‘90s was a period of working to keep in place the laws and regulations we had fought so hard for, even though they weren’t being enforced. President Clinton appointed Shirley Wilshire as head of OFCCP. She came out of National Women’s Law Center, one of our coalition partners.
We put together a national coalition to pressure the OFCCP to enforce the regulations and increase the percentage of women on federal contracts. We had the support of the White House, but Congress was controlled by Republicans. We planned to file an administrative petition asking for higher goals for women and enforcement of federal regulations, but Wilshire and federal officials argued that we should keep our heads down and hope that Congress didn’t notice and remove the enforcement regulations entirely.
Tradeswomen activists learned about the laws that affected us and we continued to pay attention to the law as it changed through the years. The biggest change for us on a day-to-day level was that sexual harassment was made illegal. This happened not through the passage of a single law, but through a series of court cases with a lot of nudging from the feminist movement. The work of Eleanor Holmes Norton was key.
Today we still rely on ERA and feminist lawyers to push the federal government to meet its affirmative action goals on declared“mega projects” (the only goals still in effect in California). We have entered a period of backlash. While trades have opened up to women technically, we still face discrimination and our ways of fighting back have been restricted.