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.”
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.
Beltane, May 1, is a pagan holiday celebrating the spring at its peak and the coming of summer. It is halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice.
Driving by the Beltane Ranch, I’ve always wondered about its history and its association with the holiday. It turns out Beltane has historical representation right here in Sonoma County. Just outside the city of Santa Rosa, settled by pro-slavery Confederates from Missouri, Beltane Ranch has been recognized as a Black historic site by the National Park Service.
The reason is that Mary Ellen Pleasant, called the “Mother of California’s civil rights movement,” once owned Beltane Ranch in Sonoma Valley, near Jack London’s Glen Ellen home.
Most stories about Mary Ellen Pleasant lead with the fact that she was the first Black female millionaire in the U.S., years before Madam C.J. Walker earned that title. And this is true, but for me the most important fact about her is that she financed John Brown’s raid on the armory at Harper’s Ferry with $30,000, (about a million in today’s dollars) and secretly traveled to the Eastern Seaboard to rally slaves to Brown’s militant cause from 1857 until 1859.
John Brown believed violence was the only path to end the institution of slavery and he planned to lead a slave rebellion with guns captured from the armory. After the raid failed, Brown was convicted of treason and hanged. In his pocket when he was arrested was a note signed with Mary Ellen Pleasant’s initials. She asked that her gravestone read “She was a friend of John Brown,” and that marker was placed on her grave in 1965 by the San Francisco Negro Historical and Cultural Society.
Born in about 1814 in Virginia, Mary Ellen spent her early years in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where she worked for an abolitionist family. She was of mixed race and was able to pass as white. She married James Smith, a wealthy former plantation owner and abolitionist who died four years later. After her work on the Underground Railroad in the East attracted the attention of slaveholders, Pleasant relocated first to New Orleans and then to San Francisco in 1852 where she continued her abolitionist work.
In a city overwhelmingly rich and male, Mary Ellen put her skills to work as a cook and housekeeper, learning about finance and picking up investment tips from eavesdropping on her employers’ conversations. She encountered Thomas Bell, a native of Scotland, who would remain her close confidante and business partner for a lifetime. Among his future ventures, Bell would serve as director of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad of Nevada and then director of the Bank of California. Often, Mary Ellen would be a silent partner in his real estate and mining transactions.
In the 1860s and 70s Mrs. Pleasant filed several civil rights lawsuits mostly against the trolley companies fighting for the right of Black people to ride public transportation, most of which she won. She also rescued enslaved people from the Fugitive Slave Act and found jobs for former slaves in her many establishments.
Pleasant was regularly called the derogatory slur “Mammy Pleasant” by local whites and the press, but she did not approve.
“I don’t like to be called ‘Mammy’ by everybody. Put. that. down. I am not ‘Mammy’ to everybody in California. I received a letter from a pastor in Sacramento. It was addressed to Mammy Pleasant. I wrote back to him on his own paper that my name was ‘Mrs. Mary E. Pleasant.’ I wouldn’t waste any of my paper on him,” she said.
Mrs. Pleasant continued to maintain a close business association and friendship with Thomas Bell. She introduced him to his future wife, Teresa, and they married in 1879. Then Mary Ellen designed and constructed a 30-room gothic mansion on a lot she owned at Octavia and Bush streets where the three of them lived together. Mary Ellen handled all business matters for the residence and managed the Bells’ finances.
In 1890, Mary Ellen and Thomas and Teresa Bell purchased the Nunn Ranch on Calabazas Creek in Sonoma Valley. They soon acquired several other homesteads in the area and in 1892 purchased the Drummond Ranch, where California’s first bottled cabernet sauvignon had been introduced in 1884. They named it Beltane, perhaps in recognition of Thomas Bell and his Celtic heritage.
After Thomas Bell died in 1892, Teresa and Mary Ellen continued to run Beltane together, with Teresa owning the more mountainous 575 acres and Mary Ellen the lower 986 acres. Mary Ellen designed the ranch house with New Orleans influence and supervised its construction. She spent many weekends there in her later years.
With phylloxera present in Drummond’s prized vineyards, Teresa determined to convert the property to other uses, including starting a dairy, planting an apple orchard, and leasing the land to pasture livestock.
Mary Ellen Pleasant lost her fortune I would argue because of racism and sexism. After Thomas died, his widow sued for the estate and won in court. Teresa Bell took all the wealth Mary Ellen had created.
Despite being listed as the owner in Sonoma County records and as the result of ongoing litigation of the Thomas Bell estate, in 1895 Mary Ellen was declared an insolvent debtor. Even though Mary Ellen claimed her debts were due to guaranteeing Teresa’s debts, the titles to the San Francisco mansion and Beltane Ranch were transferred to Teresa Bell.
Mrs. Pleasant spent her final years with her friends, Lyman and Olive Sherwood of Napa and when she died in 1904 she was buried in a Napa cemetery. She is seen by many historians as “The Harriet Tubman of California.”
Beltane Ranch and Mrs. Pleasant’s house are still here, right off Highway 12 between Santa Rosa and Napa. The house is now a bed and breakfast and most of the property is now part of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. It will open to the public as a park in the future. I got to walk there recently with local naturalist Sarah Reid along Calabazas Creek, where remnants of old homesteads are still visible.
Mary Ellen Pleasant was indeed a fascinating historical figure and I’ve enjoyed researching her life, full of San Francisco stories and scandals not recounted here. I still want to read a couple of books about her. The Jamaican-American author Michelle Cliff wrote a fictional account of her life, Free Enterprise. And Lynn Hudson wrote a biography, published in 2008, The Making of Mammy Pleasant.
Here in Sonoma County on Beltane we celebrate the height of spring and our wildflower season.
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.
As a UC Berkeley student Madeline was active in student government
Madeline and her daughter Christie at the UC Berkeley Women’s Faculty Club
With mom and one of her big sisters
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 talking with Jane Beelby, who made a career as an elevator constructor, 1970s
Speaking to a gathering of tradeswomen, 1970s
Acknowledging her fans at a tradeswomen conference, 1980s
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.
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.
Sisterhood is Powerful. That was my take-home from the 14th Women Building conference. When more than a thousand tradeswomen, supporters, advocates and union brothers convened in Los Angeles May Day weekend, it was by far the largest gathering of female construction workers in the history of our movement. Union tradeswomen of all crafts came together from all over the country and the world to share experiences, strategize, laugh and cry together.
There is nothing like being in a room full of a thousand cheering sisters, and it was a new experience for me, a tradeswoman activist of 40 years. We are a diverse group of women, a rainbow of race, class and ethnicity, all part of the sisterhood. I spoke to many individual women—young members of the California Conservation Corps who drove all the way from Fortuna in Northern California, old timers greeting old friends, students who are working to get jobs in the trades. They all said the best thing about this conference was the camaraderie.
I’ve participated in the Women Building conferences since their beginning in 2002, and many tradeswomen conferences before that. But this conference was qualitatively as well as quantitatively different from past events and I think it portends a new chapter in our Tradeswomen Movement. I think three factors point to a sea change in our movement: first, the sponsorship of the North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU); second, the development of mature leadership at local, state and national levels; and third, the advent of social media and its use by the larger community of tradeswomen.
The NABTU sponsorship was the result of work by the National Women’s Committee, especially Patti Devlin, Debra Chaplan, and Caroline Williams. We now have leaders like these on a national level connected to union presidents and internationals as well as the Task Force on Tradeswomen’s Issues, which brings policy expertise to our movement. I was thrilled by the number of women who stood up when asked who had been elected to a leadership position in their unions. And this year the vast majority of women were sent by their unions to the conference.
A new feature this year was the popular tradeswomen action clinic table. Organizers chose two primary issues that we could weigh in on: restoring federal WANTO funding for tradeswomen organizations, and resisting so-called Right-to-Work legislation in the states. The table was organized by elevator constructor LJ Dolin, Kelly Kupcak from Chicago Women in Trades, and Nicole Aro from the AFL-CIO. It was a great idea and organizers plan to expand it next year with more ties to workshops. The number of participants at the tradeswomen history workshop that I gave with historian Brigid O’Farrell showed us that women are interested in our history and in using what we have learned over the years to forge a new strategy for our movement.
When I got home and started friending folks on Facebook I could see that our community already has been successfully organized by Sisters in the Building Trades’ Melina Harris, who gets kudos for bringing so many women into the electronic media fold. I love that we can kvetch and share our stories instantly on groups like Trade Women Chat. It’s a far cry from our days publishing the quarterly Tradeswomen Magazine with writing, typesetting, layout and bulk mailing tasks taken on by volunteers.
What started as a conference for California tradeswomen (sponsored since 2002 by the California State Building and Construction Trades Council) has now become Women Building the Nation. Next year’s conference will take place in Chicago—the first of these outside of California. We’ve got the dates: April 29-May 1, 2016. It’s an opportunity to expand on existing networks of tradeswomen in the Midwest and to make our movement truly national.
Tradeswomen have long been virtually invisible on the front lines of the Feminist and Civil Rights Movements. We still are the ones who daily confront the most aggressive kind of sexism and racism in our traditionally male jobs. For decades now we have been devising strategies to counter isolation and harassment at work and to increase the numbers of women in the trades. The numbers and enthusiasm at this conference give me hope that we can build a better world for women in the trades. I’m looking forward to the 2025 conference: Women Building the Universe.
Know your friends and know your enemies. Tradeswoman organizations are our friends, even when they are applying for the same funding. Those who want to keep us barefoot and pregnant and not allow us to work are our enemies. They will always try to divide us. Do not let them.
Discrimination makes us crazy (and sick and angry). Sometimes we are called upon to support crazy women and tradeswomen organizations must be there for women when we are crazy.
Tradeswomen are part of a larger movement for Civil Rights. We have more power when we coalesce with other people and organizations.
Our community is small. Activists in the Tradeswomen Movement must know that you will encounter over and over the same people who are also active in the Movement. Build bridges, don’t burn them.
One woman can change everything. In most cities where tradeswomen organizations have flourished, one woman organized the first meeting. Sometimes one righteous woman in a position of relative power in a state, federal or local government or a union organization can mean the difference between jobs for tradeswomen and none.
Laws (and lawyers) can be our friends. Having the backing of government makes a world of difference when we are trying to change our world (unfortunately, the feds have neglected affirmative action since Jimmy Carter’s time).
Mentor each other. Our job is to support each other. Our job is to inspire each other. Sometimes we don’t know the effect we have had on others until many years later.
Women have the right to be mediocre. We shouldn’t always have to be the best at everything.
Always try to be the best at everything. Otherwise you make women look bad. When we are the only one on the job, we embody the stereotype of all tradeswomen.
Just going to work every day and putting on your toolbelt can be a revolutionary act.