At ten o’clock they called us all down from the scaffolds where we were finishing the tops of the columns of the Pantheon. All was ready for the next stage–arches and the first valance of the great dome. To duplicate in concrete the shapes of the original Maybeck design, a crew of plasterers & carpenters had worked for months on the huge forms.
We gathered in the covered building that is now the Exploratorium, to help get the first form out into the yard where the crane could attach & lift it. It weighed many tons, in an awkward, trapezoidal shape. No combination of forklifts or dollies was thought possible to make a safe carry, so…they took us back to a time before tools. Fifty of us ranged evenly around the form, waiting for commands–dusty men in ragged white overalls, hard-hatted in the old style resembling World War One helmets. Putting on gloves, testing the grip edge, preparing as if it were a track & field event. The initial swagger of the field carpenters damping down to admiration for what the ‘inside’ crew has built.
Howard, the Foreman, got our attention. On my say-so, you’ll all lift at once. If we get it up to our waists, then let’s set it back down slowly. This is just to get the feel of it. Then he said LIFT–everyone grunted and strained…and nothing happened. It felt as if you could never budge it. Howard said to keep an even strain, not a jerk, and after a few seconds we felt it slowly rising. An eerie thing. It seemed to take all one’s strength, everyone’s, to break the inertia. But once it began to rise, it felt light enough to throw. Howard asked us how we were doing. Everyone said fine. Said let’s go! And he thought and then agreed: All right! So… you have to walk at the same pace…take small steps.
And then, another sensation of the Many Tons. At first we could not move. I tried to step but the Form was staying put. I had to step back again, then strain against it as if shoving an elephant into her stall. But then there was that Shift as the current of our strain woke the monster…and we each managed to take a first step, in extreme slow motion. Now the Form seemed to wantto move. It accelerated a little, and one felt as if one had no choice now about the speed. Howard yelled out to keep an even strain.Men in front were pulling, and on the sides they were walking in an angled fashion…and it seemed all at once like the most exhilarating thing that ever happened to you! Like being gods, or dreamers in unison! A nervy camaraderie pulsed around the rim in our grip. For me, a moment of reverie: this is something to always remember. What people can do in union! The Shakers, the Egyptians, harvests….
I think everyone was euphoric like that for a bit, and our momentum had increased until it was that of a serious hiker. Howard warned us that the turn coming up would mean the pivoting side should slow down. We all tried to gauge what that would mean for our own effort…but there was no way to command it, and we were having that same problem of inertia…we could not make the thing slow down orturn. It was going too far in the original track; we could see that the radius of the turn because of the great size of the form was already being exceeded.
I was straining with all my heart against the direction with no effect. Then there were some frightened yells as the men closer to the doorway began to think they might be crushed. Howard ran along the left side urging us to push harder. Someone on the far side had fallen as the speed changed, and then there was a near panic as that edge began to dip down…until some slid over to cover.
At last, the turn achieved its own momentum. The edge farthest from the pivoting zone was really picking up speed. The pivoters were almost standing still and the outer edge was moving as fast as a man could run…and run they did, one leaping clear as the form’s edge grazed the door walls, and all of us had a rush of dread as if seeing the iceberg scrape alongside our Titanic. The magical communal energy had ‘gone too far’; some of us were about to get mangled. Our fate was sealed as a team…abandoning the Form meant a lurching crash.The last ones holding on would die….I already felt the test coming over me; I was nearing the end of my stamina at this intensity of strain. It felt like my muscles would pop or rip and they were screaming at me to stop.
There was a staccato din of shouts to HOLDON! And…we did in fact hold on…the turn finally slowed itself, we passed out into daylight, and Howard ordered us to come to a full stop. Helpers came to arrange the lagging under the form, and we stood speechless, grinning across at each other in the exhilaration and relief. The barehanded, natural childbirth mass movement…had made it out the gate. We set it down and floated up to the scaffolds of the Pantheon…and back to work.
Eric Johnson, the author of this story, is a letterpress printer and founder of Iota Press and also North Bay Letterpress Arts in Sebastopol now with a dozen active printers. We met because I was researching the life of his mother, Miriam Dinkin Johnson, a daughter of one of the iconic Communist chicken farmer families of Petaluma. I was delighted to learn that Eric is a carpenter and storyteller too.
In an effort to record the history of the Tradeswomen Movement and the stories of the first women to enter the construction trades, I’ve been interviewing some of my tradeswoman sisters. Here is the first of many to come. As a sister electrician, I had heard of Betsy Brown but I didn’t get to know her until she had founded the first (and only) union contracting business in San Francisco (and probably the state of California) owned and run by female electricians.
Electrician Betsy Brown started her apprenticeship in 1979 in the Pacific Northwest where indoor plumbing and women’s toilets with locks were set up early on the construction site. So she was shocked to walk onto a nuclear power plant job in Texas and see (and smell) a quarter-mile-long line of port-a-potties. Betsy was, in the electrician’s lingo, a traveler most of her career because she had trouble finding work.
Betsy was born in 1951 and raised in San Francisco by a family of “Jewish Communist atheists.” It was a good life full of music and friends, she said. She was brought up on anti-war marches and union picket lines and she learned to be an organizer at a young age. She lived with her mother and three siblings for four years at her grandfather’s farm in Southern California while her father went underground during the McCarthy era of Communist witch-hunts. Her longshoreman father, Archie Brown, and two uncles had fought in the Spanish Civil War with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
Betsy got involved in politics early on. She said she got her organizing skills from her mother, Hon, a legal secretary. “Today I would call it project management,” she said. At 14 she was part of the Students Education and Action League, a multi-school anti-war organization. They put out a mimeographed newspaper. “We had the good fortune of the Board of Education deciding to ban the newspaper,” she said, which of course increased sales. She went to the police to get a permit for a march and they pulled out a file with her name on it. “Are you Elizabeth Brown?” Yes. “Are you Archie Brown’s daughter?” Yes. She was surprised to find that the cops already had a file on her at age14. She got the permit.
She was there in San Francisco during the summer of love in 1967 and lived for a time in the Haight-Ashbury. Then, at 19, she put her dog and guitar in her car and drove north. She ended up in Bellingham, Washington and spent the next period of her life in the Pacific Northwest.
Betsy was living on a little farm near Hood River, Oregon with her boyfriend, their two kids and two other adults when the collective decided they needed to get real jobs to make some money. She saw an ad for the electrical apprenticeship and thought “Why not?” so she drove the hour west to Portland to take the test with several hundred other applicants. She couldn’t believe it when she was granted an interview where they asked dumb questions like, “Do you really think you can drive to Portland everyday?” Later she realized she had been chosen to fail. The all-white all-male unions were under pressure to diversify. Her testers thought no five-foot tall woman could possibly succeed at construction work. She proved them wrong.
The apprenticeship guys assured her that it would be months before she was called to work so she thought she would have time to wean her month-old son. Instead she was called up within two months to work on the new I-205 bridge across the Columbia River. She left her kids with the collective and drove to Portland. The first day on the job her shirt was soaked through with milk. Her journeyman noticed and commented, “Baby at home?” That was it. “The IBEW weaned my baby and they didn’t even know it,” she said.
To work on that bridge, you had to walk a plank about 16 inches wide out to where work was going on 60 feet above the river. The first day every eye on the job was on her as she walked the plank. She was terrified of heights, but would never admit it to anyone on the job. Her journeyman told her, “Don’t look around. Just keep walking.” Eventually the others all went back to their work. During its construction, three men died on that bridge.
The main job for electricians on the bridge crew was to keep the pumps in the cofferdams running. One day the pump quit and Betsy’s journeyman didn’t show up to work. So, with all eyes on her, the first-year apprentice had to take the skiff out on the river by herself, tie it up to the cofferdam and figure out how to get the pump started. Once she did that, she began to build a reputation as a good mechanic. Her journeyman had instructed her, “You just have to look like you know what you’re doing.” That was good advice, she said.
Quick thinking during another near disaster also sealed her reputation as one who stays calm under pressure. Out on the icy river in the skiff one day the engine died and she and the journeyman were getting sucked into the river out amidst the barges and platforms with the possibility of capsizing.Betsy was able to grab a rope and tie up the boat before it got far.
Later in her apprenticeship Betsy worked on a paper plant in Newport Oregon, a fun job where she got to bend lots of rigid conduit. Her apprenticeship consisted entirely of industrial work. She had never done commercial or residential work when a downturn hit and she got laid off. She had finished the required school hours, but not work hours and so was not able to turn out (graduate) as a journeyman. So she decided to try traveling. Except there was a catch 22. Apprentices are not allowed to travel (that’s what the term journeyman means). But there was no way to get the required work hours in her Portland local. Betsy convinced the apprenticeship to give her a travel letter by telling them the union had allowed it, then convinced the union that the apprenticeship had allowed it.
Someone told her there was work in Phoenix, so she went there. In Phoenix they said work was stopped because of rain. Betsy countered that in Portland if you didn’t work when it rained, you would never work at all. Then they said she would have to wait for the next apprenticeship class to start, which could be years away. They told her there was work on a nuclear power plant in Texas near Houston, so she went there. She arrived alone with no connections and no place to stay but the IBEW sister/brotherhood there took her in and made her part of their family.
The job was gigantic with a thousand electricians and a wide variety of other trades. That’s where she encountered the long line of smelly port-a-potties. The job sucked. There wasn’t enough work. Boredom stupefied. “You’d be excited to get to run 20 feet of pipe, then you’d have to wait half a day for the inspector,” she said. Her electrician husband, Jim, brought the kids down and the family lived in a “road trash trailer park, the only integrated housing in the town of Bay City.” She worked there November to August until she just couldn’t take it anymore. Heat, humidity, boredom and port-a-potties pushed her over the edge.
After she left Texas, Betsy joined IBEW Local 551 in Santa Rosa, whose territory includes much of Northern California. She found work at The Geysers where she finally turned out as a “journeyman inside wireman.” She ran for office and served on the executive board of the local, the first woman to do so. When she found out the dispatcher was discriminating against her and others she tried to organize a lawsuit but no one wanted to join. So she took her tools on the road again, signing the books at several San Francisco Bay Area locals.
In San Francisco she got involved with the Two Gate Committee. Contractors had developed a system where union workers used one gate on the job and nonunion workers used another. Unions were prohibited from protesting with the traditional picket line. So workers from multiple trades formed an a-hoc committee to protest. The chant was “One gate two gates three gates four. A scab’s a scab through any door.” They organized a huge demonstration to protest the ABC, the nonunion contractors association, when their convention came to town. It was a huge gathering that lasted three days. A veteran of many demonstrations, Betsy observed, “It was so interesting to see how the police treated construction workers as opposed to war protesters. Police feel more brotherhood with construction workers.” The contractors sued two individuals in the committee and the Two Gate Committee then had to focus on their defense. Charges were eventually dropped and the committee disbanded.
Betsy next got a temporary job with the city of San Francisco as a traffic signal electrician where she worked for about a year. She said it was a great job, but she didn’t understand how much antipathy there was until she looked back on the experience. “(I used) whatever armor we put on to work with those assholes…because if you noticed it at every turn you’d go crazy,” she said.
On a jobsite, handing out two gate leaflets she ran into a woman from her old local in Portland, Jay Mullins, and they hatched a plan to start a contracting business, Thunder Electric. Betsy was still having trouble getting work and felt she either had to quit working out of the halls or go to work for herself. They started small. “We were two girls and a truck. We worked out of Jay’s garage.”
The IBEW business agent told them that as soon as they got big enough to hire a hand, they could be organized into the union. In the meantime, they worked on mostly residential remodel projects in San Francisco. In a serendipitous encounter at a bid meeting another experienced contractor approached Betsy wanting to partner with a minority contractor. It was a $250,000 job at the airport. “I said I don’t think I can bond this job. So he wrote me a check for $23,000 for that bid and after that he helped us get bonded. The hardest part of contracting is finding someone to float your bond. Once you have one bond, then you can get the next bond,” she said.
Jay and Betsy agreed they would take no jobs relating to incarceration or weapons. They worked on quite a few public works projects. As a San Francisco city electrical inspector I inspected at least one of their jobs—the upgrade of the North Beach sewage treatment plant. Thunder Electric had no trouble attracting and keeping experienced hands. “We were a good company to work for,” she told me.
Through luck and organizing ability they expanded their business until they were keeping 30 San Francisco IBEW Local 6 electricians working. Betsy found she liked working as an electrician far better than contracting, but she is most proud of being able to employ so many hands at union wages. She sold out her share of the business to Jay and another partner and some years later Jay dissolved the business. It remains the only Local 6 contracting business owned and run by women who started out as electricians.
Back in Portland Jay also found she had trouble getting work. “They don’t want you because you’re a woman and they don’t want you because you’re old,” she said.
Betsy really always wanted to be a farmer, and she gave it a go a couple of times. She tried apple farming in Eastern Washington but didn’t have adequate capitalization. After selling out of the contracting business she and Jim bought a small farm in Round Valley, California on the Indian reservation planning a peaceful farming life. Then her 19-year-old son got cancer and she had to find a job to support him (It’s a good story; he survived). She worked as a project manager for a contractor, then for an estimator.
Then she saw an ad for a job project managing a community center and housing project on the Round Valley Indian reservation. At the interview she asked where her desk would be. When they showed her she said, “Can you put a window right there?” They said sure and she took the job. She had learned from experience that you have to get everything you want right when you’re getting hired—salary, extra vacation days, benefits. “When they want you, you can get it, but after you’re hired you can’t,” she said. She took over the project management and was able to train a crew of local Native American tribal members to continue it. Now she is organizing a co-op of marijuana growers. Those organizing skills she learned as an activist and a contractor have come in handy in “retirement.”
When I read the actress Salma Hayek’s op-ed in the New York Times about her stressful relationship with Harvey Weinstein, I had an immediate flash of recognition. When he ordered her to film a sex scene, she had a physical breakdown. She called it a nervous breakdown.
“My body began to shake uncontrollably, my breath was short and I began to cry and cry, unable to stop, as if I were throwing up tears. My mind understood that I had to do it, but my body wouldn’t stop crying and convulsing.” Then she started throwing up. Her reaction wasn’t just about doing a sex scene. It was the result of many years of physical and (mostly) psychological harassment from this powerful man.
Harassment and bullying can cause stress that manifests in physical health problems that affect our work and lives. Women in male-dominated fields like construction understand this connection between stress and physical illness because it happens to us.
In 1981 I worked as the only female electrician on a big construction site in San Francisco. Two other women also worked on that site and we sought each other out at lunch breaks. Cece, a black woman, was one of the very first of us to make it into the elevator constructor trade. She was a “helper.” She told me stories about her relationship with her violent white supremacist journeyman that made me fear for her life. Juanita, a carpenter, was Mexican-American. I saw comments about her written in the porta potties. “The little woman carpenter takes it in the ass.” Then others had crossed out ass and written in other orifices. It was a game with the men and it appeared they all participated.
As the weeks went on, both these women began having health problems. Cece disappeared from the job and I learned she had fallen ill with some undiagnosable stomach ailment and landed in the hospital (she had to leave her trade as a result). Then Juanita, who seldom was able to eat much at lunch, didn’t come to work one day.
My tool buddy on that job—the only guy who would work with me—had my back. But one day he decided to drag up—to quit the job—and I was left on my own. Without my protector, I too became ill and had to leave the job.
All three of us women had worked hard to get into our trades and we were proud of our status as the first females. We were determined to succeed. But even though our minds told us we had to go to work, our bodies rebelled. We were forced to leave in spite of our commitment to stay.
The same thing happened to Shannon Faulkner, the first woman to be admitted to the Citadel military academy in 1995. She was well prepared physically, but it was the stress and its physical manifestations that did her in. She dropped out after four days of pledge week citing emotional and psychological abuse and physical exhaustion. She was derided by men as a wimp and by women because she made us look bad. Few believed that the stress of a hostile environment caused her failure.
In the wake of harassment allegations against sexual predators including movie moguls and our president, tradeswomen applaud women who are telling their stories and rising up against this outrage.
Women in male-dominated occupations have been fighting this fight for as long as we can remember. We’ve been on the front lines of the feminist movement for decades defending our sisters, supporting legislation to protect women against sexual harassment and helping employers and unions see their responsibility on this issue. We and our fight have been invisible except to each other. Every female construction worker has experienced harassment and all of us can say #Metoo.
In 1980 I worked as the only female electrician on a big construction job in San Francisco. That’s how it was for us then, and that’s how it still is. Women make up less than three percent of the construction workforce. We are often alone in a crowd of hundreds of men.
I would do my job, dressed in boots, hard hat and work clothes just like the men, looking over my shoulder anticipating violence and hostility. In the porta potties amidst the ubiquitous dicks drawn on the walls would be my name underneath the sentiment “I WANT TO FUCK YOU.” I was called “the cunt.”
I spent my working life in what we now call a hostile work environment. We had no word for it then. There was no recourse. You could complain to your foreman or your union rep but they would tell you that the harassment was your own fault and if you couldn’t take it you should leave the job. You loved the work and you loved the paycheck and so you kept your mouth shut and your head down. And you depended on male allies. My tool buddy on that job—the only guy who would work with me—was a Hispanic/native man whose family had been in California since it was still part of Mexico. He had my back.
Some things have changed since then and the changes are the direct result of feminist organizing. In the 1970s tradeswomen who had been the target of harassment began to bring lawsuits against employers. They lost. When the civil rights activist Eleanor Holmes Norton, as chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President Jimmy Carter, released regulations declaring sexual harassment to be discrimination under federal law, women finally had legal backing.
In the 1986 Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson case, the Supreme Court distinguished between and prohibited two kinds of sexual harassment. Quid pro quo harassment occurred when women were made offers such as a promotion in exchange for a sexual favor. Equally important, however, was the hostile environment harassment where men could make the everyday workplace into a place of threats, hostility, offensive images, abusive language. This is the kind of harassment tradeswomen most frequently endure.
The movie North Country dramatized conditions that led to the first class action sexual harassment lawsuit filed in 1988 by Lois Jensen and female miners at the Eveleth Taconite Company in Minnesota. After these women won a $3.5 million settlement, employers began to take notice. Our working conditions began to improve.
We were helped by a few dedicated lawyers. In San Francisco we were lucky to work with attorneys at Equal Rights Advocates and Employment Law Center. Other legal groups included the National Women’s Law Center and the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund (today Legal Momentum).
That sexual harassment is now against the law is the one big change tradeswomen have noticed over the years that has improved our working lives in a male-dominated workplace. In many other ways our workplace environment hasn’t changed that much. We are still underemployed, last hired and first fired, often poorly trained and generally undervalued. Yet some tradeswomen have had successful careers and are retiring with good pensions. Some have become apprenticeship directors, union business agents, and chairs of state building trades councils. We have built organizations and networks across the country to improve our lot. I just returned from our national conference, this year in Chicago, Women Build Nations. It started as Women Building California, sponsored by the California Building Trades Council and Tradeswomen Inc. in 2001 and has now become international, this year sponsored by the National Building Trades Unions and Chicago Women in Trades. A record 1600 women and male allies attended. Workshops on sexual harassment were featured, as always. But the construction industry now has policies in place to train workers and to prevent harassment.
Tradeswomen are glad sexual harassment is now a mainstream issue, but for us it’s nothing new. We’ve been resisting for decades and still we persist.
My friend Marg was building a coffin for her friend Bob.
Marg was happy and excited that she could give back in this way, being a carpenter. But her project plans had to take into account her disability, a persistent back pain that had put an end to her career as a building inspector and that she now spends her life managing.
When we get together Marg and I often collaborate on inventions and engineer projects that never get built. But now she was actually completing one of them.
The funeral home had given Marg the dimensions of the concrete box that the coffin would have to fit into with the admonition that another coffin builder had exceeded the dimensions and at the burial the coffin had not fit.
At lunch with our retired carpenter friend Pat, Marg described her plan—a rectangular box rather than the typical hexagonal coffin shape. She used one four by eight sheet of plywood ripped lengthwise for the sides and ends. Another ripped sheet made the bottom and top. She made the handles with rope.
Pat and I represented tradeswomen and the 99%
Pat measures twice
Marg at the Women’s March with disability activists
“I had the lumberyard rip the ply for me, to save my back,” said Marg. “I can still use a Skil saw for short lengths but I don’t do ripping anymore.”
She screwed a ledger around the inside of the box so the bottom could just be dropped in and sit on the ledger. I’m an electrician, not a skilled carpenter, so I was proud of myself for knowing that a ledger is the ribbon of wood attached to the framing of a wall that the floor hangs on. I could totally visualize it.
“What size plywood are you using?” asked Pat.
“Half inch,” said Marg.
“Cross bracing?” asked Pat.
“Well, no,” said Marg. “I don’t think it needs it. I used structural plywood. Anyway, the coffin is now at the funeral home.”
Pat and I looked at each other and each knew what the other was thinking. I imagined the bottom piece of plywood bending with the weight of Bob’s body, the ply slipping off the ledger and the bottom piece along with the body falling out the bottom of the coffin as it was lifted up.
A moment of collective panic ensued. Marg frowned. She is a worrier.
“I’m sure it will be fine,” said Pat.
Marg’s description of her liberal use of glue and screws eased my concern.
Marg says there have been great strides made lately in screw technology. Hex head screws that go in easily and you don’t have to pre-drill.
“Remember when we didn’t have battery-operated drills?” I said. “I had to reach into my tool belt for a hammer and an awl to start the hole, and then screw in the screw with an old fashioned slotted head screwdriver. In those days we used ¾ inch sheet metal screws to strap our pipe to plywood. I had awesome forearms. People noticed my forearms.”
“Yeah, I had an awesome back till I fell off that ladder,” said Marg.
“And my knees were once awesome,” said Pat, who was recovering slowly from a recent knee replacement.
Whenever I visit I always look for tradeswomen in this city of high rises and construction cranes. On this trip I was lucky to meet up with Kate Braid, the tradeswoman poet laureate of Canada (my christening). I’ve known Kate for decades, and we published her poems in Tradeswomen Magazine regularly, but she and I figured we hadn’t seen each other for 30 years. If you’re not familiar with her writing, go to her web page, Katebraid.com. Her book of poems about working construction, Covering Rough Ground, was published in 1991. Her newest book, Rough Ground Revisited, includes some of the original poems and new ones as well.
Kate has a memoir too: Journeywoman: Swinging a Hammer in a Man’s World, published in 2012. She speaks to tradeswomen all around Canada, and she reminded me as we reminisced that the very first national tradeswomen’s conference happened in the nation of Canada in 1980! We discussed the possibility of Canadians hosting the next tradeswomen conference, since it looks like our building trades in the US have dropped the ball. Come on Canadian tradeswomen: Pick it up and run with it!
One does not always plant one’s feet daintily when one is covering rough ground.
–Emily Carr, Journals
I was delighted to learn that Kate and I share an interest in the Victoria artist and writer Emily Carr. In fact, Kate is a Carr scholar, having published two books of poetry and a biography of Carr. These I can’t wait to read, but when I tried to order them from the San Francisco Public Library they were not in the stacks. So I have my work cut out for me when I return home. It seems we in the US are not very literate where Canadian authors are concerned, a prejudice that must be rectified.
Cranes are everywhere
Hard hat area
Walking around downtown Vancouver I passed many high-rise construction sites but the only tradeswomen I saw this time were flaggers. I flagged down two of them and they assured me there are lots of tradeswomen working up above. While most of the signs here are gender neutral, I did find one of the old Men Working kind, an advertisement that this contractor discriminates against women. Why would anyone want to advertise that?