Sisters Restoring Justice

Every woman has a retribution fantasy, what she would do to her harasser or rapist. She probably won’t tell you what it is but she has one, maybe many. 

My group of tradeswomen activists not only imagined retribution, we planned and executed it. Perhaps corrective justice is a better choice of words.

We were an organized group of women who were trying our damndest to break barriers to nontraditional blue collar work. Men wanted to keep those high-paid jobs for themselves. So when one of us finally landed a job, we were subject to harassment with the aim of getting us to quit. At that time in the late seventies  sexual harassment was not yet illegal and the term was not yet in popular use. We tradeswomen used the term gender harassment.

We were working at integrating the construction trades, bus driving, firefighting, policing, printing, dock work—all the jobs women had been kept out of. One job classification we focused on was ferryboat deckhand. Women had won a discrimination lawsuit, a judge had signed a consent decree, and a handful of women had broken into the trade. As with construction, you had to jump both the barriers of bosses and the union.

One of our biggest challenges was isolation on the job. Once you got hired, you were usually the only female there. We tried to combat isolation by recruiting more women and by organizing support groups wherever we were.

Annie McCombs was our gal on the ferries, having made it through the union process. A militant lesbian feminist with a take no prisoners attitude, Annie was committed to increasing the number of women on the waterfront, to truly integrating the trade. After five years as a ferryboat deckhand she had gained a reputation as someone who did not tolerate abuse.

Fear of violence was based on reality. A common myth among fishers and sailors was that a woman on your boat was bad luck. We had met a woman who had been thrown off a boat into the water by coworkers who intended to kill her for supposedly bringing bad luck.

Annie worked occasionally with another young woman, Patricia. She was American Indian, a lesbian and only 18 with little work experience. One day Patricia approached Annie and told her about a guy on the job who harassed her mercilessly. The harassment had turned violent when they worked together on the night shift. He had locked them in to a bathroom they were assigned to clean and shoved her up against the wall. Only the night watchman knocking on the door saved her from being raped. He assaulted her again the next night but she fought back and was able to break free.

Annie helped Patricia meet with her boss and the union rep, going through all the required motions. They got nowhere. The next step would be litigation, but we activists did not recommend women file individual lawsuits. That got you blacklisted and unemployed.

We resorted to direct action. Annie called a meeting and 30 women showed up. She told us about the situation and we began to strategize. How could we get this guy to back off and stop harassing our sister? We had heard about a group of women stripping a rapist naked and tying him to a pole in the middle of town. That was a great fantasy, but none of us was willing to take the chance of being arrested for assault. Whatever we did would have to be hands off. We also wanted our action to be collective, something we could all participate in. We needed to make sure this guy knew that what he was doing was wrong and that it had to stop. It would be great if the woman he had targeted could confront him directly, if we could help her feel safe enough to do that.

Jan, a tradeswoman sister, spoke up. We needed to confront this guy on our own terms in a place of our choosing, not at work. She suggested that one of us should get him on a date. This seemed crazy to me. I was never any good at picking up men, but other women in the group assured me it wasn’t that hard. Hadn’t we been trained all our lives to do this? Jan volunteered to be the bait and we worked out an elaborate plan for her to pick him up.

We would lure him to a secluded location in Golden Gate Park, surround him and let his victim confront him. I, for one, did not see how this was possible. How would we get him to the park?

Jan planned to invite him to a party at the deYoung Museum and make some excuse to get him to the nearby rose garden. The rose garden is surrounded by tall hedges, perfect for hiding behind. And it’s relatively dark. Our action would take place at dusk.

Word of the action got around and our planning meetings expanded to 50. Everybody wanted to be involved with this action. What militant feminist wouldn’t?

We considered the possibility that the harasser might have a gun. Annie knew that some deckhands carried handguns in their seabags. Many of us practiced karate and self-defense and we engaged martial arts experts to take command in case our perp responded violently. A woman was assigned to each limb and his head in case he reached for a gun or bolted. But unless he attacked, we were not to touch him.

Women volunteered for specific tasks: lookouts, runners, watchers from park benches. We would not leave Jan alone with the man and risk his assaulting another woman.

In the meantime, Annie had drawn up a map of the park with our location and planned out the timing. We were to hide in the bushes near the trail and pop out as he and Jan came by. 

I was dubious. Could we really pull this off? There were so many variables. What if he didn’t go with Jan? What if he saw us in the bushes? What if the timing were hours off?

Fifty women had assembled some blocks away at a staging area in the Haight Ashbury when a carload of country women from Mendocino showed up. They had heard about the action through the lesbian grapevine. Now numbering more than 50, we all made our way to the rose garden.

We hid behind hedges and trees, waiting silently for maybe 20 minutes. Everybody knew the plan. I couldn’t believe it when I saw Jan and the guy walking down the trail. Jan really did it! Our butch dyke sister had transformed into a fetching het woman. She wore a pink sweater wrapped casually around her shoulders.

Just as they crossed in front of us the spotter blew a whistle, the designated woman stepped out into the trail, and then all the women materialized and circled the guy. Jan melted into the crowd.

My only job was to stand in place with a mean look on my face. I can tell you this is not so easy when one feels exhilaration.

Our chosen spokeswoman stepped forward menacingly. She addressed the harasser. “Don’t talk, just nod if you understand.” 

A woman was assigned to remind him to nod. He did not need to be reminded.

“We know you have been harassing women on your job. We know where you live. We know the car you drive. If you continue to harass women we will come and get you,” she said.

I could see his knees shaking. It looked to me like he had peed his pants.

Patricia stepped forward but she was not able to speak. Her partner spoke for her, naming the harassment.

Finally the crowd of angry women parted and let the man out. He was ordered to return to his car and not to look back.

Our action had succeeded. We were jubilant. A cheer went up from the 50 women. Then we quickly decamped to an agreed-upon location for a post-mortem and to celebrate. 

As for the harasser, he was not seen around the waterfront for several months. Later, when he took a part-time job with the company, he made sure to keep his head down when passing Annie or Patricia. Soon after that he disappeared altogether.

A Letter to Nell

Dear Nell McCafferty,

When I read your autobiography, I felt I just had to write you. Your recounting of the Irish feminist movement and the time of the Troubles informed and affected me greatly. Then I realized every old feminist, and especially lesbians, must feel the same. Have you received tons of mail from us since the book came out in 2005?41hrp4q266l._sx307_bo1,204,203,200_

I confess that last month I had never heard of you, or at least I don’t remember if I did. Here’s how I got to your book. We have a little grrrl gang here in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, California where I have just moved from San Francisco (about 60 miles away). We pass books around, and people in our neighborhoods have adopted the endearing custom of erecting mini-libraries, enclosures on posts rather like the old-style mailboxes only bigger and sometimes quite elaborate, painted bright colors with bells and birds and doors and windows. My block in this new-to-us neighborhood has such a library where anyone can leave a book or take a book to read. This is where we found a book by Nuala O’Faolain, the novel My Dream of You. I didn’t get far before I wikipedia’d her and found her life to be more interesting than her novel. So I ordered Are You Somebody? and read it. That’s when I discovered you. In the book she hardly mentions you and your 15-year relationship. What gives? So I wikipedia’d you and ordered your book Nell from the library. Funny thing, my library did not have it, nor did the San Francisco library. Had you been erased? Especially in San Francisco, a city with a large Irish population and some connections to IRA sympathizers, I would think your story would engage many readers. I can only guess at why your book may have been suppressed. Americans have a poor understanding of Irish history, or any history for that matter. Finally my wife, who does all the on-line ordering in our family, got your book. It is a used book with a lovely inscription on the flyleaf from one feminist to another.

Well, I should have heard of you! I’m an old lesbian feminist and a writer as well, though not famous by any means. But I’m a cog in that feminist wheel, as we all pulled together. As you were, I’ve been active in the struggle to legalize abortion, against sexual harassment and rape and all the other feminist issues, but my main focus has been to see to it that women can work at well-paying jobs. Paid work is the key to our independence and in the U.S. some of the best jobs are those reserved for men in the construction trades. I was a pioneer, one of the first women to get into the electrician trade, and I made a good career of it. I’m retired now and can look back on our decades of activism, our failures and successes with the hope of keeping the next generation from making the same mistakes. We call ourselves Tradeswomen.

At the moment, as you can imagine, I and my sisters are feeling pretty demoralized, though we are doing what we can to confront the ascent of what looks more and more like fascism. But reading your account of the Troubles and those hopeless years in Ireland helps me to imagine a light at the end of this tunnel. The images that stick in my head are of you standing next to and speaking to a lawmaker who is then assassinated, and of the woman, your neighbor, banging her garbage can in her yard—to warn of the cops—shot dead by them. I’ve never been good at remembering names but in my old age (I’m 69, born in 1949) I rely more than ever on visual images. 

That you are five years older made a world of difference at the time when we both came of age. Things were changing so fast in those days (not to say they aren’t now) but the progress of the feminist movement was a defining factor. And we come from very different cultures. In American schools we at least had some sex education. The Catholic church was not so powerful (I was brought up Presbyterian and didn’t take long to embrace atheism). My mother had worked as a stenographer, called herself a career girl and didn’t marry till in her mid-thirties. Unlike in Ireland, that was a choice American women in her generation could make, though they were paid less than men and were laid off when they married. My mother was born in 1913. I was devastated when she died at the age of 70, as you were when your mother died at 89, but I do know it doesn’t matter how long or well our mothers have lived for us daughters to experience deep grief.

Coming out as lesbian in my 20s was not nearly so hard as it was for you. I read in one of the obits for Nuala that the reason you were angry about her book  was that you didn’t want to come out as a lesbian to your mother. I was so glad you were finally able to come out to her before she died. I am the oldest of four and have a brother who is gay (one of three brothers). We had both come out to Mom before she died, but I wish I’d had more time to process with her. Her name was Florence, her parents were immigrants from Sweden and Norway. We discovered the feminist movement together and that and anti-war activism were central to our relationship in the decade before she died.

On my father’s side we are Irish. The Irish ancestor, Thomas Martin, is an enigma. He probably came over in the 1830s. We think he was from a Protestant family and likely illiterate. My wife Holly and I traveled to Ireland a couple of years ago with the American protest singer and radical Anne Feeney. I wasn’t able to discover more about my own Irish heritage but my brother is working at it and we may still learn where Thomas Martin came from.

 I was grateful that in the book you were so candid about sex and love. Some of the couples issues you describe, like the difference between one partner who wants quiet and alone time and the other who wants the company of others at home are all too familiar. And lesbian bed death, LBD we call it, we struggle to overcome. Also, all the changes we go through as we age. Menopause is different for each of us! I felt lucky to live through it with an older lover before I started, but that was in the early 80s when we were just starting to talk about it to each other and there were finally books we could read.

About Nuala—I realize both of you held back writing about the other and your relationship but from all I read it seems she was trying too hard not to be a lesbian. After I read Are You Somebody? I didn’t like her very much. I thought some parts of the book were just name dropping. When I compare it to Nell and wonder why it didn’t strike me the same way, I think it’s because your story supplies context. Or perhaps your context was just more interesting. No, I think your book is just better. And I’m writing to tell you how much I enjoyed it and how much I learned from you. It’s a shame your book was not distributed more widely but be assured that you are famous here in this little corner of Northern California among our lesbian grrrl gang. Thank you for writing it.

Slainte,

Molly Martin

Daddy From Another Planet

As a young feminist I tried responding to male groping by groping back, pinching male butts at parties, just as I’d been pinched. I treated all men equally, pinching and groping without discrimination. That got me in trouble with male friends who were outraged—partly at my forwardness (women can’t do that!), but also that I’d think they might do that to women. They really didn’t like being treated as objects. Well, neither did I. It’s the opposite of sexy.

So, ok, some men don’t grope women. All men are not afflicted with frotteurism, the psychologists’ word for the desire to grope unconsenting victims. But, as we’re now learning, oh so many are. My father was one.

I saw him do it. One time at the end of a party in the grange hall, he walked up behind a woman who was taking dishes into the kitchen and grabbed her breasts with both hands in a kind of bear hug. She just kept walking and I yelled at him. I don’t think he even knew who that woman was. He was drunk, so that was his excuse, but he didn’t apologize or even seem to think he needed an excuse. WTF Dad!

And there were many other times, when we gathered in groups and alcohol was present. With Dad, alcohol was always present.

In 1978 my parents traveled to visit me in my collective house of four lesbians in San Francisco. I wasn’t yet out to Dad as gay and my mother asked me not to tell him. She made the argument that she would be the one to have to deal with him when they got home and she was only saving herself trouble. That made sense to me, but I refused to take down the lesbo posters or change anything about our lifestyle. Every day I’d ask Mom if Dad had figured it out yet. He never did (I came out to him a few years later).

By the end of the first day my dad had visited all the bars in the neighborhood, made friends with all the barflies and picked out his favorite bar where he would hang while Mom and I went to the theater or did only-in-San Francisco things.

One evening my roommate pulled me aside to tell me my father had groped her. I was stunned. You invite your father into your house and he gropes your housemates?! I struggled to understand. What was motivating him? Who would not see this as totally inappropriate, or at least extremely rude behavior? But, as I remember, he never apologized, even after being confronted. He wanted to pretend it didn’t happen. I wonder if my father would have groped my roommates if he’d known that we were all lesbians, but I doubt that knowledge would have made a difference.

In every other way Dad behaved like a proper gentleman, a courteous guy who seemed to want everyone to be comfortable. He didn’t swear and wasn’t happy when I took up swearing. He used to lecture me that it takes fewer face muscles to smile than to frown. He believed in smiling and I’ve come around to his view. I just hated it when men told me to smile, which happened with regularity in my work as an electrician.

Dad was a working class guy who never finished high school, but he wasn’t closed-minded. He believed in equality of the sexes and was politically progressive. Of course, he and all of us kids were influenced by my mother, an accomplished woman who’d made her own way in the worlds of work and war for many years before marrying.

My father was a product of his times from a generation of men who could be categorized by the female body parts they most ogled. George H.W. Bush is a butt man. Dad was a tit man. They were born ten years apart—GHWB in 1924 and my father in 1914, so I’d say they were of the same generation in which popular culture permitted and encouraged ogling and even physical violence against women. Men aspired to be “David Cop-a-Feel.” Beating wives and children was accepted practice.

We all have a natural curiosity about people’s bodies. I’ve always been fascinated by bodies in the public baths or sauna. They are so varied! And we are usually so clothed! But, although I believe consensual touching is something no human should be without, I never had an unrestrained desire to touch them, men or women.

One theory about groping comes down to something called projective identification. According to psychologists it’s a pretty common process in human nature that basically means you attempt to make others feel a way you don’t want to feel yourself. The desire to grope unconsenting victims, frotteurism, is a paraphilia.  Paraphilia is intense sexual interest and arousal by objects, body parts, fantasies, or situations that do not ordinarily stimulate sexual desires.  Masochism or a foot fetish, for example, are paraphilias. Was groping an affliction that my father could not overcome? Is it really a sickness? Is there a cure? (apparently not–all these rehab programs are bullshit). But of course it’s much more complicated and we all acknowledge there’s an underlying power dynamic. Dad called himself a feminist and I think he truly did like women, but some Neanderthal part of him must have seen women as less than.

I still struggle to understand. Was my father even aware of his reputation as a groper, or did he practice self-deception? Was he ever ashamed? What was going on in his head? How did he rationalize this behavior? Did he know he was causing women discomfort? What did he think was going on for them? I did have some heart-to-hearts with him, but never on this subject.

Women in general don’t get it. We are from different cultures in a way. Men’s behavior is reinforced within their own male culture. But when I ask male friends to explain the disgusting behavior exhibited by their gender, they claim to be as perplexed as I, saying it’s a sickness or that (other) men do it just to see if they can get away with it.

This is some odd tic of the male of the species that just doesn’t resonate with me. It’s like daddy from another planet. The same species, but different. I can’t really explain it and I bet if I could ask my dad, he couldn’t either.

Radical Lesbian Foremothers

Longtime friends Angela Romagnoli and Lynn Stern were two of the foremothers of the Radical Lesbian movement. I sat down with them last November to record their story. Angie had been diagnosed with cancer and had undergone radiation and chemotherapy treatments. She died July 5, 2017. Angie leaves her wife of 39 years, Megan Adams, and their son Reese Adams-Romagnoli.

All three of us—Angie, Lynn and I—were born in the year 1949 and we all started college in 1967. We were all the oldest sibling in our families. We were all involved in radical politics in college and came out as lesbians. I was at Washington State University in Pullman, WA. They met at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Their stories resonate with me even though U of M is far from the wheat fields of eastern Washington State. We were making the same revolution.

Angela and Lynn first met when Angie encountered Lynn sitting on her bed weeping with homesickness in their college dormitory. It was the fall of 1967 and both were 17. Lynn was very close to her family in Chicago, and especially her mother. It was the first time she had lived away from home. They were roommates the next year in another dorm and they became lovers in 1970. They broke up in in 1978, but their friendship has lasted ever since.

Both of these women—all three of us—came from liberal families and the historical moment radicalized us.

The oldest of six siblings, Angie grew up in a union household. Her family moved to Dearborn, Michigan, just outside Detroit, when she was in high school. Dearborn was a white town, but they had lived in a mixed-race town before that. They watched as the city of Detroit fell apart, as jobs left the area and red lining took its toll on black citizens. Angie went to a progressive high school where she developed a class analysis.

Lynn was the oldest of three siblings. Her family were liberals and secular Jews.

In 1967 the U.S. government was escalating the war in Vietnam. The student anti-war movement gained steam. Lynn and Angie went to a bunch of meetings, looking around campus for a group to join.

“We saw who was just talking and who was doing. We didn’t want to hear guys just jacking off,” said Angie. “We picked SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) because they were doing sit-ins and actions, talking to classes.”

They went to marches, broke windows. “I was a baseball player and had a great arm,” said Angie. One time Angie’s mother picked up Lynn’s jacket and the pockets were full of rocks. “You would put your lead pipe in the pocket of your pea coat.”

They wore combat boots, overalls. “We could strut our stuff. No bras,” remembered Angie. “You needed boots in Ann Arbor.”

One night they broke into the ROTC building on campus, trashed it and didn’t get caught. But the SDS had been infiltrated by cops and many demonstrators did get arrested, including their friend Nais (a mutual friend who now lives in San Francisco), also a student there.

“One time a phalanx of police scattered our march, arresting people. I was pulling the cops off people’s backs, but they didn’t arrest me,” remembered Angie.

By 1970, the women in SDS were pissed off, questioning the leadership and meeting dynamics. Feminists like Gayle Rubin came to SDS to talk and the women listened.

Although their recollections of how it happened differ, best friends Lynn and Angie became lovers in 1970. “We were happy. It was great,” effused Lynn.

“We were fed up with SDS,” said Angie. “That summer they said read Mao’s Combat Liberalism. That Cultural Revolution shit was offensive to me. I’m from the working class. I said the revolution is not coming around the corner. I wasn’t under an illusion.”

“We were still living in an SDS house in the summer of 1970, but we knew about the Radical Lesbians in New York and Berkeley,” said Lynn. Two of the New York women visited them and suggested they start their own radical lesbian collective.

We were isolated. We called up the two other lesbians we knew in town and we put an ad in the Michigan Daily. We got a meeting room on campus. Altogether ten people showed up. Gayle Rubin held up a book at the end of the meeting and said everyone should read this. It was The Story of O. (they both laugh) “We didn’t get it, didn’t even question her.”

So they had an organization, Ann Arbor Radicalesbians. “We hopped right from SDS to radical lesbians with no feminist group in between. Two hundred different women came to those meetings. “Judy Dlugacz (who later founded Olivia Records and Olivia Travel), was one of the first. ‘I’m writing a paper on lesbians,’ she said. Then she came back with a little curly-headed girlfriend,” laughed Angie.

“We organized the first lesbian softball team in the women’s league,” said Angie. “Martial arts was an extension of feminism.”

“We made a publication called the Purple Star. I wrote an article called The Personal is Political,” said Angie. “That was before the butch-femme diatribe. Our roommate confronted me and Lynn and said you are nothing but a butch-femme couple. I got mad and wrote an article. Lesbians and especially separatists were talking out of two sides of their mouths. On the one hand they overvalued everything that was butch. On the other hand we don’t want have anything to do with butch-femme heterosexual norms.”

Lynn said, “I cried when they called me a femme. I didn’t want to be in a straight relationship. It also made me feel less powerful. (to Angie) You got to be more powerful. I couldn’t play sports. I always knew I was cute and smart but wasn’t very outspoken. I felt I wasn’t successful.”

Angie defines butch as someone who had a high male identification as a child. “I don’t think anyone has all of one ID. Butch is a complex psychological construct. I definitely felt that applied to me. I was a super tomboy. There are a few in every elementary school. I got in trouble about what clothes to wear. Mom gave me Betsy Wetsy doll. I gave it to my sister. My friend who was catholic said she had a dream the virgin came to me and we will get turned into boys. I thought great!”

Lynn teased, “I remember the skirt she wore when we were working as waitresses in the union.”

Angie: “I had to wear a skirt to work so I just wore the same one every day.”

Angie: “We (Radicalesbians) went to other places like Bowling Green and gave talks to 500 people.”

Lynn: “You really have power, influence. We just talked about feeling like ourselves. We told them about how it came about.”

Asked about coming out as a lesbian, Lynn said, “It took a lot to come out to my parents. I couldn’t figure out how to tell my family. We were estranged. My mom said we were laughing at her.”

Angie: “I was really uncomfortable. I came out to them about 1973. We were totally dedicated to coming out here, there and everywhere.” Angie’s mom was always supportive. She never wanted to be left out of anything. Her mom was only 21 when she was born. “She liked to talk to everyone.”

Angie and Lynn lived together for nearly a decade, in various collective houses, always poor. One time four people slept in one room. “We weren’t monogamous. We had a lot of experimentation. I never really did respect nonmonogamy. It wasn’t for me. Group sex and…so stupid,” said Angie.

Then, in 1978 they broke up. It was traumatic.

Angie: “I was really lost.”

Lynn: “I thought it would be like my parents. They stuck by each other. To learn that it wasn’t forever, not what we thought.”

Angie: “We were so young, so inexperienced. We became merged. I felt like you resisted my having more separate things, separating more.”

Lynn stayed in Ann Arbor. Angie got together with Megan, her partner of 39 years. She moved to San Francisco in 1979, becoming a therapist and founding the first therapy group for survivors of sexual assault.

They never stopped being friends.

Women Carpenters in 1903

My friend and sister writer, Pam Peirce, is doing deep research for a book about her Indiana family and came across an article in the 1903 Indianapolis News titled “What Hoosier Women are Doing.” It’s a list of occupations with numbers of women for each: “There are thirty-four women dentists in Indiana.” My guess is that it was compiled from the 1900 census. Pam passed it along to me, noting that in that year “Seven women carpenters belong to the building trades of Indiana.”

Unfortunately, the clipping is out of focus, but it is still readable. I can see that “Four women in Indiana are cabinet makers, and eight work in saw and planing mills. Indiana has two women blacksmiths and ten women machinists. Nine women work in the coal mines of Indiana. Two women are marble and stone cutters.” I wonder if any of these female crafts workers were allowed to join unions.

“Seven women carpenters belong to the building trades of IndianaFour women in Indiana are cabinet makers, and eight work in saw and planing mills. Indiana has two women blacksmiths and ten women machinists. Nine women work in the coal mines of Indiana. Two women are marble and stone cutters.”

We know that women have worked in the trades since before this country was founded. Still, I’m surprised that Hoosier women had such a good representation in the trades in 1903. In contrast, there were about 6,000 washerwomen and 2,000 stenographers.

Pam also turned me on to a book, The Fair Women: The Story of the Women’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago 1893. The World’s Columbian Exposition included amazing exhibits of the results of women’s activities–in the arts, industry, science, politics and philanthropy. Most of these were housed in the Woman’s Building, which was designed, decorated and administered entirely by women.

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Handbill for the Women’s Building

In the book there is quite a bit of information about two women who were hired to do sculptures for the outside of the women’s building. One was Enid Yandell, who designed the caryatids, 24 identical female figures that held up the roof garden. It is said that the male workers with whom she shared a studio accepted her “without question.” One of the women managing the project said “Perhaps owing to the fact that almost all the workers were foreigners, and abroad it is not so unusual for women to do industrial work.”

At a party, Enid later had a wonderfully funny discussion about the propriety of women working with the widow of President Grant, who was prejudiced against Enid as soon as she heard that she was a “stonecutter.” Apparently the widow was still angry that her husband had spent too much time with a 15-year-old sculptor (Vinnie Ream Hoxie) who was doing a sculpture of Lincoln. Enid went on to have a career as a sculptor and in 1898 became the first woman to join the National Sculpture Society.

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The Women’s Building

More sculptural work on the Women’s Building was awarded to 19-year-old Alice Ridout, who lived in San Francisco where she worked in the studio of Rupert Schmid. It took the fair managers months to convince her to come to Chicago to do her work on the sculptures they required, but she did it.

Susie Suafai: Still Advocating

“Why didn’t the women’s movement ever embrace our struggle to bring women into nontraditional jobs? I never understood that and I still don’t.”

Susie Suafai, a longtime tradeswomen advocate, posed this question to me at the Women Build Nations conference in Chicago last spring. I can’t always catch up with Susie in the San Francisco Bay Area so I was happy to find her sitting alone at the conference where 1500 tradeswomen and allies convened in Chicago April 29-May 1, 2016. I sat down with her and learned things about her that I had never known in all our 35 years of working together.

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Susie (R) working registration at the Women Build California Conference

Susie is a large woman, now with graying hair, and still formidable. She punctuates sentences with a chuckle. I guess she’s mellowed as she’s aged, but I remember her as powerful, brusque, businesslike, intimidating and a bit cynical. It seemed to me that arranging a meeting with Susie was like consulting the Oracle. She was the goddess of employment development. Susie was, and is, the one who understood the big picture, employment trends on a regional scale. Early on she learned the workings of the apprenticeship system, and understood them better than the men who ran it. I remember a workshop that Susie led in the mid-70s. She laid out the complicated apprenticeship system for us tradeswomen activists, taught us who were the men in power and how to approach them with our demands. Susie was passing on what she had learned to a generation of feminist activists.

Susie Suafai came to California via American Samoa and Hawai’i. She was studying   history at San Francisco State University and fell into a job at Advocates for Women when she was asked to help prepare women for apprenticeship testing in 1974. Advocates, in San Francisco, had won one of two demonstration grants from the US Department of Labor to see if women could be recruited to construction work. The other was in Denver, Colorado. These were the first two federally funded experiments to recruit women to do this work. Susie went on to help place hundreds of women into union construction apprenticeships in the Bay Area and she later became the director of Women in Apprenticeship Program, which had spun off from Advocates for Women in 1976. She also spent about five years in Los Angeles working at the Century Freeway Project recruiting women into the trades. Electrician and filmmaker Vivian Price made a film about that project, called Hammering It Out. Susie was planning to be a history teacher but she ended up being an employment advocate, and there are many tradeswomen who credit her with creating their careers.

We are about the same age. I’m in my mid-60s and I am retired as an electrician and an electrical inspector but Susie continues working at her trade of employment advocacy. She’s now working part-time for Tradeswomen Inc. to invent new ways to bring women into the construction trades.

25thanny
Madeline Mixer, Susie and I being honored at Tradeswomen Inc.’s 25th anniversary gala in 2004

Now, about Susie’s question, which is also my question: why didn’t the women’s movement embrace the tradeswomen’s movement? First, when people criticize the women’s movement for leaving out tradeswomen, I always object. I say we were the women’s movement and we are the women’s movement. I never felt separate from the women’s movement. I always felt like I was in the middle of it, like I was part of it.

Like Susie, as a young feminist I thought that employment was the bottom line for women. If you couldn’t get a decent paying job you could not be independent. A young woman in my history workshop at the conference voiced the issue. “If you have a good job, you don’t have to depend on a man. Once you have a trade, you can be financially independent.” It’s the same thing we said to each other in 1970.

My mother had very few choices and worked as an underpaid secretary all her life. My generation had some better choices but not many. Most often cited were teacher, nurse or secretary. In the 1970s I found other feminists who agreed with me about the importance of work. We founded organizations and allied with lawyers and advocates willing to help us fight for laws and regulations to end employment discrimination.

Though I participated in the other struggles of the feminist movement for abortion rights, for childcare, for equality in marriage, for an end to rape and discrimination, I still felt the jobs issue was primary. And for women who did not have access to a college education, trades jobs and jobs in the construction industry made a whole lot of sense. Ours was an anti-poverty movement. We talked a lot about what we called the feminization of poverty. Statistics showed that female single heads of households were getting poorer. We thought introducing women to trades jobs could reduce that trend.

Our issue was not at the top of the feminist movement’s list and I think there were many factors that contributed to invisibility. Partly it’s about class. The leaders of the feminist movement, mostly college-educated women, could not imagine themselves doing construction work and they probably did not have family members who were construction workers. Few of us knew how much money union construction workers made. For many Americans the idea of working construction was considered a step down. But workers with union contracts make more money than nonunion workers. And, in general, “men’s jobs” pay far more money than “women’s jobs.” Susie figures she would have made a lot more money in construction than she did in the nonprofit world.

It wasn’t like tradeswomen didn’t try to fit into feminist coalitions. I made many attempts to collaborate with other women’s organizations like NOW and like the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women (COSW) of which I was a member in the 1990s. They didn’t brush me off, but they already had other projects. COSW was focused on domestic violence, a cause championed by local lesbian activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, and they had created a successful network of organizations. It made sense to not spread ourselves too thin. But at least I was able to expand COSW’s attention to the issue of on-the-job sexual harassment, a universal concern of tradeswomen.

Tradeswomen collaborated with feminist lawyers—in the Bay Area Equal Rights Advocates and Employment Law Center—to secure rights to equal employment. In these efforts we had great success during the 1970s. We joined in coalition with racial minorites to fight the dismantling of affirmative action laws and regulations. In this, too, we were mostly successful. But having laws and regulations on the books is useless when they are not enforced, a strategy employed by Reagan/Bush. At that point the returns on our activism diminished, as did our support.

Funders didn’t take us seriously. I remember traveling to New York in the early 90s and meeting with the Ms. Foundation seeking funding for our efforts. The young woman I met with seemed anxious to find a way to not fund us and to get me out of her office. She categorized our organizations as “associations” and so not fundable. But I felt her rejection had more to do with other factors.

The barriers to women in the construction industry were seen as too great to spend resources on for too little gain. In fundraising meetings with the Women’s Foundation in San Francisco Tradeswomen Inc. was told that projects they had funded to support getting women into the trades had failed in the past and they had decided too few women were impacted by these projects. Many just did not think it was possible for women to do these jobs and to be happy doing them. But maybe that’s because most of the organizers couldn’t see themselves being happy doing them. They (and we) had internalized sexism and self hate. But organizers were also practical. They (and we) strategized to find ways to impact the greatest number of women.

A big part of our campaign to get women into the construction trades rested on the ability to get the word out to women about the money that could be made in these jobs. We needed the help of feminist and labor media to spread the word. Until the turn of the 21st century labor unions in the trades wanted nothing to do with us. We were accused of taking men’s jobs. But I think feminist publications could have made more of an effort to tell our story. Whenever an article did appear in a publication with a big subscription base (as in Ebony), hundreds of inquiries came in. High wages were a big draw. But traditional women’s magazines were only interested in matters of style, such as makeovers for women with “hard hat hair.”

Our fortunes changed after President Jimmy Carter left office. While some nontraditional jobs like bus driver began including women, we soon realized our efforts at integrating the construction trades were failing after Reagan took office in 1981 and began dismantling affirmative action programs.

Susie corrected me: “It’s true we lost footing during the second half of Reagan’s administration but we also made some headway in the first four years of his administration. At the end of the day, Title VII (of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) was and is the law of the land and we were willing to and are still willing to challenge under Title VII.” It’s this optimism that keeps Susie going, and the conviction that we can still improve the lives of women by helping them make careers in the trades.

In retrospect, whether or not we were dissed by the women’s movement seems a moot point. The women’s movement was an amorphous collection of activists with little money and few institutions. The partner with real money and power that could have helped our movement succeed is the federal government. The institutions we built in the 1970s never recovered from Reagan’s slashing of affirmative action and job training programs. I believe our efforts to bring a critical mass of women (at least ten percent) into construction trades would have succeeded if the Carter Administration’s programs that we fought so hard for had been left in place. As it is, the percentage of workers in the construction trades who are female has stayed at around two percent, roughly the same as it was in 1981 when Reagan took office.

What I Know About Stereotyping

The culture of the construction site was manmade. No women had been involved in its creation and so we had to negotiate the best we could. I said to myself I had a father and three brothers, I should be able to fit in. I’d been a tomboy as a kid and thought I knew how to hang with males of the species. Every new job, each with a new group of guys, held new challenges.SFconst2

I quickly learned that my coworkers thought women were incapable of doing the physically challenging work of construction. They brought to work a stereotype of women as whiny, useless, money-grubbing weaklings who needed a man to give them worth in the world. (Most of these guys were divorced and still angry at ex-wives). They repeated to me an old saying: If this work was easy, women and children could do it. Something told me that when they repeated it to each other, the word they used was not women.

“Cunt,” whispered the ironworker tying rebar next to me as I tied pipe to it. Then he quickly moved on. After I got over the shock, here’s what I thought: “Ironworkers are a bunch of cowardly sexist dickheads.”

My coworkers told me women weren’t good partners on the job because we couldn’t be trusted to hold up our end of a 300 pound piece of floor duct. We were all afraid of heights, we didn’t know how to swing a hammer and hit anything. We were just there to get a man. Our presence on the job would cost the contractor money since it took us twice as long to complete a task. When criticized we would cry, so they had to be careful what they said to us. (Too bad that didn’t translate to not insulting us.) Their worth was predicated on our worthlessness, our lack of merit. You are only as tall as the person you are stepping on.SFconst

I went to work each day with the objective of overturning the old stereotype. I was usually the only female on the job, and very conscious that I would embody a new improved stereotype. I worked hard, but was careful not to work so hard that I’d be accused of breaking down conditions and brown-nosing the employer. I tried to work just as fast as they did, but not faster. I picked up my end of the floor duct and used lifting skills to save my back, while thinking to myself that nobody should have to lift 300 pounds of anything. I was not afraid of heights, but if I had been, I never would have admitted it. I never cried, even when I felt like it.

A worker was welcomed into the construction culture in a backhanded manner. You didn’t know whether you were being dissed or included. Race and ethnicity as well as gender were called out with jokes and put-downs. How one responded was noted. You were supposed to go along to get along.

The men could be empathetic while at the same time expressing homophobia, sexism and racism. I tried to come out as a lesbian whenever the opportunity arose because I was convinced this honesty made the job easier for me. On one job I worked with a traveler* from Arizona. We were assigned to tape connectors and boxes in the trailer while we waited for the deck to be readied for the electrical crew, so we had time to chat. He told me his wife worked as a nurse in a hospital in Oakland and the place was overrun with faggots. She was disgusted. Here was my opportunity! I admitted to being a dyke and probably noted that fags were a lot more fun to work with than his sorry ass. At that he did an about-face. He needed to make a confession too. He acknowledged that he was an alcoholic, that he was in recovery and that he was letting me in on the secret. That made us even, and we were friends from then on.hospital

Ethnic slurs were thrown at people with what seemed like a try at love. Wetback, Chink, Dago were used inclusively, like welcome to our club, this is your identity. If I didn’t object in the beginning, my nickname would be Girl. I objected, but not to every slight. You had to pick your battles. I let them know I wasn’t keen on sexist or racist remarks. No one ever said the N word in racially-mixed company, maybe because they didn’t want to risk getting the shit beat out of them. The exception was travelers who came from sister union locals in the South, but they only used the word when conversing with whites. Talking about football, one remarked, “I never understood why anyone would want to watch a bunch of niggers running around a field.” The Northern white guys on the crew were silent after that. Maybe they were seriously considering that football was no longer a white game. Or maybe they were silent on my account and would have agreed with the cracker if I hadn’t been there. I hope it was because they were so appalled they were speechless.

The Southern travelers were a different breed—bigots who bragged about killing cops and evading taxes. All white. The story was told about one guy that he kept a length of 000 wire under the seat of his truck and had once used it on a cop’s head. One day he drug up** and asked for his check. He was on the run, they said. White trash and dangerous.

That’s the way it was, and few of us minorities were exempt. On one job I had a Jewish foreman. I knew he was Jewish when others on the job started making gas chamber and oven jokes. Jewish men—at least out Jewish men—were rare on the construction site, although I knew many Jewish women who worked in construction. This guy had been a carpenter and later got into the electrician apprenticeship. He was a skilled mechanic and a competent foreman with an upbeat attitude. He let the jokes slide off.

The job was an interior remodel of the Hyatt Regency hotel in San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center. Cozy and insulated, we worked on an upper floor of the high-rise, piping in the ceiling, running up and down ladders. The construction crew would assemble in the basement in the mornings and ride the service elevator up to our floor together. The hotel pastry chef, a stern Austrian, came to work at the same time and rode the elevator with us. He never spoke to us, we figured, because he thought himself better than a bunch of construction workers. An unflattering stereotype of Austrians immediately took root in my mind. Austrians equal Nazis. Our crew began to refer to him as Herr Pastry. My foreman always spoke to him. Good morning or how are you this morning. The pastry chef may have nodded but he never spoke or smiled. It became a game. The Jew would force the Nazi to acknowledge us lower class plebes (the irony was that we union workers probably made way more money than he did).

Our IBEW contract gave us a half-hour lunch break 12 to 12:30 and one ten-minute coffee break, which we took at 10 am. I usually brought a bagel with cream cheese for break. I’d be starving by 10 even after eating a huge breakfast at 7. On jobs where the ten minutes was taken literally, I found I barely had time to down the bagel, which required some chewing, and to wash it down with my thermos of tea. This job was a bit looser. Coffee break might last 15 minutes.

“It’s too short,” I whined to no one in particular while standing on a ladder with my head in the ceiling. The piece of EMT*** I’d just cut didn’t fit and I’d have to start over. “What a thing to tell a man!” came back to me from the Irish carpenter foreman whose head was the only one I could see up there. That made me smile. Irish guys—full of blarney.

“Break time,” someone yelled, and I looked down to see coffee being served in a fancy silver service with a huge plate of pastries beside it. The gift had come from the pastry chef, and for the rest of that job we had complimentary coffee and pastries at 10 am, thanks to the persistent civility of our foreman. My stereotype of Austrians crumbled. I’m still waiting for help with my prejudice against ironworkers and white Southern men.

*Travelers follow the work around the country when work at home is slow.

**To drag up is to quit the job.

***Electrical Metallic Tubing, a kind of pipe used in the electrical industry.