Women’s Equality Day: Revolting in Yakima WA

The feminist revolution in Yakima, Washington was not televised but I can testify that we were just as angry and militant as the sisters in New York who got all the press.

In the summer of 1970 I got a job as a reporter at the Yakima Herald-Republic, returning to my hometown to raise money to finance my senior year at college. I’d joined the feminist movement and I’d brought along my mom, Flo. She was already feminist material, a prolific writer of letters to the editor–an activist at heart. A look at my first monthly pay check–$409–radicalized her further. She’d been making a quarter of that all her life as the kind of secretary who actually runs the business while being paid as a typist.

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Our NOW group’s poster from 1970

At that time, newspaper reporter was a non-traditional job for women. It was ok for women to write for the women’s section and the food section and to work as secretaries, but reporter was a man’s job. The reporters at the YH-R had been organized into the Newspaper Guild and this was my first union job. I was elated, although I knew the Guild to be a weak union. I felt strongly that the secretaries and office workers ought to have a union too so I started talking up the idea of organizing. That got shut down fast! The office workers made it clear that they felt joining a union would be treasonous. They identified with the owners of the paper, at that time the descendants of its founding family. So, at the outset, this radical feminist succeeded in making enemies of the women workers. But they had been predisposed to dislike me from the beginning, especially one territorial secretary who saw me as a threat and whose put-downs had me hiding in the bathroom crying—the only time in my working career.

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Me at the news desk “smoking” a cigar and reading the paper, wearing a sleeveless dress, a Mary Tyler Moore hairdo and black-rimmed glasses

In the newsroom, the editor predictably assigned me to the women’s page, where readers turned to discover which of Yakima’s maidens were getting married that week. My job was to type up the wedding descriptions, which involved all of the fussy details like the cut of the bride’s dress and color of the bridesmaids’ frocks. In journalism school and as a student newspaper editor, I’d learned well the craft of editing. In my world, these unimportant details didn’t belong in any story. My wedding paragraphs got shorter and shorter until–busted! Brides’ mothers had begun calling my editor demanding to know why all the important details were missing. It turned out some people thought, and I venture to guess still think, that the color of the bride’s mother’s dress is big news. So my editor returned to writing up weddings and I went on to the news desk.

I did want to write about women, just not weddings. The features editor threw a few human-interest stories my way: a legally blind woman who’d become a pilot, a man who tatted, a dog that could ride on the back of a bike. I pitched a story to the news editor about where women in the Yakima Valley worked. Agriculture, mostly fruit orchards, was still the economic base of the region. My own grandmother had worked the line at a fruit processor and I’d picked apples in high school. I was truly interested in the demographics, but also wanted to investigate where we were not allowed to work. The editor thought it was a pretty good idea, but later reproached me, saying he had not known I was a feminist. How could I possibly write about this subject objectively, he wanted to know? Word sure got around fast.

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My grandmother, Gerda Wick (R), sorting cherries. Late 1930s?

When I pitched a story about the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage, they bit. Maybe I could find some real suffragists who’d been part of the struggle to win the vote! Washington women got the vote in 1910, the fifth state to give women the vote, ten years before the 19th amendment became law, so I figured there must have been a suffrage movement. My mother, who’d grown up in Yakima, wasn’t born until 1913. She didn’t know any suffragists, but I got a few leads and started searching nursing homes. I did find women to interview, but they had been mostly too busy raising kids and running farms to pay attention to politics, they said. This I dutifully reported in a feature article. If there had been militant suffragists in the early 1900s in Yakima, I failed to find them.

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Me and Flo in about 1978

Yakima is a conservative place, infamous as the hometown of liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. When FDR appointed Douglas to the Court, the Yakima paper disowned him. “Not From Here” said the headline. Douglas had been born in Minnesota and raised in Yakima. Ironically, Douglas was nominated to the Court as a representative of the West. But he couldn’t wait to get away from Yakima to seek his fortune. He wrote a book titled Go East Young Man.

Though I was undeniably a Yakima native, like Douglas I couldn’t wait to get away from my hometown. But the prospect of living with my parents, working as a reporter and making trouble just for the summer seemed like fun. A small group of us formed Yakima’s first National Organization for Women chapter, meeting at the home of a woman even older than my mom to document the inequality we experienced. We listed low pay, poor access to jobs and humiliating dress requirements, like having to wear hot pants to work as a waitress. There were restaurants and bars reserved for men only; and all those cultural expectations that we would serve our husbands, bear children and become homemakers. Also, everything we read placed the women’s movement in New York City. We chafed at that version and wanted to show that sisterhood was powerful in little towns in the West too.

In the back seat of a VW bug on the way to the first meeting, the young woman sharing the seat with me whispered that her female lover had left her. Distraught, closeted, and with no community, she was looking for a friend to talk to. She saw in me something I had yet to see: I was a sister dyke. Later, I regretted that my own life experience was too sparse to understand or even to sympathize. I had yet to love and lose. I had yet to come out, even to myself.

While not well schooled in romance, by this time I was an experienced organizer, having planned and executed anti-war and women’s liberation protests at college. I’d learned how to run a campaign, how to get media attention. I’d written and performed in guerrilla theater plays and given speeches, painted protest signs and silk-screened armbands. I’d participated in consciousness-raising and I was ready to act to change my world.

We aimed our first action at a restaurant where businessmen lunched that barred women. We had read about McSorley’s bar in Manhattan, which had denied women entry for 116 years until it was forced to admit us that very summer. A journalist, Lucy Komisar, the first to test the judge’s order, was dowsed in beer by jeering men. Our plan was to just walk in, sit down and demand service. We doubted beer dousing would follow, but who really knew what the reaction would be.

Resisting authority always made me nervous but also thrilled me. Just that spring we students had staged a giant strike and shut down Washington State University over racism. Flo had joined me at student demonstrations against the Vietnam War. My mother had saved me from threatened expulsion for moving off campus by making my case in a letter to the university president. Women’s protests had led to the college aborting in loco parentis rules requiring us to wear dresses and to observe curfew. Old sexist ways were crumbling in our wake, making us feel the power of sisterhood. We were on a roll.

We had cased the restaurant and, as planned, six of us marched in and took a table right under the sign that read “MEN ONLY.” Flustered waiters ran to the manager for advice and we were asked to leave. Would they call the police to arrest us, we wondered. We weren’t doing anything illegal were we? We refused to leave but we did take up a table during the lunch hour while we were refused service. As it turned out, men didn’t give up their privileges easily, but no dousing followed our restaurant protest and after some resistance we helped the restaurant to see the light. We won! I don’t remember the names, or how many visits it took, but I do remember the determination, the camaraderie and the elation we felt when the restaurant gave up its policy and served us all lunch.

That summer our other protests involved wearing pants to work (handy tip: start with culottes) and pasting stickers that said “This Insults Women” on public signs and ads we deemed sexist (the ubiquity of these messages is hard for us to remember and for the young to imagine now).

Our NOW group chose as its summer coup de gras a rally to celebrate the 50th anniversary of women’s right to vote on August 26, 1970. One day, at my desk at the newspaper, I got a call from the New York Times. They were doing a story about how feminist groups across the country were celebrating Women’s Equality Day. Elated, I eagerly catalogued our victories and detailed our plans for the rally.

In preparation for our celebration, the artist in our group made signs that we posted about town, others secured a sound system and a soapbox. We planned to rally in Franklin Park, near the city center. We arrived dressed in 1920s garb, imagining throngs of women all excited to speak out about their oppression publicly, but the hoped-for crowd didn’t materialize as it had on the college campus. We gave a few short speeches, and then made the microphone available for other women to speak. No one stepped onto the soapbox except young boys experimenting with guttural sounds. Among the lessons we learned: maintain control of your mic and know your audience.

I couldn’t wait to see how my phone interview with the New York Times had come out. I rushed to the library to check out the paper and found the story–not in the women’s section. Our rally may not have been televised, but our little group of Yakima activists made the Times!

Epilogue: We went on to change our world.

Wedding: A Story About Family and Queer Fashion

“Jesus Christ, it’s 1979. Why do they need to get married? They’ve been living together for five years. No one in the family disapproves. Why do people feel compelled to have the state sanction their relationships?” Don let me rave. Neither of us could answer these rhetorical questions. He couldn’t have been any less enthusiastic about our brother Tim’s wedding than I was. We knew that neither of us would ever have a family wedding with all the attendant fussing, well-wishing, presents and cultural sanction, not that either of us would want one.

“You don’t suppose there’s any way we can get out of going,” he said in a resigned tone.

I considered this. Our attendance seemed like a small price to pay to avoid the disapprobation that surely would result from our absence. “We can stay in the background. At least we’re not being asked to be bridesmaids.”

I could hear my brother sigh on the other end of the phone. “To be a bridesmaid,” he said, “has always been a great fantasy of mine.”

“I see what you mean. If I could be best man, I could rent a tuxedo. Fuck! What will I wear?” Don was silent, and I knew he wasn’t worrying about what I’d be wearing.

“Don, if you’re thinking about wearing a dress, just forget it right now. This is not the big city or some trendy college community. This is cowboy country. You’ll get the shit kicked out of you.”

When we said goodbye, I wasn’t entirely sure I’d convinced him, and I wondered how my outrageous brother managed to stay alive without me as his constant bodyguard. He insistently challenged assumptions about dress and gender, which was a dangerous thing at a time when the moral majority felt its grasp on the reins of cultural definitions slipping.

The truth was, just by being my natural self, people—both children and adults—were always confronting me about the nature of my gender. They would yell out of windows or from cars as I walked by, “Are you a boy or a girl?” Or I would be mistaken for a gay man. “Faggot!” they would yell, and speed off before I could correct them: “You idiot! I’m a dyke!”

I had learned that knowledge of gender is extremely important to people. They need this information before they know anything else about you. And once they get you pegged, to be surprised makes them inexplicably angry. All their assumptions are suddenly being challenged. It’s like you’ve called into question some intensely personal assumptions about who they are in the world.

I figured the problem wasn’t me, but how people expected women to look and act. To be feminine required performing unnatural acts—shaving one’s body hair, wearing sticky make-up and carefully coiffed hair, being quiet, wearing odd clothes and uncomfortable shoes, walking with short picky strides. I had practiced these ritual gestures at one time, but the feminist movement had released me. I was free and I was never going back now.

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An example of what women were expected to wear in the 1970s. Hot pants were required for many waitress jobs.

Unfortunately, my freedom from convention left me completely unprepared to dress for Tim’s wedding. I had no dress-up clothes. As a matter of principle I’d stopped wearing dresses in 1970. Since then the contents of my closet had been recycled from thrift stores. As a working electrician in those days of butch dykedom, I could just wash my flannel shirts and jeans and wear them to the bar. No one I knew ever got dressed up, and if they attended weddings, they never told me. So what does a nonconforming, revolutionary lesbian wear to a heterosexual wedding?

At the airport I searched the Nordic crowd of Seattleites for Don’s dark head. I never knew what to expect. He’d been a hippie with a thick ponytail and full beard last time I’d seen him, but personas changed from year to year. He was not at the gate and I wandered until I heard my name called from a waiting area.

Then I saw him, relaxing back into one of the lounge chairs like a queen, newly clean-shaven and wearing giant turquoise butterfly earrings, a flowing scarf wrapped around his shoulder-length hair, tied in back. “I thought it was time to relinquish my male privilege,” he smiled.

In the short 150 miles or so between Don’s home at the foot of the Olympic Peninsula to Yakima, the land cracks and dries up like the edges of those Janis Joplin posters you rehang in each new collective house. Snoqualmie Pass takes you from a rich, dripping, evergreen rain forest over the snow-capped Cascades, past ski resorts and the shorn heads of clear-cut hills in to the Kittitas Valley, flat pasture dotted with Black Angus cattle.

Up over the Manashtash Ridge, a new freeway replaced the winding two-lane road along the Yakima River. Beyond irrigation, only sagebrush–ubiquitous in the valley–flourishes. From the west side of the ridge you can see the town of Ellensburg surrounded by the patchwork of pastures, ground crops and brown earth, and above that the sharp white peaks of the Wenatchee Range. As you continue east, your nose dries up and your hair electrifies, the sky turns intense blue and if there are clouds they look like puffs of bleached cotton. Then, just before the Yakima Valley appears below, if you look to the south, you see the round, white tip of Mt. Adams peering over those dusty brown hills, incongruous.

On that March day the chill air cracked and the sagebrush cast bright shadows on patches of snow as Don drove the Subaru down into the valley past big cattle ranches and their animals with thick winter coats, then smaller farms, past apple and pear orchards just starting to bud.

Our mother, Flo, rushed out to meet us as we pulled into the gravel driveway. She was dressed in her usual polyester pantsuit in bright colors. We hugged her thin frame in turn. Then, as she stood back to look at him, she brushed my brother’s hair away from his face. “Don, I wish you would do something with your hair.” (He had diplomatically removed the scarf.)

Don frowned. “Oh, Mom.”

I thought Don’s hair was beautiful—thick and dark and curly. I’d always wished I had inherited that head of hair from our mother. I might be wearing mine in the same long style. Instead, I wore my straight brown hair short, lately in the shag style Jane Fonda popularized in the movie Klute.

“Ok, you guys, come on in,” she said, “I want you to see the new solar addition Tim put on the house.”

Flo was never much of a housekeeper, but she was a genius at making this century-old farmhouse feel like home. We had bought the run-down five-acre place when I was ten, and remodeled it ourselves. Flo had filled it with antiques she’d collected from junk stores before they were called antiques and priced to match. She always had to show us her new finds.

We visited for a while, then went out to say hello to our younger brothers Tim and Terry, whose four-wheel drive pickups were parked further up the driveway. My parents’ place, which sat down in a hollow, had several outbuildings, all painted Swedish red with white trim like the house. The big old barn had been converted to a garage. Next to it was the chicken house surrounded by its chicken-wire pen. On the other side of the garage was the three-stall horse barn on which I’d painted a stylized picture of a horse years ago. Between them was what we called the doghouse, a rectangular structure that was once a container crate. Someone had given it to my father years ago, and he set it on a slab and cut a door in it saying he’d have a place to go when he was in trouble with Flo. Over the years we’d fixed it up into a nice little apartment with electricity and running water and windows. All of us had used it at one time or another to get away from the house. I’d stayed there on summers home from college. For the past several years Tim and Diana had lived there together.

Tim answered the door, a tall, solid figure with a sparse beard and lanky brown hair. “Hey, how the fuck are you?” he said. We passed hugs around. “I’ve got some great pot this year. We’re just drying out a little.” He pointed to the toaster oven. “Smoke a joint?”

Don smiled. This was what he’d been waiting for. Yakima’s hot dry summers are perfect for growing pot. Tim and Terry grew fine pot when it didn’t get harvested prematurely in the middle of the night by one of their delinquent friends. One year they threw seeds around the farm indiscriminately and plants came up everywhere. One or two flourished in the middle of the gravel driveway.

We threw ourselves on the old foldout sofa. Terry passed out beers.

“So, what’s the plan,” I said to Diana. What family events are we signed up for?”

My girlfriends are giving me a shower tomorrow,” she said. “The wedding’s on Saturday. It will be fun, you guys. We’ll have dinner at the grange hall afterward, and Tim’s friend Duane plays in a band. We can all dance. Tim’s been taking dancing lessons.” Diana was a dancer and a ballet teacher. I don’t believe Tim had ever danced in his life or wanted to.

“What are you wearing,” I asked.

Diana waltzed over to the closet and pulled out a plain white dress that was made interesting by the triangular pieces of green hanging like stalactites from the hem. It reminded me of a costume I’d seen in a performance of Peter Pan. “I made it myself,” she beamed.

“It’s beautiful,” Don and I exclaimed in unison. We looked at Tim.

“Bought a suit,” he shrugged.

“It’s very handsome,” said Diana, replacing the dress in the closet and pulling out a blue suit. “We had trouble getting it to fit in the shoulders. He’s so wide.”

Tim sucked at the joint and then smiled sheepishly.

“Now don’t worry,” Diana said, “You’re going to look great.”

“I have to go shopping,” I said.

The next day my mother and I set out to find me a wedding outfit. Together we slogged through the department stores of my hometown, reliving painful memories of past shopping trips. I had never liked girls’ clothes, and could only be induced to wear a style my mother called “tailored.” Absolutely no frills or puckers. She’d understood. She’d never liked frilly clothes either. But she was five three and slender. I was five eight, and until my twenties, decidedly plump. More often than not, when I found the rare piece of clothing that suited me, it didn’t come in my size. This had always mystified me. I knew there were plenty of other big-boned gals like me, but the people who designed clothes hadn’t discovered us yet.

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Remember the polyester big-collared shirts and beltless pants?

Sears was filled with nothing but polyester. Pants with no pockets and elastic waistbands. Over the years I’d developed a clothing checklist. I preferred natural fibers, and I wouldn’t wear pants if they had no back pockets. “Don’t be silly,” my mother said.

I was indignant. “I intend to wear these pants more than one time,” I reasoned. “Where will I put my wallet?”

At Montgomery Wards I insisted on starting in the men’s department. I liked the color of a greenish suit on the display and convinced the clerk to let me try it on in the men’s dressing room even though I knew what would happen. Those seventies-style men’s pants were not made for my body. In the size that fit comfortably on my thighs, the waist was inches too big. These were not the kind of pants you could cinch up with a wide belt. They were the kind with the self-belt made of the fabric to fit a man’s waist exactly. When I emerged from the dressing room my mother was not impressed. “Oh, Molly,” was all she said. I knew she was right. I felt like a used car salesman.

We arrived at the Bon Marche irritated and frustrated. The Bon Marche is the Macy’s of Yakima, WA—clothes to aspire to. My attention span for shopping had always been short. And we had never shopped at the Bon when I was a kid. It was out of our price range.

I began to sift through racks of Misses slacks while Flo checked to see whether all the suits had skirts. Suddenly there it was. A rack of pants with back pockets. I was so happy it took me a minute to discover that the pockets were only half-pockets, not really big enough for a wallet. Why they do that I’ll never understand. “Fuck, do they think putting regular-sized pockets in would cause us to grow penises?” I asked my mother.

“Why must you use that word,” she scowled. “Try them on.”

The pants did fit me better than the men’s. I actually liked how they looked, even though I was still pissed about the pockets. “I hate giving money to a clothing industry that refuses to meet my needs,” I said. But I was ready to compromise. I knew I’d never find anything better.

My mother returned with a navy polyester jacket, size 12. Women’s jackets are always too tight in the shoulders or too loose around my waist, but this one wasn’t bad. Before I could complain, she said, “I’ll buy you the jacket.”

Later she asked what shoes I’d be wearing. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I brought my Frye boots.”

Flo insisted I come to the shower, even though the boys didn’t have to. It was just as inane as I’d imagined. Diana was obliged to ooh and aah politely over every gift, no matter how useless. My mother had anticipated that I’d come to this heterosexual event empty-handed and resentful, so she’d bought a present from me. I was as surprised as Diana to discover I’d given her a set of wine glasses with their own rack. Flo never said a word about it.

The day of the wedding I was still searching for an appropriate shirt to wear with my new outfit. My father’s closet had always served me well in the past. We’re about the same size and he has short arms for a man. Whenever I’d visit, he’d send me away with several of his old shirts, which I’d wear with tails out over jeans until they began to fray right at the spots where my ample breasts stuck out the farthest. I found a tasteful light blue number with a faint check. I was looking for a tie when Don breezed into the bedroom. He was wearing bright pink pants and a purple jacket, a pink polo shirt and platform shoes. He sashayed over to the dresser, pulled back his flowing hair and began putting dangly earrings in his pierced ears.

Flo was right on his heels, and she closed the door behind her. “Don,” she wheedled, “I don’t ask you for many things, but I’m asking you not to wear those earrings.”

“Flo, stop making such a big deal out of it,” he said in that artificially low voice he uses when he’s annoyed. “I’m wearing the earrings.”

My mother looked like she might cry. I wished I could make her feel better but I was sworn to defend my brother. “I don’t understand why you must make things so hard for me,” she said. She threw up her hands and walked out.

Before the end of the evening when I felt compelled to admonish my drunken father to stop copping feels off the female guests, he had said to me that he thought I looked “sharp” in his shirt and tie.

Later, when we were dancing, I felt the only wardrobe mistake I’d made was not to wear a bra. I hadn’t thought pointy breasts would really go with my outfit, so I wore an undershirt and let the breasts seek their natural level, about halfway to my waist. But jumping around with no support was painful. Don and I were especially popular on the dance floor, in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol consumed by the wedding guests. I never lacked a partner. All the women loved me.

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Women are Building Our Universe

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A thousand cheering tradeswomen make a lot of noise

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.

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California Conservation Corps members

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.

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Women from the FutureBuild program

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.

Advice from an Old Tradeswoman Activist

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. Tradeswomen are part of a larger movement for Civil Rights. We have more power when we coalesce with other people and organizations.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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).

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. Women have the right to be mediocre. We shouldn’t always have to be the best at everything.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. Just going to work every day and putting on your toolbelt can be a revolutionary act.

 

Song: Sister in the Brotherhood

Along with my musical wife, Holly, I wrote a song. It will be included in an upcoming performance piece about women and work by Director Pat Wynne for our Rockin’ Solidarity Labor Chorus.

Sister in the Brotherhood

When I was a girl my mother said to me

When you’re grown what do you want to be

For choices I had only three

Teacher nurse or secretary

 

Typing and shorthand had paid mom’s rent

So I learned secretarial skills

I didn’t really get what that meant

Till I had to pay my bills

 

They made me wear pumps and pantyhose

To apply as a Kelly Girl clerk

I still only made minimum wage

Filing faster only got me more work

 

Chorus

I wanna be in the Brotherhood

Where I can build something and the pay is good

I’ll have a trade and I’ll have it made

 

I answered an ad for cocktail waitress

But they were hiring topless dancers

When the man who was hiring looked at my chest

He said you’ve got the answers

 

No experience necessary

You did not earn a thing

They said you could make 50 bucks a night

From tips stuffed in your g-string

 

I applied for a job in the construction trades

They said can you type, I said yes

I learned never to give that answer again

Cause you just get stuck behind a desk

Chorus

(Spoken)

I was too fat to be a stewardess

Too angry to be a waitress

Too allergic for hairdressing

Too messy for housecleaning

Hated kids too much to be a teacher

Typed too slow to be a secretary

Wasn’t into helping people

As a therapist or a nurse

Not social enough for social work

What could I do!

 

I finally got into the Brotherhood

Where I can build something and the pay is good

I’ve got a trade and I’ve got it made

 

Now in the morning I hop out of bed

Pull on my Carhartts and boots

Just stick that hard hat on my head

Forget the business suits

 

No more pushing papers around

And not creating a thing

Now I can proudly say I built that

When I look at a building

 

I finally got into the Brotherhood

But when I had to pay my dues

I wrote my check to the Sisterhood

And my check was never refused

 

(Spoken)

The International Sisterhood of Electrical Workers

Has a nice ring to it

The Birth of Our Movement: Tradeswomen in the San Francisco Bay Area

The tradeswomen movement might be the most unsung subset of the feminist movement of the late 20th century. Like the feminist movement, it did seem to erupt suddenly, simultaneously, across the country and the world. All at once in the mid-1970s women began demanding access to blue collar jobs that had been the exclusive domain of men, like construction, utility maintenance, driving, dock work, policing and firefighting.

But the movement was not as spontaneous as it appeared. Women had been working for decades toward equality under law. Women had been included—however disingenuously—in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and then Title IX, the 1972 law requiring gender equity in education including sports programs. Young feminists, studying the statistics, were painfully aware that on average women working full-time made only 59 cents for every dollar made by men (in 2011 the proportion had risen to 77 cents). Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and efforts by black men to enter the white world of union construction, women began to organize toward employment equity.

In the 1970s and 80s organizations advocating for women’s access to these jobs sprang up all over the U.S.: Chicago Women in Trades, TOP-Win in Philadelphia, Northern New England Tradeswomen, Hard-Hatted Women in Cleveland, Nontraditional Employment for Women in New York, Women in Trades in Seattle.

In the San Francisco BNEWay Area activists first formed Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW) as a project of Union Women’s Alliance to Gain Equality (Union WAGE), a nonprofit organization for working women which included housewives, unemployed, retired, and women receiving welfare.

Early tactics included demonstrations and marches and efforts to enter union apprenticeships in the construction trades. The training programs, administered by joint committees made up of employers and unions, are comprehensive and free. An apprentice works full-time while completing training, usually at night during the program, usually four years. Hourly pay increases until you “turn out” as a journeyman in your trade. The apprenticeship system, especially in desirable high-paid trades like electrician, plumber, operating engineer, sheet metal and ironworker, had been closed to all but white men, primarily relatives of men already in the trade. The federal government had put in place agencies to enforce the new civil rights laws and women began to organize to tear down that wall.

Carpentry was a popular choice among women. The idea of working with wood, which it turns out construction carpenters don’t do much of—they mostly build forms for concrete–seemed romantic. The carpenters’ union was and still is the largest construction union with the biggest apprenticeship program and the most jobs. In the 1970s, it was one of the easiest apprenticeships to get into. Other crafts required applicants to take aptitude tests, submit to interviews and wait for months for a score but the carpenters used the “list” method, just creating a list of applicants, first come first served.

In 1975, with support from a sister nonprofit, Women in Apprenticeship Program (WAP) whose purpose was to place women in these apprenticeships, women learned that getting into the carpenters’ apprenticeship was just a matter of standing in line at the union office and signing up. The night before the apprenticeship opened, women formed a line outside the union door so there would be no question about who was first. Sleeping for one night on a concrete sidewalk seemed small payment for the opportunity to enter a training program which would also assist in placing trainees in construction jobs.

When the union’s doors opened the next morning the women who had waited in line all night found that their names did not appear first on the apprenticeship list. They also learned that carpentry was a “hunting license trade,” meaning that the apprentice must first find a contractor willing to hire him before he can be indentured into the apprenticeship. Hiring and, therefore, the apprenticeship was controlled by the contractor/employers who preferred to choose known workers rather than request new apprentices sight unseen from the union’s list. The women did travel to various job sites in the Bay Area seeking work, but no contractor would hire them. They decided to look for a lawyer.

Sue the Bastards

Filing a lawsuit was a decision not taken lightly. It almost certainly meant that the filer would become a martyr to the cause and would be blacklisted from future work. It could also mean months and years of shepherding a case through the system. And, as much as it was apparent that the unions were acting as the enemy of women, the women did not want to make the unions their enemy. The unions were the only reason trades jobs paid decent wages with decent working conditions.

Litigation cannot be the sole foundation of a mass movement, but litigation in the 1970s when class action lawsuits proliferated and very often resulted in wins, became an important part of activists’ strategy for change. San Francisco Bay Area tradeswomen activists were lucky to have advocate lawyers at Equal Rights Advocates, a law firm devoted to defending working women, and the Employment Law Center. Across the country, most women fighting employment discrimination were out of luck. No lawyer would take their cases.

Lawsuits filed by individuals rarely resulted in changes to laws or regulations. Women were pressured to settle for cash and to agree not to disclose the settlement. The lawsuit that had won affirmative action goals and timetables for women in the construction trades was filed by a coalition of feminist advocates against the U.S. Department of Labor in 1976.

BCAW by JEB
(c)2015 JEB (Joan E. Biren)

The case that resulted from the 1975 attempt by women to join Carpenters Local 22, Eldredge vs. Carpenters Trust, kicked around in the courts for 21 years and was finally decided in favor of the women. Judge Betty Fletcher of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the union to reserve 20 percent of its job referrals for women. In her opinion, an obviously exasperated Fletcher wrote, “The bottom line is that women historically have been systematically excluded from carpentry work and for more than two decades have sought relief through the courts while the Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee, the craft’s gatekeeping organization, has waged a relentless battle to preserve the status quo.” But the carpenters union ultimately was the real winner. For a time, the union complied. It found plenty of women in the San Francisco Bay Area anxious to enter the trade, putting the lie to its past complaints that women weren’t interested in construction work. Then, when the 20 percent apprenticeship goal was met, the union petitioned the court to end the consent decree. The settlement agreement failed to require follow up and when the judge’s decree ended so did the hiring of women.

The women’s lawyer, Alberta Blumin of Berkeley, essentially worked for free, but there is no accounting of the legal costs to the JATC for its “decades’-long legal recalcitrance and foot dragging” (Fletcher’s words).

Goals and Timetables

In 1978, when the new federal affirmative action rules and regulations went into effect, tradeswomen and women who aimed for careers in construction celebrated. The goal for women to be hired on federally funded jobs was 6.9 percent, increasing to 9 percent over five years. Apprenticeship programs were required to indenture 23 percent women (the number was one half the percentage of women in the general workforce—46 percent). If the unions and employers actually met the goals and the federal and state governments actually enforced them, it would only take a few years for women to achieve parity in the construction trades.

The new comprehensive federal guidelines that resulted from the Department of Labor lawsuit spelled out more than just numerical goals. Titled Executive Order 11246 and upgraded under President Jimmy Carter, the law acknowledged that a critical mass of women would be needed to counter the isolation and harassment women were experiencing in nontraditional jobs. The regulations pointed out working conditions and safety as paramount.

That year, 1978, union construction apprenticeships across the US were forced to induct their first women, but most women were still alone in apprenticeship classes with men. Many dropped out. In San Francisco’s IBEW Local 6, four women began the apprenticeship. One, Pat Snow, was able to retire with a full pension after 25 years as an “inside wireman.”

The large hope was not fulfilled. The 6.9 percent goal was never met except for a few isolated jobs, and never increased. Nor was the apprenticeship goal met, except in the Seattle IBEW Local 46 program, which for seven years was headed by a female electrician, Nancy Mason.

Anti-poverty strategy

A good percentage of women who entered the construction trades in the 1970s were college-educated and middle class. Economics was a driving factor. Unemployment was high and women had difficulty finding well-paid jobs in more traditional occupational sectors. But many women didn’t want to work as teachers, nurses or secretaries (the main historical choices). The feminist movement had posed the question: Why can’t I do this? Suddenly everything seemed possible. Women who didn’t want to dress in skirts and pantyhose, whose dream was other than sitting at a typewriter all day, who weren’t interested in teaching kids, found a welcome alternative in construction work. You could get up in the morning, throw on the same clothes you’d worn the day before, put a hard hat on uncombed hair and go to work. You could drive around town and point proudly to buildings you had built. In union construction work men and women make the same wages and the contract provides for decent working conditions and benefits.

Among the many reasons to choose construction work was free apprenticeship training and no requirement for college education. Activists saw the breaking of resistance to women in trades as a path out of poverty for women. Here was a way to counter the “feminization of poverty,” a shocking trend especially as more women in the U.S. became single heads of households. Such a demographic shift could end poverty for women and children all over the country.

Tradeswomen Inc.

Screen Shot 2015-04-18 at 1.32.07 PMIn 1979, Tradeswomen Inc., a 501c-3 nonprofit, was organized by a group of advocates including Madeline Mixer, director of District IX of the Women’s Bureau, US Department of Labor; and Susie Suafai, director of WAP. The goal was to access money to expand the already successful WAP project that was placing women in Bay Area union apprenticeship programs. For a short time, under President Jimmy Carter, construction jobs opened up to women. But after Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 everything changed. The Reagan administration immediately dismantled and defunded whatever affirmative action programs it could, and stopped enforcing regulations already on the books.

Women, however, continued to fight to enter construction and nontraditional jobs.

To be continued.

Thoughts upon Leaving the Tradeswomen Board

As I leave the Tradeswomen Inc. board, after four decades as a tradeswoman activist, I ask myself if there’s any way my experience can be helpful to all of you who are still actively working to help women enter the trades. Are there lessons I’ve learned that can be passed on? What do I know that might be useful to you?

I got involved in this movement because I wanted a job that didn’t require wearing pantyhose and pumps or sitting at a desk for eight hours, and I wanted a decent paycheck. These are things that haven’t changed. Union trades jobs still pay good money, even as unions are under attack and wages are slipping. Training in the apprenticeship programs is good if you can get in. They are still free and don’t require more than a high school diploma.

We still have good reasons to want these jobs, which are the same reasons we are kept out: decent wages and working conditions, a union contract, no distinctions between men’s work and women’s work. You don’t have to beg for a raise. All are paid the same.

The laws and regulations that protect us came about through our civil rights activism and through lawsuits. In California, they were abrogated through the initiative process and racism (Proposition 209 in the mid-1990s).

The original goals and timetables that resulted from a 1976 lawsuit against the US Dept. of Labor acknowledged that women must constitute a critical mass in nontraditional workplaces to succeed. Women never reached that critical mass and we still find ourselves isolated and harassed on the job, when we can find work. The Carter administration had our backs and women started to break barriers all over the US. Then Reagan took over in 1981 and immediately began to dismantle affirmative action.

The first thing Reagan did was to de-fund job programs. Our partner in San Francisco, Women in Apprenticeship Program, managed to hang on a little longer by sheltering under the umbrella of another program, but they, too, finally had to close. In those years, WAP placed women in apprenticeships and TWI advocated for and networked with them. We made a great team.

WAP had funding and a staff. TWI was always broke. We hired our first ED in 1983 right after we sponsored the first national tradeswomen conference (an all-volunteer effort). For many years our staff was one part-time director, always complaining of overwork and not enough paid hours. At every retreat we would pledge to raise enough money to expand, but I don’t believe we ever could until the 2000s when we got a WANTO grant from USDOL. There were times when we had to lay off our staff, and volunteers always stepped in to take up the slack.

We did keep track of what sister organizations were doing, how they got funding, what programs they sponsored. There was funding for pre-apprenticeship training programs but that wasn’t our mission and there were others in the Bay Area who did that. Still, in the early 1990s we agreed to partner with another organization (Women Empowering Women) to build a training program. I won’t list the mistakes here, but it was a disaster and we ended up $50,000 in debt.

Throughout its history TWI worked in coalition with other civil rights organizations to maintain the laws and regs we had fought for and won in the 1960s and 70s. Equal Rights Advocates (especially staff attorney Judy Kurtz) was for a time the center of this coalition activism. We had worked with Judy to sue the state Division of Apprenticeship Standards in 1981 for failure to bring women into apprenticeships in all the trades and later to hold hearings at the Little Hoover Commission. Together we formed the Tradeswomen Policy Council. When the anti-affirmative action measure, Proposition 209, went on the CA ballot in 1996, we were in a good position to mount an opposition campaign. We lost, and Prop 209 became law the next year. It put an end to targeted outreach and enforcement for women and minorities in education and employment, essentially making affirmative action illegal in CA. Tradeswomen never figured into the arguments about Prop 209, but we were the biggest losers. I’d like to add here, it was thrilling for me (and frustrating as well) to work in coalition with people of color toward a common goal. We were all part of a movement for civil rights, and I was sorry when ERA turned its focus from advocacy back to litigation.

After that, advocating for women in the trades got much harder, and Prop 209 is the reason California’s numbers of tradeswomen are so much lower than many other states. The only affirmative action law we can rely on now is federal. Executive order 11246 requires federal contractors to employ 6.9 percent women. That’s the number that came with the federal goals and timetables in 1978. It was supposed to increase automatically. Instead, we have had to fight efforts by contractors to lower the number. Of course, that goal is now rarely enforced.

The enforcement agency is the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which has been gutted under every Republican administration. Now, the only jobs they look at are what they call Mega Projects. A construction job must be officially dubbed a Mega Project (the SF federal building was one) before goals will be enforced. There are currently no Mega Projects in our region, and so there is no enforcement of affirmative action goals on any of the big projects going on in the Bay Area. I look in vain for a woman as I drive by the Doyle Drive replacement job, funded with federal money. As far as I know there has been none. The huge SFPUC water system project has less than one percent female construction workers. Our “progressive” city should be cringing with embarrassment at this number. Instead, city officials have ignored the issue. The other federal program that still operates in California is 29 CFR 30, which requires affirmative action plans by registered apprenticeship programs. Unfortunately, it is not really enforced.

This is the state of our state in 2015. Employers don’t want to hire us and they don’t have to. We don’t even know how many tradeswomen have left the trades since the recession hit and they lost their jobs in 2008. Nobody keeps these records. We do know that we are still last hired and first fired. Actually, lack of follow-up has been a problem from day one. What happened to those women who graduated from our pre-apprenticeship training program? We don’t know. We never have funding for follow-up.

Here is one amazing thing: Tradeswomen Inc. is still here! We have an honorable mission, to help women rise out of poverty by gaining skills and well-paying jobs. There is still much to be done and you can still count me as a member of the TWI team.