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.

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Wonder Women

My first close-up encounter with drag queens took place in a Tenderloin bar when I worked as an electrician for Wonder Woman Electric in the late 1970s.

An all-female collective of electricians, we did mostly residential work. But our regular commercial accounts included some of the multitude of San Francisco gay bars. Each of the bars catered to a particular subculture in the larger gay community. Lesbians had a few bars and coffee houses. But bars for gay men proliferated. There were bars geared toward disco queens, the leather crowd, the sweater gays, uniform wearers, beach bunnies, cross dressers, fairies, bathing beauties–really more than I could even imagine.

One day in the middle of the week I was called to a hole-in-the-wall bar in the Tenderloin. When I finally found a place to park the Wonder Woman van, it was blocks away and I had to lug heavy tool bags through streets lined with junkies and drunks. This was the bad part of town.

I found the address on Turk Street, a nondescript brick front building. The door was locked, but I saw a discreet push-button near it. I pushed it and after a moment a beautiful young man, far more femme than I, greeted me. He wore matching coral pedal pushers, cardigan and mules with little heels. He did not look pleased to see me.

“I’m the electrician,” I said hopefully. “Ok,” he said, looking me over. Then his perfectly lipsticked mouth curled into a little smile. “Come with me. We’ve been waiting for you.”

A small town girl who’d only lived in San Francisco for a year or so, I had just barely come out as a lesbian and had little experience with drag queens, transsexuals or transvestites, especially not the big city kind.

Stepping from the gray Tenderloin street into that little bar was like entering the Harry Potter toy store at Christmas. Lights and colored decorations hung from the low ceiling. Glitter littered the grungy floor.

I was surprised to see a good number of patrons at the bar in the early part of the day. Some sat at the bar, some at tables, but all looked fabulous. Most were men dressed in women’s clothing. Some dressed as over-the-top made-up drag queens, but most looked more like the gals from the office across the street, dressed in low heels and conservative skirts and blouses. I thought I overheard one of them say “fish” which was pretty funny considering I was the butchest thing in the room, wearing a flannel shirt, jeans and work boots.

The bartender looked like a tough sailor just off the boat who’d thrown on a shoulder-length blonde wig and serious makeup—several shades of eye shadow and bright red lips outlined beyond their natural borders. He worked the bar in a tasteful tailored Donna Reed housedress, popped collar and pearls, and ran the joint with cutting sarcasm. I felt like I was encountering the Wizard of Oz and had to keep myself from jumping back like Dorothy did when she and her three cohorts first encountered him. A person could not help being intimidated.

“Here’s what we need,” he directed me. “I don’t want the patrons to use the bathroom without my permission. They get in there, lock the door and stay. And, honey, we all know what they do in there.” I could only speculate. Drugs? Sex? Probably both. Lesbians had been known to use the bathrooms in our bars for such purposes. Where else could a couple go? And if they were quick about it and others didn’t have to wait too long, we were usually forgiving.

The bartender continued, “I want to be able to push a button right here under the bar to unlock the bathroom door when someone wants to use it. Can you set that up?”

This drag queen was also a Control Queen! I looked around the room at the disapproving patrons. I was going to be responsible for limiting their bathroom privileges. I was already the villain and I hadn’t even done anything yet. But I was certainly capable of installing a push button and door lock. It would be all low voltage, so I’d just have to put in a transformer and run low voltage cable. I wouldn’t need to run pipe or install junction boxes. “I can do that,” I said.

I got to work, planning the job. Could I run the low voltage cable under the floor? Yes, said the bartender. There was a full basement. The beautiful young man ushered me down to the basement, a dank, spiderwebby space with a hundred years of grime on every surface. I had to figure out where to drill through the floor to run wires from the bar to the door lock. The job took me up and down the stairs and back to the van to retrieve materials. I focused on my work and I was relieved that the patrons went back to drinking and dishing.

Finally the job was finished. I emerged from the basement coated in its crud, looking more than ever like a construction worker.

“Let’s test it,” I said. I gave a nod to the bartender who pushed the button. The door buzzed open and, with a flourish, a patron entered the bathroom. It worked! Like electricians everywhere, I always got a thrill when I flipped the switch and my masterpiece (no matter how small) performed as intended. But I didn’t usually have an audience.

These patrons understood drama far better than I. The dramatic moment of the day was all mine. It was as if I were making my big entrance, walking down the runway, head held high. They had all been watching closely and when the door opened, they let out a big cheer. I bowed to the applause. The dyke and the drag queens. One big happy family.

Canadian Women Working

Vancouver, BC

CarlaCement
Carla is a cement mason and a first aid captain. When I noted her pink hard hat, she said, “It was free.”

Look up in this city of highrises and you will see cranes. There’s lots of construction going on and presumably lots of jobs for construction workers. As in the States, I’m always on the lookout for women, and I found quite a few here. Most of the women I saw were flaggers, just like at home. But I did run into a cement mason on the street, so I’m confident there are many more women inside the buildings working in different trades.

On our way to the west coast of Vancouver Island, we saw women working at non-traditional jobs on the BC Ferries, a public/private partnership. High voltage line workers were upgrading poles and lines along Highway 4 on the island, and I wondered if any of them were electrician sisters.

Just from my little anecdotal evidence, I think Canada is surpassing the US in breaking down barriers to women in construction. The signs are better here, too. Most are in a universal sign language that doesn’t require words. We saw not a single sign that said MEN WORKING.

Women are Building Our Universe

cheering
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.

 

Tradeswomen at Work

Whenever I see tradeswomen at work, I try to take their pictures. Sometimes I even get a chance to talk to them. There’s a big street project going on at the Glen Park BART station and I’ve made friends with Jackie the laborer who is usually flagging when I cross the street. She is often wearing a t-shirt that reads Fight Like a Girl. There’s a female engineer working on this project too, and I did get a couple of pictures. That’s her conferring with a foreman.

Jack the laborer
Jackie the laborer
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Jackie and coworker

Engineer

 

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