As the director of the Women’s Bureau District IX of the U.S. Department of Labor, and long after her retirement, Madeline was a friend to tradeswomen and women who sought jobs in nontraditional blue-collar work.
Madeline was an avowed feminist and for a time during the Reagan administration she lost her job because of it. Feminism ran in the family. She told me her mother, who lived to be 101, had been a suffragist and organized to get women the vote.
I think Madeline’s life goal was to make it possible for women to have access to jobs that could make them independent of men. Her own life experience as a divorced mother of a young child was the driving force behind her feminism. At the time women didn’t have so many options.
Madeline and her daughter Christie at the UC Berkeley Women’s Faculty Club
With mom and one of her big sisters
As a UC Berkeley student Madeline was active in student government
I met Madeline in the 1970s soon after I moved to San Francisco. As an activist trying to break barriers to women in the construction trades, I was pointed to Madeline’s office in the old federal building. There I found her in a small room with one secretary as staff. The Women’s Bureau (established in 1920) has been virtually defunded by recent Republican administrations, but even then funding was shallow.
Long before tradeswomen had an office or a staff, Madeline allowed us to use a conference room in her building for meetings on Saturdays. Fifty women might show up and we’d host a wide-ranging discussion that often focused on sexual harassment (we called it gender harassment then; there were no laws prohibiting it) and isolation on the job. We tackled the issues of race and class, strategizing how to build an organization and a movement.
Madeline talking with Jane Beelby, who made a career as an elevator constructor, 1970s
Speaking to a gathering of tradeswomen, 1970s
Acknowledging her fans at a tradeswomen conference, 1980s
Madeline understood the importance of communicating as a way to to support each other and organize. We had the idea of a newsletter for tradeswomen, something that could connect us and help women find jobs in the trades. We began publishing Trade Trax newsletter out of Madeline’s office. It was a monthly two-page tract that volunteers mimeographed, folded and mailed. We charged $1 to get on our mailing list and a couple hundred women paid their buck.
In 1980, while Jimmy Carter was still president, Madeline called me with the news that some big mucky muck from the Department of Labor was coming to town. She asked me to put together a proposal to fund a newsletter or magazine. We were granted about $5000 and Tradeswomen Magazinewas born. The grant didn’t pay for staff, only printing and mailing, and tradeswomen volunteers wrote it, then typed it into columns and pasted it up one Saturday every three months. We published it for nearly two decades. It was the principal way tradeswomen communicated with each other around the country and the world during the 80s and 90s.
Later, after she retired, Madeline funded, out of her own pocket, the newsletter Pride and a Paycheck, edited by Sue Doro, which is still being published.
In 1979, Madeline, along with Susie Suafai and other advocates, founded the nonprofit organization Tradeswomen Inc., still going today. It was Madeline who first thought of the term tradeswoman.
I know there were many other projects Madeline championed, but she always kept us in her sights. When Tradeswomen Inc. foundered for lack of funding, as often happened, Madeline could always be counted on to slip us enough money to pay our staff person or to help us find grant funding to keep us afloat.
Madeline was an inspiration to us all partly because she never turned her back. In the early 70s she grabbed on to the issue of women in construction and didn’t let it go for half a century. Class tensions arose between tradeswomen and our advocates. We were a fiercely independent tribe and many of us didn’t trust government officials or academics or lawyers, even the ones clearly on our side. Not everyone appreciated the federal government and its representatives. But Madeline hung in there with us.
Our association was long and fruitful. We appreciated Madeline and we honored her frequently. At one event I introduced her as having witnessed more of my relationships and breakups than my own mother had. Madeline never lost her sense of humor. She reminded me that she was much younger than my mother. But, of course, she could have been my mother. We were about 20 years apart in age.
Madeline also roped her husband Joe into helping tradeswomen. He was an experienced grant writer and participated in many long fundraising meetings with us. Joe died in January after a short illness.
Madeline Mixer, never a tradeswoman herself, was arguably the most important brick in the house tradeswomen built. Her legacy of advocacy highlights the importance of collaboration. She never stopped believing in us.
“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.
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.
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.