As Pam Bates and Judy Helfand celebrate their 40thyear together they marvel that they are still alive to do so. They nearly perished in the fire that destroyed their Sonoma County home in 2017 and killed 44 people.
“We were in bed hard asleep when a neighbor called to tell us fire was coming over the ridge. Then the electricity went off. Where we live that means you have no lights andno water,” said Pam. They barely had time to dress and throw a few things in the car. Judy grabbed photo albums. They gathered up the two dogs and the one cat they could find, let the goats and horses out of the barn, leaving the chickens locked in to protect them from predators.
Pam remembered, “It was really windy that night. As I was on my way down to the barn I looked up and saw undulating red-hot embers floating over my head. That was really scary. I could see an orange glow coming over the hill moving very fast.”
They drove out through flames; smoke so thick they couldn’t see the road in front of them. “I’ll never get over that experience,” said Pam. “We got through it but I’ll never get over it.”
The fires burned for a week and when Judy and Pam were finally able to sneak back to their 20-acre property they found their house, barn and outbuildings had burned to the ground. The horses and goats were singed but still alive. They had lost only one cat, their parrot and the chickens. “And everything else,” added Pam.
A year and a half later the couple has nearly finished rebuilding the farm they’ve called home for four decades. They bought a used motor home, parked it on the land and got to work, employing a contractor to build two yurts and a chicken house first, then the house and a garage/shop. Judy has planted a flourishing garden. The 25 new chickens are laying; many of the trees are recovering. Pam estimates construction will be finished by November. “And we’re still speaking to each other,” added Pam.
They met at a Women Against Rape meeting. “Judy was married to a man and seven months pregnant. I saw her across the room and thought she was beautiful,” remembered Pam.
Pam is a phenomenon in the tradeswomen community. She retired at 60 after 30 years as a union pipe fitter, one of few women to hang in through harassment and sexism till retirement from the trade. Judy is active with Racial Justice Allies of Sonoma County. She retired after teaching at Santa Rosa Junior College for many years. They have two kids, and grandkids who visit often.
Now green hills and blooming flowers mask the immense pain and suffering the fires inflicted on Northern California. For this old lesbian couple they symbolize renewal and a new chapter in life.
In an effort to record the history of the Tradeswomen Movement and the stories of the first women to enter the construction trades, I’ve been interviewing some of my tradeswoman sisters. Here is the first of many to come. As a sister electrician, I had heard of Betsy Brown but I didn’t get to know her until she had founded the first (and only) union contracting business in San Francisco (and probably the state of California) owned and run by female electricians.
Electrician Betsy Brown started her apprenticeship in 1979 in the Pacific Northwest where indoor plumbing and women’s toilets with locks were set up early on the construction site. So she was shocked to walk onto a nuclear power plant job in Texas and see (and smell) a quarter-mile-long line of port-a-potties. Betsy was, in the electrician’s lingo, a traveler most of her career because she had trouble finding work.
Betsy was born in 1951 and raised in San Francisco by a family of “Jewish Communist atheists.” It was a good life full of music and friends, she said. She was brought up on anti-war marches and union picket lines and she learned to be an organizer at a young age. She lived with her mother and three siblings for four years at her grandfather’s farm in Southern California while her father went underground during the McCarthy era of Communist witch-hunts. Her longshoreman father, Archie Brown, and two uncles had fought in the Spanish Civil War with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
Betsy got involved in politics early on. She said she got her organizing skills from her mother, Hon, a legal secretary. “Today I would call it project management,” she said. At 14 she was part of the Students Education and Action League, a multi-school anti-war organization. They put out a mimeographed newspaper. “We had the good fortune of the Board of Education deciding to ban the newspaper,” she said, which of course increased sales. She went to the police to get a permit for a march and they pulled out a file with her name on it. “Are you Elizabeth Brown?” Yes. “Are you Archie Brown’s daughter?” Yes. She was surprised to find that the cops already had a file on her at age14. She got the permit.
She was there in San Francisco during the summer of love in 1967 and lived for a time in the Haight-Ashbury. Then, at 19, she put her dog and guitar in her car and drove north. She ended up in Bellingham, Washington and spent the next period of her life in the Pacific Northwest.
Betsy was living on a little farm near Hood River, Oregon with her boyfriend, their two kids and two other adults when the collective decided they needed to get real jobs to make some money. She saw an ad for the electrical apprenticeship and thought “Why not?” so she drove the hour west to Portland to take the test with several hundred other applicants. She couldn’t believe it when she was granted an interview where they asked dumb questions like, “Do you really think you can drive to Portland everyday?” Later she realized she had been chosen to fail. The all-white all-male unions were under pressure to diversify. Her testers thought no five-foot tall woman could possibly succeed at construction work. She proved them wrong.
The apprenticeship guys assured her that it would be months before she was called to work so she thought she would have time to wean her month-old son. Instead she was called up within two months to work on the new I-205 bridge across the Columbia River. She left her kids with the collective and drove to Portland. The first day on the job her shirt was soaked through with milk. Her journeyman noticed and commented, “Baby at home?” That was it. “The IBEW weaned my baby and they didn’t even know it,” she said.
To work on that bridge, you had to walk a plank about 16 inches wide out to where work was going on 60 feet above the river. The first day every eye on the job was on her as she walked the plank. She was terrified of heights, but would never admit it to anyone on the job. Her journeyman told her, “Don’t look around. Just keep walking.” Eventually the others all went back to their work. During its construction, three men died on that bridge.
The main job for electricians on the bridge crew was to keep the pumps in the cofferdams running. One day the pump quit and Betsy’s journeyman didn’t show up to work. So, with all eyes on her, the first-year apprentice had to take the skiff out on the river by herself, tie it up to the cofferdam and figure out how to get the pump started. Once she did that, she began to build a reputation as a good mechanic. Her journeyman had instructed her, “You just have to look like you know what you’re doing.” That was good advice, she said.
Quick thinking during another near disaster also sealed her reputation as one who stays calm under pressure. Out on the icy river in the skiff one day the engine died and she and the journeyman were getting sucked into the river out amidst the barges and platforms with the possibility of capsizing.Betsy was able to grab a rope and tie up the boat before it got far.
Later in her apprenticeship Betsy worked on a paper plant in Newport Oregon, a fun job where she got to bend lots of rigid conduit. Her apprenticeship consisted entirely of industrial work. She had never done commercial or residential work when a downturn hit and she got laid off. She had finished the required school hours, but not work hours and so was not able to turn out (graduate) as a journeyman. So she decided to try traveling. Except there was a catch 22. Apprentices are not allowed to travel (that’s what the term journeyman means). But there was no way to get the required work hours in her Portland local. Betsy convinced the apprenticeship to give her a travel letter by telling them the union had allowed it, then convinced the union that the apprenticeship had allowed it.
Someone told her there was work in Phoenix, so she went there. In Phoenix they said work was stopped because of rain. Betsy countered that in Portland if you didn’t work when it rained, you would never work at all. Then they said she would have to wait for the next apprenticeship class to start, which could be years away. They told her there was work on a nuclear power plant in Texas near Houston, so she went there. She arrived alone with no connections and no place to stay but the IBEW sister/brotherhood there took her in and made her part of their family.
The job was gigantic with a thousand electricians and a wide variety of other trades. That’s where she encountered the long line of smelly port-a-potties. The job sucked. There wasn’t enough work. Boredom stupefied. “You’d be excited to get to run 20 feet of pipe, then you’d have to wait half a day for the inspector,” she said. Her electrician husband, Jim, brought the kids down and the family lived in a “road trash trailer park, the only integrated housing in the town of Bay City.” She worked there November to August until she just couldn’t take it anymore. Heat, humidity, boredom and port-a-potties pushed her over the edge.
After she left Texas, Betsy joined IBEW Local 551 in Santa Rosa, whose territory includes much of Northern California. She found work at The Geysers where she finally turned out as a “journeyman inside wireman.” She ran for office and served on the executive board of the local, the first woman to do so. When she found out the dispatcher was discriminating against her and others she tried to organize a lawsuit but no one wanted to join. So she took her tools on the road again, signing the books at several San Francisco Bay Area locals.
In San Francisco she got involved with the Two Gate Committee. Contractors had developed a system where union workers used one gate on the job and nonunion workers used another. Unions were prohibited from protesting with the traditional picket line. So workers from multiple trades formed an a-hoc committee to protest. The chant was “One gate two gates three gates four. A scab’s a scab through any door.” They organized a huge demonstration to protest the ABC, the nonunion contractors association, when their convention came to town. It was a huge gathering that lasted three days. A veteran of many demonstrations, Betsy observed, “It was so interesting to see how the police treated construction workers as opposed to war protesters. Police feel more brotherhood with construction workers.” The contractors sued two individuals in the committee and the Two Gate Committee then had to focus on their defense. Charges were eventually dropped and the committee disbanded.
Betsy next got a temporary job with the city of San Francisco as a traffic signal electrician where she worked for about a year. She said it was a great job, but she didn’t understand how much antipathy there was until she looked back on the experience. “(I used) whatever armor we put on to work with those assholes…because if you noticed it at every turn you’d go crazy,” she said.
On a jobsite, handing out two gate leaflets she ran into a woman from her old local in Portland, Jay Mullins, and they hatched a plan to start a contracting business, Thunder Electric. Betsy was still having trouble getting work and felt she either had to quit working out of the halls or go to work for herself. They started small. “We were two girls and a truck. We worked out of Jay’s garage.”
The IBEW business agent told them that as soon as they got big enough to hire a hand, they could be organized into the union. In the meantime, they worked on mostly residential remodel projects in San Francisco. In a serendipitous encounter at a bid meeting another experienced contractor approached Betsy wanting to partner with a minority contractor. It was a $250,000 job at the airport. “I said I don’t think I can bond this job. So he wrote me a check for $23,000 for that bid and after that he helped us get bonded. The hardest part of contracting is finding someone to float your bond. Once you have one bond, then you can get the next bond,” she said.
Jay and Betsy agreed they would take no jobs relating to incarceration or weapons. They worked on quite a few public works projects. As a San Francisco city electrical inspector I inspected at least one of their jobs—the upgrade of the North Beach sewage treatment plant. Thunder Electric had no trouble attracting and keeping experienced hands. “We were a good company to work for,” she told me.
Through luck and organizing ability they expanded their business until they were keeping 30 San Francisco IBEW Local 6 electricians working. Betsy found she liked working as an electrician far better than contracting, but she is most proud of being able to employ so many hands at union wages. She sold out her share of the business to Jay and another partner and some years later Jay dissolved the business. It remains the only Local 6 contracting business owned and run by women who started out as electricians.
Back in Portland Jay also found she had trouble getting work. “They don’t want you because you’re a woman and they don’t want you because you’re old,” she said.
Betsy really always wanted to be a farmer, and she gave it a go a couple of times. She tried apple farming in Eastern Washington but didn’t have adequate capitalization. After selling out of the contracting business she and Jim bought a small farm in Round Valley, California on the Indian reservation planning a peaceful farming life. Then her 19-year-old son got cancer and she had to find a job to support him (It’s a good story; he survived). She worked as a project manager for a contractor, then for an estimator.
Then she saw an ad for a job project managing a community center and housing project on the Round Valley Indian reservation. At the interview she asked where her desk would be. When they showed her she said, “Can you put a window right there?” They said sure and she took the job. She had learned from experience that you have to get everything you want right when you’re getting hired—salary, extra vacation days, benefits. “When they want you, you can get it, but after you’re hired you can’t,” she said. She took over the project management and was able to train a crew of local Native American tribal members to continue it. Now she is organizing a co-op of marijuana growers. Those organizing skills she learned as an activist and a contractor have come in handy in “retirement.”
Address to the University of Washington Labor Archives gathering May 12, 2018
Tradeswomen sisters, friends and advocates! Today we celebrate the victory of our movement to integrate the construction trades. Women have achieved parity. Sexual harassment and sex discrimination are things of the past.
The truth is that after nearly a half century of organizing, our movement has failed to achieve parity or even a critical mass of women in the construction trades. But we have made some amazing gains. I want to talk about that and I want to pose a question to you all.
Let me give a little background and then we’ll hear from the distinguished activists on our panel and in the audience. Thanks to Conor Casey and the UW Labor Archives we have a panel of veteran tradeswomen foremothers. These crones are woke!
Here’s my backstory. I grew up in Yakima, went to college at Washington State University in Pullman and then moved to Seattle (the big city) in 1974.
I know many of you are as old as I am and were here in the 1970s. For those who were not, let me try to paint a picture of the times. Does anyone remember the admonition “Will the last person to leave Seattle turn out the lights?” That was in 1971. Remember the recession? Boing, the main employer in town, had laid off thousands of workers and the city was in a funk.
I was a young person in my 20s just trying to survive. With a degree in journalism, I worked as a temporary office worker, as a parking lot attendant, as a community organizer in the VISTA program, as a reporter at The Facts newspaper, all the while looking for a job or a better job. When I couldn’t get hired as a cocktail waitress, I was offered a “job” as a topless dancer working for tips.
We lived collectively, partly to save money but also because we believed in collective living. Those big mansions on Capitol Hill made great collective houses. We struggled to pay for groceries and heat. But at least rent was much less expensive than it is now.
Tradeswoman historian Vivian Price wrote about this period: “Seattle was a magnet city in the 1960’s and 1970’s, attracting people who were interested in social change to move there…Seattle was on the cutting edge of social movements. It was a city known for being a center for the women’s movement, with a thriving lesbian and gay culture, a strong old and New Left, and a vibrant movement among communities of color. Activists from each of these movements crossed paths and in some cases supported one another’s efforts. In some cases, support became collaboration, to each other’s mutual advantages.”
The city was a cauldron of dissent. Left and communist organizations flourished. The Vietnam War continued. Angry discontented citizens demonstrated in the streets. Many people felt the only solution to our foreign policy crisis was to overthrow the state. Bombings were frequent.
At the same time community activists sought to build new institutions in sectors that were not serving us—women’s and poor people’s health care, medicine, the food industry, banking, transportation, living arrangements, marriage, work. The University YWCA became a focal point of women’s organizing.
The 1963 Equal Pay Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act gave us new employment rights, but they had not yet extended to the construction trades. We formed an organization, Seattle Women in Trades. We were just rabble—unemployed women who wanted good paying jobs. From the beginning we had two powerful adversaries—the contractors and the unions.
Our struggle was for affirmative action. We demanded access to jobs that had been denied to us. We saw ourselves as part of the feminist movement and also the civil rights movement.
In Seattle we collaborated with several other organizations:
Mechanica, founded in 1973 and connected with the YWCA, sought to help women find jobs in nontraditional fields
United Construction Workers Association, a group of black people led by Tyree Scott and Bev Sims who had been agitating for entry to the construction trades since the 1960s
The Alaska Cannery Workers Association, active since the 1930s, was made up of Filipino workers who traveled to Alaska to work
The Northwest Labor and Employment Law Office, LELO, founded by United Construction Workers, Alaska Cannery Workers and the farmworkers union, in 1973
Even at that time Seattle was miles ahead of other cities in regard to affirmative action. And this is the question I pondered for decades and I hope you will help me answer: Why was Seattle so far ahead? Let me pose some possible answers.
First, the Northwest has a history of radical dissent and union organizing that goes way back. We stood on the shoulders of those activists
Women, laid off elsewhere after WWII, were still working in the shipyards by the 1970s. I heard about women working mucking out the tankers.
The black freedom movement had a profound impact on women’s fight for equal employment. United Construction Workers led the way in the 1960s and early 70s with street actions.
Black men had filed a class action lawsuit in 1969, which resulted in the Seattle plan. It became a national model for affirmative action in the construction industry.
Radical Women, Clara Fraser and the fight to integrate Seattle City Light was crucial. I wish I had time to tell this story. Women who got in as line workers were subjected to horrific harassment. One woman, Heidi Durham, fell from a power pole and broke her back.
Mechanica and early feminist organizing through the YWCA.
Supporters within the city government created local goals and timetables for women in nontraditional jobs–12% in 1973.
Finally I credit individual humans. Pat Anderson, one of the original organizers of WIT, worked closely with UCWA, ACWA and LELO. She was the glue that held our coalition together. Pat died in 2009. I don’t want her contribution to our movement to be lost to history.
I say we failed to achieve critical mass, but let’s look at some of what we accomplished on a national scale.
Our 1976 lawsuit against the US Department of Labor (USDOL) gave us Federal regulations laying out goals and timetables for women and minorities in the construction trades.
We pushed for and won state and local affirmative action programs.
There had been no women, and then our numbers increased to 2.7 percent in the construction trades, about where they have remained ever since.
We succeeded in integrating some nontraditional blue-collar jobs like bus driver, mail carrier, police and firefighter.
We built coalitions with others in the civil rights movement.
We organized awesome conferences and trade fairs like the 39thWashington Women in Trades fair yesterday. Our next international conference, Women Building the Nation, will be here in Seattle October 12-14, 2018.
We collaborated with unions and the labor movement.
We worked to get women’s issues addressed in contract negotiations.
Through court cases, we made laws against sex harassment.
We implemented sexual harassment training of foremen, contractors and coworkers.
With few resources, we built organizations in many states and a national network of organizers
We addressed unmanly issues such as PPE and on-the-job safety.
We created publications like Tradeswomen Magazineas a way to tell our stories and interact with tradeswomen around the country and the world.
We built a vibrant diverse international movement still active today. I would argue that we changed the world.
I was one of the founders of Seattle Women in Trades. When we first started we were just a bunch of women who wanted decent work. Why did we want jobs in construction? Money. Trades jobs paid three or four times what “women’s jobs” paid, enough to support a family. Also we wanted an escape from confining office work. We wanted an escape from pumps and pantyhose. We wanted to build something. We wanted to break down the barriers.
In the 1970s we were lucky to have CETA, a federal job-training program. In Seattle we had Seattle Opportunities Industrialization Center, which had classes in electrical wiring, plumbing, carpentry. That six-month program was my destination. But women first had to reckon with sexism. I was asked if I could type and when I replied yes (the last time I admitted that), they told me I was not eligible for the electrical training program because I already had skills that would just go to waste. Fast-talking and possibly a threat got me in and that training was the basis for my career as an electrician.
My goal was to get into the electricians union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. But when I applied, I was rejected. They said I was too old. I was 26. That’s when I decided to move to San Francisco.
I arrived in San Francisco in the fall of 1976. There it was the same story. We founded organizations for women in blue-collar nontraditional work, but most of us were still wannabes. We still didn’t have jobs and the construction unions’ doors were still closed to us, though they were feeling pressure to integrate. I started a contracting business with a partner, and then joined Wonder Woman Electric, an all-female contracting company. Later, in 1980, I was able to join the union only because San Francisco was experiencing a construction boom and they needed skilled workers.
In 1976, with the help of several feminist law firms including Equal Rights Advocates and Employment Law Center in San Francisco, women sued the USDOL for discrimination. This lawsuit resulted in goals and timetables for women in construction trades, 6.9 percent at the beginning. Seattle was used as a model in the 1978 federal regulations. Of the eleven women who signed on to the lawsuit, three were from Seattle Women in Trades: Diane Jones, Mary Lou Sumberg and Beverly Sims. The others were from San Francisco, Washington DC, Fairbanks Alaska and Walla Walla WA.
When tradeswomen heard about the federal regulations, signed into law 40 years ago on May 8, 1978, we celebrated! We did the math and figured it would only be a few years until we achieved critical mass in the trades. We thought if we could just get to ten percent, we would be less isolated and might be able to change the male culture of the construction site. If Jimmy Carter had stayed in the White House we might have made it, but in 1980 Reagan was elected and he immediately began dismantling affirmative action programs. We still had the laws, but no enforcement.
The right wing successfully challenged our old organizing strategies. In the 90s and aughts in California and Washington anti-affirmative action ballot measures essentially made affirmative action illegal. We could no longer do targeted enforcement in these states. Affirmative action, the most important tool we had to fight employment discrimination, was effectively dead. Class action lawsuits had been an effective tactic in the 70s, but new restrictions have put an end to that.
Here’s my short answer to the question: Why was Seattle so far ahead?
People of color (men and women) paved the way for women fighting for affirmative action.
The first class action lawsuit filed in 1969 by LELO succeeded in creating the Seattle Plan, an early affirmative action plan.
We formed effective coalitions with other organizations. Tradeswomen were and still are a tiny demographic and coalitions are necessary.
Seattle’s kickass feminist activists built some of the earliest and most effective tradeswomen advocacy organizations. Some of them are here with us today.
We have some distinguished activists from the Tradeswomen Movement here today, women who have spent their lives in service to our cause. I’d like to introduce Connie Ashbrook, the founder and ED (retired) of Oregon Women in Trades and Nettie Doakes of Seattle City Light. Now let’s hear from the tradeswomen panelists: Plumber Paula Lukaszek, Ironworker Randy Loomans, and Plumber Zan Scommodau.
To cap off my trip to Seattle, I visited some of my old haunts with a friend from back in the day. I was surprised to see the Comet Tavern still there on the edge of Capitol Hill. So much else has changed in Seattle. When I told the bartender I’d danced on the bar the night Nixon resigned, August 9, 1974, he said, “This beer’s on the house.”
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.
As a UC Berkeley student Madeline was active in student government
With mom and one of her big sisters
Madeline and her daughter Christie at the UC Berkeley Women’s Faculty Club
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.
A bunch of tradeswomen activists organized Washington Women in Trades in 1978 and its been sponsoring the Women in Trades Career Fair annually ever since. This was its 39th year and I was delighted to be in Seattle last weekend to see the biggest women’s trades fair ever.
A man came up to me and said proudly, “That’s my daughter on the poster.”
The first T-shirt made by Seattle Women in Trades, 1974
Using a computer simulation to teach spray painting
She’s giving them a pep talk. You can do it!
I met up with Connie Ashbrook, the recently retired director of Oregon Tradeswomen Inc., one of the most successful recruitment and training organizations in the country. She introduced me to some of the Northwest tradeswomen movers and shakers.
Connie Ashbrook and Betty Lock, retired regional USDOL Women’s Bureau director
Nettie Doakes works the WWIT table
My favorite part was the demonstrations. You could fire up the chain saw. You could don climber’s gear and the women of Seattle City Light would teach you how to climb a pole. Sit up in the cab of a big truck. Try walking on stilts with the painters. The welders showed me how to use the plasma cutter.
The show was at Seattle Center, home of the space needle, so Connie and I had to go up. I had a vision of drinking a fancy beer while taking in the 360 degree view of the city and the sound. But the space needle was a construction site in the middle of a major renovation! That meant we got to watch the glaziers installing thick glass windows. Cool. And there was a woman on the crew!
In the wake of harassment allegations against sexual predators including movie moguls and our president, tradeswomen applaud women who are telling their stories and rising up against this outrage.
Women in male-dominated occupations have been fighting this fight for as long as we can remember. We’ve been on the front lines of the feminist movement for decades defending our sisters, supporting legislation to protect women against sexual harassment and helping employers and unions see their responsibility on this issue. We and our fight have been invisible except to each other. Every female construction worker has experienced harassment and all of us can say #Metoo.
In 1980 I worked as the only female electrician on a big construction job in San Francisco. That’s how it was for us then, and that’s how it still is. Women make up less than three percent of the construction workforce. We are often alone in a crowd of hundreds of men.
I would do my job, dressed in boots, hard hat and work clothes just like the men, looking over my shoulder anticipating violence and hostility. In the porta potties amidst the ubiquitous dicks drawn on the walls would be my name underneath the sentiment “I WANT TO FUCK YOU.” I was called “the cunt.”
I spent my working life in what we now call a hostile work environment. We had no word for it then. There was no recourse. You could complain to your foreman or your union rep but they would tell you that the harassment was your own fault and if you couldn’t take it you should leave the job. You loved the work and you loved the paycheck and so you kept your mouth shut and your head down. And you depended on male allies. My tool buddy on that job—the only guy who would work with me—was a Hispanic/native man whose family had been in California since it was still part of Mexico. He had my back.
Some things have changed since then and the changes are the direct result of feminist organizing. In the 1970s tradeswomen who had been the target of harassment began to bring lawsuits against employers. They lost. When the civil rights activist Eleanor Holmes Norton, as chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President Jimmy Carter, released regulations declaring sexual harassment to be discrimination under federal law, women finally had legal backing.
In the 1986 Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson case, the Supreme Court distinguished between and prohibited two kinds of sexual harassment. Quid pro quo harassment occurred when women were made offers such as a promotion in exchange for a sexual favor. Equally important, however, was the hostile environment harassment where men could make the everyday workplace into a place of threats, hostility, offensive images, abusive language. This is the kind of harassment tradeswomen most frequently endure.
The movie North Country dramatized conditions that led to the first class action sexual harassment lawsuit filed in 1988 by Lois Jensen and female miners at the Eveleth Taconite Company in Minnesota. After these women won a $3.5 million settlement, employers began to take notice. Our working conditions began to improve.
We were helped by a few dedicated lawyers. In San Francisco we were lucky to work with attorneys at Equal Rights Advocates and Employment Law Center. Other legal groups included the National Women’s Law Center and the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund (today Legal Momentum).
That sexual harassment is now against the law is the one big change tradeswomen have noticed over the years that has improved our working lives in a male-dominated workplace. In many other ways our workplace environment hasn’t changed that much. We are still underemployed, last hired and first fired, often poorly trained and generally undervalued. Yet some tradeswomen have had successful careers and are retiring with good pensions. Some have become apprenticeship directors, union business agents, and chairs of state building trades councils. We have built organizations and networks across the country to improve our lot. I just returned from our national conference, this year in Chicago, Women Build Nations. It started as Women Building California, sponsored by the California Building Trades Council and Tradeswomen Inc. in 2001 and has now become international, this year sponsored by the National Building Trades Unions and Chicago Women in Trades. A record 1600 women and male allies attended. Workshops on sexual harassment were featured, as always. But the construction industry now has policies in place to train workers and to prevent harassment.
Tradeswomen are glad sexual harassment is now a mainstream issue, but for us it’s nothing new. We’ve been resisting for decades and still we persist.
My friend Marg was building a coffin for her friend Bob.
Marg was happy and excited that she could give back in this way, being a carpenter. But her project plans had to take into account her disability, a persistent back pain that had put an end to her career as a building inspector and that she now spends her life managing.
When we get together Marg and I often collaborate on inventions and engineer projects that never get built. But now she was actually completing one of them.
The funeral home had given Marg the dimensions of the concrete box that the coffin would have to fit into with the admonition that another coffin builder had exceeded the dimensions and at the burial the coffin had not fit.
At lunch with our retired carpenter friend Pat, Marg described her plan—a rectangular box rather than the typical hexagonal coffin shape. She used one four by eight sheet of plywood ripped lengthwise for the sides and ends. Another ripped sheet made the bottom and top. She made the handles with rope.
Pat and I represented tradeswomen and the 99%
Pat measures twice
Marg at the Women’s March with disability activists
“I had the lumberyard rip the ply for me, to save my back,” said Marg. “I can still use a Skil saw for short lengths but I don’t do ripping anymore.”
She screwed a ledger around the inside of the box so the bottom could just be dropped in and sit on the ledger. I’m an electrician, not a skilled carpenter, so I was proud of myself for knowing that a ledger is the ribbon of wood attached to the framing of a wall that the floor hangs on. I could totally visualize it.
“What size plywood are you using?” asked Pat.
“Half inch,” said Marg.
“Cross bracing?” asked Pat.
“Well, no,” said Marg. “I don’t think it needs it. I used structural plywood. Anyway, the coffin is now at the funeral home.”
Pat and I looked at each other and each knew what the other was thinking. I imagined the bottom piece of plywood bending with the weight of Bob’s body, the ply slipping off the ledger and the bottom piece along with the body falling out the bottom of the coffin as it was lifted up.
A moment of collective panic ensued. Marg frowned. She is a worrier.
“I’m sure it will be fine,” said Pat.
Marg’s description of her liberal use of glue and screws eased my concern.
Marg says there have been great strides made lately in screw technology. Hex head screws that go in easily and you don’t have to pre-drill.
“Remember when we didn’t have battery-operated drills?” I said. “I had to reach into my tool belt for a hammer and an awl to start the hole, and then screw in the screw with an old fashioned slotted head screwdriver. In those days we used ¾ inch sheet metal screws to strap our pipe to plywood. I had awesome forearms. People noticed my forearms.”
“Yeah, I had an awesome back till I fell off that ladder,” said Marg.
“And my knees were once awesome,” said Pat, who was recovering slowly from a recent knee replacement.