OTTERS Thank President Carter

For the past several years I’ve been meeting on zoom with a group of old women trades workers and organizers as we discuss and record our collective history. We call ourselves the OTTERS (Old Tradeswomen Talking Eating and Remembering Shit). Since the 1970s we have fought to open jobs for women and minorities that had been closed to us, like construction work. Affirmative action was our issue and for a short time during Jimmy Carter’s administration, we had support from the federal government. Our fortunes reversed after the election of Reagan, whose labor policies were crafted to push women out of the workforce and back into the kitchen. Our vision of employment equity became much harder to realize, but we didn’t stop. We’ve created training programs and tradeswomen organizations that have opened opportunities for women all over the U.S. We wanted to thank President Carter for his part in the success of our movement, so we wrote him a letter.

The Honorable Jimmy Carter
The Carter Center
453 Freedom Parkway NE
Atlanta, GA 30307

Dear President Carter,

We are writing to thank you for supporting Affirmative Action and Equal Employment Laws while you were in the White House and beyond. More importantly, we want to thank you for enforcing those laws. It made a difference for us and so many other women who were able to enter the construction trades because of your commitment. 

We are a group of older tradeswomen from around the country. We have come together to share stories, remember old times, and to document our history. 

We are the OTTERS. Old Tradeswomen Talking, Eating and Remembering Sh#*. 

During several of our meetings we were trying to figure out when and what was the ‘watershed’ moment when we began working together. We had been working in our respective states but then something happened. You may wonder what it was that brought us together and allowed us to begin meeting and working on a national level to reach out to women and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) for training in trade and technical jobs.

We agreed it was, in large part, due to you and your administration’s commitment to equality. Enforcing the laws and ensuring those enforcement agencies were properly funded and staffed.

Many of our OTTERS members started Tradeswomen organizations that provide pre-apprenticeship training for women and find partnering with Habitat for Humanity a wonderful experience for our students. Many of us are still engaged in advocacy and still working toward a more diverse workforce. You continue to be an inspiration to all of us. Thank you. 

Yours in Equity, 

Lisa Diehl, West Virginia

United Brotherhood of Carpenters 7 years

Co-Chair 2nd National Tradeswomen Conference

Non-Traditional Advocacy 30 years

Founder, West Virginia Women Work

Dr. Lynn Shaw, California 

Miner/Steelworker/Longshoreworker/Electrician: 25 years 

Founder of WINTER, Women in Non-Traditional Employment Roles Los Angeles

Ronnie Sandler, New Hampshire

First woman in any of the building trades in Michigan 1976 

Carpenter and contractor for 12 years

First woman to work highway construction in the state of New Hampshire

Designed and ran trades training programs for women Michigan, Vermont, and New Hampshire

On site compliance officer for Maine Department of Transportation 3 major bridge projects

Nettie Dokes, Washington

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Line worker 30+ years

First African American woman Line worker (high voltage electrician) in US 

Seattle Women in Trades Executive Board 25+ years

Pre-apprenticeship instructor 15 years

President and CEO of Workforce Alchemist-a consulting firm for Women in Construction 5 years

Connie Ashbrook, Oregon

Elevator Constructor 17 years

Founder and Executive Director (retired) Oregon Tradeswomen Network

Dale McCormick, Maine

First woman Journeyman in US Carpenters Union, 51 years

Founder and Executive Director of Women Unlimited Maine

Northeast Women in Transportation

Elly Spicer, New York

United Brotherhood of Carpenters New York City, 35 years

Apprenticeship Training Director 3 years

Kathy Augustine, Ohio

Computer Systems Electronics Technician 15 years

Executive Director (retired) Hard Hatted Women, Cleveland 16 years

Kipp Dawson, Pennsylvania

Coal Miner 13 years

Public School teacher 23 years

Coal Miner and Activist in United Mineworkers of America 13 years

Coal Employment Project- Coal Mining Women Support Team since 1979

Betty Jean Hall, Florida

Executive Director & General Counsel

Coal Employment Project- Coal Mining Women Support Team 1977-1988

Lauren Sugerman, Illinois

Elevator Constructor 6 years

Founding Executive Director of Chicago Women in Trades 23 years

Founder and Director of the National Center for Women’s Equity in Apprenticeship and Employment 

Marge Wood, Wisconsin

Plumber 12 years

United Association UA union member 35 years, Madison

Apprenticeship Consultant, WI Technical College System 24 years

Molly Martin, California

Electrician 14 years

Electrical Inspector 10 years

Founder of Tradeswomen Inc., San Francisco

Tradeswomen Magazine Documents Two Decades of Activism

Before there were facebook groups, there was Tradeswomen Magazine. 

Published quarterly from 1981 until 1999, Tradeswomen Magazine gave voice to a community of women all over the country and the world who were isolated and often harassed at work. We were pioneers, we had stories to tell, and the only people who truly understood our struggles were other women doing the same work. 

Our very first issue 1981

Tradeswomen Magazine documents an important period in our collective history, of a time when we were just starting to break down the barriers to nontraditional jobs, a time when we had to fight to be hired, and a time when every day on the job put us at the cutting edge of the feminist movement. 

We wrote about sexual harassment, racism in construction, affirmative action, trades training programs, health and safety, union apprenticeships, and we interviewed women about what it was like working in their trades.

Unfortunately, tradeswomen still struggle with many of the same issues we wrote about and discussed in the 1980s and 90s. That makes Tradeswomen Magazine not just an historic artifact, but also still relevant to the tradeswomen of the 21st century.

In the 1970s tradeswomen in the San Francisco Bay Area had been communicating through a mimeographed newsletter. In 1979 we founded the nonprofit Tradeswomen Inc. Then in 1980 the organization received a small grant from the U.S. Department of Labor with the help of Madeline Mixer, regional director of the Department’s Women’s Bureau. The grant allowed us to print and mail out two issues of a publication to individual tradeswomen and organizations across the country. After that, we depended on subscriptions along with volunteer labor to sustain the magazine.

We organized as a collective, usually with one of the collective members taking the position of executive editor. We did not operate by consensus–somebody needed to have the last word. The first editor, carpenter Jeanne Tetrault, had edited a newsletter and a book about country women. Jeanne convinced us that the publication should be a magazine and not a newsletter. People throw away newsletters, she said, but they keep magazines. This proved true. Over the years we’ve been contacted by many tradeswomen who saved all the issues and wanted to make sure we had copies of them all for the archives.

Summer, 1984

Eleven women composed our first collective. In the early years we met on a Saturday and typed our stories into columns, then cut them out and pasted them onto mock-up boards. The photographs were sent to a camera shop to be made into halftones for printing. After we picked up the magazine from the (union) printer, we sponsored a mailing party in which volunteers stuck a mailing label on each magazine, then bundled them into zip code bunches for bulk mailing. It was quite a cumbersome task given that we sent out about a thousand magazines quarterly. The mailing parties continued through the very last issue.

Over the two decades, hundreds of women participated in the publication of the magazine. It really was a community-based effort. Tradeswomen Inc.’s staff person took care of memberships, subscriptions and finances. 

From the very first issue, carpenter Sandy Thacker, whose photograph graces its cover, provided photos. We agreed that these images of women on the job were as important, if not more important, than our words. Anne Meredith and others also supplied photos. From the beginning we made an effort to feature photos of women of color.

Executive editor was a burn-out job. After the first year, Jeanne Tetrault bowed out as editor, and cabinetmaker Sandra Marilyn and dock worker Joss Eldredge assumed editorial control. From 1982 to 1987 with the help of volunteers as well as Tradeswomen Inc. directors Bobbie Kierstead and then Sue Doro, Joss and Sandra produced 20 memorable issues.

Then a collective reemerged with carpenter Barb Ryerson as editor. We began exploring digitization. I took on the job of editor in 1988 and was joined by electrician Helen Vozenilek in 1989. Along with a bevy of contributors, Helen and I produced nine issues before we burned out. Then electrician Janet Scoll Johnson assumed the helm to publish 10 beautiful issues as we went to color covers. When Janet burned out, the Tradeswomen Inc. director, Bobbi Tracy picked up the slack, with C.J. Thompson-White producing two issues. 

Spring 1984

During this period Tradeswomen Inc. also had been publishing a local monthly newsletter, Trade Trax, to inform women in the local Bay Area about job openings and more timely events. We decided to roll the magazine and newsletter into one publication coming out six times a year instead of quarterly. I took the role of editor, tacking a calendar of the whole year on my wall to remind me of deadlines. It seemed like every day was a deadline! After producing five issues, I had to admit it was too much work to pile on my 40-hour work week as an electrical inspector. 

We returned to publishing the magazine as a quarterly in 1996. I bought a roll-top desk set up for a computer, assembled it in my bedroom and called it my International Publishing Empire. I edited each issue and laid it out in a computer program called PageMaker, whose workings I understood just enough to get by. Many folks helped in the magazine’s last years, but the most devoted was Bob Jolly, a retired English teacher whose daughter had been a tradeswoman. Finally, in the 1998-99 winter issue, I wrote of my intention to pass on the job to another volunteer editor. No one applied for the job, and that became the final issue.

We saved all the issues of Tradeswomen Magazine with the intention of making them available online. Retired stationary engineer Pat Williams volunteered hundreds of hours of her time to digitize every issue. Thanks to Pat and every one of the volunteers who helped to make this publication a written piece of our history. The magazine can now be found in the California State University at Dominguez Hills Tradeswomen Archives: http://digitalcollections.archives.csudh.edu/digital/collection/tradeswomen. Actual copies of the whole set are available at the Tradeswomen Archives, the San Francisco Labor Archives and Research Center, and the San Francisco Public Library. 

Tradeswomen Magazine was the first and only national publication written, edited and published by and about women in trades. I’m so proud to have been a part of its creation.

What’s Class Got to Do with It?

A History of the Tradeswomen Movement Part Two

Lawyers made me dumb.

Or maybe it was all in my own head.

Serving on the board of a law firm with a bunch of high-powered lawyers turned me from an articulate leader to a person who doubted my own abilities.

The non-profit law firms, Equal Rights Advocates (ERA) and Employment Law Center (ELC) partnered with my organization Tradeswomen Inc. (TWI) on critical projects during the 1980s. Our goal was equity in employment and specifically integrating the construction trades which had excluded women and people of color from high-paying jobs.

I loved the lawyers at ERA because they thought outside the box. They understood that social movements cannot be all about litigation and they were willing to work with us to try other tactics.

Sometime during the ‘80s, after having worked together on a lawsuit, I was invited to lunch by the director, Nancy Davis and staff attorney Judy Kurtz (it was a cheap Mexican place South of Market near the ERA offices). They sat me down and asked if I would like to join the ERA board of directors. I was delighted. I was surprised. I was flattered. Could they really want a tradeswoman activist to sit on their board with a bunch of big law firm attorneys? Of course I said yes.

I was no stranger to boards of directors. TWI had been a 501(c)3 since 1979 and I served on its board. At that time, I was also on the board of Women in Apprenticeship Program (WAP) along with another tradeswoman, carpenter Tere Carranza. But this was different. I would be the lone blue-collar worker among 10 or 15 attorneys. I did understand that my role on the board would be “client representative” and I was happy that ERA sought out such representation. I vowed to be the best client rep ever.

Rooms with a View

ERA board meetings took place in the high-rise offices of big San Francisco law firms where the board members worked, usually in the boardroom, always with an impressive view of the city. I could not stop oooing and ahhing and realized I never would have gotten into these exclusive places otherwise (except that as an electrical inspector I sometimes got to inspect high-rise construction sites). Occasionally they would be held in the crowded, run down ERA offices in the slummy South of Market neighborhood.

Unlike the TWI board meetings, where the board doubled as the staff (we called it a working board), ERA board meetings benefited from staff backup. We got a packet of material with minutes, agenda and background information. We got the benefit of expert consultants’ advice. Meetings were well organized and informative. I rarely had much to say.

My presence was more useful for fundraising. I would come to meetings with foundation program managers dressed in Carhartts, hard hat in hand, a real live example of ERA’s final product—a woman with a high paying trades job. My individual fundraising contacts were few, and I had already maxed out the contacts I had. Friends, I feared, would avoid me on the street so as not to be asked for money to support TWI, which was always in debt.

Still, I could make calls to moneyed folks when a list was handed to me during fundraising campaigns. We usually worked in pairs, and one time I sat at lunch with my comrade and asked a patron for $10,000 (we got it).

These forays into the world of wealthy lawyers sparked a range of mixed feelings and increased my awareness of class. I was constantly comparing the wealth of ERA (actually a rather poor nonprofit) to the poverty of TWI whose continued existence its board of directors was also responsible for. I wished I could take the list of potential donors and ask them to support TWI (I never did, of course). I knew I could make a good case. The truth was that our two organizations collaborated and we were all better for it.

I was already conscious of the class differences between me and the other ERA board members, but the difference in the fortunes of the two organizations strained them further. I was the poor relative, grateful for any crumbs that came my way. The feeling was especially magnified when we met with foundations. I remember a meeting with the representative of the Rockefeller Foundation at a time when Tradeswomen’s fortunes were sagging, one of the several times the organization nearly went under for lack of funding. The Rockefeller woman was young, chatty, dressed in fashionable New York attire (I wore my electrician work clothes). I felt so desperate in her presence that I had to keep myself from prostrating myself at her feet to beg for money. 

Poor Forlorn and Angry

I had taken on the identity of my poor failing organization. I felt poor and forlorn—and angry.

During my years on the ERA board I did speak up occasionally when I thought a working class or lesbian voice needed to be heard. Lawyers, even progressive ones, can be conservative. One time the board president, who was a woman of color, gave me a dressing down right in the meeting. 

“You are not the only person here who has faced discrimination,” she admonished me. Her public criticism stung. I honestly don’t know what I’d said to set her off. But I suddenly became aware of resentment flowing toward me and wondered if others on the board shared her feelings. I had thought myself a powerless person in this group. Suddenly I had power, if only negative power.

The ERA staff did appreciate my perspective and when the board president stepped down I was asked to take the position. But I had lost confidence in myself and I turned it down. What had happened to me? I certainly knew how to run a meeting, a skill I’d perfected as a kid in 4-H. I’d been leading meetings of tradeswomen for years.

Blow Up

I had never been close to the staff, or board of ERA for that matter. Staff attorney Judy Kurtz and I had a good professional relationship; we had worked together on many projects. Then, as happens with so many organizations, the founder’s impending retirement in part led to a blow up. The suggested reorganization didn’t work; the woman chosen for a newly created position was, as they say, a bad fit. I confess when I tried to discuss tradeswomen’s issues with her, she seemed clueless. Some staff resented not being considered for the position. In good faith, the leadership had hired outside the staff, seeking more diversity. But we suddenly realized how fragile relationships within the organization had become. I quickly got to know the staff and talked to them trying to understand what was happening. It was a mess. (Another issue was the plan to hire part time staff, possibly to avoid paying benefits.) Everybody was pissed off and some relationships never recovered. When the board, looking for a scapegoat, took aim at Judy, I resigned.

Tradeswomen Inc.’s relationship with ERA continued after I left the board, but the new board of directors had different ideas about the mission and goals of the law firm. They eschewed any activities not related to policy and litigation. ERA had been the leader in building coalitions within the civil rights community. For a small organization and constituency like tradeswomen, association with a larger civil rights community was necessary to achieve even notice, let alone long-term change. We felt privileged to be part of coalitions working to achieve racial and gender justice.

Also, all of us were aware that the power of organizations like ours was concentrated in the East. We were doing amazing work out here in the West, but few policy makers noticed. 

Noticed by Ford 

Tradeswomen continued to push ERA to help us fight discrimination in the building trades, and we got a chance at new programs when the Ford Foundation took notice in the early 2000s. The program manager was a friend of someone and that’s how we got an interview with her. ELC was also interested in the promised $600K. Tradeswomen participated in meetings, but program ideas seemed vague. We kept trying to get a better sense of them. The ERA rep who was working with us came with us to Denver for a national tradeswomen conference. All was happy. We were sisters in struggle. Only later did we find out that ERA was awarded the money with no stipulations to create programs for tradeswomen. We felt used by ERA. ELC got left out of the loop and this resulted in strained relations between the two law firms. Some staffers cut ties with ERA entirely. All over money. Of course, Tradeswomen had learned this lesson in the past. Funders, and especially the federal government, make all of our organizations compete for a tiny sum of money they allocate to programs. 

Lessons for the Future

What did we learn from our years’-long collaboration with ERA and ELC? 

*Small organizations like Tradeswomen need to find partners. We can’t do it alone.

*Litigation can be crucial to civil rights movements, but cannot be the only tactic.

*Relationships are important, more important than money. 

*In our “classless society” class is still a thing.

We All Needed a Good Lawyer

A History of the Tradeswomen Movement Part One

The envelope delivered to my small flat in San Francisco’s Mission District, shared with three other women, was fat with a far away return address. I knew what it contained even before opening the envelope—a cry for help—and I also knew there would be nothing I could do about it. 

I was already involved in the tradeswomen movement when I relocated to San Francisco from Seattle in 1976.  As a publicly identified tradeswoman activist, I would get letters from women all over the country complaining of horrific harassment and discrimination in nontraditional jobs. I felt powerless. We didn’t even have an organization, let alone a program to help. What these women needed was a good lawyer.

During the 1970s, we activists formed organizations all over the country. In 1979 we started a nonprofit, Tradeswomen Inc., to provide support and advocacy for tradeswomen, but we weren’t able to secure funding. With no staff we were run by volunteers—unemployed tradeswomen.

Enter Equal Rights Advocates (ERA), a law firm begun in 1974 by feminist lawyers with a focus on defending women’s employment rights. I remember sitting around on the floor in somebody’s living room in the late ‘70s strategizing about how to open up jobs to women that had traditionally belonged to men. That’s when I met Judy Kurtz, a staff attorney at ERA, and we began to collaborate. Later I served on the ERA board of directors for many years.

Looking at the Big Picture

Ours was an anti-poverty strategy. The feminization of poverty was a popular buzzword (still applicable today). Women, especially female heads of households, were becoming poorer and poorer in relation to men. Well-paid union jobs in the construction trades could lift up our gender if we could open them to women. Apprenticeship programs in the construction trades like electrical, plumbing, carpentry, ironwork, and operating engineer only require a high school diploma or a GED to enter. Then the training is free and the apprentice works and earns a wage while she is in school. There are no college loans to repay. We saw these jobs as a path to financial independence for women.

ERA had been part of a national class action lawsuit against the US Department of Labor which resulted in the creation of federal goals and timetables for women and minorities in the construction trades. New regulations took effect in 1978. The goal was to have 6.9 percent of the construction workforce be women on federally funded jobs. Having federal law on our side buoyed us while Jimmy Carter was president, but as soon as Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, federal affirmative action laws and guidelines were no longer enforced. We had to be creative. We decided to focus on the state level where there was still some commitment to enforcing affirmative action regulations.

Focus on California

Tradeswomen Inc. was fortunate to work with lawyers who were willing not only to take our individual cases, but also to help us strategize about using class action lawsuits to desegregate the workforce. We wanted to make law, to actually create change. 

The building trades in California include about 35 apprenticable trades and each trade has a union with different rules, and each union has many locals throughout the state. Not a single apprenticeship program out of hundreds in the state was even close to meeting goals for women’s participation. What could we do to get them to comply?

By 1980 we had some history with all the players. Our partner, Women in Apprenticeship Program (WAP), was placing women into trades apprenticeships in California, working with the apprenticeship program directors and compliance officers. 

The unions were a huge barrier to women but we chose not to take legal action against unions. Our goal was to work with unions, be part of the union movement. Besides, there were so many! So we decided to sue the enforcer.

Suing the State

The State Division of Apprenticeship Standards (DAS) oversees apprenticeship programs and is charged with enforcing affirmative action goals, but they would routinely give a pass to programs that claimed to have made a “good faith effort” to meet the goals. Partnering with Tradeswomen Inc., ERA filed suit against DAS for failure to enforce the goals. The lawsuit resulted in a requirement that the state produce quarterly statistical reports which allowed us to evaluate their progress. We might have had some small impact on the DAS, but we had to take them back to court for contempt five years later. Nothing had really changed.

Then we took on the DAS through the Little Hoover Commission, which investigates state government operations. The public testimony of many tradeswomen got attention, even an article in the New York Times. The investigation ended with DAS getting its funding cut by the Republican administration, which did nothing to help our cause.

Then came a period when DAS made a big turnaround on our issues. It was during the administration of Gray Davis, the Democratic governor elected in 1999. He was only in office for three years when the Republicans mounted a successful recall campaign against him. Davis appointed a friend of tradeswomen to head the DAS, Henry Nunn, a Black man from the painters’ union. Suddenly there was some funding to promote women in trades and we partnered with the state agency to sponsor some great programs, like the dedication of the Rosie the Riveter park in Richmond where we got to commune with the Rosies, and a trades day for Bay Area high school students. We loved working with the DAS staff, a bunch of smart feminists. But when Arnold Schwarzenegger took over as governor, he brought back into state government all the guys from the previous Republican Wilson administration, and Henry Nunn was axed. It did show us that the state could do the right thing with the right leadership. It also reinforced our impression that Democrats are way different from Republicans.

Part of the Civil Rights Movement

From the very beginning we saw ourselves as part of the larger movement for civil rights and we worked in coalition with other civil rights groups to publicize and also to defend affirmative action programs. In 1977 we were active in a coalition that formed around the Bakke case, which upheld affirmative action in college admission policy. We also partnered with ERA and other civil rights organizations to oppose proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action initiative in 1996 (we lost, and a proposition to overturn 209 in 2020 lost). Some of our partners in the West Coast coalition included Bill McNeill of Employment Law Center; Joe Hogan, retired OFCCP; Tse Ming Tam of Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) and their founder Henry Der; Eva Paterson of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights; and Superlawyer Brad Seligman. These are luminaries in the social justice sphere and we were so lucky to have their support.

Tradeswomen Monitoring Network

We also collaborated on other projects involving coalition partners like trades unions and the Human Rights Commission. We went to lots of meetings of DAS and its community body, the California Apprenticeship Council to make the labor community aware of their responsibilities. Susie Suafai, who had directed WAP, was hired to monitor the Oakland federal building project—one of the few projects to meet federal affirmative action goals.

This willingness of ERA to use staff time to advocate for us as well as litigate was a huge plus. Litigation was important to our movement, creating the original goals and timetables and affirmative action regulations so crucial for women’s entry into these jobs. But we knew well that litigation alone does not make a movement.

As class action lawsuits became harder to win, and courts were filled with Republican-appointed judges, litigation was a less effective strategy for change. Tradeswomen and ERA continued to look for ways to work together. In the early 2000s we applied together for a grant from the Ford Foundation. ERA received the grant, but Tradeswomen saw none of the money, nor did any program result as far as we could tell. We felt used and the relationship foundered. Another casualty of this fight for funding was ERA’s relationship with the Employment Law Center, a partner in the DAS suit and other related discrimination lawsuits. ELC was directed by Joan Graff, another hero in our battle for affirmative action. This is just one example of how the fight for funding pitted organizations with similar goals against each other.

The ‘80s saw the decline of affirmative action. The ‘90s was a period of working to keep in place the laws and regulations we had fought so hard for, even though they weren’t being enforced. President Clinton appointed Shirley Wilshire as head of OFCCP. She came out of National Women’s Law Center, one of our coalition partners. 

We put together a national coalition to pressure the OFCCP to enforce the regulations and increase the percentage of women on federal contracts. We had the support of the White House, but Congress was controlled by Republicans. We planned to file an administrative petition asking for higher goals for women and enforcement of federal regulations, but Wilshire and federal officials argued that we should keep our heads down and hope that Congress didn’t notice and remove the enforcement regulations entirely.

Tradeswomen activists learned about the laws that affected us and we continued to pay attention to the law as it changed through the years. The biggest change for us on a day-to-day level was that sexual harassment was made illegal. This happened not through the passage of a single law, but through a series of court cases with a lot of nudging from the feminist movement. The work of Eleanor Holmes Norton was key.

Today we still rely on ERA and feminist lawyers to push the federal government to meet its affirmative action goals on declared“mega projects” (the only goals still in effect in California). We have entered a period of backlash. While trades have opened up to women technically, we still face discrimination and our ways of fighting back have been restricted.

When a Sister Is Murdered

October 24, 1983
Pacific Heights Woman Strangled

I see the headline, then discover to my horror the woman was Sue Lawrence, a fellow electrician. Back home with Sandy gone to class and after a day full of questions from men at work I’m terrified at the prospect of my own victimization. That “nude body face down on the bed” could be mine. What if, as in some Agatha Christie plot, the murderer is going after all the female electricians in the city? Will I be next? In the shower, a most vulnerable state especially with a head full of shampoo and eyes closed, I imagine Ruth pounding on my door to be him. Panic strikes. I manage to wash shaking limbs.

                                                                        ***

I was not the only one terrified by Sue’s murder. Other female electricians in the city had the same thought. There were so few of us since union apprenticeship programs had just recently opened their doors to women after years of pressure and lawsuits. We were in the minority. We were not welcomed. We were scorned. We already felt vulnerable as women in an all-male work environment. Now this murder had us all freaked out.

Sue’s memorial was held at the Episcopal church just off Diamond Heights Blvd. We met Sue’s parents and heard a minister recite a rote speech, but we learned very little more about Sue than we already knew, which was not much.

Afterward we repaired to Yet Wah, a Chinese restaurant on the upper floor of the shopping center across the street. There the women electricians of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 6 gathered to celebrate the life of our sister. We were joined by two or three tradeswomen from other crafts.

We had been working on construction sites that day but, as construction workers say to each other outside of work, we cleaned up pretty good. You couldn’t look at us and tell that we were electricians. I wore my only “good” outfit, a sports jacket with sleeves rolled up bought at Community Thrift, the gay secondhand store on Valencia Street. Paired with black jeans and a white shirt I could go anywhere.

My roommate Sandy was a fashion plate and took this opportunity to wear a dress, a fifties number with a pencil skirt. She had a tiny waist and large butt so she had trouble finding work clothes that fit. Manufacturers didn’t make work clothes for women. Away from work Sandy took refuge in skirts. She had always wanted to work in the fashion industry but couldn’t find a job there. She felt she didn’t fit in construction, but the money was a powerful incentive.

Others dressed in black funeral attire.

“Sharp,” said Alice when she bumped into Dale, who was wearing a suit and tie. “Very avant garde.”

Ten of us were seated around a big round table with a lazy susan in the middle for family style serving. As big plates of Gung Pao chicken and mu shu pork revolved, we collectively decompressed.

I had worked out of the Local 6 hall for a couple of years, but I had never encountered any of my sisters on the job. We were isolated and alone when at work. Our active support group of Local 6 women gathered monthly to share stories and to support each other. The sisters’ gatherings helped us feel not so alone. We had been pushing for a women’s caucus in our union local, a caucus with the union’s endorsement.

“So I got a cease and desist letter from the union,” said Sandy, whose thick Boston accent left us westerners chuckling. “They said if we don’t stop meeting they will kick us out. We are not an authorized caucus, and there’s no easy way for us to get authorized.”

“Are they serious?” said Joanne. “Would they really do that?”

The business manager kept a tight rein on the local. We heard those who attempted to challenge his leadership had been blacklisted, but it was hard to imagine the local disenfranchising its handful of female members. We had only just made our way in. At that time there were fewer than ten of us in the union local. We decided to keep meeting. But it was a clear message—the union was not our ally and we should not seek support there.

Sue Lawrence had entered the IBEW apprenticeship when she was only 18. She was about to graduate from the four-year program when she was raped and murdered by the stranger who broke into her parents’ house.

I knew Sue only from the sisters’ meetings. She didn’t talk much. I didn’t even remember having a conversation with her.

“She was weird,” said Dale. “A newspaper reporter called and asked about Sue. I didn’t know what to say. I think she was suffering from manic depression. But, hey, we all know you have to be a little bit crazy to go into the trades as a woman.”

Nods around the table. We all felt a little bit crazy.

“I know she struggled during her apprenticeship,” said Jan. “You know she started right out of high school. That’s rough. Younger women get more harassment. But she made it through and she was just about to turn out as a journeywoman.”

“The last project she worked on was that big housing complex at the ocean where Playland at the Beach used to be,” said Dolores. “She was the only woman working there.”

“I think she was struggling with her sexuality,” said Alice.

Sue was an enigma to all of us. Had any of us been there to support her? Maybe not to the extent we should have been.

Sue lived with her parents in the house she had grown up in on Green Street. I had driven by it just to see where she came from. It was a rich part of town that none of us frequented. Her parents had some money. Maybe Sue hadn’t fit into the box prepared for her. She was an unlikely electrician, but I knew several of them—women whose parents were doctors and who rebelled against parental expectations by going into construction.

Tradeswomen can’t get together without talking about discrimination and harassment we experience on the job. No one else really understands or wants to listen to our complaints.

“Can I be honest,” said Lynn. “Since Sue was murdered I haven’t slept well. I’m scared. Was Sue attacked because she was an electrician? Are we at risk of being attacked?”

We looked at each other. I hadn’t slept well either. We didn’t know anything about Sue’s killer. What was his motive?

Jennifer told us how she had been attacked and raped in her own house the year before. Sue’s death had been hard on her. The only female on her job, she couldn’t shake the thought that her coworkers might be abusers and rapists. She had stayed off the job and was terrified to go back to work where she felt profoundly unsafe. She confessed that she didn’t know how much longer she could stay in the apprenticeship.

“Maybe I have PTSD or something,” she said. “Whenever I think about going back to work I get the cold sweats. I’m starting to think I just can’t go back.”

Pat, who had started in one of the first apprenticeship classes of Local 6 women in 1978, complained about being dyke baited.

“One of the guys called me a bulldagger the other day,” she bellowed. Pat had a mouth on her. Maybe that’s how she survived.

Pat was married to a man and they had two young children. I had seen a picture of her at her graduation from the apprenticeship. She was standing next to her tuxedoed husband and dressed in a fancy gown made of filmy blue material like women might have worn to any other graduation ceremony. Even in that gown Pat looked like the butchest bull dyke we knew. She kept her hair short and had a stocky body. On the job in her work clothes and tool belt Pat radiated authority. How sad to have to put up with dyke baiting when you’re not even a dyke!

“Pat should officially be an honorary dyke,” I said. “She gets dyke baited just like us lesbians, maybe even more.”

And we all agreed. Dale stood and, pretending to wield a magic sword, touched Pat on both shoulders and declared, “Pat, I now dub you an honorary dyke. Your ID card will be mailed to you.”

And it was then that I truly understood that dyke baiting was not as much about lesbians as it was about ensuring that we all meet certain stereotypes of what men think women should look and act like. Dyke baiting on the job affected all of us, gay and straight.

The conversation turned to tradeswomen organizing. We had been making an effort to hire childcare for our meetings and conferences but it was a struggle. We had no budget so we resorted to passing the hat to hire a childcare worker. The dearth of childcare meant that some of our parent members had to bring their kids to meetings or stay home. The only woman at the table with kids, Pat supported a childcare initiative.

“But you’ve got a husband,” said Alice. “Why can’t he stay with the kids.”

“Yeah I’m married, but you’ve got a partner too,” countered Pat. “This is just discrimination against mothers. Do you want us in the group or not?”

Samantha, sitting across the table, sent me a look. We had been flirting for weeks. She was so damn cute, curly dark hair framing a round face, a small woman with a muscled frame. We had been lifting weights together at the Women’s Training Center on Market Street.

It was a period in my life when attractions proliferated and sometimes the attraction could not be ignored. Sam’s look required follow up. She politely excused herself from the table and I waited a moment before heading in the direction of the women’s room.

The bathroom had two stalls. I entered the one nearest the wall. Sam was close behind, gliding in and locking the door. Smiling, I caressed her firm delts. I knew how much she could bench. She was so hot. I gently pressed her back up against the door and lowered my head slightly. The kiss—long and soft—weakened my knees.

Others crowded into the bathroom.

“Hey, can I have some of that too,” called Dale, looking under the door at our four feet. 

Busted!

We walked out with sheepish grins to a line of sister construction workers waiting for the stall. 

“Get a room,” someone yelled.

They were taunting us but they were all laughing. And then we were laughing too, a practiced survival tactic.

                                                                        ***

October 27, 1983
Sue’s memorial service and dinner with the women electricians afterward inspires me to see these women as my sisters in struggle. I feel our collective rage and hurt and vulnerability. When I tell them I imagine a plot against women electricians, all admit the same horrible fantasy. Jennifer who survived being raped and strangled in her own house last year is hardest hit but others tell of their terror at staying alone at home.


                                                                        ***

Though I conflate these events in my mind, it wouldn’t be until six years later that we would witness a mass killing of women who deigned to study what had been “men’s work.” On December 6, 1989, Marc Lepine entered a mechanical engineering class at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal and separated the women, telling the men to leave the room. He said he was “fighting feminism” and opened fire. He shot at all nine women in the room, killing six. He then moved through corridors, the cafeteria, and another classroom, targeting women. He slaughtered eight more before turning the gun on himself.

That guy had a motive.

Killer Ladders

Walking around my neighborhood watching folks put up holiday lights, I have to stop myself from admonishing them to be careful on those ladders. I recognize this as a fear born of age and experience. As an electrician, and then a home remodeler, I spent many hours working on ladders. 

As a new electrician I was fascinated by electrocution. I did some research and found that while electricians do die from electrocution, more often they die due to falls from ladders or being run into by trucks. I got more careful around ladders. Trucks too.

Most electricians spend a good deal of their working careers on ladders. Upgrading the electrical service where the wires come in to the building from the street was a typical job for me as a small contractor. For an overhead service we would mount the electrical panel and conduit on an exterior wall. The last job—connecting the wires at the top of the conduit—we did live from a ladder. Not a metal ladder, which conducts electricity and could electrocute you if the hot wire touched it. I was well aware that a direct shock from a live wire could  also throw me off the ladder. I would die not from the shock, but from falling on my head.

Nowadays ladders are made of light materials and there are all kinds of newfangled designs and inventions making them easier to use. Back in the 70s when I worked with Wonder Woman Electric we had an old-fashioned wooden 40-foot extension ladder. The thing felt like it weighed a hundred pounds, but I was young and strong and I could handle it all by myself. You lifted it by pushing one end against a wall then picking up the other end and “walking” the ladder up till it was vertical. Then you carried it upright with a rung on your shoulder, one hand holding a lower rung, and your other hand holding a rung as high as you could reach. Carrying it was relatively easy unless you failed to keep it exactly upright. If it started tilting it was almost impossible to right the thing before it crashed into whatever was in its path, tweaking your back as it fell.

I know people who have died or been severely injured falling off ladders. Our friend Chris died only last year trying to secure a gay flag at his home. Emma became a paraplegic, falling from a tall tripod ladder while picking apples. I worked with Ron who ended up in a wheelchair after falling while tree trimming, and knew Jack who died in a similar accident.

I’ve fallen a few times myself. The first time I remember was while working in a residential garage. I had propped my eight-foot step ladder against the wall. Each step is a foot and I might have been up on the fourth rung, not very high, strapping conduit to the ceiling when the ladder started to slip down the wall. Now most people know—and I knew—that when this happens the correct response is to ride the ladder down the wall. Instead, my sympathetic nervous system overrode my brain and I jumped off, landing on my feet. I fell over and when I tried to get up I couldn’t stand. There was no pain. 

The homeowner drove me to St. Luke’s hospital where they told me I had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in my knee, that ACL injury that has plagued female basketball players. I butt-crawled up the stairs to our second-floor apartment and wasn’t able to leave for three months. If that didn’t make me wary of ladders, nothing would. Three months without work and no income. That’ll do it.

One time I was standing on the top of a three-foot ladder, it went out from under me and I landed flat on my back, sustaining not even a scratch. I knew—we all know—not to stand on the top rungs of a ladder, but I hadn’t felt like looking for a taller ladder.

Another time, at the top of a 32-foot extension ladder, I leaned backward slightly and nearly lost my balance. In that second I saw my life flash before my eyes. A fall from the height surely would have killed me. After that I made sure to tie off.

My most recent ladder incident happened in September. I was on the second rung of an eight-foot step ladder trying to pick the last apples on the neighbor’s tree that grows over the fence. I reached my left arm up and back, turning my head with it, and I lost consciousness. It was probably just for a second but I found myself with feet on the ground and arms stretched up, face up against the ladder. My body had just slipped down, my shins scraping against the lower rungs. Other than bloody shins I was ok. Just stunned. Here is something new that can happen on a ladder!

After that event I gained a new respect for the destructive power of ladders. Now I mostly stand below, holding the ladder for others. Our rule here: never get on a ladder without someone else here to hold it.

Advice from an old ladder climber: be careful out there. Those innocent looking ladders are killers.

Cal Props Matter

Dear Readers,

Autumn equinox greetings. My pagan holiday posts usually focus on our garden and the natural world–kind of an antidote to politics. But of course everything is political, even nature, and I’m immersed in the political world too. Like my proud immigrant grandmother I take voting seriously, especially now as we watch our voting rights being trampled.

We work to influence the coming presidential election, calling and writing postcards reminding voters in swing states to vote. Of course, what we do in California is of little consequence nationally but I worry about the consequences on a state level. Polls show that Proposition 16, the measure that would resurrect affirmative action, is headed for failure. Opponents have obscured its real intent. The discussion has revolved around race preferences in state colleges, but no one thinks about women in the construction trades. Here’s the letter I just sent to our local newspaper supporting Prop 16.

Dear Editor:

I am a woman who made a great career as a construction and maintenance electrician. I would never have gotten a job in the previously all-male, all-white industry without affirmative action. I’ve devoted my life to helping other women achieve success in the construction trades. Why? Because these union jobs pay wages substantially above what women can make in traditional female careers, decreasing the number of women (and children) in poverty.

Women got a foot in the door but we are still being denied entry to these jobs because of entrenched sexism and racism, especially after affirmative action was made illegal in California by the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996.

Proposition 16 on the November 3 ballot will overturn the 1996 law. Right now only about three percent of construction workers are women. That’s not enough. Women still experience isolation and harassment on the job. Working conditions in construction will not truly improve until discrimination ends and the numbers of women increase.

A YES vote on Proposition 16 will make programs like targeted recruitment for women and minorities possible again, restoring a level playing field for all.

Molly Martin, retired electrician

Then there are other propositions on the state ballot I fear will fail, so I’m already getting prepared for election letdown, a familiar feeling for those of us who support peace, justice and human rights. 

Please vote yes on Prop 15 to restore property taxes on large commercial property, and yes on Prop 21 to allow local communities to decide whether to enact rent control (which is now prohibited statewide). And vote no on Prop 22. Don’t let Uber & Lyft turn this into a gig world where all workers are “independent contractors” and get no benefits.

Sending virtual hugs to you all.

Jane Humes 1946-2020

Tradeswoman foremother and activist Jane Humes has died. She succumbed to a rare neurodegenerative disease four years after being diagnosed. She was 74. Jane was one of the first to turn out as a journeywoman electrician in IBEW Local 302, based in Martinez, California, Contra Costa County. She started the apprenticeship as a single mother when her twin daughters were eight years old. She worked mostly in the Central Valley.

Jane reconnected with Richard, an old college friend, at a 15-year reunion. They married and lived in Stockton for many years.

Within her union local and in the regional IBEW organization Jane fought against sexual harassment and discrimination on the job site. She also served as the president of the Stockton chapter of NOW (National Organization for Women) and was a recipient of the Susan B. Anthony Women of Achievement Award from the Commission of Status of Women in San Joaquin County in 1999.

Jane was a fine writer and penned many articles for Tradeswomen Magazine and she served on the board of Tradeswomen Inc.

After 13 years as a construction electrician Jane pivoted to teaching the trades. She ran a successful pre-apprenticeship program in Stockton for several years. Here’s a story she wrote about that program published in 1996. We will miss our sparky sister.

Work Boots Step Out of the Closet

“Come on you can tell me,” says Bobby. “Are you gay?”

Bobby is a machinist who usually works in the machine shop but today he is helping me change fixtures in the warehouse at the corporation yard. I’m the only electrician and sometimes I need a helper. There was no laborer available and I am up on a 16-foot ladder. 

The song by the Police, Every Breath You Take, is playing on the boom box he carries around with him. 

“This sounds like a song about stalking,” I say. “It’s a threat.” 

“Hmm, I never thought about it that way,” he says, “but I guess you’re right.”

I’ve been at the San Francisco Water Department for a few months and I’m getting along alright. Especially considering I’m the only tradeswoman there except for Amy, the only female plumber. Amy is out digging up the streets every day and so I rarely see her. Sometimes we convene a two-woman support group in the women’s restroom and it’s good to know she’s there.

MMatWork 2
Working at a Water Department pump station. My shirt reads WOMEN WORKING

I think about how to answer Bobby. It kind of annoys me that he would just ask me like that. But on the other hand I appreciate his directness. I like Bobby and he’s as close to a friend as I have among the men, but I know if I give him any information about my private life it will be all over the yard within 24 hours. Do I want all the guys in all the shops to know?

“That’s none of your business,” I reply.

Yeah, I’m a lesbian and my lover is Del, who works at Park and Rec. We were both female firsts—she the first carpenter and I the first electrician to work for the city of San Francisco. Being the first is always a burden. You are aware that you set the stereotype for all the women who come after you. You feel the whole of womankind rests on your shoulders. You know you can’t make mistakes but of course you do, and then you imagine all of womankind suffers.

Del is five foot two and slender but you don’t see her as small. Her wiry gray hair gives her a couple more inches of height. She’s got broad shoulders and large hands. And she gets power from her low voice; she sings tenor with a gay chorus, the Vocal Minority.

Del and I don’t live together but I spend a lot of time at her apartment on Potrero Hill with its sweeping view of the bay and downtown. At my place on Bernal Hill I have a roommate, Sandy, another electrician. She’s messy and has a lot of stuff and a coke head girlfriend I don’t like. So I often stay with Del. Truth is I can’t stay away. I’m mad for her.

Since I got in to the trades, my lovers have been tradeswomen. I can’t resist a woman with a toolbelt. The first woman I fell in love with was a carpenter. They say you either fall in love with her or you want to be her. For me it was both. 

I watch my lover Nancy build a house. She wears dirty blue jeans and scuffed work boots. Sweat stains mushroom on her T-shirt, which reads Sisterhood is Powerful, under a women’s symbol with a fist in its center. Sweat drips from her nose and rolls down the side of her face. Her sun-bleached curly hair sticks out from under her hardhat.

Around her hips hangs the heavy leather carpenter’s belt. It has a metal ring for the hammer and slots for the tape measure and various other tools, and pouches for the nails of different sizes. A two-inch wide leather belt holds it around her ample hips. It’s helped by wide suspenders. She grabs a handful of nails and holds them with all the heads lined up in one direction, flips them down and pounds them in to the wood with great efficiency. Tanned arms bulge as she sinks nail after nail into the sill plate. She is focused and fast, the epitome of strength and ease. When she takes a break, she rolls a cigaret and lights it with a match put to her boot. She sucks in the smoke with obvious pleasure and even though I’m super allergic to smoke and it will set me off coughing, that is the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen. How could a gal not fall in love with this image of power, strength, purpose. 

I was smitten and I’ve been smitten by tradeswomen ever since. And they are the only ones who really understand what I go through at work. A person’s got to have a partner she can whine to when she gets home.

Lately it’s Del who’s been having trouble at work. Dick, her foreman at the carpentry shop, doesn’t like women or queers. He does everything he can to make her work life difficult. If it weren’t for Dick, Del would get along just fine. She loves the work, not the harassment. She once overheard him call her a dyke. That’s a word we lesbians have reclaimed and embraced but he meant it in the old-fashioned derogatory way.

Negotiating homophobia and sexism at work is a balancing act for us. You just know that the foreman will use any excuse to lay you off. Del knows this too, that we women must always keep our cool in these situations, but sometimes she can’t help herself. She just loses her temper and then even she doesn’t know what she might do.

One time she held off an attacker with a hand saw. If you swing it at waist level, they can’t reach you. She swung the saw in a fit of rage, acting without thinking. In that case rage saved her ass, but mostly when this happens she leaves the confrontation feeling embarrassed that she could not control her emotions. She tells me I’m much better at not losing my cool and she ascribes her rage to her hot Italian blood. 

I first met Del at a tradeswomen confab when I was working with the Wonder Woman Electric collective in 1978, but we didn’t get together as lovers until 1982 while we were organizing the first national tradeswomen conference that took place in Oakland the next year. We had both been working construction downtown before starting to work for the city of San Francisco.

“I lost my temper today and now I might lose my job,” Del told me one evening when I got over to her place after work.

By that time she was remorseful. “Why do I always lose my temper? How do you manage to stay so cool?”

I think the answer lays in the ways we learned to respond to stress and abuse when we were growing up. She was a caretaker type and I was oblivious. Del says she always felt like she had antennae, that she was super aware of her surroundings. I, on the other hand, would put on virtual blinders and just continue pretending nothing was going on. This method of avoiding conflict has served me well in the trades. I pretend not to see and often I really don’t.

Soon after we got together I accompanied her to visit her family in Chicago. Right away I felt at home. They are huggers, and loud talkers, people who like to cook and eat big family meals and who live in their basements, never using the living room upstairs where couches are covered with plastic. Her mother is part of a big Italian clan—all sisters except for one brother who is treated like a king but drowned out by loud women.

“Here’s what happened,” she said. “I wanted to get my paycheck earlier in the day than Dick wanted to give it out. I had an appointment and was leaving at noon. He was being totally obnoxious about it and I got really mad at him. I said “fuck it” and walked out without the paycheck. Now he’s trying to fire me for swearing at him. I wasn’t swearing at him, it was a general fuck-it.  Anyway, just an excuse to fire me.” 

“I’m scared,” she admitted.

“What are you gonna do now?” I asked, concerned.

“I don’t have a plan except to wait to see what he does next. Maybe it won’t go anywhere.”

A few days later Dick upped the ante. He set up a kangaroo court with his supervisors and friends in the yard who sat Del down and questioned her. She had no representation or support. It was just a set up. 

That’s when Del went above the foreman’s head. We knew that the director of Park and Rec was an out gay man. Tom had gained a reputation as a respected department head who gave a shit about workers. He was also a player in the gay South of Market scene who (we heard) had tattoos all over his body. He always wore long sleeved shirts at work. 

“Tom was absolutely great when I told him the story and showed him the daily journal I’d kept about the harassment,” she said to me. Soon after that Dick was fired. 

Our gay ally had saved Del’s job, but what would have happened had he not been there?

“Are you out on the job,” she asked me later.

“Well, no. It’s none of their business.”

Del is a proponent of coming out at work. She says it’s better to give the guys the information so they will just stop gossiping about you. For women it might actually be a plus to be out. It’s a signal that you’re not interested in them romantically and you never will be, a good way to stop come-ons. Telling them you’re married with five kids works too.

At the tradeswomen conference she gave a workshop to help gay women come out. 

“If we all come out we won’t be alone,” she says. “We’ll be supporting our lesbian sisters.”

She quoted Harvey Milk: “Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.” 

Del was pissed when I admitted I wasn’t out on the job.“What!” She exclaimed. “You’re still in the closet at work! Don’t you see why it’s important for us all to be out? How can you leave me hanging out there on a limb? I almost lost my job!”

She had a good point—several good points. I thought about why I’d stayed closeted. It was easier. I didn’t want to risk the wrath and disdain of my co-workers. They weren’t really interested in my private life and I couldn’t care less about theirs. It was hard enough just being the only female on the job. You imagine the worst thing that could happen. They wouldn’t physically attack me. But they could refuse to work with me just as one white guy in the machine shop had refused to work with a Black guy. They could refuse to talk to me, a trick men used on women all the time to get them to quit. They could fire me. I’d been hired on as a temporary worker with no employment rights. I wasn’t safe.

But I promised my lover I would come out.

My electric “shop” was a windowless closet next to the machine shop office where my boss, Manuel, and a secretary worked. They were always trying to get me to fill in when she was out sick, which happened with regularity. I had made the mistake of answering truthfully when they’d asked if I could type. I’d refused and I hadn’t relented even when Dave, the auto shop foreman cried crocodile tears as he tried to type with hands missing several of their fingers. Somehow the guy was still able to work on trucks. But that was men’s work.

One day Manuel made a reference to my husband. That was my opening. I hadn’t had to wait long. 

“I don’t have a husband,” I said. “I’m gay.”

When you come out to them, men are either totally shocked or they tell you they knew all along. Manuel was shocked, but he recovered quickly. 

I didn’t have to tell anyone else. Word got around the yard. I heard one of the machinists, a religious nut, had moved me into the hated category. But he was someone I could avoid. 

Bobby was cool. “I knew it,” he said.

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