Sisterhood is Powerful. That was my take-home from the 14th Women Building conference. When more than a thousand tradeswomen, supporters, advocates and union brothers convened in Los Angeles May Day weekend, it was by far the largest gathering of female construction workers in the history of our movement. Union tradeswomen of all crafts came together from all over the country and the world to share experiences, strategize, laugh and cry together.
There is nothing like being in a room full of a thousand cheering sisters, and it was a new experience for me, a tradeswoman activist of 40 years. We are a diverse group of women, a rainbow of race, class and ethnicity, all part of the sisterhood. I spoke to many individual women—young members of the California Conservation Corps who drove all the way from Fortuna in Northern California, old timers greeting old friends, students who are working to get jobs in the trades. They all said the best thing about this conference was the camaraderie.
I’ve participated in the Women Building conferences since their beginning in 2002, and many tradeswomen conferences before that. But this conference was qualitatively as well as quantitatively different from past events and I think it portends a new chapter in our Tradeswomen Movement. I think three factors point to a sea change in our movement: first, the sponsorship of the North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU); second, the development of mature leadership at local, state and national levels; and third, the advent of social media and its use by the larger community of tradeswomen.
The NABTU sponsorship was the result of work by the National Women’s Committee, especially Patti Devlin, Debra Chaplan, and Caroline Williams. We now have leaders like these on a national level connected to union presidents and internationals as well as the Task Force on Tradeswomen’s Issues, which brings policy expertise to our movement. I was thrilled by the number of women who stood up when asked who had been elected to a leadership position in their unions. And this year the vast majority of women were sent by their unions to the conference.
A new feature this year was the popular tradeswomen action clinic table. Organizers chose two primary issues that we could weigh in on: restoring federal WANTO funding for tradeswomen organizations, and resisting so-called Right-to-Work legislation in the states. The table was organized by elevator constructor LJ Dolin, Kelly Kupcak from Chicago Women in Trades, and Nicole Aro from the AFL-CIO. It was a great idea and organizers plan to expand it next year with more ties to workshops. The number of participants at the tradeswomen history workshop that I gave with historian Brigid O’Farrell showed us that women are interested in our history and in using what we have learned over the years to forge a new strategy for our movement.
When I got home and started friending folks on Facebook I could see that our community already has been successfully organized by Sisters in the Building Trades’ Melina Harris, who gets kudos for bringing so many women into the electronic media fold. I love that we can kvetch and share our stories instantly on groups like Trade Women Chat. It’s a far cry from our days publishing the quarterly Tradeswomen Magazine with writing, typesetting, layout and bulk mailing tasks taken on by volunteers.
What started as a conference for California tradeswomen (sponsored since 2002 by the California State Building and Construction Trades Council) has now become Women Building the Nation. Next year’s conference will take place in Chicago—the first of these outside of California. We’ve got the dates: April 29-May 1, 2016. It’s an opportunity to expand on existing networks of tradeswomen in the Midwest and to make our movement truly national.
Tradeswomen have long been virtually invisible on the front lines of the Feminist and Civil Rights Movements. We still are the ones who daily confront the most aggressive kind of sexism and racism in our traditionally male jobs. For decades now we have been devising strategies to counter isolation and harassment at work and to increase the numbers of women in the trades. The numbers and enthusiasm at this conference give me hope that we can build a better world for women in the trades. I’m looking forward to the 2025 conference: Women Building the Universe.
Sally Ride is a big hero of mine. Her birthday seems an appropriate time to remember her. I wrote this piece from her perspective for an Old Lesbians Organizing for Change (OLOC) event. Each of us took on the persona of a lesbian in history and I chose to be Sally. Researching Sally’s life was difficult as she was such a private person, but there’s a new biography of her that promises to provide more detail. http://io9.com/the-secret-life-of-sally-ride-the-first-american-woman-1586255004
Sally Ride Comes Out
Now that I am dead, you know that I was a lesbian. My partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy, helped me write the obit, and my lesbian sister, Bear, made it clear to the press, if there were any doubts. Bear is a Presbyterian minister and gay activist who has gotten arrested at protests, but that’s not who I was. We laughed that I was the most Norwegian in the family, a very private person in a very public job. It served me well.
Why didn’t I come out while I was alive? I didn’t come out as having pancreatic cancer either, which I’d been diagnosed with 17 months before I died. I had to keep my private life separate from my public life. For one thing, in any male-dominated job you have to contend with a certain amount of harassment and misogyny. In NASA, as you can imagine, there was a military man asshole factor. You didn’t want to bring that home. Everyone wants to know why I married that guy in 1982. Protection.
Besides, it wasn’t really about me. I was a symbol for all women. I could not have been the first American woman astronaut to travel into space if I had come out as a lesbian. It was hard enough being a woman in a “man’s” job. If the Soviets hadn’t sent up two women before me, would the U.S. have thought it necessary to have a female too? I think the answer is clear. The men who ran NASA did not regard women as suitable or capable to be astronauts, but the Soviet Union had been running ahead of the U.S. since Sputnik was launched in 1959. We had to win the race with the Soviets. The first Soviet female cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova, orbited the earth 48 times in 1963. I went up for the first time in 1983.
I was completing a PhD in physics at Stanford when I answered an ad in the Stanford student newspaper seeking applicants for the space program. I joined NASA in 1978. I served as the ground-based capsule communicator for the second and third space shuttle flights and helped develop the space shuttle’s robot arm. Then I was chosen to be a crewmember on the Space Shuttle Challenger. I was the first woman to use the robot arm in space and the first to use the arm to retrieve a satellite.
During the run-up to the flight, I was the subject of much press attention. Reporters asked me questions like, “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?” and “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?” exposing the level of sexism still prevalent in the American culture. I spent 343 hours in space on two missions on the Challenger in 1983 and 1984 and was training for a third when the Challenger disaster occurred. Then I was assigned to investigate that incident, and later the Columbia disaster as well.
Tam was the love of my life, and a fascinating accomplished woman in her own right. We met as kids while we were both aspiring tennis players. She was coached by Billy Jean King and went on to play on the women’s pro circuit in the 1970s. After she retired from tennis she founded the women’s tennis association newsletter and remained its publisher for several years. She became a professor of school psychology and she’s an award winning children’s science writer.
Our partnership was more than just a marriage. We collaborated on six children’s science books. She published six more on her own.
Like me, Tam was a scientist and educator and deeply concerned about the underrepresentation of women in science and technical professions. Along with some like-minded friends, we founded Sally Ride Science with the goal of narrowing the gender gap in science. Tam remains the CEO. We accomplished much but there is still much to do.
I’ve seen a few female masons working in San Francisco.It turns out there are quite a few female masons working for the City of San Francisco. I accompanied Vicky Hamlin to photograph a whole crew of women for the 2015 Tradeswomen calendar.
On one crew on Potrero Hill all three masons were women.
On another day I found this mason working alone on a job in the Excelsior.
Know your friends and know your enemies. Tradeswoman organizations are our friends, even when they are applying for the same funding. Those who want to keep us barefoot and pregnant and not allow us to work are our enemies. They will always try to divide us. Do not let them.
Discrimination makes us crazy (and sick and angry). Sometimes we are called upon to support crazy women and tradeswomen organizations must be there for women when we are crazy.
Tradeswomen are part of a larger movement for Civil Rights. We have more power when we coalesce with other people and organizations.
Our community is small. Activists in the Tradeswomen Movement must know that you will encounter over and over the same people who are also active in the Movement. Build bridges, don’t burn them.
One woman can change everything. In most cities where tradeswomen organizations have flourished, one woman organized the first meeting. Sometimes one righteous woman in a position of relative power in a state, federal or local government or a union organization can mean the difference between jobs for tradeswomen and none.
Laws (and lawyers) can be our friends. Having the backing of government makes a world of difference when we are trying to change our world (unfortunately, the feds have neglected affirmative action since Jimmy Carter’s time).
Mentor each other. Our job is to support each other. Our job is to inspire each other. Sometimes we don’t know the effect we have had on others until many years later.
Women have the right to be mediocre. We shouldn’t always have to be the best at everything.
Always try to be the best at everything. Otherwise you make women look bad. When we are the only one on the job, we embody the stereotype of all tradeswomen.
Just going to work every day and putting on your toolbelt can be a revolutionary act.
Whenever I see tradeswomen at work, I try to take their pictures. Sometimes I even get a chance to talk to them. There’s a big street project going on at the Glen Park BART station and I’ve made friends with Jackie the laborer who is usually flagging when I cross the street. She is often wearing a t-shirt that reads Fight Like a Girl. There’s a female engineer working on this project too, and I did get a couple of pictures. That’s her conferring with a foreman.
The tradeswomen movement might be the most unsung subset of the feminist movement of the late 20th century. Like the feminist movement, it did seem to erupt suddenly, simultaneously, across the country and the world. All at once in the mid-1970s women began demanding access to blue collar jobs that had been the exclusive domain of men, like construction, utility maintenance, driving, dock work, policing and firefighting.
But the movement was not as spontaneous as it appeared. Women had been working for decades toward equality under law. Women had been included—however disingenuously—in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and then Title IX, the 1972 law requiring gender equity in education including sports programs. Young feminists, studying the statistics, were painfully aware that on average women working full-time made only 59 cents for every dollar made by men (in 2011 the proportion had risen to 77 cents). Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and efforts by black men to enter the white world of union construction, women began to organize toward employment equity.
In the 1970s and 80s organizations advocating for women’s access to these jobs sprang up all over the U.S.: Chicago Women in Trades, TOP-Win in Philadelphia, Northern New England Tradeswomen, Hard-Hatted Women in Cleveland, Nontraditional Employment for Women in New York, Women in Trades in Seattle.
In the San Francisco Bay Area activists first formed Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW) as a project of Union Women’s Alliance to Gain Equality (Union WAGE), a nonprofit organization for working women which included housewives, unemployed, retired, and women receiving welfare.
Early tactics included demonstrations and marches and efforts to enter union apprenticeships in the construction trades. The training programs, administered by joint committees made up of employers and unions, are comprehensive and free. An apprentice works full-time while completing training, usually at night during the program, usually four years. Hourly pay increases until you “turn out” as a journeyman in your trade. The apprenticeship system, especially in desirable high-paid trades like electrician, plumber, operating engineer, sheet metal and ironworker, had been closed to all but white men, primarily relatives of men already in the trade. The federal government had put in place agencies to enforce the new civil rights laws and women began to organize to tear down that wall.
Carpentry was a popular choice among women. The idea of working with wood, which it turns out construction carpenters don’t do much of—they mostly build forms for concrete–seemed romantic. The carpenters’ union was and still is the largest construction union with the biggest apprenticeship program and the most jobs. In the 1970s, it was one of the easiest apprenticeships to get into. Other crafts required applicants to take aptitude tests, submit to interviews and wait for months for a score but the carpenters used the “list” method, just creating a list of applicants, first come first served.
In 1975, with support from a sister nonprofit, Women in Apprenticeship Program (WAP) whose purpose was to place women in these apprenticeships, women learned that getting into the carpenters’ apprenticeship was just a matter of standing in line at the union office and signing up. The night before the apprenticeship opened, women formed a line outside the union door so there would be no question about who was first. Sleeping for one night on a concrete sidewalk seemed small payment for the opportunity to enter a training program which would also assist in placing trainees in construction jobs.
When the union’s doors opened the next morning the women who had waited in line all night found that their names did not appear first on the apprenticeship list. They also learned that carpentry was a “hunting license trade,” meaning that the apprentice must first find a contractor willing to hire him before he can be indentured into the apprenticeship. Hiring and, therefore, the apprenticeship was controlled by the contractor/employers who preferred to choose known workers rather than request new apprentices sight unseen from the union’s list. The women did travel to various job sites in the Bay Area seeking work, but no contractor would hire them. They decided to look for a lawyer.
Sue the Bastards
Filing a lawsuit was a decision not taken lightly. It almost certainly meant that the filer would become a martyr to the cause and would be blacklisted from future work. It could also mean months and years of shepherding a case through the system. And, as much as it was apparent that the unions were acting as the enemy of women, the women did not want to make the unions their enemy. The unions were the only reason trades jobs paid decent wages with decent working conditions.
Litigation cannot be the sole foundation of a mass movement, but litigation in the 1970s when class action lawsuits proliferated and very often resulted in wins, became an important part of activists’ strategy for change. San Francisco Bay Area tradeswomen activists were lucky to have advocate lawyers at Equal Rights Advocates, a law firm devoted to defending working women, and the Employment Law Center. Across the country, most women fighting employment discrimination were out of luck. No lawyer would take their cases.
Lawsuits filed by individuals rarely resulted in changes to laws or regulations. Women were pressured to settle for cash and to agree not to disclose the settlement. The lawsuit that had won affirmative action goals and timetables for women in the construction trades was filed by a coalition of feminist advocates against the U.S. Department of Labor in 1976.
The case that resulted from the 1975 attempt by women to join Carpenters Local 22, Eldredge vs. Carpenters Trust, kicked around in the courts for 21 years and was finally decided in favor of the women. Judge Betty Fletcher of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the union to reserve 20 percent of its job referrals for women. In her opinion, an obviously exasperated Fletcher wrote, “The bottom line is that women historically have been systematically excluded from carpentry work and for more than two decades have sought relief through the courts while the Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee, the craft’s gatekeeping organization, has waged a relentless battle to preserve the status quo.” But the carpenters union ultimately was the real winner. For a time, the union complied. It found plenty of women in the San Francisco Bay Area anxious to enter the trade, putting the lie to its past complaints that women weren’t interested in construction work. Then, when the 20 percent apprenticeship goal was met, the union petitioned the court to end the consent decree. The settlement agreement failed to require follow up and when the judge’s decree ended so did the hiring of women.
The women’s lawyer, Alberta Blumin of Berkeley, essentially worked for free, but there is no accounting of the legal costs to the JATC for its “decades’-long legal recalcitrance and foot dragging” (Fletcher’s words).
Goals and Timetables
In 1978, when the new federal affirmative action rules and regulations went into effect, tradeswomen and women who aimed for careers in construction celebrated. The goal for women to be hired on federally funded jobs was 6.9 percent, increasing to 9 percent over five years. Apprenticeship programs were required to indenture 23 percent women (the number was one half the percentage of women in the general workforce—46 percent). If the unions and employers actually met the goals and the federal and state governments actually enforced them, it would only take a few years for women to achieve parity in the construction trades.
The new comprehensive federal guidelines that resulted from the Department of Labor lawsuit spelled out more than just numerical goals. Titled Executive Order 11246 and upgraded under President Jimmy Carter, the law acknowledged that a critical mass of women would be needed to counter the isolation and harassment women were experiencing in nontraditional jobs. The regulations pointed out working conditions and safety as paramount.
That year, 1978, union construction apprenticeships across the US were forced to induct their first women, but most women were still alone in apprenticeship classes with men. Many dropped out. In San Francisco’s IBEW Local 6, four women began the apprenticeship. One, Pat Snow, was able to retire with a full pension after 25 years as an “inside wireman.”
The large hope was not fulfilled. The 6.9 percent goal was never met except for a few isolated jobs, and never increased. Nor was the apprenticeship goal met, except in the Seattle IBEW Local 46 program, which for seven years was headed by a female electrician, Nancy Mason.
A good percentage of women who entered the construction trades in the 1970s were college-educated and middle class. Economics was a driving factor. Unemployment was high and women had difficulty finding well-paid jobs in more traditional occupational sectors. But many women didn’t want to work as teachers, nurses or secretaries (the main historical choices). The feminist movement had posed the question: Why can’t I do this? Suddenly everything seemed possible. Women who didn’t want to dress in skirts and pantyhose, whose dream was other than sitting at a typewriter all day, who weren’t interested in teaching kids, found a welcome alternative in construction work. You could get up in the morning, throw on the same clothes you’d worn the day before, put a hard hat on uncombed hair and go to work. You could drive around town and point proudly to buildings you had built. In union construction work men and women make the same wages and the contract provides for decent working conditions and benefits.
Among the many reasons to choose construction work was free apprenticeship training and no requirement for college education. Activists saw the breaking of resistance to women in trades as a path out of poverty for women. Here was a way to counter the “feminization of poverty,” a shocking trend especially as more women in the U.S. became single heads of households. Such a demographic shift could end poverty for women and children all over the country.
In 1979, Tradeswomen Inc., a 501c-3 nonprofit, was organized by a group of advocates including Madeline Mixer, director of District IX of the Women’s Bureau, US Department of Labor; and Susie Suafai, director of WAP. The goal was to access money to expand the already successful WAP project that was placing women in Bay Area union apprenticeship programs. For a short time, under President Jimmy Carter, construction jobs opened up to women. But after Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 everything changed. The Reagan administration immediately dismantled and defunded whatever affirmative action programs it could, and stopped enforcing regulations already on the books.
Women, however, continued to fight to enter construction and nontraditional jobs.