The T-Shirt

I first encountered Dar on a job site. The contractor had moved me there so he could meet affirmative action requirements for females on the job. This was a popular practice. Rather than just hiring more women, the company would hire one woman and move her around from job to job so monitors would count the same woman repeatedly. The job, a low-income housing project in Chinatown, received federal funding and so had to meet federal affirmative action goals for women and minorities. This was in 1980 when some regulators actually took affirmative action laws seriously and monitored job sites. Those days are long gone.*

Three female utility plumbers working downtown San Francisco. Art by Victoria Hamlin

In those days women would often ignore each other when we were dispatched to the same job. We tried to be invisible and often, when there was only one of us, we got away with it. But as soon as two women started talking or working together, an undercurrent of anxiety rippled among the men. For a brief period on one job I got to work with a female apprentice.

“What do you two talk about?” asked one of the electricians. “Are you talking about the size of our dicks?”

This hadn’t occurred to me. Women might talk about the harassment we endured on the job or, more likely, how to work together to complete the job at hand. Dicks, drawn in profusion on the walls of the porta potties, did seem to hold a prominent place in the imaginations of some of our coworkers.

Photo Victoria Hamlin

Women knew that if we spoke to each other our male coworkers would notice. Straight women didn’t want to be painted with the dyke brush, and most lesbians were still in the closet and didn’t want the brush either. Dar didn’t worry about such implications. She was a big mouthy white woman with buck teeth and a head of bleached blond hair. On the job site you couldn’t miss her. She did not melt into the woodwork. My first day on that job, the Chinatown low-income housing project, she introduced herself as we passed each other on the deck.

“So you’re the affirmative action hire,” she said. “I guess they needed another chick.”

I wasn’t wild about being called a chick, but she had a point. Federal affirmative action regulations were the only reason I was on that job. Our short conversation made me think Dar didn’t like women any more than the men on the job did. She didn’t seem like a feminist sister.

Sewage treatment plant utility plumber. Photo Victoria Hamlin

For a couple of days I was pulling Romex through holes punched in metal framing. Then they pulled me off that job and put me on another where the regulations said they needed a woman. Fine with me. It all paid the same—a good wage previously reserved for men only. Dar was likely in the same boat. The plumbing contractors had a reputation for hiring even fewer women than the electrical guys. After they could check off the number of female hours worked, they could lay us off.

A couple of years later after a couple more layoffs, I scored a full-time maintenance job with the San Francisco Water Department. I worked out of a corporation yard in the southeast industrial area of the city, looking after all the motors that ran pumps that supplied water to the city. That’s when I ran into Dar again. She had been hired for a job in the plumbing division. The crews of plumbers worked installing new services all over the city, usually in big holes in the street. Or they might be required to repair a main break. The job was wet and muddy.

Photo Victoria Hamlin

I didn’t see much of Dar, as the plumbers were out of the yard working in the street all day. But I heard about her. A story in the grapevine told of Dar punching out a coworker who had harassed her while they worked in a trench. I never heard what was said. That was before the rule was imposed that fighting on the job would get you fired immediately. Dar was not the first plumber to make use of fists to manage a dispute, but she was the last to do so and avoid getting fired. 

The day I saw the T-shirt was a maintenance nightmare for the water department. One of the big pump stations that housed 100 HP motors flooded. The motors sat in wells in the concrete floor and so were vulnerable to being overtaken by the quickly rising water. I could see it wouldn’t be long until the motors were under water. The team of plumbers worked fast to staunch the leak.

Photo Victoria Hamlin

My only job as electrician was to cut the power to the motors and that was just a matter of disconnecting circuit breakers in a huge panel on a higher level, though if the water rose high enough that panel, too, would be in peril.

That’s when I spotted Dar, down in the pit with a cluster of men. She wore a T-shirt with a message in big print:

Feeling a little sexy?

Go fuck yourself

No one said anything aloud about the message on Dar’s shirt, but it shocked me. I couldn’t imagine wearing it myself, as much as I agreed with the sentiment. I didn’t have the guts to wear that shirt.

I had to give Dar credit. Maybe she wasn’t my kind of feminist, but she was some kind of feminist.

Photo Victoria Hamlin

*Affirmative action in the construction industry really only lasted a short time before Reagan killed it. In California the death knell was dealt in 1996 when Ward Connerly put affirmative action on the ballot. In the meantime some of us were able to get a foot in the door and advocate for the hiring of more women. But women still make up only about three percent of the construction workforce. We were the forgotten recipients of affirmative action and we could benefit from a renewed commitment to it now as the Supreme Court threatens to end it entirely.

Don’t Bleed in the Shark Pool

Book review

Thick Skin: Field Notes from a Sister in the Brotherhood by Hilary Peach, Anvil Press, 2022

A woman navigating the challenges of the male workplace makes a good story and Hilary Peach does the genre proud in her new book, Thick Skin. A Canadian from BC, Peach writes of working for twenty years as a boilermaker on big projects in Canada and the U.S. She has worked at coal fired power plants, the tar sands in Alberta, pulp mills, gas plants, shipyards—big industrial power generating companies of all kinds, often staying in their company towns. 

I enjoy reading about the work people do, especially hard dirty jobs like construction. In this book Peach tells us about the world of boilermakers, a subculture all its own. She describes the often difficult working conditions while she schools the reader about the intricacies and art of welding. 

Most stories center on the men she works with, the psychopaths as well as the nice guys. 

She encounters sexism and discrimination regularly as might be expected as the only woman among hundreds of men. But Peach always finds humor in the stories and often had me laughing out loud. Tradeswomen who go through the same challenges in our workplaces will delight in her creative comebacks and her various inventive ways of responding to harassment.

“How do we know it’s sexual harassment?” asks an apprentice.

“Just stop talking about your penises. That’s 80 percent of it,” say the women in the break room.

I loved this book. It’s well written and an engaging read with truly general appeal. And, of course, it reminds me of my own experience working construction.

Electricians, too, have a subculture of travelers, boomers, tramps, journeyworkers—those who travel around to different jobs—and my sisters and I used to dream of traveling. We thought it would be the greatest thing—that is until we heard from others who were on the road, mostly because they couldn’t get work in their own union locals. Sandy said she had to wear so many layers of clothes working in the Boston winter that her arms stuck straight out at her sides. Barbara of NYC told about burning refuse in high rises to keep warm and to help the concrete set, risking the hazards of smoke inhalation. Betsy complained of the Texas heat and miles of smelly porty potties.

Maybe we didn’t want to travel after all. 

Hilary Peach does it for two decades—driving hundreds of miles, often in the driving rain or snow, to get to a job. Staying in work camps whose last century accommodations have been condemned and then reopened without remodel. Working 12 hour shifts happy for the overtime, working nights, working in cramped quarters in the freezing cold and boiling hot.

As the hard hat sticker says, “If you can’t stand the heat get the fuck out of the boiler.”

Peach does indeed develop a thick skin. A favorite maxim, repeated often:

“You don’t bleed in the shark pool.”

Later, as more women begin to come on to the jobs, they tell her conditions have improved. She writes, “When other women were on the job it made a remarkable difference. One other woman and you are no longer the freak, the anomaly. You have an ally. Three or more, and everything changes. We can no longer be isolated and targeted in the same way…Someone has to organize a second bathroom.”

Thank you Hilary Peach for making women look good out there and for paving the way for more women to enter this industry. A published poet, she’s now working on a novel. As boilermakers say at the end of a job, “See you on the next one.”

Molly Martin is a retired electrician whose latest book, Wonder Woman Electric to the Rescue, is available on Amazon and Kindle.

To order Thick Skin: https://www.anvilpress.com/books/thick-skin-field-notes-from-a-sister-in-the-brotherhood

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

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.

PLAs are Good for Us

Here in Santa Rosa, in an era when small cities often have none, I’m pleased we have a decent local newspaper, the Press Democrat. I usually agree with their editorials, and when I don’t I write a letter to the editor. Here’s my latest.

Dear Editor,

You came out on the wrong side of project labor agreements in your October 12 editorial. Yes, our tax money is being used to build community structures we all will enjoy.  But it seems to me you are promoting union busting and lower wages for the construction workers who build our public spaces. A PLA is a pre-hire collective bargaining agreement with labor organizations that establishes the terms and conditions of employment for a specific construction project.

One difference between union and nonunion construction is training. My career as a union construction worker has allowed me to live a middle class life. In my union, apprentices must graduate from a five-year apprenticeship program to work as journey-level workers. 

How do nonunion construction workers learn their trades? You may not know that (free) union apprenticeship programs–certified by the state and run by both unions and industry–teach workers necessary skills. 

Building trades are skilled trades. When contractors employ unskilled workers to do skilled work they take the chance of mistakes that could cost lives down the line.

Let’s not scapegoat workers in the race for bigger contractor profits.

Molly Martin

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.

When Homelessness Still Shocked

This story was published in Tradeswomen Magazine in 1995, but it’s set in the early 80s when encountering homeless people was not yet a daily phenomenon. Young folks won’t remember but there was a time in San Francisco and in other cities when we didn’t have to step over people sleeping in doorways and on sidewalks. It was before Reagan, as governor of California, closed down mental health facilities and sent their residents into the streets. Before buying a house in the city became out of the reach of most working people. Before the commutes of construction workers averaged two hours from far-flung communities on the outskirts. Before we got used to it.

To join Tradeswomen Inc. Today go to http://www.tradeswomen.org

The Good Co-worker

Here’s another story from Tradeswomen Magazine, published in 1997. Like all my fictional stories, it’s autobiographical. I was working as a maintenance electrician out of the San Francisco Water Department corporation yard. The photos are of  women building a house in Florida.

In the Wake of the Weinstein Conviction

I’ve been going through my collection of Tradeswomen magazines (published by volunteer tradeswomen 1981-1999) and thinking about how much of what we wrote still has relevance today. We started writing and talking about sexual harassment before the term was even in the mainstream lexicon and before we had any legal backing. We were truly foremothers in this fight, and our persistence has paid off in improved industry standards and better working conditions for women in the construction trades. Here’s a story we published in 1983.

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