How to Avoid Reproduction

I had a hysterectomy in 1975 when I was 25 years old. I didn’t have cancer or uterine cysts. What I had was dysmenorrhea, or menstrual cramps.

This was an operation I had actively pursued and I felt lucky to get it, taking advantage of the remnants of the US Public Health system before it was abolished by the Reagan administration.

Buckets of Blood

Like 80 percent of women, I suffered from menstrual pain. Like 10 percent of women, the pain was severe enough to disrupt my life. Menstruation, since the age of 13, had been a trial for me that only worsened by the time I got to high school. Huge gobs of clotted blood would gush from my body every three weeks for a week at a time. The pain was debilitating. By the time I got to college I was unable to work for two days a month when my period was at its worst, a terrible embarrassment for a young militant feminist who passionately believed that women were equal to men.

Self portrait 1973

In high school I had friends who got pregnant and had to drop out of school, young women who gave up babies for adoption or had to get married. The lesson was clear to me: don’t get pregnant or you won’t get an education. Pregnancy, and marriage too, seemed like a kind of death. I was determined not to ruin my life. In high school I never had sex, but there wasn’t any boy I wanted to have sex with.

I asked my parents what they would do if I got pregnant. My mother said they would help me get an abortion. Much later, after she died, I learned that my mother had had at least two abortions. She never told me, even during the feminist campaign led by Ms. Magazine in which famous women publicly admitted to their abortions. 

How I Got The Pill

By the time I got to college, I was embarrassed to be a virgin, so I set out to remedy that state of affairs. I was hanging out with a boy I met in bacteriology lab who seemed interested in me. I asked him if he wanted to have sex and he was happy to oblige. We shook on the deal. First, though, I wanted to be sure I was protected from getting pregnant and I didn’t want to leave that up to him. The Pill was newly available and I convinced a doctor at the student health clinic to give me a prescription. This was about 1968.

The Pill wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. The Pill makes your body think it’s pregnant, which meant for me morning sickness, bloating and sore breasts. And the periods were still bad. Only many years later did I learn that it’s not necessary to have a period when you’re on the Pill. That was the Catholic Church’s doing, part of a deal between the church and pill makers. The church agreed not to oppose the marketing of the Pill for birth control if certain requirements were met, one being that periods stayed. Even though I was never a Catholic, the church had an unseen hand in my reproductive life. Was I suffering for the sins of Eve? I was pissed when I learned that I could have controlled my painful periods by taking the Pill throughout the month if not for the Catholic Church. But at least by the late 60s the Pill was available to me and other unmarried women (for a time it was only prescribed to married women—another church requirement).

Im Going to Throw Up

My menstrual periods continued to worsen, causing vomiting and diarrhea as well as pain. I developed a long-term relationship with the student health center, but they began to tell me and other female students that painful periods were not a health issue and that we would not be treated there. If I told them the reason, they would refuse to take me in, so I worked out a strategy where I would run into the clinic and say to the receptionist, “I’m going to throw up.” That got me into a room with a pan, and I was able to see a doctor. Not that they could do much for me. They gave me painkillers, usually a shot of something, and sent me home, where I would lie in bed for the rest of the day, still in pain, just duller pain. I was still useless.

This was no way to live. I resolved to do something about this devitalizing state of affairs. I began reading everything I could get on the subject of menstruation and birth control, frequenting the medical library at Washington State University. I learned about the effects of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone and how they control the menstrual cycle. I only understood about half of the medical terms, but could make out the general ideas. It seemed from my reading that I might have something called endometriosis, where the lining of the uterus gets into the body cavity and responds to hormones by bleeding into your insides.

At that time in the 1960s, research was still going on to refine the Pill. I read about different types of pills I could try and I convinced the one female doctor in the student health center to let me experiment on myself. She prescribed a kind of progesterone pill, but, as with previous experiments, the side effects cancelled out the positive. One day when I lay with my feet up suffering intense cramping and pain, I popped a progesterone pill. The pain stopped within minutes! Progesterone, my savior! Why didn’t women know about this? Why don’t women still know about this? Did the medical establishment want women to suffer just as the Catholic Church did? Reading the book, The Pill, I later discovered that developers of the Pill claimed to be developing a treatment for dysmenorrhea because it sounded better than birth control to the church and the powers that be. Too bad they didn’t tell the women like me who actually suffered from dysmenorrhea.

Taking Control of Our Bodies

My relationship with the medical establishment at WSU was not just based on my own complaints. Along with my Women’s Liberation group I had been working to help women get reproductive care. We set up a counseling center in the student union and I became a volunteer counselor. The typical “client” was a student who’d had sex once and gotten pregnant. She might be a rape victim. She’d had little or no sex education in school; she had never talked to anyone  about sex or reproduction. She was confused and embarrassed. One young woman was so mortified that she ran out of the room soon after she’d walked in.

We set up underground networks to help women procure abortions and we worked with doctors in the community to provide reproductive care in the town and at the university. A book written by activists in Boston, Our Bodies Ourselves, reflected feminist organizing all over the country, even in small towns in the West. We were inspired to learn about our bodies and take control of our own health care.

During this time, women in Washington State organized to overturn the law criminalizing abortion and my Women’s Liberation group worked on that ballot campaign. Abortion became legal in Washington in 1970, three years before the Roe V. Wade Supreme Court decision legalized abortion nationwide. Washington was the first state in the country to make abortion legal by referendum.

If Men Could Get Pregnant Abortion Would Be a Sacrament

My search for the perfect method of birth control continued. I never liked condoms and felt that getting men to use them was not worth the effort, although I always carried one in my wallet. Still, I thought that men should be required to take responsibility for birth control. A popular feminist poster showed a picture of a big-bellied man and the slogan “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” Feminists wanted control of our own reproductive lives. We wanted the freedom to have sex without guilt and without consequences, just like men had. But we certainly didn’t want to depend on abortion as a primary method of birth control. We wanted contraception that didn’t hurt and wasn’t a big hassle.

I Got IUDd

IUDs (intrauterine devices) were becoming a popular form of birth control. It seemed like a great alternative to the Pill. You had to have it inserted by a doctor, but then presumably you never had to think about it again. Not so with me. 

The Dalkon Shield was about the size of a dime

There were many types of IUDs, but the most popular at that time was the Dalkon Shield. I went to a health clinic in the community to have it inserted. The doctor there was an older man whom I’d worked with to help provide women with reproductive care. He was inserting the Dalkon Shield into many women’s uteruses. That part went smoothly, but soon I was in pain, which continued to worsen. The pain was constant. The pain radiated from the core of my body out to my limbs. No part of my body was free of the pain. I thought to myself at the time that I could not imagine any pain worse than that cramping, and I have never experienced anything close to it in my life. My uterus was trying to expel the IUD and so I was in constant labor. (Needless to say, sex was the last thing on my mind). But the Dalkon Shield was made to resist. You had to have it removed by a doctor, and after a couple of weeks of agony I did. When I visited the mild mannered old doctor again, he told me of anecdotal evidence that women were having some problems with the Dalkon Shield. He emphasized anecdotal. He was a science-based guy after all, and there were no studies. Still, I could see the worried look on his face and I celebrated being IUD free.

Recall the Dalkon Shield

Later, of course, we learned of the terrible problems caused by the Dalkon Shield. Women suffered from pelvic inflammatory disease. Women were made infertile. Women died. We had been experimental subjects. I joined a class action lawsuit against the manufacturer and eventually received $750, a big sum of money for me then. The manufacturer, A.H. Robins Co., went bankrupt.

Birth control never failed me. I never got pregnant. But I was pissed that it was so difficult. Later, when I sat down to chronicle my torturous, painful attempts to keep from getting pregnant I got angry all over again. Even for a relatively privileged white, college-educated woman, birth control had been arduous.

The Peoples Health Care System

In 1973 I left the little college burg of Pullman for the big city of Seattle. But I had carefully laid the foundation for continuing reproductive care in my new home. 

The People’s Health Care System, a grassroots response to inadequate health care, acted like a safety net, doctoring the poor and insurance-free. Led by the Black Panther Party, activists in Seattle had created the system, which later included the Women’s Clinic at the YWCA where I volunteered and community-built clinics in the city’s poorer underserved neighborhoods. Country Doctor, one of the first community clinics, is still operating.

Seattle still maintained a merchant seamen’s hospital, part of the U.S. Public Health Service, where medical care was free. Over the years, military dependents, Coast Guard personnel, American Indians and medically indigent citizens were added to the patient load. The USP hospital in Seattle by the 1970s was a center of people’s health care activism. 

I arrived in Seattle at an auspicious time for public health care. I had documented well my battle with endometriosis (or whatever it was—I never got a diagnosis except the general term dysmenorrhea). My doctor at the WSU health center had given a written recommendation for a hysterectomy. And I made connections with the network of activist health care providers by volunteering at the Women’s Clinic. They put me in touch with a doctor who agreed to oversee the operation.

The US Public Health Service

The Seattle Public Health Hospital building, an imposing Art Deco edifice built in the 1930s, still crowns Beacon Hill in the south part of the city. I was admitted to a ward reserved for women undergoing reproductive surgery. The huge open room housed perhaps 15 or 20 beds. You could pull a curtain to separate yourself from the others, but I wanted to be part of the action. I made an effort to meet and talk to the other patients, and the atmosphere was friendly. Most of the women were wives of Navy men in for hysterectomies or removal of ovarian cysts. But one young woman told me she was a fisher and was in for a (free) abortion.

The Seattle Public Health Hospital

This was a teaching hospital. Young interns performed many of the surgeries and probably also did mine. I engaged one of the female interns, asking about endometriosis and hormone studies. Her answer chilled me. Few studies existed regarding the female reproductive system, she said. “We just don’t know very much.” At that time women were seldom the subjects of medical studies, which were almost all about men.

As I was being wheeled into surgery and before the drugs took effect, I thought to myself that I should have told my parents about the hysterectomy. I had been told there was a small chance that I wouldn’t wake up from the general anesthesia. What if I were to die? My poor mother! I was her only daughter, a very selfish daughter. But I’d been afraid my mother would try to dissuade me and I hadn’t wanted to have the argument with her. I felt strongly that this was my personal decision.

Early promotion of the public hospital

At that time there was unbelievable pressure on women to have children. Everyone told you you’d change your mind when the maternal instinct kicked in.“Every woman wants children! It’s in your genes. You are a freak if you don’t want children,” we were told repeatedly. Young women were not allowed to have hysterectomies because doctors thought we didn’t know our own minds. At the public health hospital they believed me when I told them I really didn’t want children. I never changed my mind.

Only my uterus was coming out, not ovaries. The interns had explained to me that they would try to do a vaginal hysterectomy. They wouldn’t cut my abdominal muscles unless they had to. But they wouldn’t know until they got in there, so I wouldn’t know until I came out of surgery and the anesthesia wore off. Some of the women in the ward had pretty ugly incisions and of course I had to see them all. As it turned out, the hysterectomy was vaginal, so I was left with no scar. 

Because I got an infection (a common thing for younger people, they said), I had to live in the ward for 12 days. In that time I got to know the staff and the patients pretty well. I wanted to know how they funded the surgeries of people like me who were not seamen, fishers or Navy. They told me money came from a fund for special or interesting cases. I thought that was funny since my case seemed pretty routine. Later I learned that :

Hospital Director Dr. Willard P. Johnson had found an obscure regulation in the Public Health Service Act that allowed a director to allocate up to five percent of the care offered at the facility for “special studies.” The provision was intended to allow the admission of patients with rare diseases for the benefit of the medical education program.  Dr. Johnson decided to interpret it differently, admitting every person referred from a community clinic as a special studies patient. This decision was the origin of the long-standing affiliation with the region’s community health centers.

The PHS hospital, because of its close relationship with the neighborhood clinics, became the center of the People’s Health Care System in Seattle. It was part of a vital community movement for control of our own health care, which had far reaching effects. Women did gain a measure of control and also won changes in the health care system. The women’s clinics in Seattle, set up to help women access abortion and reproductive care, continued to operate for many years. But our most important community partner, the PHS hospital and its federally funded public health care system, died a tortured death. 

Republicans Shut It Down

The Republican assault on health care is not a new phenomenon. When politicians grouse that we can’t afford Medicare for all, they forget that the U.S. once actually had a well-run public health care system. It was destroyed by Ronald Reagan.

The Seattle PHS hospital was part of a network of public health hospitals and federally-funded free clinics all over the country. Soon after he took office Reagan shut down all the public hospitals. In Seattle he had to fight the community as well as Washington’s powerful Senators Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson, and Seattle’s mayor, but Reagan pretty quickly won the fight.

The assault was unremitting. Between 1980 and 1991, more than 250 community health centers were closed, 309 rural hospitals and 294 urban hospitals were shuttered. Nearly one million Native Americans lost access to Indian Health Service care when eligibility was narrowed. Reagan’s budget cuts hacked at school lunches, Medicaid, the food stamp program, WIC and AFDC. He caused a two percent increase in the poverty rate, and the number of children in poverty rose nearly three percent.

Forty years later it’s clear that the Republicans’ answer to the prospect of socialized medicine is, for a growing number of Americans, no healthcare at all. And the attacks on women’s reproductive care continue with the recent Supreme Court decision allowing religious exemptions for birth control. Soon Roe v. Wade may be overturned and we’ll be back where we started. For a brief window in time  American women enjoyed the right to control our bodies and reproduction. Now it looks like that window is closing.

Women Run Screaming

Archiving during the pandemic shutdown–it’s a pastime of lots of us old folks. I admit to feeling nostalgic as I box up historic files and read through past Tradeswomen Magazines. The quarterly magazine was published for nearly two decades, the 80s and 90s, and it tells the story of our movement for equity in nontraditional jobs. Of all my writings published in the magazine, the short fiction still resonates best. Here’s a story from the Spring, 1987 issue.

Bathroom1

Bathroom3

Bathroom4

Bathroom5

Sexual Harassment is Old News for Women in Trades

In the wake of harassment allegations against sexual predators including movie moguls and our president, tradeswomen applaud women who are telling their stories and rising up against this outrage.

Women in male-dominated occupations have been fighting this fight for as long as we can remember. We’ve been on the front lines of the feminist movement for decades defending our sisters, supporting legislation to protect women against sexual harassment and helping employers and unions see their responsibility on this issue. We and our fight have been invisible except to each other. Every female construction worker has experienced harassment and all of us can say #Metoo.

grafitti
Taped on the counter at my supply house, 1983. Sealtite is a type of electrical conduit.

In 1980 I worked as the only female electrician on a big construction job in San Francisco. That’s how it was for us then, and that’s how it still is. Women make up less than three percent of the construction workforce. We are often alone in a crowd of hundreds of men.

I would do my job, dressed in boots, hard hat and work clothes just like the men, looking over my shoulder anticipating violence and hostility. In the porta potties amidst the ubiquitous dicks drawn on the walls would be my name underneath the sentiment “I WANT TO FUCK YOU.” I was called “the cunt.”

I spent my working life in what we now call a hostile work environment. We had no word for it then. There was no recourse. You could complain to your foreman or your union rep but they would tell you that the harassment was your own fault and if you couldn’t take it you should leave the job. You loved the work and you loved the paycheck and so you kept your mouth shut and your head down. And you depended on male allies. My tool buddy on that job—the only guy who would work with me—was a Hispanic/native man whose family had been in California since it was still part of Mexico. He had my back.

Some things have changed since then and the changes are the direct result of feminist organizing. In the 1970s tradeswomen who had been the target of harassment began to bring lawsuits against employers. They lost. When the civil rights activist Eleanor Holmes Norton, as chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President Jimmy Carter, released regulations declaring sexual harassment to be discrimination under federal law, women finally had legal backing.

grafitti_0001
Sister electrician Lyn Shimizu pointing out graffiti on the SF opera house job, 1997

In the 1986 Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson case, the Supreme Court distinguished between and prohibited two kinds of sexual harassment. Quid pro quo harassment occurred when women were made offers such as a promotion in exchange for a sexual favor. Equally important, however, was the hostile environment harassment where men could make the everyday workplace into a place of threats, hostility, offensive images, abusive language. This is the kind of harassment tradeswomen most frequently endure.

The movie North Country dramatized conditions that led to the first class action sexual harassment lawsuit filed in 1988 by Lois Jensen and female miners at the Eveleth Taconite Company in Minnesota. After these women won a $3.5 million settlement, employers began to take notice. Our working conditions began to improve.

We were helped by a few dedicated lawyers. In San Francisco we were lucky to work with attorneys at Equal Rights Advocates and Employment Law Center. Other legal groups included the National Women’s Law Center and the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund (today Legal Momentum).

That sexual harassment is now against the law is the one big change tradeswomen have noticed over the years that has improved our working lives in a male-dominated workplace. In many other ways our workplace environment hasn’t changed that much. We are still underemployed, last hired and first fired, often poorly trained and generally undervalued. Yet some tradeswomen have had successful careers and are retiring with good pensions. Some have become apprenticeship directors, union business agents, and chairs of state building trades councils. We have built organizations and networks across the country to improve our lot. I just returned from our national conference, this year in Chicago, Women Build Nations. It started as Women Building California, sponsored by the California Building Trades Council and Tradeswomen Inc. in 2001 and has now become international, this year sponsored by the National Building Trades Unions and Chicago Women in Trades. A record 1600 women and male allies attended. Workshops on sexual harassment were featured, as always. But the construction industry now has policies in place to train workers and to prevent harassment.

Tradeswomen are glad sexual harassment is now a mainstream issue, but for us it’s nothing new. We’ve been resisting for decades and still we persist.

 

Looking for My Mother’s Lover

My mother's scrapbook
My mother’s scrapbook

Chapter Two

Among the many questions I wish I could have asked my mother: When did you first have sex? Were you ever attracted to a woman?

We came of age at very different times. My mother turned 20 in 1933, the nadir of the Great Depression. I was 20 in 1969, the zenith of the Countercultural Revolution.

As close as we were, there were things her generation just didn’t talk about—private things. My generation talked about everything, even things that probably should have been kept private.

Whether or not my mother was ever attracted to a woman, I have found evidence that at least one woman was attracted to her. After I discovered the letters from Edna L., my mother’s ardent admirer, I searched in vain for her last name and any identifying information in Mom’s scrapbooks. They had roomed together in the Neil House Hotel in Columbus, Ohio for the national YWCA convention in April 1938. But “Eddie” (as she often signed her name) suggests in one note that they had met the previous year at a YW conference in Chicago.northwest

“It has been fun to continue our friendship begun in Chicago (or even earlier) and I hope we shall be friends far into the future,” wrote Eddie.

I can’t imagine what Eddie means by “even earlier.” I didn’t think Flo had traveled east from Washington State before the Chicago trip, but I have one piece of evidence that suggests otherwise. She gave me a small painting and wrote on the back, “Bought at Dayton’s in Minneapolis in the 1930s. Sent to daughter Molly in San Francisco 2/82. Flo Martin.” So perhaps there had been previous meetings where they connected that Flo had not recorded in the scrapbooks. Had Flo and Eddie schemed for a year to room together in Columbus? They must have planned ahead at least.tuckin

So, my new obsession: Edna L. Reading her love notes to Flo warmed my heart and I began to identify with Eddie who slyly references “baths” and late-night “tuckin’ in” (her quotes, not mine). From reading her notes, I conclude she wanted to seduce my mother. Did she?

Some things I know about Eddie: She lived in New York. She was participating in the YWCA conference, so she could have been active in a Business and Professional Women’s Club, as was Flo, or in the YW. Chances are that Eddie was older than Flo, who was only 24 when they roomed together in Columbus. One clue I found in Eddie’s letters: they are literate with perfect spelling and punctuation. This suggests that she worked in an office and not a factory.cometoNY

What did she look like? My mother’s scrapbooks from the 1930s are filled with pictures, but as far as I can tell there are none of Eddie or the YW conferences. But who knows? Flo didn’t caption anything in these early scrapbooks. In trying to imagine how Eddie looked, I could not even assume that she was white. Even in 1938, the YW strove to include racial minorities.

Participating in these conferences must have felt to my mother and her comrades like early feminist gatherings did to my generation of feminists. The meetings were focused on making institutional changes to give women and minorities more comprehensive rights. These women were leading a movement for social change, just as we did. The artifacts Flo saved in her scrapbooks show that many of these women built loving friendships with each other. The warmth expressed in their greetings illustrates deep feeling. From receipts she saved, I see they sent flowers to each other as thank yous, a practice I wish in retrospect my generation of feminist activists had adopted.youretops

The Columbus conference was a continual round of meetings. In her love notes Eddie grumbles about not getting to see Flo back at the room until late at night.

“Aren’t we having a good time even though I have to sit up nights and wait for a chance to see you?”

“I certainly am enjoying being with you—even if I don’t have that opportunity ‘cept in the wee hours mostly, after I’ve tucked you in. I’ll be tuckin’ you in any minute now when you get back from your meeting on findings…”

Apparently the meetings went long into the night. Another participant noted, “Here’s to more 2am meetings.”

Flo had saved the banquet book from the YW convention and its inside covers were filled with inscriptions from attendees. Altogether there are 27 signatures. Nicknames were popular and they seem to have nicknamed Flo “Cricket.”

They all signed their full names, except Eddie who signed “Love—Eddie.” It’s an indication that their relationship was special, but disappointing for me because Eddie never signed her last name.

In the banquet book Eddie wrote: “Dearest Florence—You are one grand girl and a swell pal! These interludes of Council and Convention will always be happy memories because you shared them with me. I hope you’ll “bother” me “for years to come” and some day I’m coming to see you in the Northwest! Love—Eddie L.”

Did Eddie ever visit the Northwest? There is nothing in my mother’s scrapbook to suggest that she did. But items she saved show that Flo visited Eddie in New York in 1941. There are menus from the Swiss Village Inn and Struppler’s (next to the Cordova 917 Grand Ave.) I found a cocktail napkin from Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Bar and Cocktail Lounge, “Meeting Place of the World.” She kept a newspaper article citing record heat in NYC, a humid 91 degrees on the hottest Sept. 10 in a decade. There’s also a receipt from Sweden House Inc. (Swedish decorative arts) at Rockefeller Center for $1.53 dated 9/10/41, and a receipt for a single person at the Taft Hotel, 7th Ave at 50th St. NYC, and a menu from the Taft Grill.

The Taft Hotel, a 22-story high-rise built in 1926, was one of New York’s premiere tourist hotels with 2000 rooms right on Times Square at Radio City in Midtown. My mother, a small-town gal from Yakima, Washington, must have been thrilled to stay in such a glamorous big city accommodations. I bet she had a great view from room 1045.

How could my mother afford this trip? Had she been saving pennies for three years while working full time and helping to support her family? I could never afford to stay in hotels as a young working person, nor could my family afford hotels when I was growing up. On vacations we drove to the Cascade Mountains and pitched a tent. When I traveled I always arranged to stay in the homes of friends or comrades. It made me wonder if Eddie had chipped in to pay for the room at the Taft Hotel. Or maybe Eddie sprang for the hotel while Flo paid for the train trip. Perhaps she and Eddie had been corresponding furiously for three years, planning this tryst.

Flo also saved a Christmas gift card in its envelope from Macy’s New York. It is signed “With much love to you, Wickie dear—Edna L.”

There’s another note on a card with a monogramed L with no date: “My best love to a very good pal—Edna L.”

Then there’s a note that reads “Florence dear—Just got tickets for Watch on the Rhine—only chance it seems—Gertrude (my sister) will be joining us—will call you about meeting for dinner & theater tomorrow night. Edie L. (The play, by Lillian Hellman, won the New York Drama Critics prize in 1941).

Did Flo travel to New York just to visit Eddie? I can’t find any evidence of meetings of the YWCA or Biz-Pro in NYC in September 1941. Did she stay in a hotel and not with Eddie because she and Eddie wanted a place to be alone?

roundpic
Painting bought in Minneapolis

From the evidence, it looks like Flo travelled to New York by herself. In those days you could take the North Coast Limited on the Northern Pacific Railway all the way from Yakima to Chicago. Then you transferred to the Pennsylvania Railroad for the final leg to New York. Of course, by this time Flo was a veteran train traveler, having already been to Chicago, Columbus and Minneapolis.

As much as I’ve fantasized about my mother’s lesbian affair, I think the evidence is mixed. It wasn’t just that Flo had had lots of boyfriends, or that she married a man. That’s a story many lesbians tell. While I never married a man, I spent a decade experimenting with heterosexual sex before I came out.

picback
Flo’s inscription on the back of the painting

My mother definitely struggled with homophobia. As liberal as she was politically, Flo had difficulty accepting that my brother and I are gay. He came out first and she felt justifiably burdened by the widely accepted Freudian theory that mothers are responsible for sons’ homosexuality. Then, when I came out a few years later, she at first chalked it up to a phase I was going though. Could that be because she went through a lesbian “phase” herself?

I made up all sorts of sensational stories about Eddie and Flo from the information I found in the scrapbooks. But since Eddie’s last name remained unrecorded, I gave up learning any more about her. Whatever happened between Flo and Eddie, I’m sure my mother had to wrestle with her own internalized homophobia and that of the dominant culture. At that time, in the 1930s, homosexuality was highly stigmatized and even in the big city of New York, lesbians stayed closeted to protect their jobs and reputations, meeting mostly at private house parties.

There remains the possibility that Flo was deeply in denial about her attraction/affair. I have some evidence to support this theory. My mother’s sister, Ruth, also had gay children and, while much more politically conservative, Ruth took a stand when her Presbyterian church excluded gays. She was proud of her gay kids and publicly quit the church in support of them. But she complained to me that she could never get my mother to talk about the issue. She couldn’t understand why Flo, her closest sister, had shut her out, especially with regard to a subject they both shared. I never understood this. I just assumed it had to do with Flo’s avoidance of the personal like so many in her generation, but perhaps my mother feared that her own sexual past would be revealed.

Did Flo have an affair with Eddie? I’ll never know for sure. If she were still alive, I think I could ask her now. When she died in 1983 at the age of 70, I still felt restrained from asking personal questions that I knew she would refuse to answer. Then again, maybe she never would have revealed the truth. She believed some things are best kept private.

Women Build Nations Sensational, Huge

Reporting on the Women Build Nations Conference in Chicago on May Day weekend: Two words: sensational and huge!

Mural at CWIT headquarters in Chicago
Mural at CWIT headquarters in Chicago

My old friend electrician Cynthia Long (IBEW Local 3 NYC) just texted me asking for news about the conference. Although it wasn’t her intention to guilt trip me, I felt bad for not having reported back to tradeswomen friends who couldn’t attend. Here are some highlights:

The climax for me was performing on stage for this gigantic audience of tradeswomen. My wife Holly and I wrote a song called Sister in the Brotherhood, and she accompanied me on the guitar. I was terribly page 4nervous, but we didn’t blow it and that audience of rowdy construction workers liked us! Friends were kind enough to video our performance, and I will eventually figure out how to post the video on this site. (I’m old and tech challenged. It will happen). This week Donna Levitt brought me a copy of Organized Labor, the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council’s newspaper. There was our picture on page 4! We feel like rock stars and the glow hasn’t yet worn off.

The conference was hosted by Chicago Women in Trades (CWIT) and North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU). A high point before the conference even began: CWIT’s fabu party at their headquarters and training center. I was delighted to connect up with old activists from way back and also meet young tradeswomen and CWIT trainees, many acting as greeters and volunteers.

Along with historian Brigid O’Farrell and sprinkler fitter Ella Jones, I gave a workshop called “Tradeswomen History: Learning From the Past to Change the Future.” We were able to include testimony from several “tradeswomen matriarchs” who are helping us learn from the past.

Old timers Ronnie Sandler, Paula Smith, Lisa Diehl, Lauren Sugerman, Molly Martin, Dale McCormick
Old timers Ronnie Sandler, Paula Smith, Lisa Diehl, Lauren Sugerman, Molly Martin, Dale McCormick

Some organizers of the 1989 second national conference, Chicago
Some organizers of the 1989 second national conference, Chicago. I’m still looking over Lauren’s shoulder.

As it turned out we had a mini-reunion of some of us old tradeswomen activists from the 1970s and 80s. Carpenter Lisa Diehl, who’d been an organizer of Kansas City Tradeswomen, traveled from her home in West Virginia. She entertained us with stories of feminist actions from the bra burning banner hoisting days. Ronnie Sandler, carpenter and job training wiz, came from New Hampshire. Dale McCormick, the first female in the country to turn out as a carpenter who went on to win a place in the Maine state legislature and become state treasurer, represented Maine. We reunited with Paula Smith and Lauren Sugerman, two organizers from Chicago we’d worked with to put on the 1989 second national tradeswomen conference there. And some of the early tradeswomen organizers from Chicago were in attendance too, sporting t-shirts and sweatshirts from the 1970s.

This was the 15th Women Build conference and the 6th we have renamed Women Build Nations, including women from all over North America and other countries. It was the first in this series of conferences to take place outside of California and it brought in hundreds of women from the Midwest and other parts of the U.S. who’d never participated in the past conferences. Fifteen hundred tradeswomen of all crafts, allies and union brothers attended—the biggest tradeswomen conference ever!

Advice from an Old Tradeswoman Activist

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. Tradeswomen are part of a larger movement for Civil Rights. We have more power when we coalesce with other people and organizations.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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).

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. Women have the right to be mediocre. We shouldn’t always have to be the best at everything.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. Just going to work every day and putting on your toolbelt can be a revolutionary act.

 

Women Building the Nation: A Short History of Tradeswomen Conferences

LAconfTradeswomen love a conference, an opportunity to get together and talk shop, share stories and revel in our community: a definite antidote to our typical working lives of isolation and otherness. We started convening even before we had jobs as we tried to figure out how to break into the world of “men’s work.” In the 1970s, tradeswomen organizations took root in communities all over the country, gathering women who wanted in the trades, women who had already muscled their way in, equal rights advocates, and a myriad of supporters.

First National Gatherings

In the San Francisco Bay Area we had met regionally several times before Tradeswomen Inc. (TWI) sponsored the first national conference for tradeswomen in 1983. That first national gathering in Oakland rocked our worlds. Tradeswomen activists and advocates across the country met and formed life-long bonds at that conference, coming together in the next decades to promote our cause. Finally, we were not isolated. We were surrounded by hundreds of women just like us whose main issues were getting work in nontraditional jobs, and countering harassment once we got there.

Representatives from tradeswomen groups all over the country organized the second national conference, held in Chicago in 1989, funded by the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor (WBDOL). As part of this effort a national organization was born.

We Meet Debra Chaplan

Cut to 1998. TWI was struggling to figure out how to partner with construction trade unions because union construction jobs offer the best pay, working conditions and training. Tradeswomen members, organized by TWI Director Beth Youhn and Amy Reynolds, traveled up to Sacramento to the Cal Labor Fed conference. Amy, a long-time member of Plumbers Local 38, had perfected a one-woman outreach strategy, showing up at all manner of feminist and union gatherings in a hard hat and overalls, looking like Rosie the Riveter. She never failed to attract attention among the suit and tie set. The idea was to get these folks to take note of tradeswomen and the fact that our numbers in the construction trades were so low. Once we got their attention we could propose collaboration.

sistersDance
Tradeswomen dancing to DJ Joey’s tunes

CA Building and Construction Trades Council

The California Labor Federation includes unions in all industries, and works mostly on legislative and political campaigns. Their annual state legislative conference takes place in the state capital, in conjunction with the State Building and Construction Trades Council (SBCTC). The Labor Fed sponsored a one-day women’s conference in an effort to outreach to female union activists. The tradeswomen came prepared with leaflets and materials to make their case and they did get the attention of one woman who, it turned out, was the best contact they could have made there.TWdance

Northern California Regional Conference

Debra Chaplan had just started working for the SBCTC as director of special programs, and she provided the connection to the building trades unions that TWI had been seeking since its inception. Debra joined with TWI to organize the November 1999 Northern California Regional Tradeswomen Conference, supported by the WBDOL. One hundred fifty tradeswomen and supporters gathered in Oakland to schmooze and strategize for the future. Electrician Marta Schultz performed “595 The Musical.” Our foremothers, Rosie the Riveters who had worked at the Kaiser shipyard in WWII attended and were honored. Herstory was made when organizers, sitting at dinner post-conference, simultaneously removed their bras while leaving shirts and blouses in place.

A resolution developed by that 1999 conference was unanimously adopted at the SBCTC’s 2000 convention, pledging the Council to intensify its efforts to recruit and retain women in all affiliate unions. With the support of its president, Bob Balganorth, the SBCTC agreed to sponsor a conference for California tradeswomen, Women Building California. The first one would be held in Sacramento in 2002 just ahead of the legislative conference that year.

We Launch Women Building California in 2002

For that first conference and for the next 13 years, Debra Chaplan has taken care of the logistics as conference organizer. She produces the invitations, programs, pamphlets, post-conference newsletters and videos, and she takes charge of organizing everything. But the program content is planned entirely by tradeswomen, to reflect our needs. TWI staff fundraises all year to raise scholarships for women in pre-apprenticeship programs, and a workshop track at the conference is devoted to them.

CWmsSpeaks
Carolyn Williams speaking

The first conference was only one day, but it was immediately clear that more time was needed to address all of our pressing issues. Since 2002, we’ve been spreading out a little more every year, adding workshops and plenary on Sunday and a Friday night cocktail hour, then a day for pre-apprenticeship program operators and the Tradeswomen Policy Forum.

If you’ve ever been to a Women Building conference, you know that the vibe there is awesome! All sorts of women from all over the country getting together and learning and teaching, singing and dancing and talking, all over their common bond of working in the trades. It’s a weekend camp for tradeswomen. There’s just nothing like meeting other activists from all over the world face to face.

Tradeswomen Put on a Show

Tradeswomen can put on a show, and we’ve been entertained by many talented vocalists and spoken word artists over the years. Most hilarious were the Sparkettes, a group of IBEW Local 595 sisters, acting out on-the-job encounters with our brothers. One year, circular saws and hammers punctuated a symphony written and performed by tradeswomen and the Women’s Community Orchestra.

confTable
Registration with SBCTC staff and Susie Suafai (R)

All building trades are represented at the conference, and ours is the largest all-craft gathering of tradeswomen in the universe! Electricians have always dominated in number, some years making up as many as a third of attendees. But lately they have been given a run for their money by ironworkers. I must admit to feeling a bit intimidated when I walk into that mob of tough-looking ironworkers on Friday night. But I feel ok as long as I don’t have to arm-wrestle any of them.

Conferences have taken place in Sacramento, Oakland and Los Angeles. They grew bigger every year, starting with 210 participants and building to nearly 900 in 2014. The advent of social media and the involvement of international unions and their presidents have been factors in the increase in numbers in the last couple of years.

Women Building the Nation

At first we were Women Building California, focused on women in the union building trades. For a couple of years we partnered with the California Professional Firefighters Union to become Women Building and Protecting California. While tradeswomen from all over the U.S. were always welcome, and many came from other states, the conference achieved national billing when the North America’s Building Trades Unions (BCTD) agreed to co-sponsor in 2010. Buy-in was secured by the BCTD Women in the Trades Committee, thanks again to Debra Chaplan, as well as Committee Chairs Patti Devlin and Carolyn Williams. The conference then became Women Building California and the Nation.

The 2015 conference in L.A. may be the last one in California. In 2016, the BCTD plans to take over from the Cal State Building Trades and move Women Building the Nation to another city, yet to be named. A new chapter in the life of our conference is about to begin.

BrickTSee you at Women Building the Nation in Los Angeles May 1-3, 2015!