In the wake of harassment allegations against sexual predators including movie moguls and our president, tradeswomen applaud women who are telling their stories and rising up against this outrage.
Women in male-dominated occupations have been fighting this fight for as long as we can remember. We’ve been on the front lines of the feminist movement for decades defending our sisters, supporting legislation to protect women against sexual harassment and helping employers and unions see their responsibility on this issue. We and our fight have been invisible except to each other. Every female construction worker has experienced harassment and all of us can say #Metoo.
In 1980 I worked as the only female electrician on a big construction job in San Francisco. That’s how it was for us then, and that’s how it still is. Women make up less than three percent of the construction workforce. We are often alone in a crowd of hundreds of men.
I would do my job, dressed in boots, hard hat and work clothes just like the men, looking over my shoulder anticipating violence and hostility. In the porta potties amidst the ubiquitous dicks drawn on the walls would be my name underneath the sentiment “I WANT TO FUCK YOU.” I was called “the cunt.”
I spent my working life in what we now call a hostile work environment. We had no word for it then. There was no recourse. You could complain to your foreman or your union rep but they would tell you that the harassment was your own fault and if you couldn’t take it you should leave the job. You loved the work and you loved the paycheck and so you kept your mouth shut and your head down. And you depended on male allies. My tool buddy on that job—the only guy who would work with me—was a Hispanic/native man whose family had been in California since it was still part of Mexico. He had my back.
Some things have changed since then and the changes are the direct result of feminist organizing. In the 1970s tradeswomen who had been the target of harassment began to bring lawsuits against employers. They lost. When the civil rights activist Eleanor Holmes Norton, as chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President Jimmy Carter, released regulations declaring sexual harassment to be discrimination under federal law, women finally had legal backing.
In the 1986 Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson case, the Supreme Court distinguished between and prohibited two kinds of sexual harassment. Quid pro quo harassment occurred when women were made offers such as a promotion in exchange for a sexual favor. Equally important, however, was the hostile environment harassment where men could make the everyday workplace into a place of threats, hostility, offensive images, abusive language. This is the kind of harassment tradeswomen most frequently endure.
The movie North Country dramatized conditions that led to the first class action sexual harassment lawsuit filed in 1988 by Lois Jensen and female miners at the Eveleth Taconite Company in Minnesota. After these women won a $3.5 million settlement, employers began to take notice. Our working conditions began to improve.
We were helped by a few dedicated lawyers. In San Francisco we were lucky to work with attorneys at Equal Rights Advocates and Employment Law Center. Other legal groups included the National Women’s Law Center and the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund (today Legal Momentum).
That sexual harassment is now against the law is the one big change tradeswomen have noticed over the years that has improved our working lives in a male-dominated workplace. In many other ways our workplace environment hasn’t changed that much. We are still underemployed, last hired and first fired, often poorly trained and generally undervalued. Yet some tradeswomen have had successful careers and are retiring with good pensions. Some have become apprenticeship directors, union business agents, and chairs of state building trades councils. We have built organizations and networks across the country to improve our lot. I just returned from our national conference, this year in Chicago, Women Build Nations. It started as Women Building California, sponsored by the California Building Trades Council and Tradeswomen Inc. in 2001 and has now become international, this year sponsored by the National Building Trades Unions and Chicago Women in Trades. A record 1600 women and male allies attended. Workshops on sexual harassment were featured, as always. But the construction industry now has policies in place to train workers and to prevent harassment.
Tradeswomen are glad sexual harassment is now a mainstream issue, but for us it’s nothing new. We’ve been resisting for decades and still we persist.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Reporting on the Women Build Nations Conference in Chicago on May Day weekend: Two words: sensational and huge!
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 nervous, 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.
Sisterhood T shirt
Nigerian tradeswomen activists and American tradeswomen friends
CWIT staff were fab hosts
The new generation of tradeswomen
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.
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.
Elevator constructor and activist LJ Dolin
Los Angeles IBEW Local 11 sisters in solidarity. Long-time activist Jane Templin (L)
Lauren Sugerman (L) and early CWIT organizers
Old timers L to R: Author Brigid O’Farrell, Sprinklerfitter Ella Jones, Carpenter Ronnie Sandler, Maine DOT advocate Jane Gilbert, carpenter Dale McCormick, electrician Molly Martin
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!
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.
Tradeswomen 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
See you at Women Building the Nation in Los Angeles May 1-3, 2015!