Still Alone in a Crowd?
Let’s take a backward glance at 1985. President Ronald Reagan began serving his second term in January, the legendary singer Whitney Houston released her debut album in February, and the multi-talented singer/songwriter Janelle Monáe was born in December. Both President Reagan and Whitney Houston are gone, while Janelle Monáe captured headlines with her remarks at the 2018 Grammy Awards in support of the #MeToo movement.
Published in 1985, Jean Reith Schroedel’s Alone in a Crowd: Women in the Trades Tell Their Stories is an oral history of women working in nontraditional, blue-collar jobs—“nontraditional” meaning that 25% or less of the total workforce in those jobs was female. Schroedel captures the stories of those women who went into the blue-collar jobs that opened up as a result of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its Title VII provisions prohibiting sex discrimination in employment.
Schroedel, who had her own experiences as a blue-collar worker in nontraditional jobs, divided the book into sections on feminism, occupational safety and health, race, unions, and family. The voices captured in it reflect women from a variety of occupations telling honest and powerful stories. We hear from a woman fighting wild fires, a concrete-truck driver, an electrician, a plumber, a carpenter, a bindery worker, and many more, each with her own compelling description of her work and its challenges. They describe the satisfaction of learning the job; the subtle and oftentimes not-so-subtle snubs and put-downs and learning to cope, to survive, and sometimes to thrive; the incidents of sexual harassment and injuries sustained on the job; and the boost to their individual fortunes from holding a job that delivered a decent income, often with benefits. They overcame the challenges involved in proving, over and over again, that the right person for the job was a woman.
Common threads run through the narratives: managerial resistance to their presence, their inability to address harassment, and how they pushed beyond their limits to demonstrate their fitness for the job. They describe their inability to get pornography removed from work sites and the omnipresent need to deal with men’s egos, the search for role models and what it was like to be a torch bearer for women’s rights, the need to figure out alternative solutions to problems that exceeded their physical abilities, the satisfaction of finally earning respect for their competence, and the crucial support they received for their efforts from allies.
Each woman is introduced by a short description that engages the reader with a few contextual details. The women talk about how they came to work in these jobs—how they seized on opportunities when they opened up or just lucked out and took the road not traditionally taken by women, their move away from employment in unskilled, lower-paid employment into the new demanding jobs in which they became pioneers, the first in the field to show that a woman could succeed even if she never had a female coworker. Some became activists in their unions and the book includes one story of a union organizer. Sadly, as the stories show, by and large the unions failed to respond to the needs of these new members. Time after time, the women describe the inability of the organizations in place to represent and protect this part of their membership. The unions to which the women paid dues for representation all too often didn’t come to their aid when problems arose.
What’s changed since 1985? How much has improved for women working in these blue-collar jobs? What do we learn about gender integration of the workforce when tapping into the experiences of women currently working as autoworkers, stagehands, firefighters, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and their allies, the experts who advocate on behalf of women in still nontraditional blue-collar jobs for women? What we find is a combination of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
First, the Good: Women continue to choose occupations that remain nontraditional and to survive and often thrive, albeit in small numbers. There are many success stories. Typically, the voices we hear are of activists. They are the women who initiate and lead, who participate in the push to move their unions forward, to recruit other women to their ranks, who develop new programs, run for union office, organize coalitions, support local institutions that provide support for working women, and consciously pursue paths to gender equality. Intersectionality is the operative word describing many of these efforts, that is, the work of organizing across a broad spectrum of issues including class, race, gender, and sexuality, to bring about change.
We can find many examples of unions that have active women’s committees and support a broader agenda regarding women’s issues and women’s rights, such as support for the women’s marches that occurred across the country on January 21, 2017 and again on January 20, 2018. We can locate many women who are serving in official union positions, often as shop stewards, but also as trustees, executive board members, and other positions. However, the leadership of these organizations remains as it was 33 years ago, largely male, largely white. Some unions have become pacesetters; of note, the Iron Workers International Union and contractors in the industry announced a generous paid maternity leave benefit in April 2017, the first of the building trades to do so. In doing so it set a policy that puts it on a par with its European counterparts and ahead of this country’s deplorable record on family support. Although only 2% of the membership is female, the policy is on the cutting edge of the effort to support working women.
Another positive example is the annual Ironworker Women Calendar, which showcases women in the trade and is distributed across the country by the International Union. The annual conference for women working in the construction industry, Women Build California, has grown in scope and size. Now called Women Build Nations, the conference attracts international participation. In 2017, over 1900 women attended and held a parade through the streets of Chicago.
Over the decades, tradeswomen have built and sustained exceptionally successful organizations. These include Chicago Women in the Trades, Washington Women in Trades, Vermont Works for Women, Oregon Tradeswomen, Wider Opportunities for Women, and Tradeswomen, Inc. Individual tradeswomen and their advocates have conducted research and developed inspiring projects to promote women working in their respective crafts. Pioneering tradeswoman electrician Molly Martin, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), has been an active member of Tradeswomen, Inc. in California. Along with labor historian Brigid O’Farrell, she produced a media presentation that engages people in a discussion about the past, including their own local histories, and what it means for today’s women. As they conclude, “Tradeswomen have been at the forefront of the struggle for job equality and an end to sex discrimination and sexual harassment for decades, yet their voices have not been heard. Many of today’s young tradeswomen are not aware of the struggles and successes of those who have gone before them.” (Available at http://vimeo.com/247078061.)
Another pioneering electrician, advocate, poet, and author Susan Eisenberg, released an online exhibition of her art installation, “On Equal Terms,” in April 2018 (see http://susaneisenberg.com/). She wrote, “To celebrate the 40th anniversary of federal affirmative action guidelines issued by President Carter on April 7, 1978, we’re launching an online version of the 900-square-foot touring mixed media installation. On Equal Terms: Gender and Solidarity, will be its own independently-hosted website. It will prove useful for unions and apprenticeship and other classrooms, and others trying to think boldly about gender equity.”
The Bad: Sexual harassment still abounds in these workplaces. In this #MeToo moment, the stories of blue-collar women are finally being included in the widespread coverage. It’s a beginning. What we see is a repetition of the same stories that run throughout Alone in a Crowd, that is, the failure of unions, management, human resources departments, and government officials to respond to these abuses when reported by the victims. We see that some jobs still remain out-of-bounds for female applicants. One example comes from one of the earliest targets for women seeking nontraditional employment in New York City back in the 1970s, the port of New York. Recently the head of the New York-New Jersey Port Authority pointed to this problem, calling the docks “bastions of discrimination,” since they maintain their racial and gender homogeneity. Even when women hold positions, problems exist. For example, it has taken the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) decades to complete the installation of women’s bathrooms and locker rooms in all city firehouses.
The Ugly: Gender and race-baiting continue on job sites, a dynamic in tune with misogynistic and racial attitudes all too prevalent throughout the country. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center reported that 42% of women say they have faced gender discrimination on the job. Some of these realities are being uncovered and, as in 1991, we are again at an Anita Hill Moment. Talk of solutions has begun. Whether this is a movement or a moment remains to be seen. Women in occupations ranging from Hollywood actresses to academic and professional economists are speaking out (just as the only female ever to serve as the head of the Federal Reserve leaves her position, not reappointed, in a singular break from tradition, by President Trump).
It’s clear that the women’s movement of the late 1960s and 1970s didn’t succeed in reaching the ranks of working-class women. “Feminism” and the “women’s movement” are concepts that remain, at best, a distant reality for most younger women in today’s blue-collar workplaces. To quote one veteran carpenter who has devoted decades of her life to the betterment of women working in these blue-collar skilled jobs, “It never seems like the right time for change if you ask the oppressor. But to the oppressed, it is overdue. I pray that the call to consciousness takes root. And that the example my sisters and I have set, made enough of an impact to make it easier to see us as competent, whole beings, worthy, and having as much worth, as a man.”
JANE LATOUR is a freelance journalist and author of Sisters in the Brotherhoods: Working Women Organizing for Equality in New York City (Palgrave, Macmillan, 2008).