Tradeswomen Organizing for Change: 30 Years and Counting

May 25, 2009 posted by Kyla Bender-Baird

As the granddaughter of a woman engineer (and also someone who struggles to assemble her Ikea furniture but loves her new toolkit anyway), it was an honor to be surrounded by tradeswomen at the Institute for Women and Work’s panel last Thursday night up at Cornell.  We were gathered to discuss how the economic crisis and recovery efforts in New York impact women, particularly tradeswomen.  For me, though, it was an education in a history I didn’t even know existed: the history of tradeswomen in the U.S. and their fight for recognition and rights.  After 30 years of activism, women still only comprise 3% of the construction labor force.   As one panelist said, “do we really believe that men have 97% of the answers?”  I think not. Although frustration with this slow-moving progress was evident in the room, the Cornell event was more celebratory than anything else. Susan Eisenberg shared slides from her multi-media installation, On Equal Terms.   The theme of the installation: Women in construction—30 years and still organizing.  The most provocative exhibit was the bathroom shack, literally a 6 foot by 6 foot plywood replica of a typical bathroom tradeswoman encounter on the job, complete with documented misogynistic and explicitly sexual graffiti. 

Susan discussed how the bathroom shack demonstrated how normalized such misogynistic behavior has become among the trades.  While non-tradeswomen were shocked by the graffiti, tradeswomen attending the installation felt the graffiti was tame compared to what they typically encounter.  My two favorite exhibits: portraits of tradeswomen’s hands using tools, showing their competency, skills and abilities; and the stories of tradeswomen as parents displayed over architectural blueprints.  One quote particularly moved me: “My kids know which bridges in town are mine.” Jane LaTour, author of Sisters in the Brotherhood, shared stories from her collection of tradeswomen oral histories.  She pointed out the relationship between occupational sex segregation and the persistent gender wage gap: as long as 80% of working women are employed in traditionally female fields, their wages will be depressed. Getting women into the trades is essential but also tricky.  Despite  higher wages, many women drop out of the trades due to harassment; this harassment persists  because there are not enough women on the job.  As Jane stated at the end of her talk, we must continue to recognize and celebrate the intersection of women’s history and labor history.  The National Council for Research on Women works to support and highlight such intersections.  Linda Basch, in her introductory remarks, pointed out the importance of connecting issues from different angles, becoming stronger in numbers and more effective when we examine issues from multiple viewpoints.  Many of NCRW’s member centers are actively connecting women’s activism and labor activism.  Legal Momentum has a longstanding relationship with the labor movement, with several programs, such as the Equality Works program , encouraging women to enter nontraditional jobs.  The Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University has assisted over 3,000 New Jersey youth in considering nontraditional work for their gender: girls to consider entering construction and boys to enter into nursing, for example.  The small numbers of tradeswomen has made this history an invisible history—but it is key to the continuing activism of women and labor. 

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