In public memory, Rosie the Riveter may have been the first and last woman to “succeed” in the industrial workforce. Rosie was a symbol for the thousands of women who entered the industrial workforce during WWII, and she was hailed as a trailblazing icon for the women’s movement. But while still we celebrate Rosie today, many of us forget that her story didn't have the happiest of endings. Just as surely as women were emboldened to pick up their tools during wartime, they were expected to lay them down when the men returned home. Thousands of women were forced out of their jobs--which had brought many a new sense of personal and economic empowerment--and sent home to be wives and mothers again. Mere substitutes for men, they were never expected to stay. No matter how skilled or productive the Rosies had become, it turns out that it was "man’s work" after all.
While the Rosies were a historical phenomenon that inspired generations, from a political and legal standpoint their advancement was only temporary and laid no real groundwork for change when it came to women in non-traditional jobs. It wasn't until the late 70's that equal opportunity and affirmative action laws formally opened the doors for women in the trades and tentatively invited them in.
The First Generation
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. But in subsequent years, further legislation was needed to encourage the integration of minorities in the construction industry. In 1965, President Johnson issued Executive Order 11246, which required construction contractors who held federal or federally-assisted contracts to take affirmative action in the hiring and retention of minorities. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCC) was then created within the Department of Labor to oversee compliance with these affirmative action goals. Two years later, President Johnson amended the Order to expressly prohibit gender discrimination.
But it was 1978 that was probably the most landmark year for women in the construction trades. President Carter amended EO 11246 once more, this time setting “goals and timetables” for percentage of contract work hours served by women. The goal for 1982 was 6.9%. Thirty-years later, not even half of that goal has been met. Executive Order 11246 also defined contractors’ obligations to: 1) “ensure and maintain a working environment free of harassment and coercion,” 2) “whenever possible, assign two or more women to the same construction project,” 3) “specifically ensure that all supervisory personnel are aware of their obligations to ensure such a working environment.” Also in 1978 the Department of Labor targeted gender discrimination within apprenticeship programs, and required each apprenticeship class to be constituted of half the percentage of women that exist in the general workforce (today, this would be roughly 25% of apprenticeships).
Riding this wave of federal legislation and the energy of the women’s movement, handfuls of women lined up at union locals across the country to apply for trade apprenticeships. They camped on the streets for days to hold their place in line. They were not always but often bound by a common political consciousness of feminism and activism, and the “first generation” of tradeswomen not only took the worst of the heat on the front lines but did some crucial organizing in those early years, forming groups like United Tradeswomen and women’s clubs within their unions. Some early victories were won by these women in terms of speaking out against pornography and offensive graffiti on the jobsite, as well as getting separate women’s toilet facilities and changing rooms, both of which greatly impacted women’s everyday experience on the job.
But even with a zeitgeist of social change, the first generation of tradeswomen experienced ambivalence and fear about raising their voices in an attempt to change the culture of their industry. Whether speaking up about safety concerns to their stewards or filing formal grievances for sexual harassment, outspoken women who agitated for change became easy targets for retaliation. As a result, tradeswomen often had to choose between dissidence and survival--a fine line that many tradeswomen still find themselves walking today.
How Far Have We Come?
Despite the professional gains made by women since the Civil Rights era, the skilled labor trades remain one of the last-standing bastions of serious gender segregation. While women have advanced through higher education into law, medicine, and other white-collar careers, they have barely made entrance into unionized blue-collar jobs—many of which pay more than white-collar work, and far more than traditional “women’s work.” They are still fighting to disprove myths that women would never want or choose to do such “dirty, hard” jobs, or that women are just not constituted to do them. Since the 70’s, when a few courageous women were accepted into trade union apprenticeships, more have been trained in small but consistent numbers for nearly four decades. By now, one might expect their numbers to amount to far greater than 3% of the total trade labor workforce. But while some women have succeeded to become journey workers and even leaders in their unions, and a rare few have actually made it to retirement in their trade, a far greater majority of women leave the trades well before their time. Many leave before they even complete their apprenticeship.
While some may point to this rate of attrition as proof that women are neither willing nor able to perform these jobs, the collective accounts of tradeswomen suggest an industry culture that works against their advancement. Whether encountering sexism, homophobia, sexual harassment, or the countless subtle ways that gender discrimination may take form, tradeswomen often find themselves facing harsh environments and unpredictable circumstances. They have to prove themselves on the job again and again and be almost superhuman in both their abilities and their tolerance, because among many of their peers and superiors, the perception still prevails that this is "man's work" after all.