—by Susan Eisenberg

When I was hiking last May with Molly Martin in Big Sur, she raised the question of why we don’t just say that our 30+ year effort to open construction trades jobs to women has failed. Since then, I’ve been trying to sort through what I think, and all the feelings raised by Jenna Smith’s case. I have to say that my Courage-O-Meter has been swinging wildly back and forth from 0 (Totally Discouraged) to 10 (Absolutely Encouraged). What about you?

[If you’re not familiar with Jenna’s case, check out]

Jenna’s the lineworker in Eugene, Oregon who, on completion of her apprenticeship, was denied her journeycard. I’ve been hearing very similar stories over the summer from other parts of the country, of women going through three- to five-year apprenticeships and, as they’re turning the final corner, something goes wrong and they’re bumped out. The problems they face –– sexual harassment, physical assault,unfair job reports –– are not new. And the fact that many women apprentices still report repetitive job assignments that fail to provide them with full training, and that many journeylevel women report facing higher unemployment than their counterparts despite federal jobs not meeting hiring goals is all painfully OLD NEWS. Gets me feeling Totally Discouraged, a big 0!!!

On the other hand, the fact that Jenna spoke up so eloquently, that Oregon Tradeswomen’s Network was able to spread word about her case through the internet and energize and connect the tradeswomen’s movement nationally definitely rates a big 10!!

I think of how the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church finally broke through to public attention, one courageous voice at a time until the issue finally had to be addressed. Maybe these stories will accumulate enough to shift power. Or at least lay bare that that’s the issue. Not ability or interest.

But I’m concerned by the final outcome of Jenna’s case. Thrilled that she got her well-deserved journey-card and some financial settlement, but very troubled that she lost her job. Glad that there were JATC recommendataions in Oregon to prevent future situations like Jenna’s, but wondering how effective people think they are, and whether they can be applied nationally.

My Courage-O-Meter’s at 6.5 today.




  1. I slept on the street, outside the electricians union, when I was just about to turn 22! I was young, ambitious and full of hope. I believed I could help make Local 3 a better union for ALL its members. Unfortunately, we (the first class of women) were not received well. It was made clear to us from the harassment, discrimination, and verbal comments that we were not wanted! it’s been over 30 years since my first day on the job. Not much has changed. I wonder if the “men” who put us thru hell, and continue to put trades women thru hell, ever think of the original construction worker. MOTHERS. A woman carried each one of them in her womb and each body was constructed in and of hers!
    I leave the fight against injustice in the hands of the young people now. May you come to honor the rights you each have to earn a descent living and be respected regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. May you learn to live and work in peace.
    I choose to live the rest of my life… living and loving. Peace.


  2. Do not be discouraged.
    For 30 years, there was a little puddle of women in the trades supporting each other and reaching out to those wishing to get in. There was a little puddle here, over there, in between and scattered far and wide, and so disconnected they knew little of each other.

    There are more now. The little puddles are growing, gaining members as it is easier to find them, re find them, and connect and stay connected.

    The puddles no one knew of are being found by others, growing and connecting to the larger puddles. The thousand scattered drops of women who are no where near enough others to make a splat, much less a puddle, are now reaching and connecting, meeting and bonding to the others.

    It’s happening every day. A few dozen women could not make the change.
    A few hundred women could not make that change.
    A few thousand, just may do, what has not been done.

    I’ll now invite some conversation on your new Blog…:)


  3. We did our best but the tides were against us. Political opinion, lack of representation by our unions in spite of the fact that we paid our union dues, lack of protection of our American rights by city, state and federal agencies charged with enforcement of goals & timetables established by various judicial, legislative and executive orders or decrees. These were not our failures but the failures of well meaning bureaucrats who promulgated these programs. The cost was the very human women who were sacrificed in these grand experiments across this nation. We suffered greatly for the minutely incremental progress that was made for gender equality. Where were our allies and supporters? Mostly they were silent. They left us swinging alone from the trees.


  4. Thirty years ago, I took a bet from my parents. I didnt think IBEW would let me in to the apprenticeship program. With my high school diploma, and testing out on the exam., I was given the only female spot that year. The year before, they had let another woman in. Now there were 2. The government program called FET created a program. They kept us seperate. It was hard at first, many of the women were driven out by constant harrassment of all kinds. Some were almost killed. (not accidents either). Luckily, there were a few men of both colors that had a conscience. If you were real lucky, you got to work around and with them. Some, were pretty ugly back then, but I worked very hard to educate many on the myths they believed. Some only need some knowledge. Things werent ever perfect, sometimes scarey, but they did calm down for a while.

    Now we have a new young group, that feels they know it all. They must be educated also. You cant give up, It wont ever completely change. Learn and build from there, go higher then them. Reach to higher positions, be the boss, project manager, engineer. Keep educating the next guy that will listen. Be open to their questions. Listen and learn, keep your head high and dont crawl into the gutter with them. They will respect that more. But always remember, they are not really your friends, you may be lucky to find a few, keep your heart protected.

    It was never easy, some of us did dodge the bullet. A few of us did make it to retirement.


  5. It is horrible where I work. Women are intentionally excluded through biased screening in the hiring process. The few that get hired have to put up with intentional discrimination in training, and hostility and pressure to voluntarily refuse advancement. The women that do well in spite of these obstacles are put in no win situations which are used to get them fired, hurt, or horrendously stressed. All this while majority employees are freely advanced and given every opportunity, even when they are clearly incompetent. The few senior women are in such fear that they help the men get the new women out.


  6. I admit, i had no idea what I was getting into, only that my father convinced me that this was the way to go. I made it through my first year, which was a ride to hell and back. I loved the work, everyday was an adventure, I was excited to be learning something everyday. Excited to be building America, and being able to show my child a strong, independent woman.
    Sadly, after 20 yrs, I am burnt out. I have given up on ever being accepted. Yes, I have worked with good, decent men. But for the most part, equality doesn’t exist here. It started with the teachers I had who would make sexist comments, it wasn’t the comments , it was the fact that the promise was, the IBEW was encouraging Women to join the trades, but the actions were quite different. Our Business Manager proudly proclaimed the “death” of requirements to take in a percentage of minorities every year, saying now only the people who deserve it get in. What a slap in the face! When your own Union leaders are against you, what chance do you have?
    I worked just like the guys, saw cut asphalt, jackhammered, dug trenches, worked big pipe, worked outside from Jan-Oct, decks, you name it. I never asked for special treatment, never expected it. I felt to be taken seriously, you did what they did. It didn’t work.


  7. I am shocked that Jenna was not given a fair chance. In 1981 I applied to the Electricians union in Seattle, at my interview the guys were more concerned with what I did on my off time then with what my requirements were for the job. I did not get into that union but I did get into the Carpenters. I was treated very well, I really got lucky to learn from the guys that taught me my trade. I remember a coworker and friend (my mentor) telling me that I will probably never get the acknowledgement I deserve, because I am a women, this was after working with him on and off for 15 years. At that point you just want to quit, but I didn’t. I have worked with those guys that are threatened by us on the jobs. They are insecure men and not very good at their jobs.

    After 29 years as a Carpenter, I see and still believe that women belong in the unions. I am an Instructor now and I see some very good women out performing the guys in the shop and on the job. They are earning respect from their peers but they shouldn’t have to work twice as hard as a guy to earn it. It’s sad that we really haven’t gotten very far, we all need to support our families and deserve a job that pays well.


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