Tradeswomen share much in common with other civil rights efforts.
Remembering trailblazers whose deaths were work-related…
Pamela Boelkins, Apprentice Lineworker, MI. There was another female that came in five years before me. I never met her, sadly I was told she committed suicide during her training period. [recollection, Cheryl Leto, first female to achieve Journeyman Electric Lineworker status in Michigan.]
Marilyn Williams McCusker, Miner, Osceola Mills, PA. Marilyn McCusker had worked in a nursing home and then as a barmaid, when she and three other women sued the Rushton Coal Mining Company in 1975 for refusing them employment. A 1977 settlement won the women jobs and $30,000 apiece. Two years later, while working as a roof bolter helper, Marilyn McCusker became the first woman to die in a deep-mine accident when an 18-foot slab of shale fell on her. Pennsylvania State Rep. Scott Conklin: “In 1973, there were no women coal miners in the United States, but thanks to the diligence and dedication of women like Marilyn McCusker, that soon changed. By 1983, more than 33,000 women were in the mining workforce. The fight for change was not based on feminism. It was primarily economic since other jobs available to Marilyn and other women at this time paid a third of what mining paid. Marilyn McCusker will forever be remembered and revered for the contributions she has made toward equal rights and for her significant role in shaping mining history. We can continue to learn from her and her tragic death by fighting to make our underground coal mines safe for those who . . . mine coal in Pennsylvania.”
Hunting License from Carpenters Union, San Francisco, CA. Eager to become a carpenter, a roughly thirty-year-old Japanese-American woman, with a hunting license from the UBC, was sent by the Apprenticeship Opportunities Foundation –– an organization that helped minority workers gain access to construction jobs –– to a job interview with a major Bay Area contractor known for hiring women. The interview was scheduled for after normal work hours and off-site with the company’s apprentice coordinator, a man who had served for years on the Board of Directors of Women in Apprenticeship Program (WAP), a group that assisted women’s entry into trades jobs. Instead of being interviewed, the woman was raped. Concerned that other women would be referred to that contractor for employment, she went with a friend to WAP offices, to let staff know what had happened to her. Shortly afterwards, she committed suicide, sending shockwaves through the large and highly organized tradeswomen’s community in the Bay Area. Asian-American tradeswomen would later form their own group, Blue Collared Asian Women (BCAW), for support. The contractor was removed from the WAP Board, and women were urged to go in pairs for interviews, especially if not held at the construction site. Because that construction company was doing significant hiring and women needed jobs, women continued to be referred there, with cautions. [recollection, Susie Suafai, Bobbie Kierstead, Stella Cheng, Rosemary Leyson, Molly Martin]
Margaret Gove, Electrician, Boston, MA. Her smile reminded me of the Cheshire Cat, filling her face completely, only this one was for real. Margaret Gove was a smart, determined, gentle woman who was also a completely competent and great mechanic. As apprentices, Margaret and I studied for tests together. We both felt quite competent with the hands-on work –– it seemed to come naturally (heck, Margaret had already built a house in Maine!). But the theory took much more diligent concentration, so we’d hide out in one of our houses with cups of tea. The five women in our class, that started in 1978, were the first to complete our local’s grueling apprenticeship program and come out the other side licensed journeywomen. A year later, on June 23, 1983, Margaret was killed riding her bike over the BU Bridge from a job in Cambridge, when a guy ran a red light. Friends chipped in for a stewartia –– a tree with small white blossoms each June –– planted in her name in one of her favorite spots in the Arboretum. Margaret, Presente! [recollection, Sara Driscoll]
Pioneer Apprentice Plumber, Kansas City, KS committed suicide. [recollection, Diana Suckiel]
Pamela Hiser, Construction Worker, Tampa, FL. Pamela Hiser was crushed to death, and seven other Hardin Construction Co. workers, including her husband, were injured, by falling timbers and tons of newly-poured moist concrete when support beams for the third level of the Marketplace gave way. The new construction was part of Tampa’s Harbour Island mixed-use redevelopment project.
Mary (Molly) Matthews, Firefighter, Seattle, WA. While answering the fifth false alarm of the day, 29-year-old Seattle firefighter Molly Matthews suffered a fatal skull fracture when she lost her grip and fell from the rear step of a pumper truck as the truck turned a corner at 12th Avenue and East Union Street. Although the official report gave the truck’s speed as 15 mph at the turn, there were claims at the time of a speed of 25-30 mph. There seems to be agreement that she was assigned –– not only that day, but always –– to the position on the far right, the most dangerous position in a left turn. Her death ended the practice of Seattle firefighters riding on the back of fire trucks, and led to the installation of crew cabs on older trucks. There were 45 women firefighters in the department at that time, the result of aggressive outreach and affirmative hiring plans to open the Seattle Fire Department to women and minorities. [suggestion, Melinda Nichols]
Carol Porter, Apprentice Electrician, Withdrawal card, Boston MA. Carol became an apprentice in 1979, in our IBEW local’s second class with women. When my poetry chapbook, It’s a Good Thing I’m Not Macho was published, she called to thank me for now having something she could give people who couldn’t understand what she was trying to explain. She talked about how hard it was both to be taken seriously on the job, and to convey the experience to people outside the industry. A month later she committed suicide. [recollection, Susan Eisenberg]
Julie Weflen, Utility Worker, Spokane, WA. Julie Weflen worked for the Bonneville Power Administration, energizing and de-energizing power equipment, reading meters and maintaining transformers. Her disappearance from a remote substation an hour after she signed in there to check on a transformer that reported to be low on nitrogen, has been ruled a kidnapping and homicide. Her hard hat and toolbox were found beside her truck, and her purse inside it. Tire tracks and drag marks at the scene convinced authorities that she was overpowered by two people.
29-Year-Old Female Cement Finisher “died when she fell 165 feet from a high-rise office complex under construction.” On her fourth day with that contractor, she and a co-worker were taken up by hoist to patch holes and rub out rough spots on the 12th and 13th floors. At lunchtime they “pushed the call button for the hoist.” It was reported that the female cement finisher “then placed her hands in her pants pockets and leaned back against the gate. The gate opened” and she fell to her death. Gates on each floor had a U-shaped latch “padlocked to prevent unintentional opening and the hoist operator had the only key. . . . What caused the gate to open could not be determined. . . . All witnesses stated that the padlock was locked in place.” [summary, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report]
The Montreal Massacre. The news, when we heard it, sometime over the afternoon of December 6, 1989, was unbelievable; one man armed with a legally obtained rifle and a hunting knife, had murdered 14 women in the École Polytechnique, an engineering school in Montreal, Quebec. Ordering the men to leave the first classroom, he entered, told the women who remained, “You’re a bunch of feminists, I hate feminists!” and began shooting. For the next 20 minutes he rampaged through the building, yelling, “I want women.” In addition to the 14 women killed, he injured ten other women and four men before turning the gun on himself. His suicide note blamed feminists for ruining his life. Across Canada that night, people came together in impromptu vigil. I was in Vancouver, British Columbia, and stood with hundred of others, men and women, holding candles, in the courtyard of the Art Gallery. Tradeswomen had phoned each other, and that night we stood close together. There wasn’t much of a program at the vigil –– there hadn’t been time. Mostly I remember the group of Japanese taiko players –– all women –– who balanced their huge drums on the marble steps and played for the women who died, for the women who were left. Their sound echoing off stone, was like laying your head to a chest, hearing powerful heartbeats. It said what we needed to hear: we’re still here, we won’t be silenced, we stand with each other, we’ll remember. I still cry when I think of that day.Since 1991, December 6 has been a National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, and commemorations are held across Canada. Also in 1991, a White Ribbon Campaign was launched by a group of men to raise awareness about male violence against women. The violence of that day also led to stricter gun control laws in Canada, changes to police response to shootings, and memorials erected across the country. An important part of our remembering has been to focus –– not on the name of the killer –– but on the names of the women who died, saying each name out loud, one at a time, honouring them: [recollection, Kate Braid]
Geneviève Bergeron, Civil Engineering Student, Montreal, Quebec
Hélène Colgan, Mechanical Engineering Student, Montreal, Quebec
Nathalie Croteau, Mechanical Engineering Student, Montreal, Quebec
Barbara Daigneault, Mechanical Engineering Student, Montreal, Quebec
Anne-Marie Edward, Chemical Engineering Student, Montreal, Quebec
Maud Haviernick, Materials Engineering Student, Montreal, Quebec
Maryse Laganière, Budget Clerk, Montreal, Quebec
Maryse Leclair, Materials Engineering Student, Montreal, Quebec
Anne-Marie Lemay, Mechanical Engineering Student, Montreal, Quebec
Sonia Pelletier, Mechanical Engineering Student, Montreal, Quebec
Michèle Richard, Materials Engineering Student, Montreal, Quebec
Annie St-Arneault, Mechanical Engineering Student, Montreal, Quebec
Annie Turcotte, Materials Engineering Student, Montreal, Quebec
Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz, Nursing Student, Montreal, Quebec
Carlyal Carson Gittens (nee Anita Francis Lucille Gittens), Bricklayer, Vancouver, BC. You could count on one hand the number of tradeswomen in Vancouver in the 1980s. We all stuck out on the job site, but the most conspicuous was Carlyal. She was not just a female bricklayer, not just big (six feet tall with a bold Afro), but she was black. Carlyal loved bricks, she said, because they didn’t talk back. But after years of labourers refusing to bring her mud, and “accidents” like having a two-by-four dropped on her head from two stories above where she was working, she switched to tile setting. But it pissed her off. The bricklayers approved her move because, “tiles were lighter,” and Carlyal’s response was, “What do they think? I carry them in one at a time?” She was a dynamite tilesetter, but eventually she had trouble getting enough work and left the trade. Most of us didn’t know until after her death that she was born in Montreal, as Anita Francis Lucille and changed her name to a more androgynous one when she moved to the West Coast. A diabetic, Carlyal died of a self-administered overdose of insulin, sitting against a tree in a cemetery outside Chatham, Ontario –– the same cemetery that’s famous as the graveyard for many of the slaves who fled to Canada on the underground railroad. She was a big fan of Harriet Tubman.Her loss left a huge hole in the Vancouver tradeswomen’s community. [recollection, Kate Braid]
Su Taraskiewicz, Baggage Ramp Supervisor, Boston, MA. The first female baggage supervisor at Logan Airport for Northwest Airlines, Su Taraskiewicz never returned from an early morning food run for her crew; her absence went unreported. Her body, beaten and with multiple stab wounds, was found in the trunk of her car 36 hours later. A federal investigation into a stolen credit card ring run by Northwest Airlines baggage handlers was underway. “The ‘ramp’ at Logan and other east coast cities (JFK, LGA) was no better than the longshoremen who controlled the waterfront of old –– and the unions protected the thuggery, sexism, and bullying that went on. Susan’s murder forged a scar in the hearts of those of us who worked at Logan then. Susan has not been forgotten –– and I pray that Mrs. Taraskiewicz finds a tiny bit of comfort in knowing that we still pray that justice will be found for Susan. She was a courageous young woman who dared to dream that she could do the job on the ramp as well ¬–– or better, than the men. ALL women who work in jobs that were ever considered ‘men’s work’ owe a debt of gratitude to Susan’s simple belief that she could do the job. She paid the ultimate price for all of us.” [recollection, Fairskies]
Robin Johnson, Apprentice Ironworker, Oak Creek, WI.
Robin Johnson, 37, was killed in the Kenosha County town of Prairie Creek, Wisconsin, leaving behind two daughters, ages 8 and 12. Working for Metal Buildings of Wisconsin, she fell from the roof 37 feet while installing metal roof decking under windy conditions. She had asked her foreman for a safety harness, and been told she didn’t need one. “I was honored to know Robin Johnson. Even though she was just starting out, she was concerned with her fellow employees. Her tragic death happened as she was pushing for worker’s safety. At the time, workers were not provided safety harnesses. She was not wearing a harness at the time of her death. She was a phenomonal woman. She was always a go-getter. She was always helping and pushing the best out of everyone. She would be pleased to know, that in some small way, she was part of furthering the advancement of women.” [recollection, Vicki Koepsel]
Kathy Leonard (Romano), Ironworker, Boston, MA. Kathy Leonard completed her apprenticeship and then worked for several years as a journeylevel ironworker. Her husband, also an ironworker, was convicted in her murder –– witnessed by their two-year-old son –– in the first homicide case in Massachusetts to be successfully prosecuted without a body. She had been beaten to death, her body cut up with a Milwaukee Sawzall, placed in trash bags, and incinerated.
38-Year-Old Female Equipment Operator, South Carolina, died while compacting dirt in preparation for hard surfacing of a highway off-ramp leading to an overpass bridge on a major highway expansion project. The new compactor she was operating –– “equipped with a rollover protective structure (ROPS), but no seatbelts” –– had only arrived at the site two days prior. She “was operating the compactor with the enclosed cab door open, back and forth over a built up road bed when she backed up near the edge and the earth under the rear tires gave way. When the compactor tipped over the embankment, the unrestrained” equipment operator “was partially thrown from the cab and pinned underneath the ROPS.” [summary, NIOSH report]
Kathy Mazza, Port Authority Officer, NYC The first female Port Authority Officer to be killed in the line of duty, Captain Kathy Mazza died while evacuating people from Tower One of the World Trade Center on September 11. Her clear-headed decision to shoot out the glass in the lobby, enabled hundreds to exit more swiftly. Three percent of the Port Authority Police Department perished that day. Having earned a nursing degree before joining the PAPD, Kathy rose through the ranks and became the first female commandant of the Training Academy, leading its emergency medical programs. The regional Emergency Medical Services Council of New York City named her the 1999 Basic Life Support Provider of the Year.
Yamel Merino, Emergency Medical Technician, NYC. Born to Dominican immigrant parents, Yamel Merino earned her EMT certification at Westchester Community College where she received the Chancellor’s Award for scholastic excellence. She worked for MetroCare Ambulance of Westchester County, and was MetroCare’s EMT of the Year in 1999. On September 11, she was among the first rescue workers to reach the World Trade Center site. She volunteered to enter the burning building. She was survived by an eight-year-old son.
Moira Smith, Police Officer, NYC. Assigned to the 13th Precinct, Moira Smith had been a member of the New York City Police Department for thirteen years. She was the first officer to report the World Trade Center attack, when she witnessed the first plane hit, and rushed to the site. She was killed while evacuating people from Tower Two, and is credited with saving hundreds of lives that day. A New York Daily News photographer captured an image of her helping an injured man out of the towers. After finding him medical assistance, she returned inside to continue with the evacuation. Survived by her husband, also a NYC police officer, and a two-year-old daughter, she was buried on what would have been her 39th birthday.
LaVena Johnson, U.S. Army Private First Class, Balad, Iraq/Florissant, MO. Although the army ruled LaVena Johnson’s death, five weeks into her tour of duty in Iraq, a suicide, her parents believe that the army’s own evidence, and LaVena’s bubbly conversation with her mother the night before her death, dispute that finding. They believe she was raped, beaten and murdered, and have been trying to re-open their daughter’s case, and bring attention to sexual violence in the military.
Debbie Kane, Laborer, Cleveland, OH. Deborah Kane, 48, was a fifteen-year member of Local 860, LIUNA when she was killed in a highway construction accident inside a work zone on the Valley View Bridge. She was struck by a truck delivering materials to the site. Her death inspired Ohio State Rep. Kenny Yuko, a 30-year member of Local 860 LIUNA, to sponsor a bill that renamed the Valley View Bridge spanning the Cuyahoga River and the Ohio Canal on I-480, the “Union Workers Memorial Bridge”. [suggestion, Rocky Hwasta]
Katharina (Kat) Engnell, Electrician, Seattle, WA. IBEW Local 46 member, Kat Engnell, was electrocuted while doing lighting maintenance during the day shift at the Saint Gobain glass plant. Kat was the most passionate, hard working, serious electrician anyone ever worked with. She worked with a lot of Local 46 hands, and despite her qualities, she was laid off numerous times for being a 5’2” woman with a couple of grey hairs. Diversity and full inclusion in the electrical industry were passions of hers. The Katharina Engnell Memorial Scholarship Fund has been established in her memory to support those seeking to become Union Trades people. Kat held a master of Fine Arts degree, and worked as a printmaker and newspaper pressman before joining the apprenticeship in 2000. Her interests included kayaking, raising hens, collecting antiques, creating and teaching art, politics, unionism, and rocking out to hippie music. If there was a party, Kat was there having a good time. She was a fantastic mechanic, intellectual, and a bohemian all in one. All who knew her can say that her kindness and generosity were boundless. She will be missed, but will live on in our memories and stories of her, and in the kindness and care we show to each other in this truly dangerous field. [recollection, Nicole Grant and IBEW Local 46]
Vanessa Downing, Apprentice Operating Engineer, Seattle, WA. Vanessa Downing, 26, was weeks away from completing her apprenticeship with Operating Engineers Local 302 and Local 612 Heavy Equipment Mechanics. Crouched over to weld and in the crane operator’s blind spot, she was fatally struck in the head by a crane aboard a construction barge on the Seattle waterfront.. Vanessa was admired and beloved across many communities –– from Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets, to the Washington State Apprenticeship Council –– and remembered for her intelligence, hard work, and dedication as a worker and musician. She loved playing guitar, and sometimes opened for local bands. Even while going through her apprenticeship and moving from being homeless to homeowner, Vanessa remained close to the street community she’d been part of in Seattle’s University District, and brought others into successful careers in the trades.
Bianca Kuros, Construction Safety Inspector, NYC. In 2007, Bianca Wisniewski Kuros, a single parent of two daughters, began working as a Safety Coordinator for Total Safety on JPMorgan Chase’ 270 Park Ave. construction site in Manhattan. She alleged, in a $20 million lawsuit filed July 2009 against elevator operator Steve Greco, Total Safety, JPMorgan Chase, and Greco’s Operating Engineers local, that the company ignored her complaints of lewd propositions and groping from Greco, and then laid her off. She was set to give evidence in court on October 19, 2010, but died the day before in a two-alarm blaze that brought 110 firefighters to her apartment at 3am, and left her 16-year-old daughter in a coma for three days. Her 18-year-old daughter carried the lawsuit forward. A group of NYC tradeswomen formed Justice for Bianca, a national organization that brought attention to the case until a settlement was reached.
Roxana Margarita Zelaya, Equipment Operator, Washington DC. Roxana Zelaya, 37, died from traumatic injuries sustained while operating a lift platform in the underground loading dock area of the Leavey Center at Georgetown University, when she became pinned between scaffolding and an overhead railing. She had been hired as a contract worker for the Science Center construction project managed by Whiting-Turner Construction .
Leslie Price, Heavy Equipment Operator, Overland Park, KS. After high school, Leslie Price attended Heavy Equipment Operator School in Beloit, KS, becoming their first female graduate. She worked as a heavy equipment operator for contractors in Texas and Kansas and was a 14-year member of Operating Engineers Local 101. She also ran her own excavating company, Durt Wurx. While working on a construction project along US-69, where she operated a loader, she was fatally shot by her estranged husband, employed by the same company at another site, who then killed himself. At 47, she leaves a son and daughter, Colt and Cheyenne, both high school freshmen. [sources: CPWR, news accounts]
Linda Potter, Flagger, Price, UT. Working the overnight shift (her preference) on a resurfacing project, 54-year-old Linda Potter was directing traffic thru a single lane construction zone, when she was stuck by a hit-and-run pickup-truck driver who was drunk and driving too fast for traffic conditions. She was the second employee of that same company to be fatally hit in 2 days. Co-workers say she took her job and job safety very seriously, and that she had done everything right. She was wearing her safety vest, had the road well marked with a reflective stop sign and flag, and was standing under a bright construction light. [sources: CPWR, news accounts]
Catherine Berliner, Certified Repairman, Labadie, MO. Catherine Berliner, 32, was working as a certified repairman at a coal-fired power plant where she had worked for five years when she was killed in an 85-feet fall. She was knocked from the platform where she was performing maintenance on a boiler when the power hand tool she was using kicked back and struck her on the head. [sources: CPWR, Laura Boatman, news accounts]
Carolyn Campbell, Dump Truck Operator, Bastrop, LA. While delivering a 5-ton load of rocks to the local high school ballpark, Carolyn Campbell, 48, was crushed when –– while trying to correct a mechanical problem –– she was caught in between the rear of the truck cab and the dump bed. Her son, Jeffrey Lingefelt, said his mother’s occupation, of nearly two decades, was her passion. [sources: CPWR, Wes Helbing, news accounts]
Pam Hunt, Heavy Equipment Operator, West Wendover, NV. Pam Hunt, 53, worked across Nevada as a heavy equipment operator for 13 years. Loved and respected by everyone who worked with her, she was proud of being a critical part of building the Galena Creek Bridge I-580 bypass between Reno and Carson City. She was killed on 1-80 when she was pinned between a rubber wheel roller and another metal roller. [sources: CWPR, Mountain Home News]
Deea Lauritzen, Laborer, Waterloo, ID. Deea Lauritzen, 35, left her job as a manager at Burger King, to work in construction. A five-year employee of the Stickfort Construction, her crew was moving a sewage line for a new housing development of 24 building lots adjacent to a golf course, when a 10-feet deep trench suddenly collapsed on her. It took firefighters three hours to dig her body out of the thick, sticky clay. She loved working with children’s programs at her church, singing, being an aunt. [sources: CPWR, Laura Boatman, news accounts]
Keyosha, Pipefitter, Lansing, MI. We started in the trades together back in the mid ’70s when we were in our twenties. We met in the gym where she was taking boxing. She survived as a pipefitter/welder for decades until the work took its toll on her body. She had a lot of injuries and surgeries from the heavy work, including a knee and shoulder replacement which caused terrible pain. In October 2013, after years of relentless pain, and after pursuing every path, unsuccessfully to get out of debilitating pain, Keyosha took her own life. She was 60 years old. Another woman, taken down by the trades. [recollection, Chris McBride.]
Kathleen (KC) Wilson, Highway Construction Foreman, Wolf Creek, OR. “KC” Wilson, 60, had a hand in constructing nearly every mile of the Southern Oregon Interstate 5 corridor, and would share endless stories with anyone that drove with her on that stretch of road. She took great pride in the quality of her work and loved that she helped pave the way for countless travelers over many years. She became her company’s first female foreman, dedicated to the safety and well-being of her crew. At age 60, she was killed on the shoulder of 1-5. She had stopped her pickup and arrow board trailer on the right shoulder of the interstate with caution lights and flashers activated. While taking down a portable sign on the other side of the guardrail, a truck pulling a semi-trailer sideswiped her vehicle, pushing the trailer over the guardrail and into her. [sources: CPWR, Laura Boatman, news accounts]
Sarah Jones, Camera Assistant, Atlanta, GA. Sarah Jones was working on the set of Midnight Rider, a biopic of Gregg Allman, when she was fatally hit by a train. The crew had not received permission to film on the train track. “Sarah was a smart, talented camera assistant with an infectious personality and a promising career ahead of her.” [remembrance, President Steven Poster, ASC of IATSE Local 600, International Cinematographers Guild].
Outi Hicks, 9-month Carpenters’ Apprentice, Fresno, CA. Outi Hicks was murdered on her jobsite on Valentine’s Day. Another worker on the site, the materials delivery driver for her contractor, has been arrested for the killing. She leaves behind three sons. [source: Meg Vasey, Tradeswomen, Inc.]
Last updated: April 6, 2017
Thanks to the many people who helped gather this history. If you have corrections or additions to this material, or personal recollections to add, please contact:
SUSAN EISENBERG, Director /ON EQUAL TERMS PROJECT / Women’s Studies Research Center/ Brandeis University — Mailstop 079 / 515 South Street /Waltham, MA 02454-9110 //or email OnEqualTerms@brandeis.edu