Accidental Trailblazers for Tradeswomen

By Tunisia L. Riley*

On January 25, 2011 Women’s eNews sponsored a panel discussion of female electricians, moderated by Francine Moccio, author of Live Wire: Women and Brotherhood in the Electrical Industry. The event was standing room only with guests filling each seat and lining the walls of the Women’s eNews office. Panelists included Melinda Hernandez, Laura Kelber, Cynthia Long, and Susan Eisenberg. The women were all featured in Live Wire and were from Local Union 3.

The all-woman panel discussed the many hurdles female electricians face. Their stories were both painful and inspiring as the theme of sexual harassment threaded throughout each of their experiences. Beyond the harassment, the women also recounted the pride they felt in the work they were doing. No one signed on the be a trailblazer for tradeswomen but in the midst of their struggles, they became the mouthpiece of women electricians, a sisterhood that bore the scars of sexism, racism, and homophobia

Melinda Hernandez spoke of growing up in NYC and standing in line on the cold streets of Queens waiting for an application to join Local 3’s apprentice program to become an electrician. She said she spent her 22nd birthday camped out for hours and ultimately became a Journey Woman. She would refer to her male colleagues as “haters and harassers” as many of the men vehemently opposed her presence as a female electrician. “I was invading the boys club and they were going to the do their best to get me out…I’d had to fight the fight for the right to be there.” When Hernandez received her “journeyman” card, she made it a point to have the language changed to reflect the women electricians in the field. She won that battle as her next card said “journey woman.”

Laura Kelber beamed with pride as she spoke of the electrical work she’d done at various high profile buildings across the New York City metropolitan area. But while she took pride in her work, she still encountered ample resistance from co-workers. She recounted one job where the foreman followed her around with a pornographic magazine while making lewd comments towards her. Kelber and other panelist recalled break rooms and locker rooms lined with pornography, and portajohns that would not lock. In the midst of these conditions, the women electricians banded together by giving each other emotional support by listening to each other’s stories and encouraging each other in the hostile environment. They also banded together to familiarize themselves with sexual harassment laws, OSHA, and letter writing to improve their working conditions.

Like Melinda and Laura, Cynthia Long faced the uphill battle of trying to do her work in spite of the hostile environment. She noted feeling let down by the union she paid dues to.  If she knew she would face such severe verbal backlash as a woman electrician, she said she would not have gone through it. Melinda echoed this sentiment: "You spend so much time and energy fighting and working, you forget how to be nurturing and kind. Everything becomes a battle and you lose a bit of yourself and peace of mind."

Susan Eisenberg, author of We’ll Call You When We Need You (a book that came out in 1998), interviewed women who were pioneers as electricians and carpenters. She used their narratives to share stories from the field. Eisenberg collected stories and artifacts from these pioneering women to create “On Equal Terms: Women in Construction, 30 years and still organizing” an art exhibit at Brandeis University.

Each woman spoke of the bittersweet fruit that is the life of a tradeswoman. While they took great pride in their work and enjoyed the financial compensation for the hard work, they also faced an uphill battle against sexism from co-workers and unions that was unchanged from their first day to their last. They worked tirelessly and risked their lives as electricians, carpenters, and construction workers. It was clear they didn’t want a handout; they just wanted the respect of their colleagues as they worked to provide better lives for themselves and their families.

For more information about supporting or learning more about Women Electricians in the New York City area contact Cynthia Long.

For more information on the electrician field:

*Tunisia L. Riley is a frequent guest blogger on The Real Deal. She holds a BA in English and Women’s Studies from the College of William & Mary and an MA in Women’s Studies from the University of South Florida. Her interests are on Black women’s use of creative expression as a means of healing, empowerment, and activism. She believes “when we tell our stories, we empower those around us to agitate injustice, inspire change, and create activism.” Tunisia currently serves as the editor of Under the Microscope, a site for women and girls in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to tell their stories. Under the Microscope is for, by, and about women in STEM. Consider submitting your story today!

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Wanted you say that I greatly enjoyed this article. I'm 27 getting ready to graduate the electricians’ course at Washburn Technical College in Topeka Kansas. I'm sooo excited to get out of the class and get to work. I'm hard worker and love what I'm doing. My Instructor is great and pushes me hard every day. He told me that if he could have a class of all girls that want this as much as I do he would take them in a heartbeat. But I'm finding now that school is almost over with finding an apprenticeship is going to much harder than I expected. I feel that I'm going to really have to prove I can do this. In order to do that I need a chance.

Anyone have any encouragement to give out or advice?

Jessica E. Hodson

I am from Alberta,Canada and I've been a female welder since 1996 and a boilermaker since 1998, I took my first welding course in the early 90's and have been very proud of my accomplishments since!!!! I have been on job sites for years and the men respect you as long as you make it clear that you are there to work!!!! I have wanted to write a book for years for the women that are interested, but from personal experience there aren't really alot that are interested, alot of them do it because they're either looking for easy money ( the guys do there job ) or looking for a man and it's sad.... I am a proud female pressure TIG welder and I'm ashamed of 80% of the women in trades out there.

~Gina Shaw