Monday, March 8, 2010

‘Writing Trades Women into History’ March 9 -DULUTH, MN

UMD hosts ‘Writing Trades Women into History’ March 9
By Larry Sillanpa
28 February 2010
DULUTH - This is the 30th Anniversary of celebrating March as Women’s History Month. To honor the occasion, the University of Minnesota-Duluth Women’s Studies Department will host a presentation by author Jane LaTour.
“Writing Trades Women into History,” will be given Tuesday, March 9, at 7 p.m. inMontague Hall 80 on the UMD campus (across the corridor from the Marshall Performing Arts Center).

LaTour is the author of “Sisters In The Brotherhoods,” which chronicles the fight for women trying to gain employment in blue-collar jobs in New York City in the 1970s. It is an oral history of women who broke the gender barrier in the presumed liberal NYC, and its strong union tradition, against considerable odds.

women workers in the 1970s
This undated photo shows some of the “Sisters” having a good time at a New York City march.

United Trades Women photo

The women LaTour chronicled became ironworkers, plumbers, stationary engineers, elevator mechanics, carpenters, electricians, and firefighters among other occupations.

Her interviews started in 1989 as a simple idea for a brochure and went through 2006 after she realized she had actually created a much larger project. Her book was published in 2008 but she says it is a work in progress.

This isn’t just a story about New York City, it’s a story about America that is still being lived. Battles for equality are far from over throughout the United States.

Remember the National AFL-CIO itself did not have a woman in a leadership role until 1995, when a special position of executive vice president was created to get Linda Chavez-Thompson in the door. The AFL-CIO killed two birds in that election in that she was also the first Hispanic allowed into the inner circle.

Employed now by AFSCME District Council 37, the largest municipal union in New York City, LaTour said “Sisters” is not only a history book but a cause.

“For three decades women fought to get out of low-wage jobs but their numbers are still small,” she said of women gaining employment in blue collar jobs that pay well. “They have to fight just to keep the doors open.”

LaTour said she goes beyond her book in her presentations, mixes the good with the bad, and addresses issues still facing women.

“We need to answer why it matters as we talk about the economics of women and their jobs,” she said.

Laura Stolle Schmidt, an AFSCME Local 3801 member in UMD’s Women’s Studies
Department, said the department is thrilled LaTour will be here for the 30th
Anniversary of the National Women’s History Project with its theme of “Writing Women into History.”

“It is so nice to have her coming to Duluth with our strong history of women working in World War II war industry and in the mines,” said Stolle Schmidt. “Soldiers came back from that war, displaced many of those women, and their struggles continued into the 1970s and 80s.”

In her preface, LaTour wrote, “Younger people may take it for granted, but one of the most striking urban contrasts between today and 1964– when the word ‘sex’ was included in the Civil Rights Act– is all of the women working in jobs their mothers never could have held.”

But, she continued, “Many blue-collar arenas remain contested terrain for females. Women still struggle to get training, to get jobs, and to secure a harassment-free workplace.”

That resonates in this area as well with the lawsuit brought by women iron ore miners on the Iron Range. Their struggles were depicted in the movie “North County,” a fictionalized account of the first major successful class-action sexual harassment case in the U.S. – Jenson vs. Eveleth Mines, where a woman who endured a range of abuse while working as a miner filed and won the landmark 1984 lawsuit.

author Jane LaTour
Jane LaTour
LaTour got the start for her project from working blue collar in factories and warehouses until she was able to get serious about her education. She became a union educator. She wrote that it was 1976 before she first heard about “Rosie the Riveter” and stories about women in World War II production.

A few years later, she was working nights in a United Parcel Service warehouse talking to one of the few women who drove the 18-wheelers that brought in the cargo. They were Teamsters and LaTour’s wheels were turning.

LaTour is a journalist and labor activist who lives in New York City and knows the ground she covered. She has written for various publications and managed the Women’s Project of the Association for Union Democracy. She is a two-time winner of the Mary Heaton Vorse Award, the top labor journalism award in New York City.

Unions and their leaders were incredibly slow, actually unwilling, at recognizing the role women could play on the job and in unions. Any number of reasons accounted for that, including, backward thinking of what constituted “women’s work,” fears that women would take all the easy jobs that old timers had waited for or the less capable needed, a widespread fear and hatred of rising feminism, and basic sexism in union ranks. But it was a time when the traditional family unit was changing and women needed good jobs too in spite of many men still believing a woman’s place was in the home. Many homes started having fewer men in them as the number of single mothers rose and women were heads of households, needing jobs that paid well.

In a review for Z Magazine, Andy Piascik wrote, “Sisters in the Brotherhoods is a gem of a book. With it, LaTour has given us important documentation of an inspiring piece of history that is too little known.

Some of the women profiled are still pushing forward, either in their fields or in vital movement organizations. Wherever they are, newer generations of activists can stand securely on their shoulders as we reach for higher ground.”

“Sisters” ends with an epilogue that chronicles where two dozen of the barrier crashing women ended up. The book covers over three decades and many of the women had retired or moved on to other things by the time the book was published.

When you attend LaTour’s presentation Tuesday evening March 9, bring some cash. You’re going to want to buy a signed copy of her book. You can learn more at LaTour.html

Larry Sillanpa edits the Labor World, the official publication of the Duluth AFL-CIO Central Labor Body.


Subject: *
Your Name: *
E-mail Address: *
Message: *

* Required