“I told him, the day he can pick up his hammer with his penis, is the day I’ll put mine down.” -Theresa Lester, Carpenter, Instructor, Badass Tradeswoman
Though not written in a book, on a placard, or even on the bathroom wall, these are the kind of quips we all need out there. The words we need when we are up against the naysayers, the words we think about when our bodies don't want to get out of bed in the morning, not just from the physical pain but the mental exhaustion of constantly having to prove ourselves.
These are the kinds of words that make us put on our heavy work boots, throw on layers of clothes, drudge out to the bridges, skyrises, and mills, in tight spaces, dirty places, and heights so high you have to brace yourself in the wind as you overlook the landscape and hope today isn’t your last day.
Most women chuckle when I recite that quote, and rightly so – it's kind of funny. But the naysayer men that I've used it on don't, because they know that beneath the humor, beneath the crassness, lies the truth – your gender doesn't make you better, stronger, or more capable than me. And that scares the shit out of them. And the best part about those words, there's really no come back to it; Although I bet there's a few men out there who went home to try it just so they'd have one.
Theresa had many stories that I thought about when faced with a challenge, as well as other tradeswomen's stories. Doreen, Plumber, Instructor, First Woman President of her local, Badass Tradeswoman, once told my pre-apprenticeship class how after a hard day as a first-year apprentice she would have to decompress in her car on the way home; never on the site, but in her car she could let loose and restart herself for the next day. And she didn't do this because she was a glutton for punishment, she did it for the same reason we all endure it, we love what we do. (Proposed book title: No Apologies).
I have been fortunate enough to work with many strong women who have inspiring stories that will never be known to the masses, but should be. I always tell them they should write a book, but they don't. And I don't wonder why, because I know why. It's hard to put down in words the weight of a hundred pound of tools around your waist as you climb a ladder to place that last beam and even harder to put down in words the joy of knowing your work will be the foundation of something withstanding and permanent and useful.
For me, it's not the words that are hard to write, but the timing. There's a reason many people write books after they retire, it's hard to write when you're in the moment. In the moment, you're just busting your ass, getting the job done, earning that cash, trying to survive and thrive against the tide. But later, when you have time to reflect, to find the stories within a lifetime of work, you can see the lessons you learned, the pains you endured, the joys you had, the accomplishments you made. Best advice I got as an apprentice from my friend, the recent retiree Pamela Hunt, Carpenter, Sister, Master Dandelion Eliminator, Badass Tradeswoman (Proposed book title: Sand Between the Toes Cures all Your Woes): "Work smarter, not harder: You got this."
This doesn't mean I don't write in the moment; I've written many things in the moment: journaling, taking notes, logging events, details, comments. They just aren't all ready for prime time. But all of this is important for myself, for ourselves. We write it down to get it out of our head and clear our mind because it can only take so much. We also write it down so we don’t forget. Good or bad, it's a part of us, our journey, and it's important. And no one else can tell our story for us, not like we can.
Maybe it's not all about having the time to reflect that we hesitate to put our stories out there, but also the fear that the wrong person might read it and we will get laid off or not get that next job. Because we all know that fear. We all know what it's like to have to walk the line and pick our battles and work twice as hard as the men to keep our job and it only takes a wrong comment or one mistake to get us our check before payday.
But then I think, what if something happens before I get to tell my story? I could fall off a deck or get crushed by a load that falls from the crane and no one will know how my heart pounded with excitement the first time I saw someone drive over the bridge I just helped build. No one will know that even though I had to roll out of my car and crawl up the stairs during those first few weeks, a decade later I was the last tradesperson on a job installing finishing touches on a new hospital. No one will know how I handled the situation with the guy who was harassing me at work or how many feet I was dragged along the parapet wall after being yanked off the side of the bridge, scraping up the entire right side of my torso (twenty feet). Maybe someone might say I was a good worker and skilled at my craft, but the details are what the people want; I know that's what I want. And the good stuff is great-really great- but the bad stuff is what we really need to know. The bad stuff is where the lessons are. And only we can tell those stories. And we must tell those stories.
It's being able to hear these stories and read the struggle of women like Kate Braid (Journeywoman Swinging a Hammer in a Man's World) whose perseverance in finding work in a 'man's trade' that inspires us not only as apprentices, but as seasoned journeywomen, to keep moving forward, and not just for us but for the women that come after us. As those stories encourage us, our stories will encourage the future tradeswomen.
I was going to try to find some witty comeback to share to end this piece, like "I understand how insecure men can have a problem with women being able to do the same job they can," but instead I thought I would put in writing some of the advice I have gotten over the years. Maybe one day, I will be written down on someone else's list
Lessons I learned from women that should write/should've written a book:
- Learn a lot so you never get pigeonholed into one type of job. – Pam Lesko, Carpenter, Mother, Sister, Great Cook, Badass Tradeswoman (Proposed book title: Paprikash Fixes Everything)
- The hammer has a long handle for a reason, hold it at the end of it. – Calli Frehmeyer, Laborer, Mason Tender, Sister, Nana, Badass Tradeswoman (Proposed book title: I Taught a Carpenter How to use a Hammer)
- Show up, on time and stay hydrated. – Shelly Richmond, Electrician, Mother, Sister, Badass Tradeswoman (Proposed book title: The Bowl is Never Big Enough)
- Carry a notebook and take notes. – Sue Doro, Railroad Machinist, Writer, Publisher, Spreader of all our stories, Badass Tradeswoman (Proposed book title: Write it Down and Write it Up)
- Fuck those dipshits, you're more talented than they are. – Nancy Halloran, Sheet Metal Worker, Policewoman, Building Inspector, Sister, Mother, Badass Tradeswoman (Proposed book title: Damn Right, I Fucking Said It)
- If we don't speak up nothing will ever change. – Rocky Hwasta, Carpenter, Writer, Mother, Sister, Badass Tradeswoman (Proposed book title: Even When I Can't Speak, You Will Never Silence Me)
© 2021 Darlene Glass, Carpenters Local 435, Cleveland Ohio
Pride and a Paycheck is produced with Union Labor.