Women Working: The building trades begin to open up

Black and white picture of two women in hats, one in overalls and one in a sweater

Marilyn Peterson

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 8 No. 1, "Building South." Find more from that issue here.

the most magic part is being outside

the smell when you cut the wood — such a clean smell

the play of the light and shadows when the house is just a skeleton

everything seems really focused, really sharp


when you’re working together really fast

when the timing is just so

when you can anticipate so perfectly that you don’t have to speak

it’s almost like a dance


beautiful work is not done quickly

and speed is at a premium

something has got to be compromised


scrambling around the roofs

walking along the joists

hauling things, huffing and puffing

I love it

- Robin Moran has been a carpenter for six years in Durham, North Carolina.


Construction worker.

The words conjure up images of an exclusively male world. The reality fits the image.

While women have been underrepresented in many occupations, it is the trades, including the building trades, from which they have been most consistently excluded.

Women today make up one three percent of all skilled craft workers including carpenters, plumbers, electricians and painters while 80 percent fall women workers are in service, clerical, retail and factory jobs. Women in construction work earn an average of 68 percent of their male counterparts’ wages.

While some employers now welcome women into the construction work force, many others insist that women should not do construction work and are convinced that they cannot. "Why I wouldn't hire a woman unless she was a master carpenter, ugly as a dog, and would work for two dollars an hour," says one contractor in West Jefferson, North Carolina.

Strong political, economic and social forces keep women's presence in the construction industry marginal. These forces ordain that to be "suitable" for women, work must be sedentary, physically undemanding, dependent, service-oriented and, above all, low paid. Construction work is none of these things. Women lack the opportunity to learn skills necessary to enter the building trades, but have been systematically frozen out of skill-training, and few federally funded vocational programs, technical school programs or apprenticeships have been developed for or made available to women.

Women who do succeed in entering the construction trades often face resistance, hostility and harassment from those who feel that the jobs rightfully belong to men. When hired, women often find themselves in the most menial jobs, from which they can learn few skills, or the most strenuous jobs calculated to discourage or intimidate. "We've found that women are much better than men at some jobs," says Bordeaux Construction Company's personnel manager. "They're much better at cleaning the floors and much better at cleaning the windows." 

Women are, however, entering the building trades in increasing numbers. Opportunities are widening under recent federal regulations, aimed primarily at the recalcitrant construction industry, which require all companies receiving a federal contract over $10,000 to meet Department of Labor guidelines for the percentage of women in all job categories. In 1979, three percent of all workers had to be women; in 1980, five percent. Employers must active by recruit women, but many still grudgingly maintain that it is difficult to find enough women to fill the requirement. 

Women now strive alongside male construction workers in all fields and in a wide variety of work situations. Because these interviews are personal stories, many trades, experiences and issues are not represented here. But the lives of Miriam Whitman, Pamela George, Jackie S trouble and Monnie Driscoll demonstrate that women can make and take their place in the construction world as wage laborers, in a democratic collective, as owner-builders, as teachers, and as bosses. Their experiences defy those who would maintain that construction work cannot be done by women.

 Miriam Whitman of Garner, North Carolina, is a plumber for Nello Teer Company and currentLy works primarily on city sewer system construction.

I learned to be a plumber through a six-month CETA training program at the Carolina Skills Advancement Center. Women everywhere need that kind of program. I know it was really a gift for me when it came along. I had separated from my husband, had a small child to support, no skills. I was a high school dropout – and all I'd ever been was married. I was so dependent I couldn't even make a decision about what to get at the grocery store without my husband. The night I graduated from that program I was on cloud nine. It was the first time my life that I had completed something that was important to me.

Then I went to work for Daniel Construction Company on the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant. Women are really treated bad out there. The men were constantly cutting us down and they acted like the women were just out there for prostitution. One of the project supervisors started propositioning me. The first time I warned him to leave me alone, the second time it made me a little hotter, and the third time he completely insulted me and told him I was going to see a lawyer. I had been educated enough during the training program to know when I was being discriminated against. Three other women had been through the same thing and we decided we weren't going take any more of that bullshit.

After I left out there I was hired by Nello Teer. I was the only woman on the crew and at it was terrible. There was one guy who actually believed that a woman could make it, who gave me the benefit of the doubt. He kept telling me that if I'd just quit listening to the bullshit and do my job I'd make it. But some days were just so bad I didn't know how I was going adjust to it.

My first three months I kept a journal of what happened each day – remarks people made to me, how much worked, what had to do that day. Most of the time I carried a shovel and I was the go-fer. The foreman would tell me to dig a hole and then I when I was about done he'd tell me to move and he'd finish digging it with a machine. He hated me for the fact that l was a woman on his crew and he had to let me work as long as I kept working. I wouldn't give him no reason to fire me. We'd be working two or three miles back in the woods and he'd send me for stuff I knew we didn't need – and then call me a blooming idiot for not getting it back fast enough. I had to eat so much dirt. Men will take a new male worker and right away he's one of the crowd. They don't put him through the torture the way they do a woman. They would try to see just how mad they could make me, but I'd bite my tongue and try to ignore them. I'd get dirty tricks pulled on me, like one time I used a porto-John and they tried to turn it over. It scared me real bad, but figured if I came out mad that would be just what they wanted to see, SO I came out laughing just as big as they did. They couldn't stand it – but pretty soon they started leaving me alone.

After about four a and a half months things began to get better. They saw that I wasn't going to lay out, or be late, and that they couldn’t run me off. You’ve got to show them I’m here to stay, I’m equal, I’m not moving, so you move over. Any woman that’s going to get anywhere is going to have to learn to get through it. It’s just something they have to face. It’s reality. 

The work is real hard, working down in ditches laying pipe that weighs 60-70 pounds. The first place I worked we had to go in and tear out old septic tanks and that was really nasty. I’m working ten hours a day, fifty hours a week, 7:00 to 5:30 every day. They take out a half hour that I don’t get paid for — ten minutes in the morning and twenty minutes for lunch, and the rest of the day you don’t sit down for a minute. Anybody that works construction and has to take care of a child alone has it rough. When I come in from work I can be so grouchy, and my child doesn’t understand. I’m his constant companion — he doesn’t have anybody else. I try hard not to show my ill feelings, and I’m constantly trying to prepare myself for how I’m going to answer his questions. 

You’ve got to make up your mind that you have to do it. Women can do the job and do it well. They can tone their bodies the same as men, and learn the same things men can. It took a lot of me disciplining myself to do this work. You’ve got to build up your self-confidence, you’ve got to be determined, and you have to really want a job bad. Women have just got so far to go. They think they’ve come a long ways, but the road is a lot longer. And the only way we’re going to make it is to climb it together. Someday I want to work on salary instead of by the hour. You can’t really make much money as a plumber unless you own a lot of tools and do residential work, or are unionized. But you just can’t get on with anyone that’s unionized. I’ve had an application in with the local union for a year, but nobody has a need for any women. I’d like to go back to school to learn welding. It’s better money than plumbing and I could work as a pipefitter, which is a division of plumbing and a division of welding. 

The best thing about this job and having a skill is knowing it’s there, having security. When I think back to how I used to be, it’s real scary, and I wouldn’t ever want to be back there again.

Pamela George a carpenter, is rebuilding her own house and teaches building skills to other women. 

I refer to myself as a rehabber, because all of my work has been in rehabilitating or rebuilding old houses, including the house I live in now. 

I have been really inspired watching women in other parts of the world who do much of the domestic building, who do the thatching and build roofs, who make mud bricks and construct walls. Those women were strong role models for me, and I began to see myself as capable of being a builder. A lot of women who have other jobs can begin learning skills with their own houses, which is one of the few safe, comfortable places where women feel that they have some control. 

I’ve learned how to build by first tearing things apart. And I’ve learned by hiring people not to do things for me but to teach me how to do things. Not everyone was receptive to teaching me, partly because they didn’t want do-it-yourselfers infringing. And I also found that as a woman I wasn’t taken seriously. Women builders have to work at being taken seriously by other people. You’ll go to the lumber yard and say you want contractors’ prices because you’re building a house and they laugh. You don’t own a truck and you want to put 300 pounds of lumber in your VW and they laugh. You talk with friends who say, oh, you’re just a housewife with a hammer. And you begin to hear the message that you’re not to be taken seriously. Building your own home, learning skills to be a carpenter or to roof, or to lay bricks, is serious business. It’s not play, it’s real work. You make sacrifices to do it, and you have to demand to be taken seriously. 

Women should try to learn as much as they can on their own or from other women. One of the nicest things for me in doing this work has been in teaching other women who have come and asked to work with me. When you set up a teacher-learner situation with the man as the experienced, competent teacher and the woman as the inexperienced,incompetent student, the situation is doomed to make the woman feel overwhelmed and intimidated, even if the man is sensitive. Trying to learn from people you feel uncomfortable around can be unhealthy for your mind and body. When you feel incompetent and small you can make some serious mistakes, dangerous errors which can really hurt you physically. But you also begin to think of yourself as small — and women just don’t need that. We have enough trouble believing that we’re capable and competent. 

I think there are some unique and distinctive contributions that women can make in the building trades. Women will bring a stronger intolerance for an unsafe and unhealthy workplace. I’m especially sensitive to that after catching my hand in a table saw about a year ago, a saw that had no safety equipment on it at all. Most safety features are now being put on home workshop tools because of consumer protection and OSHA standards, but there isn’t that same kind of protection on a lot of the heavier tools used in the workplace. I think women will join the workforce being willing to point out the lack of safety which men have been too macho to admit. At the same time women need to make themselves aware of safety precautions, especially since few women have taken shop or have grown up handling power tools. I also think women will bring less tolerance for the use of a lot of the toxic chemicals and materials used by the building industry. 

A second thing that women bring to building is an understanding of the function of space and an attention to how people can best use physical space. I can design a room better than most of the men I know in the building trades, and I don’t think that’s a sexist statement. It’s my legacy, my training. I didn’t take shop or learn about power tools, but I did learn a lot about how to use space efficiently, how to plan traffic patterns, how to protect privacy, because I’ve been in tune with all the day-to-day aspects of maintaining a home. I think women will begin to create successful buildings because, more than just understanding the function of space, they also care about the space around them. They delight in it, and I don’t think a lot of men do. 

One of the best things that’s happened to me in the process of rebuilding my house is that I’ve become really strong. I’ve begun to learn those simple techniques of hauling and lifting and hoisting that before I didn’t know I could do. The use of levers is just amazing — and it’s been kept secret for generations by men who said women can’t lift heavy loads. Women can. Levers — it’s become a watch word for me in how women will learn to work, and to beat the criticism that there’s no way women could do equal work. 

Monnie J. Driscoll is owner and secretary-treasurer of T.R. Driscoll Sheet Metal Works, Inc., a roofing, heating and air-conditioning, and sheet metal business in Lumberton, North Carolina. 

I’ve worked hard all my life. I never expected not to. My father was a farmer, so I grew up doing hard labor. Both Rosser and I came from poor parents, and we worked hard so that we wouldn’t end up that way. 

We started out in 1924 with a measly $500 that we borrowed from the bank. My father signed the note for us, and it took us a whole year to pay it back. From the beginning we worked 50-50. Rosser handled the outside work and I ran the shop and the office. We always had a mechanic working for us, but a lot of times he wouldn’t have any help so I’d work along with him in the shop. I never could lay out patterns for metal work, but I could take the pieces and fabricate items. From the start I kept all the books, figured the jobs, kept the payroll and handled all the billing. I still handle all the money, but now we have 60 employees and a computer system, so the business is a lot different than it was when I did all the billing by hand. 

I stopped school in the ninth grade, all of us did except one of my sisters. What I know about doing sheet metal work and managing a business I picked up by doing it. I guess our hardest times were during WWII. We lost all our help and had to work 16 or 17 hours a day in the shop — often until 11:00 or 12:00 at night. After Rosser got sick I had to take on more and more of the work. Then after he died in 1952 I ran the business alone until 1961 when I brought my two sons into it. 

I learned to look out for myself doing business. Since Rosser and I started out together, I never had trouble as a woman. Now I’ve gotten the community’s respect, and the men I have contact with either want our services or work for me. Except for pushy salesmen, and I can take care of them. 

I couldn’t put in long hours the way I used to — six hours a day is enough. But I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t have my work. I never have wanted to just sit at home, and I don’t now.

 Jackie Strouble a carpenter with Space Builders, a worker-owned cooperative building company in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. 

I started out working on a crew of 22, with no other women. It was as good a crew as you could ask for, but I still had a lot of trouble. I remember being very passive. The men who already knew how to compete for wages or a place in the company could elbow in, look at the plans and jump on the jobs they wanted. You just cannot be passive. 

My attitude was probably my biggest obstacle to learning — I felt like I was always having to prove myself, always trying to make my place. And I felt very unsure of my place. Little insults began to pile up and I began to feel very alone. Right about then a couple of women working in carpentry in this area said we ought to get together with other women in the trades. The group that was formed is still going. It hasn’t become a political force, or a dues paying organization. But it has become a tremendous support for women in the trades. Women shouldn’t go it alone if they don’t have to. Support from other women can really help you survive. 

Space Builders is different from other work situations I’ve been in, in that it’s a worker-owned cooperative — 12 people — and half are women. Individuals are important, and workers don’t get taken advantage of. We’re committed to equality of the sexes, and we work to make that happen here. 

But even now I still have a tendency, when a man comes on the job, to stand there with my tools at my waist and wait to be directed like a puppet. I can quickly go from being a perfectly capable carpenter to someone standing around waiting to be told what to do. And I still have problems with being passed over by more aggressive people. The key word is confidence. I’m finding that a lot of people have no more skill or experience than I do — just more confidence. 

Women starting carpentry very often don’t have the real basic skills that men take for granted — a kind of coordination, knowing how to use tools, when to be aggressive with a piece of wood or a bolt and when not to, how to use your strength and extend the power you have. The idea that women don’t have the strength to do the job is a myth. If you’re not strong enough, you find a tool that will make you stronger. Women’s physical attributes make them work differently from men, and getting men to cooperate can be a problem. Men will tell you there’s only one way to solve a problem — their way. That’s just not true. There are many ways to solve problems in carpentry, and women need to keep an open mind to that and never take for granted that you don’t know what you’re doing. 

It behooves women who are hired to succeed. It can make a real difference for them, and it can make a difference for the women who follow them. Contractors who are interviewed about hiring women will say, “Oh, I love these women. They’re pretty, they’re not hard on the machines, they don’t get drunk and lay out on Monday.” It’s an initial reaction — no one knows what they’re really thinking. 

I’d like to widen the opening so that other women can get through, and I like teaching skills to other women. I admire women who have the guts to make enemies, who are extreme and loud and unpopular, and who are so far to the left that they pull the whole scene a little bit over from the right. It allows me to walk down the middle. I don’t consider myself political — my way of doing things is to take it easy, not take the offensive, not lose sight of the fact that the men I’m working with are people, too. I’d like to make contact with other women in the trades, women with different backgrounds and experiences. I’ve found that hard to do, but it feels important to me. 

My main goal is to be a good carpenter, and it takes many years to become a master. But I can find my way around a problem now, I have familiarity with a wide range of tools, a little more confidence. It’s a start.