Guest Columnist

Labor Day: Iowa women reflect on fight against discrimination, harassment

Female textile workers in Lowell, Mass. formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in 1843 (Photo courtesy of the Dover Public Library, www.dover.nh.gov/government/city-operations/library/history/the-strike-of-the-mill-girls.html)
Female textile workers in Lowell, Mass. formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in 1843 (Photo courtesy of the Dover Public Library, www.dover.nh.gov/government/city-operations/library/history/the-strike-of-the-mill-girls.html)

This Labor Day, 2019, takes place during the one hundredth anniversary of the extension of women’s right to vote across the United States. Together, both celebrations remind us of the long struggles and successes of working women to improve their lives and those of their co-workers and communities.

Here in Iowa, we know a great deal about those struggles because of an over-40-year-old oral history project called the Iowa Labor History Oral Project (ILHOP). Housed today at the University of Iowa Labor Center, the project was started by the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, in the 1970s, in collaboration with the Labor Center and the State Historical Society of Iowa. Today, new partners include the Iowa Labor History Society and the UI Libraries, which makes interviews from the vast and growing collection accessible through the Iowa Digital Library.

Two stories from the collection are particularly pertinent this year.

Janet Fife-LaFrenz was a teacher and member of the Keokuk Education Association — the local affiliate of the Iowa State Education Association — in the early 1970s. At the time, women workers, including teachers, could be disciplined or discharged for any of a long list of activities which their employer decided were “indecent.” These included wearing “revealing” clothing or becoming pregnant. In Keokuk, women’s resistance to these policies contributed to their support for what would become the first Iowa teachers’ strike since World War II. In this excerpt from her ILHOP interview, Fife-LaFrenz describes the ways in which gender discrimination contributed to growing tensions in Keokuk during the late 1960s:

“That was the era that young people were feeling their oats. That was the year of the hippies, the flower child, the Vietnam conflict, and there was a lot of turmoil throughout the world, and it trickled down into our small community too. So we wanted to wear a pantsuit. Heaven forbid were we scolded if we were seen in slacks! If your skirt was too short. Mine was once. I got a demerit on my contract, and it took away some of the money I was going to get for a raise because I happened to be wearing a fashionable miniskirt. Being seen pregnant. I’d been married 5 years. Pregnancy occurred. I wasn’t to be seen in public because that was ‘indecent exposure.’ I don’t think so. ... Another incident was being seen in a bathing suit. That was “indecent exposure.” Thinking back, what we did in the ’67 to ’70 era of time is nothing compared to what you see in today’s world!”

While Iowa women have a long history of fighting for respect and equity in traditionally female-dominated occupations, they have also struggled to break into traditionally higher paid, male-dominated lines of work — including construction.

At the same time that Fife-LaFrenz and her fellow teachers were objecting to discrimination in Keokuk, Dale McCormick, a recent graduate of the University of Iowa, was looking for a living-wage job to support her household. One of the best options open to her was an apprenticeship program to become a carpenter. McCormick joined the program — and the union — and found that she had a real knack for the work. At the same time, however, she faced constant sexual harassment on the job. In this excerpt, McCormick describes how she fought back and used relatively new laws to defend her rights:

“Friday afternoon, they hung a picture — a Playboy pinup. It was winter, so we were all in the warm-up shack. I just lost it. ... I took my hammer out of my belt and stomped out to the superintendents’ trailer. ... I said, ‘Tom, are you going to stop this?’ He said, ‘Oh, they put up another pinup didn’t they?’ I said, ‘Yes, they did, what are you going to do about it?’ [He said] ‘Boys will be boys.’ So I marched back in. I had my hammer in my right hand, and I came up to ... I forget his name, but I took him by his T-shirt ... and I said, ‘Are you the one who’s putting up those pinups where I hang my hat and coat?’ And he said, “No, no, no, it’s not me.’ So I let him go. And I marched into the warm-up shack, and I announced to everybody, ‘OK, which one of you guys is putting up these pinups?’ There was a picnic table and all of our lunchboxes were lined up there — and this was the days of glass thermoses. So I took my hammer, and I said, ‘This shit has got to stop!’ And I whammed my hammer down on just anybody’s lunch box, and, ‘psst!’ it broke the thermoses. ... I had run out of good lines and steam by that time, so I went down to City Hall, because I knew that I couldn’t continue at that level of anger and frustration. So I went in to the Human Rights Commission. It was Friday, everybody’s gone, but there was a secretary there. I said, ‘It’s not like I don’t have the job. I have the job, but they’re putting up these dirty pictures.’ And she said, ‘That’s illegal!’ ... She had me file with the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], the state, and the local. They found, of course, in my favor, and there was a settlement. I didn’t get any money ... but posters were put up about their philosophy and what to do if you were having trouble. It was the smartest thing I ever did, was file this ... I finished my apprenticeship because of that.”

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Stories of women’s past struggles continue to inform present initiatives. Because while women workers have made considerable progress, much more remains to be done. Two ways this work is being continued right now through the UI Labor Center and its partners include:

A new touring exhibit, “Speaking of Work,” which features stories of Iowa workers like Fife-LaFrenz and other voices from the ILHOP collection. The mobile exhibit can be requested by schools, libraries or community groups for display through the next year. It was a joint project of the Iowa Labor History Society and Humanities Iowa, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

A new program to promote Iowa apprenticeship opportunities and diversify the skilled trades. Beginning in October, the Labor Center will be offering free apprenticeship readiness courses open to all Iowans, with the goal of actively recruiting women, people of color, veterans, and workers with disabilities into apprenticeship programs.

John McKerley is director of the Iowa Labor History Oral Project. For more information on these and other programs, contact the UI Labor Center at laborcenter@uiowa.edu.

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