February 25, 2008

Black History Month: The National Organization for Women

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In 1979, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm wanted to help her female constituents in Brooklyn's predominantly Black 12th Congressional District get those high-paying construction jobs. Finding little support from the traditional civil rights organizations she reached out to a relatively new rights group, the National Organization for Women. At the time, NOW was primarily a middle class, white formation. But they and Chisholm found common cause in getting women into what they viewed as "non-traditional" workplaces. Women "hard hats" seemed to have a certain barrier-breaking cachét, much like women getting into McSorley's Pub in the East Village had had nearly a decade earlier.

But beyond the "barrier breaking" symbolism, now that it's nearly 30 years later, what have Ms. Chisholm's efforts achieved? This last weekend, my local of the International Longshoremen's Association local celebrated our "Women Pioneers": union sisters. approximately 48 to 65 years old who had come to the docks, sponsored by Congresswoman Chisholm, in that first wave. The local, and in fact the entire Port of NY/NJ, now boasts a substantial number of female longshoremen, but the seven sisters we were honoring all came from the 12th Congressional District of Brooklyn and there might well be NO women on the docks if not for them.

Interestingly, NOW, at least in NJ, has become primarily a Black women's group. And though a significant number of feminist women took advantage of the opportunity for "non-traditional" employment in the late 70s and early 80s (including my own little sister, who worked as an IBEW construction electrician for more than 18 years), I was a little taken aback to learn that most of these women believed that the Carter Administration was responsible for this opening, never realizing that it was actually due to Shirley Chisholm's efforts. At the same time, it ought to be noted that the majority of the women who are STILL working in construction, on the railroads, or at the port, are, like my local's union sisters, African-American.

Linda Wilkins (first female gang foreman in entire U.S.), Cynthia Brooks (first female yard-tractor driver, now tractor foreman at APM-Sealand), and Lillian "Tootsie" Boyd (first Black woman checker and Ports-America gang-boss) head in to be honored for their pioneering role. For additional pictures from this event see ILA 1233 Honors Our Women Pioneers.


bendygirl said...

Reminds me of the work Hard Hatted Women has done in Cleveland to bring women into the trades. I haden't heard about this story for Congresswoman Chisholm, thank you for telling this story.

blackstone said...

Whoa! Learn something new every day. So is NOW still predominately white in other states? ANd what part of NJ is NOW located?