Published March 2020
On August 26, 1970 the Women’s Strike for Equality took place to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment which earned women the right to vote. The rally was supported by the National Organization for Women. It was also the year that I graduated from High School. I came from a family of four girls, of whom I was the oldest. My parents were both teachers and proud union members. I was told from the time I was small I could be anything I wanted to be (as long as I was self supporting).
My interest was the theatre, particularly technical theatre. I directed plays with my sisters and in Girl Scouts when I was little and gravitated to some “theatre people” in graduate student housing in Madison who needed a babysitter. My first theatre “gig” was helping a Costume Grad student make the shoes and accessories for her graduate project,“Once Upon a Mattress”, at the University of Wisconsin. I was 12.
In high school in Carbondale, IL I worked on as many plays and musicals as I could. I stage managed, designed, acted, and worked on lights and sets. I also met Randy Moreland, who was a fellow student three years older. Randy worked on shows in high school and at Southern Illinois University. He hired me to help with lights on little projects, like opera student recitals, the summer music theatre, and union shows that came to the arena or the university theatre. He told me, “if you want to make a living in theatre, join the union!”
I went to the University of Illinois-Champaign in Technical Theatre in 1970. We had a brand new Krannert Center to learn our craft. As this new theatre complex developed their expanded curriculum, we were given opportunities as undergrads that later classes of graduate students were given. We were lucky. Two summers during that time, I worked at the Corning Summer Theatre in Corning, New York, as Assistant Electrician and then Master Electrician.
In December 1973, I graduated from the University of Illinois. Although I had been accepted to Grad School at the University of Minnesota in January of 1974, I opted to delay my start date until September so I would not have to move in the winter. Instead I worked as a costume assistant and stage managed their summer theatre. I also joined the IATSE in Champaign, IL, Local 482.
I was told “We don’t let women work in our local. You could call the wardrobe local.” I tried to explain my experience, but to no avail.
I started my graduate program at the University of Minnesota in September 1974. I was anxious to make contacts in Minneapolis to work union jobs, as I had in Champaign. I met Jim Waters, a fellow student who was a union member. His father and brother also worked in the union. I called the Minneapolis Local 13 to see if I could get some work through that local. I was told “We don’t let women work in our local. You could call the wardrobe local.” I tried to explain my experience, but to no avail. Since Jim Waters worked with the St. Paul Local 20, I decided to try that local. When I called them, they said the same thing, but said they would get back to me. Eventually Local 13 called me to work a load out. I learned that the big controversy for not having women on the call was that they couldn’t swear. So on this call, one stagehand would make it a point to swear around me. I just ignored him. Finally he said, “I bet that really bothers you!” I said, “I don’t care what the F— you say!” I was left alone after that! As luck would have it, the newspaper was doing a story on stagehands that night. The reporter came up to me to get some comments. I declined, knowing I would never work again if I said something inappropriate. I just wanted to work, not make an issue of my presence.
I went on to work at the Guthrie Theater as Production Assistant to the Production Stage Manager. Since I was learning all the shows anyway, I volunteered to learn the shows for the lights and sound operators. Those individuals had vacation days but could never take them because no one knew the shows. On my own time, I came in and learned the lights and sound cues for all the shows in repertory. Then, if a stagehand needed to take a day off for a special event or if they were sick, I would replace them. I also worked on special event shows at the Guthrie under the union contract. Still, I hadn’t been given any outside union calls.
In May, 1976 the Metropolitan Opera came to Northrop Auditorium and did a series of operas over a week. The need for stagehands was great, as they worked night and day to turnaround different operas. Friends, relatives, and people from the bar were asked to help out. I called and called to see if I could work too. Finally, the last day of the shows, I decided to make a more aggressive stand. I felt it was just too blatantly discriminating. I showed up at night and went in to talk to the Business Agent or Crew Chief in charge. I was told, “no, they didn’t need me.” I then went on to the stage, which was loading out a show and just started working. (NOT something I would recommend!) After they realized what was happening, I was shuffled outside to talk to the Business Agent. We had a long talk. I said to him, “do you mean you wouldn’t let your own daughter do this work if she wanted to?” He said no. After explaining my desire, experience, etc., I finally said, “well, I guess I will have to talk to a lawyer then, because this doesn’t seem fair and I think it is against the law.” I went home.
I finally said, “well, I guess I will have to talk to a lawyer then, because this doesn’t seem fair and I think it is against the law.”
A couple of days later, I got a call from the local asking for a meeting with me. I asked my husband to go with me, but to not say anything. I just didn’t want to be bullied and I didn’t think they would, with him there as a witness. I told them I just wanted to work; I didn’t really want to go to a lawyer and if I got work, I wouldn’t. After a discussion, they said they would give me a call. The first big union call I did was for The Ice Follies at the Met Center as a spotlight operator. This was when the spotlights were carbon arc spots. It was a trial by fire. I survived one of the hardest jobs at the time. Afterwards the BA said I did okay and that he would call again. Bit by bit I was given calls. There would be 60 guys and me on calls. Most people wouldn’t talk to me. Some of the younger guys did. As time went by, the Guthrie guys spoke up for me and I think some of the younger guys might have said some nice things about me to their dads. It got a little easier for a while. As other business agents were elected, I had to fight back again. At this time, some other women came on the scene and also wanted to work. As experience with them also became positive, a handful of women worked.
In 1984, I went to Alaska with my husband for his work. While I was gone, the inequity of the call system for men and women came to a head. An EEOC complaint was brought by women who wanted to work for the local for discrimination and inequitable dispatch of work.
“I don’t want money. I only want to work. If I ask for money, they will always think of me as the person who asked for money and not for what I can really do as a stagehand.”
Although I was asked by the EEOC investigators how much money I thought I was owed, I told them, “I don’t want money. I only want to work. If I ask for money, they will always think of me as the person who asked for money and not for what I can really do as a stagehand.” The suit was settled with a provision for the union to create a Rules of Equitable Dispatch. I was on the committee. Though many women now were able to work, it also created an equitable way for men who were not connected by family to the union to get work too. We were able to recruit women and now have over 20% in our workforce.
In 1992, I became the first woman business agent for Local 13. At the time the term was one year. I ran and won in 1993 and 1994. I also helped create Local 490, which is the union for Studio Mechanics for the State of Minnesota. I worked for 15 years for that local as Secretary Treasurer.
The year I became Business Agent our office was essentially a closet on the 4th floor of the Labor Building with no windows, a desk, a phone, and filing cabinets. I kept regular office hours, answered the phone for work prospects, and went to the Board of Business Agent meetings. We started doing our work of procuring work for the members in a more efficient manner. I did not work on calls as previous BA’s did, but negotiated contracts, went to classes on labor organization, and did the work of the local. Eventually we moved to a bigger office and hired a secretary to do the office work, so that I had more time to work on contracts and payroll issues. I also learned about how other unions were starting 401K benefit plans and got that accepted by the members. Now members have a chance of retiring with benefits.
This year we elected a woman as our president and have many women working in all categories of work. The wardrobe local has parity in pay with stagehands. This is my 45th year in the Union. I am proud that advancements have been made for women and men and the role I played in it.