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Ironworker Janine Blackwelder, and a flyer from a United Tradeswomen program she organized

Photograph by Gary Schoichet, 2007.

United Tradeswomen, organized in NYC in 1979, was a group devoted to supporting and advocating for women entering the not always welcoming blue collar workforce in New York City. They provided space for women to meet and to talk, and organized programs that inspired and educated recently employed blue collar women.

Ironworkers - nicknamed "cowboys of the sky" - work on the structural steel beams that support tall buildings and on the "ornamental" finishing jobs inside - entranceways, window casings and so on. In 1979 Janine Blackwelder became the first "cowgirl of the sky." She spent the next three years as an apprentice learning the trade, and helping to reach out to other blue collar women through United Tradeswomen. Her enthusiasm waned once she finished the training (graduating at the top of her class), as it was hard to get some workers to share knowledge, hard to land jobs, and hard to keep them --"oftentimes I was replaced by somebody's brother."

Rosie the Riveter, the film about women in blue collar jobs during World War II was featured at one early program organized by Janine Blackwelder. The special guest for the evening was a woman featured in the film who had worked as a welder on WWII aircraft. The audience was not intended to be only women, and it wasn't. Carpenter Frank McMurray, an active dissident within his union, recalled being invited to the Rosie the Riveter event:

I decided that would be a good opportunity to go and see what they were up to and to recruit. It was a large hall and I recall that it was full. I would guess that it was between three hundred and five hundred. The film was shown and there was some discussion by the speakers as to various problems that tradeswomen were having and there was an opportunity to ask questions.

So I got up and said essentially [that] these are tremendous problems -- corruption, the hiring hall not being used properly and favoritism--problems for everybody in our union. They certainly affect women even more than they affect everybody else. ... We're working to change these things. Anybody who's interested in getting involved with that, please come and see me afterward.

Private collection, April, 1981.

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