Women enter electrical trades at Seattle City Light in 1974.

  • By Dave Wilma
  • Posted 10/30/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3630
In 1974, 10 women, including four minorities, enter the electrical trades at Seattle City Light as part of affirmative action policies of the Wes Uhlman mayoral administration. Over the next 25 years, City Light will do more than any other utility in the nation to bring women into a previously male-only workplace.

In 1972, Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) appointed former fire chief Gordon Vickery (1920-1996) as superintendent at City Light. One of Vickery's mandates was to increase the number of women and minorities at the utility which employed one-third of the city's employees. Vickery hired Clara Fraser (1923-1998), a labor activist and real-life Rosie the Riveter who worked for Boeing during World War II. When Fraser joined in a wildcat strike against Vickery's management in 1974, Vickery cancelled the Electrical Trades Trainee program before it got going. Fraser and the women were fired. They sued to get their jobs back. It took two years for the trainees to be reinstated. (Fraser did not win her case until 1985.)

In September 1976, the women began to train as electrical workers. Traditionally, the electrical trades were made up of white males who were doubtful that women could perform. The first program to place African American men in the trades failed because of the hostility of co-workers and because many of the candidates lacked the education needed to understand elecrical theory.

For anyone, the work was demanding and dangerous. Lineworkers had to climb power poles with heavy safety equipment, work with high-voltage equipment, and endure the elements. Teamwork was essential for success and for safety. Male co-workers were sometimes hostile to the trainees and there was great pressure to succeed. One trainee, Heidi Durham, wanted to demonstrate her skill by climbing poles without her safety strap. She fell 25 feet and broke her back, crippling her. "I thought that if I just worked harder, I could do it," she stated later. "I was injured trying to prove myself to people who would never accept me" ( Seattle Times).

In 1999, seven of the 10 still worked for City Light. Durham became a power dispatcher. Trainee Nettie Dokes became the head of the elecrical trades apprenticeship program. In 1999, 25 percent of lineworkers are women or minorities.


Sources: Nicole Brodeur, "Veterans of City Light's Program Look Back On The Struggle," The Seattle Times, September 5, 1999, p. B-1; David Schaeffer, "Council Approval Sought for $140,000 Bias Award," Ibid., February 6, 1985, p. D-2. "Jobs In The Field Are As Varied As The Field," Encompass: The City of Seattle Newsletter, March 1998 (www.cityofseattle.net/encompas/ new/mar99/ march98.htm).

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