Almost a decade ago I was probably moping around wondering what I was doing with my life, unsure if I could achieve anything I wanted to, and looking for inspiration. I think I was looking for direction as well. I must have been reading a lot in my spare time, as I do to for solace. There was a book I read then that gave me hope, and it is the purpose for this article: ‘Journeywoman, Swinging A Hammer In A Mans World’, by Kate Braid. Kate writes about becoming a carpenter on the west coast of British Columbia, during a time when it was unheard of that women would work in construction. She became the first woman in the carpenters union in Vancouver BC. The book inspired me, in that I realized I too could become a tradesperson. If she could be this brave and still have such a great time, so could I.
I recently had the honour of chatting with Kate on zoom, because I wanted to write an article to celebrate the publishing of her new book: ‘Hammer & Nail, Notes From A Journeywoman’, (available through https://caitlin-press.com/our-books/hammer-nail/)
The first thing I asked her is how would she introduce herself.
She said: A retired carpenter and now writer.
(This is a massive understatement if you look on her website: http://www.katebraid.com/ She has a long list of other achievements in academia, as well as a long list of other interesting work experience, such as labourer, secretary and childminder, trades school teacher. She has been a creative writing teacher, with such a long list of awards and publishings that I had to pick up the mouse a few times to scroll down the whole page)!
Q. Are you excited about the book launch?
Kate: yeah I am. I’m excited about the book. It’s a sort of sweet sadness. 3 poetry books and 1 memoir about construction, and I think this will be the last thing I have to say. I decided I had to directly address some of the issues, say to the men step up, (which I have never actually come right out and said before), because I didn’t want to offend anybody, I’m such a nice girl, or maybe wanted to work again. But nono. Im 73 years old, and won’t be looking for anymore construction jobs, so I felt that I would just say what I had to say. It’s far behind me now so I think it’s time to move on, and let people like you carry the torch.
Me: I think I mentioned to you before that I read your book and it inspired me to go for construction.
Kate: Well that almost made me cry when you said that. So heart warming. I must say it was the hardest book I ever wrote and it took me 20 years to write it! I never felt so vulnerable. You always feel vulnerable writing poetry, tearing your chest open, but this book I felt the most vulnerable. So it was very scary when I launched it. The night I launched that book, journeywoman, it was lovely. There was a big crowd of people, lots of tradeswomen-
Me: Where was that at?
Kate: Oh, it was in Vancouver BC, at the Peace Eccumenacle Church, on Burrard and 16th I think. Publishers used it for big launches, Caitlin Press was wonderful, they brought food in, there was this big crowd. and I was so nervous, my hand was shaking I could hardly sign my name. I was so terrified about what people would say… But, I was very clear, the only way I could finish that book, was realizing I wasn’t writing it for me. I was writing it for other women, I hoped. Which is why it was so moving when you said it brought you into the trade. So I launched the book, and about a week later the first email I got was from a women who was up in the Yukon working up in the mines up there, and all she said was: ‘at last, someone has told our story’.
Kate: I thought: thats all I need! Although there was one other thing that made it okay to let go of that book. I was nervous about my family, because they’re in there. My alcoholic dad, who I love madly, but we fought all the time. That’s why I left home when I was 16, like get me outta here! I one by one let each family member read it, my brother, my husband. Then I gave my mom a copy. I got an email from her a couple weeks later: and the heading subject was ‘your book’. I thought; okay here we go. She said; I just finished your book. It is the story of courage, fortitude, and forgiveness. So I thought that’s it, I don’t care what anybody else says about my book. But I do.
(Kate has gifted me a long book list, now up on my blog! https://secretlifeofanapprenticeellectricia.ca/links/)
Me: Could you do an overview of your trade story? How did you choose carpentry in the beginning?
Kate: well, I didn’t. I was raised, in the 50s, girls got married and had babies then, period. Women were just starting to work outside the home, and the 3 jobs we could do were nurse, secretary, and teacher. That was it. And they had just added stewardess, but you had to be a nurse to be a stewardess, so that was out. I was the eldest of 6 kids, did a lot of babysitting, and I had no interest in having kids. My parents marriage was not a glowing example either, so I had decided quite early that I was not going to get married and I was not going to have kids. Which meant I would either have to be a secretary or teacher. But, I can’t stand the site of blood, so I’m no nurse. And I didnt want to be a teacher, although I ended up as one. So I decided on secretary, but I was terrible at being a secretary. I touch on this in my new book. I started looking for jobs as a writer, because it was more what I wanted to be. This was in Montreal. I found a writing job for a while, but it was very unhappy, so I left. I had tried all these different jobs, and then decided to come out west.
I went back to University, ended up on Pender Island. I found a place to live for 400$ a year, this was in 1976. Wood stove, water from the road, electricity. I was wildly happy there. But I ran out of money. At a party one night on Pender, I was standing around with some guys, telling them I’m going to have to leave the island to find work. But one of the guys suggested I go down to the school and take his carpentry job he just quit. I was on stun, because this was unheard of back then.
I said: ‘well, I don’t know anything about building.’
And he said: ‘you gotta just lie.’
And the other guys said: ‘yeah.’
That was my first lesson in construction; bull shit.
One of the guys lent me a tools belt. I had steel toes from my lumber piling job. Someone lent me a hammer. I just showed up into the foreman shack, lied and said I had built thousands of houses up north. He said fill out the form, which was a little recipe card. I filled in my name, address, I didn’t have a phone number on the island, and my fake experience. He said ‘come back tomorrow.’ So I came back the next day and he hired me. Not as a carpenter, but as a labourer. He told me later the reason he had hired me was because the guys had been slowing down on the job, and he figured, even if I was useless which he assumed I would be, (and I was for the first while), the guys would show off. So he was a psychologist.
I discovered that I loved physical labour. No one ever told girls that back then, that we could do it, and we could work outdoors. Plus, I was making all this money. I ended up being the last labourer on the job.
I knew nothing when I started. This one day a guy had called down from the roof: ‘send me up a crescent wrench’. I said ‘whats a crescent wrench?’ So he drew it on a piece of 2X4, threw it down, and said ‘it’s silver and it looks like a lollypop with a big mouth.’
Me: laughs out loud interrupting.
(I thought this was so funny I turned it into a comic.)
Kate: I loved working construction so much I worked like a dog. That same carpenter hired me as a helper, and he was the first guy that said to me ‘have you ever considered apprenticeship’. I had never heard of apprenticeship before he told me what it was, and that’s how I found out.
Me: And how did you end up becoming the first woman in the carpenters union in Vancouver?
Kate: I took my pre-apprenticeship course at BCIT in Burnaby. I had moved to the mainland to live with my boyfriend, (now husband) who was going to UBC.
Actually, before I took the pre-apprenticeship program, I wrote a thesis on women in untraditional roles, called: ‘Invisible Women’. It was out of the SFU communications department, came out in 1980. You can get it on inter-library loan. I traveled around BC, finding women in trades, and Interviewing them.
‘How are the men’, I asked a female bush pilot.
‘Some of them are fine, and some of them don’t like me when they see a woman is flying the plane.’
‘So what do you do?’
‘ I go without them.’ She had said.
(We both chuckled at the memory).
Kate: All these women were just as isolated as I was. I interviewed about 30 women.
So anyways, how did I get into the union? The carpenters union came into the pre-apprenticeship class, and I signed up, hoping for a job. I was working a few other jobs, but one day the union called. The union job paid way more. And they got all the big concrete high rises and bridge jobs and I wanted to do, so I went to the union.
Me: So why did you stay? Commonly a lot of women drop out in their second year, but you stayed. Why?
Kate: I think I was just really lucky that I met enough men, that took me under their wing, and taught me the trade. And I loved the trade. I am also really stubborn. I came home a lot of nights crying and people would say: why are you doing this, why are you putting up with this. And I think the thing that really kept me in there was a women in trades group we made one International Womens Day (back then international womens day was a big deal and we would have a big parade, then workshops after). My friend who worked at a printing press called me and asked if I had any workshop ideas. I said, since she was running a press, and I was an apprentice, what about a workshop for women none traditional occupations. And she said do you think anyone would come? I truly had no idea. We asked for the smallest room to do the workshop in.
When I showed up I had to do a double take making sure I was in the right room, because there was so many women in there. We went around the table, and there was so many different occupations in the room, it was incredible! None of us had known of each others existence. So we decided to form a group. We decided against calling the group ‘women in none traditional occupations’, because men don’t call themselves ‘men in traditional occupations’. So we called it women in trades. And that was the beginning of it in Vancouver. We met about once a month at status of women in Kitsilano.
One day, I had a guy bothering me at work, taunting me, saying ‘dont fall’. Then one of the boards fell through the floor and I almost fell 2 stories. I went home and almost didn’t go back to work. But for some reason, a few women from the women in trades group called me that night, and talked me through it, told me I can’t let them beat me. So they got me back on the job. I went back to work, talked to the union, and told the guy he had to stop bothering me and was going to have to accept me. And he did. I was very lucky that I had support. Because I think we all have bad days. All the archives from that group are at the archives at SFU.
Me: that sounds so awesome!
Kate: We had a national women in trades conference in 1980 in Winnipeg. It was mind blowing. I recall one night Heather Bishop performed and it was riveting! ’Buddy what you looking at now is a womans anger, buddy what your looking at now, is a womans pride, if you had half a lick of sense…’ By the end of the song the whole conference was cheering!
What came out of that was a national women in trades organization. We had 2 conferences.
From there on the interview became more of a conversation, so the interview concludes here. I thanked Kate, the charming tradeswoman pioneer for her time. Her new book:
‘Hammer & Nail’: Notes Of A Journeywoman’, put out by Caitlin Press. https://caitlin-press.com/our-books/hammer-nail/
Is a special type of communique to all tradeswomen. Not only a memoir, but also essays, talks, notes, etc, looking back at amazing, confusing, enlightening, difficult, wonderful years. A lot has changed, but also so little. It’s even got a chapter on how to survive the construction culture. Looking forward to reading my copy!