Marcia Baham will not glorify her job as an apprentice carpenter. The work, she says, is hard and the splinters many. The weather is often nasty and some of her male coworkers have been worse. But for the 29-year-old mother of three, whose previous job experience was an unhappy combination of menial labor and the minimum wage, pay days make it all worthwhile.
"The money is very good, and that's the bottom line," says Baham, a Southeast Washington resident who is earning $8.88 an hour and is working toward journeyman's wages, which currently are almost $3 an hour more.
Baham is among a small but increasing number of women who have worked their way onto local construction sites in the last five years. Single and married, college graduates and high school dropouts, they have put on hard hats and marched into one of the strongest bastions of the "workingman's" domain. Reports from the field indicate the women are catching some flack.
"There's a certain amount of hostility. A lot of men don't want to admit you can do it. They feel the threat," says Nancy Meyer, a Northwest Washington apprentice carpenter in her early 20s, who has been shunned, insulted and once, in the dark basement of a construction site, assaulted. "I took my hammer and whacked him. He went to the foreman and complained."
Despite the varying degrees of hostility most women say they have experienced, the number of area women in construction grows each year. In 1975, Women Working in Construction, a local organization, estimated that 65 women were working as laborers, apprentices or journeymen. Various estimates put the current number at 120 to 150.
For a variety of reasons, all the women have chosen to endure the periodic abuse from male coworkers, along with the natural rigors of construction work.
"I couldn't take the office any more. It was stifling," says 24-year-old Sharon Branch, of Greenbelt, Md., who quit a job as a teletypist for the Social Security Administration to become an apprentice steamfitter. Branch, who graduated from Suitland High School five years ago, held eight jobs before joining the apprentice program in May. All eight involved clerical work, she says, and none paid well enough to compensate for the tedium.
During interviews with more than a dozen working women in the metropolitan area, the reason most often voiced for seeking and keeping construction jobs was, not surprisingly, money.
Most union trade jobs pay journeymen at least $11 an hour. For many women, that kind of money is worth fighting for: Last year, according to the Women's Bureau of the U.S. Labor Department, women earned an average of 58 percent of the wages paid to men.
In 1978, women seeking the healthy wages of construction work were given a major legal boost when the Labor Department issued regulations requiring contractors to hire more women.
"Now it makes sense for women to put on their hard hats and go tromping up to construction sites, and if they don't get hired, to pass the word on," says Libby Howard, a founder of Women Working in Construction who teaches carpentry to women in Washington and Philadelphia.
Four years ago, Howard was featured in Time magazine as symbolic evidence of the women's hard hat movement. But when she started working as a carpenter in 1972, there were precious few women alongside her. With fewer targets, she says, the resentment was more focused.
"I worked with her on a job and it was awful," says 29-year-old Patty Tobin, a Northwest Washington resident who was an apprentice carpenter from 1973 to 1975. "There was graffiti all over the walls about her. She was subjected to all kinds of abuse because she was outspoken."
Tobin dropped out of the apprentice program to teach high school English and is now a clerk at Georgetown Hospital. She says boredom, not the hassles, made her quit construction work.
"It was real monotonous. You get pigeonholed. Learn a particular skill and you end up doing it all the time. I spend weeks on my hands and knees laying square tiles."
Although Howard no longer works at construction sites, she remains near the center of the movement. She has lent women her tools, taken them to construction sites to find work and is always available for advice. Each new woman hired, she says, improves what she regards as the "most unfair working condition, isolation."
Despite some progress, however, women still make up only a small percentage of the local construction work force.Like the blacks who pioneered desegregation in the 1960s, women say they are mostly alone, under close scrutiny and sometimes harassed.
The problems that women report range from men being overly solicitous to sexual pestering and verbal abuse. The most common annoyance is the teasing that is endemic to all construction sites, but is particularly pointed, women claim, when directed at them. The ones who handle it best, says women, are those wo dish it back.
"You've got to have thick skin or a big mouth," says Marcia Baham. "It helps to have both."
Though infrequent, women complain of overt sexual advances. Karen McDermott, a carpenter from Bowie, Md., said she quit a job in Gaithersburg last year because two of her male coworkers repeatedly made physical advances.
"I'd come home crying," says the 29-year-old McDermott, who is supporting two children and paying off $60,000 in medical bills for her husband who was injured in a motorcycle accident last summer. "I was terrified of those two guys."
Desperate for money, but afraid to "go through that experience again," McDermott called her father-in-law, a construction superintendent in North Carolina. He offered her a carpentry job at $6.50 an hour and promised she would not be abused. McDermott accepted. She now lives and works in North Carolina during the week and makes the five-hour drive to Bowie on weekends.
Experiences like McDermott's are rare, caution women who are anxious that too many lurid tales might scare women away from construction work. More often, they say, the worst things encountered at job sites are negative attitudes.
"Women are all right for sweeping and going to the store, but they can't do the heavy work," says one drywall foreman at a construction site in downtown washington. "You might call me a male chauvinist, but with employment the way it is, there's breadwinners sitting home. Let them (women) stay home and take care of their families."
According to Labor Department statistics, women currently head one household every seven. Ruth Bryant, of the District, is one of those women. The 38-year-old widow has six children to support.After nine years as a medical technician, Bryant was earning $4.75 an hour. As an apprentice iron worker, she is earning $6.98 an hour and working toward journeyman's wages that currently are $11.63 an hour.
Bryant got the apprentice job through the United Planning Organization. Other women referred to jobs and apprentice programs, both union and nonunion, by state departments of labor, job counseling offices and women's groups. A few women also are having some success with the more traditional route into the closeknit building trades - through family and friends.
Gay Jefferys, a 21-year-old resident of Falls Church, is operating a massive earth roller at a construction site in Arlington where her husband and father-in-law work. Linda Davis, of Wayson's Corner, Md., got a job operating a materials hoist through a CB buddy, Homer Satterfield.
"I talked to her for two years before I ever met her," says construction superintendent Satterfield. And while he still expresses some reservations about women doing "bull work," he has nothing but praise for the 37-year-old davis, better known around the job site as "Mouse."
"She's hell of a good worker," says Satterfield. "One of the best I've got."
Like other women in construction, Davis finds that women in general are judged by her performance. If a she does a good job, women who follow her will have it easier. If she doesn't, the prejudices some men have against women in construction will be reinforced.
"People are always judging you and I sort of resent that," says Cindy Johansson, an apprentice plumber from Kensington, Md. "You can't go in and be average or a jerk. You have to be sort of exceptional."
Johansson, 27, who has a bachelor's degree in psychology, has been an apprentice for two months. She was earning $3.50 an hour watering trees at the Union Station Visitor's Center when a woman from Women Working in Construction told her there were higher paying alternatives.
If she stays in the apprenticeship program for four years, Johansson will earn her journeyman's card, and with it a wage that currently is $11.32 an hour. But some of the men at her job site, says Johansson, would probably bet against her.
"They don't expect you to make it," she said. "They expect you to get pregnant and run off with some guy."
But Johansson likes plumbing work. And that kind of money, she says, "makes you hang in there." CAPTION: Picture 1, Ruth Bryant, apprentice iron worker, working on the Old Post Office Building. By John Dwyler for The Washington Post; Picture 2, Nancy Meyer, a carpenter's apprentice; Picture 3, Marcia Baham, a carpenter's apprentice. Photos by Michael Ford Parks - The Washington Post; Illustration, no caption, By William Coulter for The Washington Post