This city has embarked upon a venture that could lodge it in the annals of feminist lore. It is going to try to build a major bridge with a work force that is at least 20 percent female.
Replacing the aged West Seattle Bridge offers the biggest opportunity yet for a growing movement here to channel women into nontraditional jobs.
Sparking the effort is a coalition made up of an aggressive city government and a women's network that includes such personalities as a fashion editor-turned-machinist, a self-described feminist socialist who traded a master's degree in political theory for the broad brush of an industrial painter and Marilyn Halvorson, founder and sole owner of The Wild Norwegian, a heavy welding and structural steel firm.
All are encouraged by the early signs at the West Seattle Bridge site. A small advance contingent showed up last month on the banks of the Duwamish Waterway to start on the $180 million project. Among those on hand were four women -- a laborer, an apprentice crane operator, a journeyman pile driver and Halvorson, who won a $395,000 subcontract with the aid of a city law setting aside 3 percent of the construction funds for women-owned businesses.
The three workers will help contractors and unions meet city-imposed affirmative action goals for hiring women in publicly financed construction projects. The goal is 18 percent, but the figure is scheduled to rise to 20 percent on Jan. 1, and city officials say it is likely to reach 25 percent before the West Seattle Bridge is completed in 1984. This should translate into more than 100 construction jobs for women on the bridge.
By comparison the federal government's affirmative action goal for women in construction is 6.9 percent, and will probably remain at that level for the immediate future. Seattle could have settled for the federal standard, but three years ago asked the U.S. Labor Department for authority to impose its own goals on projects involving a combination of local and federal money.
The department, which more accustomed to complaints from state and city governments that affirmative action goals are too touch, granted Seattle's request. The department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance was unable to cite any similar instances in which federal goals were waived upward.
Seattle's Department of Human Rights, which monitors and enforces the affirmative action program, said each of the West Seattle Bridge's 11 major contracts must meet current goals unless contractors and unions can document that qualified and willing women cannot be found.
Emily Duncan, a program official in the city's Office for Women's Rights, an advocacy unit, said there are more than enough eligible women who want to work in construction.
A workshop a month ago sponsored by several public agencies and at which union representatives explained different construction crafts drew more than 500 women and prompted followup calls to Duncan's office that she says are still coming in.
The state is financing 196,000 training hours, which eases considerably the burden on contractors and unions. That partly accounts for the cooperation Duncan says she has been receiving from unions and contractors.
She said initial reaction was not always enthusiastic but that labor and management now realize the goals are written into law and must be met. "They appreciate that their city government is helping them find the women," Duncan said.
The city thinks it has managed to avoid pitting women against minorities in dividing up the construction pie. It has separate goals for minority hiring and it has prohibited any "two-fers" -- counting a black woman, for example, as satisfying the goals for both women and minorities.
Seattle women who want a crack at the lucrative paying construction industry are often women like Sarah White, who received a master's degree in political theory six years ago with the intention of working in child care.
"I found that women in child care were making the minimum wage," she said. She found a job as an apprentice painter, and four years later qualified as a journeyman. Now she and three others have formed a company -- whose worker participation model follows her socialist and feminist philosophies -- and are bidding on a subcontract for the West Seattle Bridge.
Mary Anne Moorman quit her job as fashion editor of a Virginia daily several years ago and headed west to pursue a career as a playwright. She ended up in Seattle, wrote a play about a woman construction worker and saw it produced by a small, feminist theater.
"When I saw it I said to myself, 'This is awful.' And it was. I didn't know anything about construction work."
That prompted her to learn something more about blue-collar life by taking an industrial job. She eventually worked her way into a position as a journeyman machinist. Last spring, while on medical leave, she took a job to head a new career-counseling center. She says the center receives an average of 1,000 telephone inquiries a month from women, about half of which she considers serious.
Moorman and others think Seattle's achievements in nontraditional work for women reflect several influences. Among them is the area's history of strong labor movements, the large number of women who worked in defense plants during World War II and a lingering Northwest frontier tradition which sees women working with their husbands in logging, fishing and farming.
"In the East, women look at Amelia Earhart's flight and study her psychological motivation. Out here women want to know how she got the job and how the plane was built."
Contractor Halvorson urges every woman she can find to get into construction work, including her housekeeper, whom she has enrolled in an ironworker's apprenticeship program. She says the work is not easy but it is not beyond any healthy woman's capability.
She tells women, "If you can lift a child on your hip and wheel her around in a grocery cart in a store, you can be an ironworker."