Covers of Tradeswomen magazine, sourced via Open JSTOR's Independent Voices collection. All collages by Katharina Brenner.

When the first issue of Tradeswomen first appeared in subscribers’ mailboxes in 1980, they were “delighted,” said Molly Martin, its founder and editor. Women in blue-collar work “had never seen themselves represented before” — and now here they were, photographs of hard-hatted women in plumbing, carpentry, construction, iron-work, industrial machine work, and more gracing the cover of a magazine. 

Martin — who is now retired and living in Santa Rosa, California — had trained as an electrician herself. In the 1970s, she and other tradeswomen like her faced stifling discrimination that saw them rejected from jobs on the basis of their gender, and intentionally kept out of the unions that were supposed to support them. Faced with endless workplace rejection, and struggling to find a place for women just like her in trade industries, Martin began working with a feminist organization called Seattle Women in Trades in the mid-1970s. Their activism — focused on instigating affirmative action that would provide them with fairer work opportunities and apprenticeships in their desired fields — was inspired by that of Black men who also faced discrimination at the hands of the predominantly white and male unions. It was here Martin had found a movement of like-minded peers: women who also wanted trade jobs, but couldn’t get them. Once she connected with one organization of angry tradeswomen, many more appeared. 

“We must have just started talking to each other on the phone and writing letters to each other,” said Martin. “I’m not even sure how we discovered each other, but I found organizations in Seattle, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other cities like that.” It was this ever-expanding network, and its growing anger, that proved the foundation for feminist activist organization Tradeswomen, Inc. in 1979, and in turn, Tradeswomen magazine — a title that became the backbone of organizing and story-telling that would lead to real change for women in trades.

Covers of Tradeswomen

The quarterly ran from 1980 to 1999, and remains the first and only of its kind: created by tradeswomen, for tradeswomen. On a budget of almost zero, the former electrician and author of 1988 book Hard-Hatted Women: Stories of Struggle and Success in the Trades Martin produced the magazine for almost two decades. Largely unknown, but often spotted in feminist archives, Tradewomen’s striking covers still catch your eye with photographs of women at work, in roles traditionally assigned to men. 

Driven by her experiences of sexist union-job gatekeeping, and in desperate need of a tool for interstate communication, Martin and Tradeswomen, Inc. started the publication with the aim of documenting the lives and work of tradeswomen across the United States, while cementing a line of communication with them at the same time. Despite often finding themselves at odds with the government, the magazine wouldn’t have been possible without feminist support coming from inside the house. “In Oakland we had a woman, Madeline Mixer, who was kind of our defender, who worked for the federal government,” said Martin. Mixer’s support helped Tradeswomen, Inc. secure an official grant of $5,000 in 1980, providing them with just enough funding to print the first two issues of the magazine and distribute it to members of the organization.

With subsequent lack of funding creating a volunteer-led team, and the digital technologies of today barely in their infancy, producing the magazine was a challenge. “We already had a mailing list as we’d been doing a newsletter. But, after our first grant, Ronald Reagan was elected and the government immediately started trying to shut down all affirmative action plans and infrastructure, so we didn’t get any more federal money,” said Martin. After their initial funding dried up, production of the magazine was reliant on small amounts of money obtained through subscriptions. Unfortunately, advertisers were non-existent.

Tradeswomen features

Despite being financially restricted, the need for the organization and its eponymous quarterly issues was felt throughout the tradeswomen community. “Whenever we would get together, tradeswomen would always want to tell their stories. They needed to tell someone what they were going through, because it was hell,” said Martin. “We were all subjected to discrimination and harassment wherever we were working, if we could get a job in the first place. Most of us who started the magazine didn’t even have jobs. We hadn’t been able to get into the trades yet.” In response to these issues, the magazine regularly featured articles focused on specific harassment cases and what professional support is, or should be, available, as well as interviews with individual tradeswomen detailing their experiences, stories of women fulfilling their dreams against the odds, as well as updates and advice on legislation and legal action.

Running on a fire fuelled by outrage and determination to create change, Martin persevered and teamed up with Sandy Thacker, the photographer responsible for almost 20-years’ worth of covers and feature images, to create a publication that made the outcast tradeswomen of the United States feel like part of something bigger than themselves. “We felt that the photographs were just as important as the writing,” said Martin. “It’s so important to see yourself doing what you do, or what you want to be doing. We especially wanted to feature pictures of women of color — their discrimination is double.”

Tradeswomen photographs by Sally Thacker

Prior to her career as a tradeswoman, Martin had honed her skills as a journalist and editor. “The reason I wanted to start a magazine, partly, is because I was a journalism student,” she said. “I went to college and I worked on the student newspaper.” Martin worked as a reporter for her hometown newspaper, as well as developing a keen interest in graphic design. Martin said that at the time she attended Washington State University in 1967/68, The New York Times was still being typeset with hot type. By the time she was producing Tradeswomen, things had progressed. “We were doing cold type, you know, we were doing the back room thing where you type everything up and then paste it on a sheet with hot wax,” she said. “That’s the method we used when we first started, and that was a new way of doing printing at the time.”

Eventually the magazine was subjected to a digital revolution, but that came with its own shortcomings, nudging Martin a little further out of her comfort zone. “We decided at one point that we were going to computerize, but it wasn’t that easy to do. I remember I got a computer some time in the 1980s — a Macintosh 512K. You just couldn’t do that much, but I learned that it was fast enough to use the program PageMaker, which was what I used for many years.” 

In order to keep the title going, and to make sure it could be produced by the much-stretched team, the aesthetic was kept intentionally uncomplicated, which in turn allowed the eye-catching photography to take center-stage. “I took a class in PageMaker,” said Martin. “But the thing is, the magazine was a quarterly, and by the time I managed to get to the next deadline, I’d already forgotten all the things I’d learned. That was one of the reasons that our visual images were so basic — because I didn’t know how to do anything.” Tradeswomen wasn’t just a magazine, though: It was an essential tool for women facing discrimination throughout the US to communicate and organize, so there wasn’t time for Martin to refine and reimagine the basics of magazine-making. The simplicity of the design — with its white backgrounds, focus on photography, and easy-to-read type — is an important reminder that publishing as a form of activism is defined by clarity and urgency, above all else.

Tradeswomen features

Martin believes her work as a feminist and Tradeswomen, Inc. activist was essential. “We were part of the Civil Rights Movement. We wanted to be aligned with every organization of people of color that was actively organizing around this stuff.” In San Francisco, Tradeswomen, Inc. partnered with well-known lawyers, Chinese for Affirmative Action, Equal Rights Advocates, and Employment Law Center. They helped them file lawsuits, including one successful case against the Department of Labor that secured Goals and Timetables for Women and Minorities in Construction. “There was a governmental structure set up to monitor these jobs, to make sure that the contractors were hiring us. It actually worked for a little while. Long enough to get some of us a foot in the door.” And social issues Martin was involved in more than 50 years ago still make the news today: “In Washington state, we made abortion legal before Roe v. Wade, in 1970, and it was because of the activism of feminists. I feel really close to that fight, and I’m just horrified about what’s happening now.”

Having been able to produce the first two copies of Tradeswomen thanks to their one-off government grant in 1980, Martin eventually retired the magazine with a final 1998-99 winter issue, when she felt she could no longer continue unsupported. “It was hard finding editors from the very beginning because it didn’t pay anybody anything, and most of the women who were working on it were working women who had 40-hour-a-week jobs. I was one of those people. It was just too much. I couldn’t do it anymore.”

Despite Tradeswomen coming to an end, Martin has continued to make her voice heard and remains positive about the value of the work she and her community have achieved together. “I feel like I’ve spent my life fighting for women’s rights. I mean, we changed our own working conditions. We increased the options for women in our lifetimes — I’m living a better life because of what I’ve done as a feminist activist. So, it keeps me optimistic. I changed my own life, in my own lifetime.”

Tradeswomen features