THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Trade and technical jobs are the avenue out of poverty for women.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, February 2021
DM: My full name is Dale McCormick and I was born in New York City in 1947.
JW: Tell me what your life was like before you were involved in the women’s movement.
DM: That was so long ago that I can barely remember. I was 19 or 20 when I got involved with the second wave. So that leaves only my high school years and my childhood.
JW: Did you have any siblings?
DM: I had one brother, one year younger. I’m a white person, my people come from Scotland. My life consisted of growing up in Sigourney, Iowa where my family moved when I was seven or eight. It was the typical Midwest small town, farm town, 2,100 people, courthouse in the middle of the square. It was a 1950s childhood. I played in the band. There was a lot of pushing against norms on the part of my mother.
She thought I should be able to take Spanish as well as the required Latin. They blackballed me in high school from the National Honor Society and we pushed back on whether I should be able to take shop, which was not allowed for women. Also, there were absolutely no sports in high school for women. I’m a pre-title IX girl. Any sport that I did in high school, I organized and started. We started a golf team which was not licensed, it was just there and we didn’t have to fight the school for a place to play it. When I got to the University of Iowa in 1965, I think we started the track team there. There were some women’s sports there, but not a lot.
JW: When did you get involved in the women’s movement? What happened at the University of Iowa?
DM: I was sort of in the middle of all of it. I was involved in the anti-war movement from my second year there in Iowa City at the University of Iowa. That was a quick introduction to women being left out because SDS had no opportunities for women’s leadership and they didn’t listen. I think that was the experience of a lot of women. We started the Women’s Liberation Front and I remember doing consciousness raising groups.
I helped start the Gay Liberation Front, we weren’t messing around, we were quite on the cutting edge. That’s how I got started. Iowa City was a hot bed later on in ’70 during the invasion of Cambodia. I and about 12 other people shut down the university. We were on a steering committee and it wasn’t just us but we organized students to express their voices and it culminated in the ending of the semester early.
JW: Did you “sit in” in any buildings? How did you shut it down?
DM: I don’t have a memory of being one of the people who had sat in because in ’68 or ’67 I committed civil disobedience and got arrested for blocking the door to the Dow recruiter who was coming in and this huge melee of demonstration. I went to Chicago in ’68 and was part of the demonstrations there but I was very careful both in Chicago and then at the University of Iowa later to not get arrested a second time.
It was a big letdown when I got to court because you don’t get arrested for civil disobedience, there’s no law about that. You get arrested for disorderly conduct. I said to myself, this is not disorderly, I spent months thinking about this! “I was sitting on the door until the cop came and took me away.”
JW: We talked a little about the Women’s Liberation Front. Tell me some of the activities you were involved in with them.
DM: My view of what Women’s Liberation Front did, was it acted as the umbrella of the second wave. WLF was our version in Iowa City. The umbrella of the second wave, the umbrella of a whole bunch of things. The Iowa City Women’s Press, The Ain’t I A Woman, lesbian feminist newspaper that we published and I was on the collective in Iowa City for a long time. We published every two weeks and we held demonstrations and “take back the night.”
A group did a sit-in to get the university to provide child care and we organized two child care centers, it quickly blossomed for me. Since I’m a lesbian, I went the route towards the Gay Liberation Front. I was still involved in all of it but that was a focus.
In 1970 I started my apprenticeship with the International Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, local 1260 in Iowa City. I did that because of the women’s movement. The women’s movement at that point was pushing the envelope of what women could be, what people thought women could be. I had just graduated from the university and there was a big recession and there were no jobs for teachers.
I was living in a women’s collective, we had two women’s collectives then and I lived in one of them on Governor Street. My friend Linda Knox came in one day and said “Dale, look at this clipping, the carpenters union is accepting apprentices. Why don’t you go apply?” I did, I was always handy, I could always use tools. I talk about it in Against the Grain, the book that was published by the Iowa City Women’s Press.
JW: Let’s hear it.
DM: I had been arrested and we thought that if they were going to say no to me, they’d say it was because I had been arrested. In the application they say they want the cream of the crop, the future of the union. My friend Hal went down to the union hall and went through the application with the business agents and pointed at the part about being arrested and the business agent said don’t worry about that, all the guys get drunk on Saturday night and they get arrested.
Then I filled it out and when Hal went down, he mumbled over the pronouns, but when I came with it, he said, “Thanks, this is for your husband right?” I said, “No, it’s for me.” He said, “Your brother, right? Because Dale is a boy’s name, this is for your brother.” I said, “No, no, this is for me.” He did this double take and walked over to the filing cabinet and pondered the situation. He came back to me and said they made a mistake; they should have sent a black woman. He thought I was an agent. I said, “This is the application for me, I want to be a carpenter and have a good day.”
They had a joint apprenticeship committee, which is three contractors and three union member carpenters and they did the interviews of about 10 or 12 guys and then me. They took only one apprentice that year and it was me. I think I got that partially because one of the carpenters was a beekeeper who sold honey to the local co-op and was a very progressive guy, and the second one, Lee Dewey, was married to Dr. Dewey, the venerable doctor of the University of Iowa student health. He clearly had made his peace with women doing nontraditional things and I think that helped me to be accepted.
JW: And your skills also.
DM: They didn’t test my carpentry skills. There was a book test, though: math, spatial reasoning, tool names. I said, “Should I study for this test?” He said, “Oh, no, no, no, no.” Bull! That morning of the test I stopped at the library to look at a book about carpentry and I got five or ten points for doing that. One of the questions was what is a ball-peen hammer? Which is not really a carpentry tool at all. I happened to see a picture of it in the book and I got that one right. Who the hell knows what a ball-peen hammer is if you’re from Sigourney, Iowa, and there’s no boilers anywhere?
JW: Before we move on to more women’s movement stuff, in the late ’60s you said you were involved in the gay newspaper. What was the reaction in the community at that time?
DM: To us you mean?
JW: Yes. To you, to the newspaper, to gay women being activists.
DM: In Iowa City itself, which has always been a liberal bastion and still is, it was milder. A bunch of us were taking karate from a local guy, self-defense, and we went to a school and did a little program. It was very powerful for me to take self-defense as a woman because you have to decide how much you’re worth. They teach you as women to defend yourself “where life flows near the surface.” That’s the eyes, the throat, and you have to decide if you’re as important as some thug’s eyes.
I didn’t know the answer to that question at first, you have to decide that you’re just as important. That’s what we did but there was quite a reaction to women being able to defend themselves. There was a pushback and I think it made the papers in a couple of places. There were other pushbacks as well. The Ain’t I A Woman, when we published this, we would take this paper made with press type and typewriter and glued it down to the sheets and then took it to the printer that we found an hour away.
A couple of printers would not print our newspaper, which is I think why Joan and Farrell and others formed the Iowa City Women’s Press. We wanted to be in control of the means of production. The one time that we really got pushback was when the women’s health group and the Emma Goldman Clinic for Women, which we also started in Iowa City, wanted us to publish a full women’s self-examination of our body parts.
We had pictures of women examining their vulvas and the printer would not take that. We made the trip and he said no. We found a printer that would do it finally, but there was quite a delay. So, there was some pushback. But I remember hawking Ain’t I A Woman on the street corner in Iowa City for twenty-five cents a copy. I didn’t get very much, nobody “bopped” me over the head or anything. In my apprenticeship however…
JW: That’s what I want to get to, apprenticeship.
DM: It took them a year and a half to get me a job at all. My apprenticeship started and all the other guys were working, but I was sitting on the bench because none of the contractors would hire me. I worked for minimum wage at Henry’s Hamburgers, which then was $1.50. Finally, they started to hire me, it probably was the equal opportunity laws. When I was in my second year and I knew enough about carpentry, they started harassing me.
JW: The other workers?
DM: Yeah, there were three brothers who were the ringleaders. Everybody else just went along with whatever was happening. We were building the Reagan post office in Iowa City. It was in the winter, so there was a little warm up shack in the middle of the work room, and that’s where we’d hang our hat and coat and ate lunch. They would hang dirty pictures up where I would hang up my hat and coat and I’d tear it down.
Finally, then they started putting pornographic objects in my lunchbox, phallic like objects, and they put pubic hair like things in there and other things. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore, it got to me. I complained to the superintendent, to my foreman and he’d say, they’re just trying to get to you Dale. And I’d say, well, yeah, and they are. I want them to stop it. They’d say, “boys will be boys,” everything you’ve heard that they said.
Finally, one Friday I got another dirty picture and I tore it down and went straight to the superintendent’s trailer outside for all his blueprints and stuff. I said, if you’re not going to do anything about this, I am. I pulled out my hammer in my right hand and I stalked out of the trailer and I tramped across the jobsite and threatened one of the 6’2″ ringleader brothers.
I grabbed him by the scruff of the tee-shirt, held out my hammer and I said, “Who’s been putting all those dirty pictures up where I have my hat and coat?” He said, “Oh, I don’t know.” I let him go and I marched into the warm up shack and there were a bunch of guys waiting around and all our lunch boxes were lined up on the bench in a row. And I said again, “Who’s been putting those dirty pictures up where I hang my coat?” “Oh, we don’t know.”
I said, “This shit has got to stop.” I took my hammer and I smashed it down for emphasis and it hit one of the lunch boxes, down through and hit the thermos bottle, and there was tinkling of glass. I said, “This shit has got to stop.” Ron Rainer, the carpenter of the brothers came over to me, pointed at my chest, and said, you better get me a new lunch box by Monday. But I had run out of good lines at that point.
I put my tools in my toolbox, left the job site, I drove over to the city hall and I went to the human resources. Nobody was there except a secretary and so I said to her, I have this job, they admitted me to the union, so that’s good. But they’re putting up all these dirty pictures where I hang my hat and coat. She said, “They can’t do that. You sign here and sign this.” She had me sign a complaint with the local Human Rights Commission, the state EEOC and the National EEOC, Equal Opportunity Commission.
That saved my apprenticeship. The local one – there was a five year wait for the national one. It wasn’t a priority back then and it’s not a priority now, actually. The local ones had an investigation and found probable cause that I was being harassed because of my gender and interviewed all the brothers and the superintendent and the foreman.
I felt like I was surrounded by this protective bubble of the law and it started to get to my arch-rivals, the brothers. Their harassment changed to, “I wish the government would pay for my lawyer, you’re special.” I’d pull my hard hat down over my eyes and I walk past them and say, “Yeah, it’s a pretty good deal, huh?” They couldn’t touch me. For one, I think they knew they better not continue and two, I felt protected. That’s how I managed to get through the four-year apprenticeship.
JW: Wow. That’s an amazing story, good for you. Had you intended to file a complaint or was it just the secretary’s impetus that got you to do it?
DM: I knew a little something about the law, so I did intend. What was amazing about that moment was she validated my instincts. I knew it was not fair, I knew it was hurtful. But I didn’t know if I could complain about it. She said yes you can, you sign this, this and this. That was very validating; it’ll make you crazy if you are getting harassment and no one thinks it’s unfair.
JW: “It’s just how it is,” is what your supervisor is saying.
DM: Yeah, just the way it is, right.
JW: After that experience, did you stay in Iowa City or did you move? Did you continue to be involved in the women’s movement in any way?
DM: Oh yeah, I did. That would have been about 1973. The ’60s really included the ’70s. I started my own construction company, McCormick Construction and Cabinetry, specialists in solar and energy efficient design. I had a sign on my truck, that’s an exact quote. I hired women, it was a women’s construction company and I had plenty of work. I never advertised once; it was all word of mouth.
JW: That was still in Iowa?
DM: Yeah, Iowa City. We had created this whole feminist and lesbian feminist community with infrastructure of the newspaper Ain’t I A Woman, a free medical clinic, the Emma Goldman Clinic for Women, a restaurant called Grace and Ruby’s that was a lesbian feminist restaurant that Lily Tomlin came to and at one day, two-day care centers, two women’s living collectives, a women’s center that we had to sit in for.
We wanted one little tiny Quonset hut left over from WWII at the University of Iowa and we had to have a sit-in to get it, on the concrete floor of this measly place. But now the WRAC, it’s called the Women’s Resource and Action Center, is still going strong. You should see the building it’s in, quite fancy. We had all these cultural and infrastructural things that we created in Iowa City to make it a better community.
JW: Did you move then to Maine or somewhere else?
DM: I did.
JW: So that’s where you still are.
DM: I had written Against the Grain, A Carpentry Manual for Women, at the behest of the Iowa Women’s Press. One of my friends said to me they’d be doing a skills series. Barb is going to do the auto mechanics one, and they wanted me to do the carpentry one. And I said, OK. So that’s how I wrote my first book, and they were a great publisher. My second book was published by a big New York publisher. The small press did better by me. The Iowa City Women’s Press kept that book in print for 10 years or more.
JW: What was your second book?
DM: House Mending: Home Repair For The Rest of Us. I illustrated both books, too. I’m trying to find time to write my memoir.
JW: That would be wonderful, maybe the transcript of this will be helpful.
DM: Please send it to me.
JW: You will get it, no question. Did you continue any activist work when you moved to Maine and even up to now?
DM: Yes, I did. It was quite a shock moving from Iowa City where we had this wonderful infrastructure supporting all kinds of women, feminist, and lesbian things. We also had a flag football team that we snuck on to the university, we had everything. I moved to Maine and there was nothing; it was much more rural and separated.
I had to start things like I started when I was at Cornerstone’s, which was an owner-builder school, I was employed by them. They had read my book and offered me a job to come and teach people who didn’t know how to use tools or build houses, how to build houses for themselves. We had this big room upstairs and I started the Lavender Caucus of the Sarah Orne Jewett Society dances.
It was a time when you couldn’t be out in Maine; it was dangerous. We invented this thing called the Lavender Caucus of the Sarah Orne Jewett Society; she was a very famous Maine writer who was also a lesbian. We put a little clipping in the newspaper saying there’s going to be a dance on Saturday night. People would come and that went along very well until I got a call from the University of New England who has Sarah Orne Jewett’s papers and IS the Sarah Orne Jewett society.
She said, “What is this? We are the Sarah Orne Jewett Society,” so I got busted for that. But we were the Lavender Caucus. That was funny. Then I also was one of the founding members and the first president of the Maine Lesbian Gay Political Alliance, working on a civil rights bill to make it illegal to fire, evict or deny public accommodations or credit to anyone based on their sexual orientation. The legislators were not interested in that.
There was another organization which we became a part of, we did a lot of coalition work with the Women’s Legislative Agenda Coalition. Maine has this wonderful thing called the Maine Women’s Lobby where feminists all over the state are members and we pay for a women’s lobby lobbyist: a person to keep tabs on the legislature and testify and support women’s issues and related family medical leave. It’s a wonderful thing. The Women’s Legislative Agenda Coalition took a while to embrace civil rights for lesbians and gays and now LGBTQ, but they did. That’s why you’re in a coalition, we work on everybody’s issues.
JW: Did that pass?
DM: That bill was first introduced in the ’70s, and I think it was 2003/4/5 that we started passing it. The House would pass it but the Senate would say no, the Senate passed it and the next year the House would say no. Then everybody passed it and there was a people’s veto. The forces of darkness got sixty thousand signatures to put it on the ballot and asked that people vote to repeal it, which they did do, we didn’t win that. We had something like four or five statewide ballot elections on LGBTQ plus civil rights between ’80 and 2000. Actually, it probably was more in the ’90s.
Finally, the LGBTQ+ community was so good at elections, so good at political campaigns, that we became the backbone of the Democratic Party. It doesn’t take you long to go to Augusta and I actually live in Augusta, and lobby for yourself, for civil rights, before you realize that these are just ordinary people and you could do a better job being a state senator than they do. I ran for the state Senate in 1990 and I won.
It was a huge campaign that the newspaper called the best campaign for governor this year was run by McCormick for Senate. It’s true, we were a Swiss watch campaign, and I won by .5% of the vote. It was gay baiting the whole entire way because I was out, I was the head of the Maine Lesbian Gay Political Alliance. I had been a plaintiff in this very famous case called the Tolerance Day case, where after a young gay man, Charlie Howard, was thrown off a bridge and drowned and a teacher in Madison, Maine, decided this was horrendous and he wanted to have a Tolerance Day to bring different kinds of people into the school to promote tolerance.
He invited a Catholic, an African-American and a veteran and a whole bunch of other people and he invited a lesbian. And the lesbian was me and that was so controversial in Madison that they canceled Tolerance Day. The ACLU sued on my behalf to be able to speak and we lost that case because they had a very smart lawyer. We won the media war because it was news around the country, even on TV news. So yes, I have been involved in a whole bunch of things.
JW: I want to hear more about your work as a state senator. Are you still doing that?
DM: No. I was from 1990-1996, then I ran for Congress in the Democratic primary and narrowly lost the same year Newt Gingrich took over Congress. Somebody suggested that I should run for state treasurer because that is an election that is held by the House and the Senate sitting in joint convention. I ran for that and I became state treasurer which was a great job and Progressives thought I wouldn’t be able to do anything progressive as state treasurer but of course, that was wrong.
There were about six progressive state treasurers and we did a lot on climate change that changed the face of the SEC and we lobbied and pushed to get climate risk as something that each publicly traded company had to report every year to the SEC. We formed something called the Investor Network on Climate Risk and had a meeting with Kofi Annan at the U.N. There was like a billion dollars of investment represented in that room to educate people on climate change and climate risk.
JW: Did you ever get that legislation passed?
DM: Yes, we did, in around 2005. Maine was the first one to pass marriage at the ballot box yet, a marriage equality law. Everybody else had marriage except us. Now things are a little calmer electorally and Maine Lesbian Gay Political Alliance has turned into Equality Maine. They have an advocate; the women’s lobby is there all the time. Last year we passed a bill outlawing conversion therapy. We are always pushing for a better place for everybody.
JW: Wonderful. How would you say your involvement in the women’s movement affected you?
DM: It definitely changed my life. I have a very inherent sense of fairness and I would say it’s one of the motivators of my life. The carpenter theme comes throughout my life and when I got to Maine, I created a nonprofit job training program called Women Unlimited to train low-income women to compete for trade and technical occupations.
Long after I left, it was still going at 27 years; it’s not now because an employee embezzled and killed it, unfortunately. I’m an active trades women advocate because those trade and technical jobs are the avenue out of poverty for women. I think. I’ve been working to desegregate the economy my entire life and all the things I’ve told you comes down to that racially as well as gender wise.
JW: Wow, that’s wonderful. Any last comment before we close?
DM: It’s been fun going down memory lane with you.