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Hard-Hatted Women

A handful of women learn construction skills and attitude

By Traci Hukill

"You see this?" Manuela Raquelle asks coyly, pulling a length of three-part cable out of her tool belt. Her face lights up as if she's divulging a great mystery: "It's romex wire! This wire is hot, this one is neutral, this is grounding. You run these from the breaker box to the outlet, and it makes electricity! Electricity!"

Raquelle and five other women arrived at the West Valley YWCA at 7:30 this morning, as they have for the past eight Saturdays, in order to learn building construction from the best teacher of all: experience. They're putting together a dream playhouse for the kids at the Y, one with electricity, running water, insulation and real shingles on the roof. The project is a concentrated lesson in breaking the Big Boy code of construction work, and the women are taking to it like ducks to water.

"In an office, you can do paperwork all day long and not feel like you've accomplished anything. After a day of this, you finish something, and it feels good," reflects Cynthia Castaneda, a mother of three who's using her new skills to fix up the house she and her husband bought a few years ago. "My husband likes it because I'm doing things he's been putting off," she adds slyly.

The women cite different reasons for wanting to learn how to build a house: Raquelle is building a place in the mountains, Donna Wallach just wanted to know how to do it, Nancy Kahn is going to Belfast in August to work for Habitat for Humanity. All have learned how to use a circular saw, how to install electrical wiring and plumbing fixtures, and how to frame, insulate and roof a house. A couple of them admit they were surprised they could do it. That surprise has given way to concentration and confidence, as the furrowed brows and serious questions around the work area attest.

Raquelle and Castaneda stop instructor Mary Gaddis to get her opinion on whether they should add trim to a piece of board that's cut too short or scrap it and start over. They decide to start over, and Raquelle, whose delight in romex is exceeded only by her adoration of the circular saw, graciously allows me to take a crack at cutting the board. Wielding the little Skilsaw troll is both intimidating and oddly exhilarating--I wince when I cut a crooked line and smirk when I'm finished with the job.

"When the culture tells you forever that you're not smart enough or you're not strong enough to use this tool, and you learn how to use it anyway, then you kick down the barrier and say, 'OK, what else have you been telling me I can't do?' " observes Gaddis, a powerful woman with silvering hair and piercing blue eyes. "I teach this because women don't know their options, and the trades pay well."

Gaddis, who was the first woman in Local 393, the plumbers' and steamfitters' union, initially conceived of the playhouse project four years ago when she undertook the building of a playhouse with women under lockdown at Marsh Creek County Jail. "The men had this great shop and tools, but they wouldn't let the women use them," she recalls. "So we built a playhouse with tools I could carry in every day."

The camaraderie on the work site is uniquely feminine. "Working with women is wonderful," Raquelle gushes. "I don't feel embarrassed or anything to ask, 'How do you make a box?' You don't have to know how."

Kahn concurs. "I've been an executive secretary, so this is different for me. The connection with all the people has been great, though."

At lunch people nibble off each other's plates and talk animatedly, and toward the end Kahn dumps a package of M&Ms in the middle of the table for everyone to share. The talk turns to the recent national contest to find the fake M&Ms.

"How could you tell they were fake?" someone asks.

"They were gray," replies Wendy Merklinghaus, who's just arrived. "You know, the color they turn after you suck on them a while and all the color's gone."

A few people try it and produce the lifeless M&Ms for common inspection. Most agree they're esthetically unpleasing.

"Well, let's get back to it," someone says. A stiff wind has picked up during lunch, but no one complains. After all, they're here to do a job.

For more information on the next West Valley YWCA building class, call 295-4011.

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From the July 3-9, 1997 issue of Metro.

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