Home construction business opening its doors to women

It is 12 o'clock and Dale McCormick, straddling a beam 18 feet up, nails home a sill plate before climbing down to take a lunch break. Such activities and such heights are commonplace in the home construction business - but not often is it a woman who wields the hammer and clambers with apparent nonchalance among the roofing timbers.

Ms. McCormick is a former schoolteacher who went against the grain, so to speak, when she applied to be an apprentice carpenter in Iowa City a little more than a decade ago. Over a brown-bag lunch of sandwiches and orange juice, she talks about the career choice that means so much more to her than merely earning a living. Words such as satisfaction, control, even power, punctuate her conversation.

Today Ms. McCormick, who lists cabinetmaking as well as carpentry among her skills, gives on-the-job house building training to students at the Cornerstones owner-builder school here. She is also the author of a carpentry manual, ''Against the Grain'' (Iowa City Women's Press, 529 South Gilbert Street, Iowa City, Iowa 52240).

Only a misconception helped her get off the ground, Ms. McCormick claims. The union official in Iowa City simply couldn't accept that a woman would genuinely want to be a carpenter. There had to be a political reason behind the application for an apprenticeship. The National Organization for Women was behind it, or possibly even the federal government, the union official opined.

This apprenticeship interview was the first face-to-face meeting Ms. McCormick had with a union official, and the application process was then too far along for her to be refused on anything other than blatant sexist grounds. Previous contact had all been through the mail, and the officials involved assumed that Dale (much more frequently a boy's name) was male.

But why, indeed, did she turn to carpentry? As a newly qualified teacher in an era when the demand for teachers was falling off, only occasional substitute-teacher work was coming her way. ''There's nothing like no work in your chosen profession to push you into another,'' she says. Second, she had grown up using hand tools in one way or another, so the thought of using them professionally was not as outlandish to her as it might be to many of her peers.

Ms. McCormick spent her elementary school years in New York City. In the particular school she attended there was a shop course for everyone in the second grade - girls and boys. From then on she used tools as naturally and automatically as any boy. After the family moved to Iowa, she raised sheep in a 4-H project. She put up the fences, made the gates, and erected the lambing quarters whenever necessary. To ask anyone else to do these tasks for her never crossed her mind.

Even with this background, Ms. McCormick would never have considered entering what had previously been an all-male profession but for the growth of the women's movement. Why not? she said to herself, and applied to be apprenticed with the International Brotherhood of Joiners and Carpenters, Local 1260.

Shortly after receiving her journeyman's card, she set up in business for herself as a general contractor doing remodeling work and, whenever business slacked off, writing her book.

During her four years' apprenticeship, Ms. McCormick was constantly frustrated by the literature that was available on carpentry. She saw a desperate need for a manual on the craft that assumed total ignorance on the part of the beginner. Such a manual, she reasoned, was particularly important if women were to master carpentry. Almost every boy is given tools sometime in his life and gains some very basic instruction from his father or favorite uncle. Few girls are accorded this privilege. ''Against the Grain'' makes an ideal manual for the beginner of either sex, because it gets down to basics the way few other books do.

Charles Wing, founder of the Cornerstones school and the author of several books on home construction and renovation, was immediately impressed. The book was not just for women, he found, but ''for anyone who thought he couldn't do carpentry.''

Mr. Wing had reviewed the book simply to see if it was worth including among those the school sold. By the time he was through reading he realized he wanted much more than just the book. In a phone call the following day, he asked Ms. McCormick whether she would teach a course on carpentry to women students at his Brunswick-based school.

At first she commuted from Iowa City twice a year to conduct the three-week classes. Soon she was hired full time to continue teaching the women's carpentry classes and also to be one of the instructors in the co-educational home-construction courses.

Women with a genuine interest in building and construction should feel free to follow their leanings, Ms. McCormick contends. According to the Department of Labor's Women's Bureau, 21,318 women were registered carpenters in 1981. An additional 2,025 were cabinetmakers.

Federal recommendations are that 20 percent of the places in all apprenticeship classes be left open for female applicants. Apprenticeship boards frequently pay that recommendation less respect than it deserves. Nevertheless, it is becoming easier for a woman to make it into the trades today - even if her first name isn't Dale!

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