Sunday, August 27, 1995


Dale McCormick of Maine, who works to improve women's earnings and for gay rights, has designs on the national arena.
By Lisa Genasci

Dale McCormick describes herself as a builder.

On a practical level, she is one of the country's first women journey-level carpenters, the former owner of a construction company, author of two books on home repairs and founder of a program that trains women on welfare for the better-paid blue-collar jobs usually held by men.

She is also a much-respected three-term Maine state senator,acclaimed for her ability to forge alliances among disparate groups. A strong advocate for gay and lesbian rights, she won her last election in a conservative, rural district with 68 percent of the vote when many other Democrats fell to Republican challengers.

"She is extremely talented," said Frank O'Hara, a public policy consultant based in Portland, Maine. "She is also pragmatic. She has strong values, but she is willing to talk and deal with any one on an equal basis."

In her first election, campaigning against the Republican incumbent, McCormick rode a bicycle door to door across her district, visiting constituents to hear their concerns.

"I felt like a minipollster; I had my finger on the pulse," McCormick said recently.

She hopes to stretch her platform, centered on health-care and welfare reform, onto a national stage. She recently filed to run in the Democratic primary for Maine's First Congressional District in 1996.

"She brings her practical experience and zeal of being an advocate into government," said Cindy Marano, executive director of Wider Opportunities for Women, a Washington-based advocacy group for women in the trades.

Joanne D'Arcangelo, also a woman's advocate and director of the Maine Bar Foundation, said McCormick "has the most profound can-do attitude of anyone I have ever met. No obstacle is overwhelming."

After pioneering in the construction industry, McCormick over the past seven years has built and run Women Unlimited, a group that has formed an alliance between private enterprise and the state Department of Transportation.

Funded by the DOT, the Maine Department of Education and private foundations, the aim of Women Unlimited is to train women for higher-paying nontraditional work and get them off welfare.

The DOT asks contractors bidding on government work to send job notices to Women Unlimited, which has a data bank with information on about 400 women trained by the group.

Last year, Women Unlimited placed 81 percent of its graduates in jobs. Of the women enrolled, 71 percent were mothers on welfare, McCormick said.

"Often companies say they don't know how to find qualified women," she said.

Nationwide there are nearly 54 million women who work. But only 6.6 percent of these women are employed in occupations that the Labor Department defines as nontraditional work for women.

At the same time, women who do hold nontraditional jobs typically earn between 20 percent and 30 percent more than they would as clerks or secretaries.

"Dale has changed the face of construction in Maine and changed the lives of many women on welfare," said Jane Gilbert, director of equal opportunity and labor relations for the Department of Transportation.

On one large bridge construction project in Maine, 11.9 percent of the hours are being worked by women, Gilbert said. That is almost unheard of in the industry, where the rarely met target on government projects is 6.9 percent.

Besides tenacious and creative, McCormick's supporters describe her as courageous. She has persevered despite death threats and hate mail.

In her first election, her Republican opponent tried to make McCormick's sexual orientation an issue, but her openness disarmed him.

"I'm Miss Lesbian in Maine. Where had he been?" said McCormick, a vocal lobbyist for gay rights before being elected to the Senate.

McCormick has a 14-month-old baby with her partner of 10 years, Betsy Sweet.

Some of her earliest memories are of shop class and building. McCormick said she can't remember a time when she didn't know how to use tools. When the neighborhood kids put on puppet shows, McCormick built the stage; when they sold lemonade, she built the stand.

Another significant influence was politics. Her stepfather was a county chairman for the Democratic Party.

"Politics was always under discussion," McCormick said. "My parents felt strongly about the Constitution and ideals of the country."

In junior high and high school, McCormick worked for several election campaigns.

At the University of Iowa, during the Vietnam War, McCormick was involved in the peace movement. She graduated in 1970 with a degree in American studies, thinking she would teach.

But McCormick couldn't find a job. While wondering what to do she heard about an apprenticeship for the International Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners Local 1260 -- but that wasn't the kind of work women did.

So a male friend turned in her application. And her name, Dale, was androgynous enough to not arouse suspicion or prejudice. McCormick received the highest grade on a written test was granted an interview and then was picked for the apprenticeship.

"I have to give credit for even thinking about applying to the women's movement, which was giving us permission to push the envelope of what we could be," McCormick said.

The apprenticeship lasted four years. McCormick worked infrequently with other women.

Some male construction workers wrote graffiti on bathroom walls about her. Others put pinups where she hung her coat and sexual objects in her lunch box.

The situation became particularly tense in her last year, and she filed a sexual harassment complaint with the local Human Rights Commission in Iowa City.

"There was a level of anger directed toward me that I couldn't have survived," McCormick said.

A finding in her favor allowed McCormick to complete the course, and she went on to open a construction company.

In 1977, McCormick wrote Against the Grain, a Carpentry Manual for Women, then moved to Maine three years later to teach courses on home building. There, she wrote a second book, House Mending and Home Repair for the Rest of Us.

In 1988, McCormick started Women Unlimited, offering 14-week courses in nontraditional subjects such as carpentry, road construction, truck driving, surveying and drafting.

The course includes seminars on self-esteem, the history of women and work, physical conditioning, resume writing and how to deal with sexual harassment.

"Welfare reform should involve moving women from welfare to economic self-sufficiency," McCormick said. "The only way to do that is to train women for well-paying jobs. That means trade and technical jobs, and that's what Women Unlimited does."