BY SAMANTHA STEVENSON, PHOTOGRAPHY BY R.J. HARTBECK
Many ironworkers adorn their hard hats with stickers, but in St. Louis’ Iron Workers Local 396, there’s one that only the women slap on: the “Iron Maidens” sticker.
The union counts more than 1,800 members in the area, but only 45 or so are women; these are the “Iron Maidens.” One of them says the nickname represents “the sisterhood within the brotherhood.” To others, though, being a woman in a male-dominated field is an afterthought: “I’m a journeyman. I don’t say I’m a journeywoman—to me, that sounds stupid,” a member explains. “A postman is a postman, even if this one just happens to be a woman.” The general consensus: It’s a hard job, regardless, one that comes with rain-or-shine conditions, achy joints, and brushes with death. But oh, the things they can build...
After Tracy Cannovo turned 42, her everyday equipment began to feel extra heavy. When she started suffering from cramps in her lower abdomen, she figured she’d hurt herself on the job. Two years later, an ultrasound revealed something else: a 5-inch cancerous mass in one of her fallopian tubes. But her physician told her she could continue working. “My doctor obviously didn’t know what an ironworker was. I kept telling her to Google it,” Cannovo says. “I finally walked in there one day with work clothes on and they’re, like, ‘Holy shit…’ and I go, ‘Yeah…this is what I do, people.’” She started on this path as a young adult. While working at her family’s ravioli-making business, she had a boyfriend who wanted to join the ironworkers and couldn’t. The apprenticeship coordinator encouraged her to apply. I don’t have to rely on anybody—Mom, Dad, boyfriend, husband—I’m going to go out and I’m going to make some money, she recalls thinking. Cannovo, now 52, isn’t working, since having undergone 25 rounds of chemotherapy: “I’ve been back on a few jobs, but I can’t do it. Chemo has kicked my ass.”
For years, Jessica Fowler worked in construction, laying asphalt and shingling roofs. She even got a gig as a hairstylist. But then she followed in her father’s footsteps and signed up to be an ironworker. The choice doubled her salary. Before the pandemic and annual lack of work in early spring, she worked on the second phase of Ballpark Village. Every day on a job site can be dangerous, says Fowler, who is now 31. She recalls the first time she watched a co-worker fall 30 feet while connecting iron beams on a rainy day: “One of my buddies told me, ‘Ain’t nothing’s going to hurt you here. Everything’s going to kill you.’”
"If your partner’s having a bad day—family issues, not sleeping good—you’re both going to have a bad day,” Sierra Fox says, explaining how close workers become on monthslong projects together. The occupational danger only makes that connection stronger: “You have to trust them; if you make a mistake, it can turn real ugly really fast.” Fox, who transferred from her San Francisco local to St. Louis’ five years ago, sees the unions as the backbone of the industry but fears for their future: “Things have been really scary with the proposed ‘right-to-work’ law. I hope the union presence gets bigger, in all trades.”
Nancy Akers knew she didn’t want to sit behind a desk. She wanted to work with her hands and do something that allowed her to support her eight children. She became an ironworker at 39, after a friend in the trade showed her his paycheck and she asked him whether they accepted women. Once in the field, she fell in love with structural work. Her newfound happy place: sitting 28 stories high, feet dangling as she looked out over the city. Akers, now 53, tells her kids when they drive over a bridge she worked on. “They’re, like, ‘We knooow, Mom,’” she says, “but I hear them tell other people, ‘Hey, my mom made that.’”
Barbie Bock relishes the minutiae of blueprints and piecing together the puzzle. Looking back on her 24 years in the industry, though, it’s the camaraderie and stable insurance she’s most thankful for. Before joining, the single mother worked more than one job to support her two children. As an apprentice, she spent two work nights in class until 10 p.m., then returned home an hour away. “I look back and I think, How did I do that?” she says. “You just do. Moms do what they have to do.”
Lily Bedwell would take breaks while working on the new SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital and look out the window, envisioning what the building’s future inhabitants would feel standing there. If it wasn’t for her team, the hospital wouldn’t exist. That sense of pride offsets the hardest part of the gig: acclimating to harsh weather conditions. Bedwell, an apprentice, admits it was nerve-wracking to enter the room on her first day, at just 18 years old. In moments like these, she tells herself, Think of the women before you. “In 2020, being accepting is the ‘cool’ thing to do. The women before me suffered and went through so much,” she says. “They paved the way.”
Welding is actually meditative, says Rebekah Jarchow. “I just love that quiet time under the hood. It’s therapeutic.” The 27-year-old would know: Until last year she was a yoga teacher. To counteract the physical damage the job can cause, she practices poses on breaks and sits with her legs stretched up against a wall when she returns home. A former art student, Jarchow originally wanted a welding certification to better her sculpture work. Now she’s on a mission to make the trades accessible for all: “Women are easy to see, but there’s a lot of queer people, people of color, and people from different backgrounds who don’t necessarily have a safe place or get the attention on them. I hope the field continues to grow in diversity.”
Melanie Johnson (foreground) doesn’t mince words: “You have a problem with me? We’re going to hash it out right now in front of everybody,” she says with a laugh. The 36-year-old journeyman’s father, grandfather, and uncle were ironworkers. When her father told her it wasn’t a job for women, she became a medical assistant. Years later, she and her sister, who also works in Local 396, decided to try it anyway. She hopes her family’s legacy continues with her 17-year-old son. If he chose the field, she says, “I would be so proud of him… I hope my dad’s proud of me.”
Two years ago, photographer RJ Hartbeck set out to capture the women of St. Louis Local 396 in a long-form series on women working in building trades. To read more about Hartbeck, visit his website.
See full article with photos on stlmag.com