Tradeswomen's Tuesday: Carolyn Walters

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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Carolyn Walters

Electrician (Retired)

IBEW Local 16, Evansville, Indiana

Carolyn with grandson Jackson

“I just loved it,” says Carolyn Walters, a retired electrician from Evansville, Indiana of her thirty-year career. “It’s a great living. You get to use your mind and your body, and it’s not boring like factory work.”

Carolyn was brought into the trade in 1978. She had been working at the local Whirlpool factory for a year and found the work boring and monotonous. A cousin worked for a recruiting and training program and approached Carolyn about becoming an apprentice. The city of Evansville had received federal funds to update streetlights and needed women and minorities to work on the project. “I had no clue what an apprenticeship was, but I did it. And I loved it!” says Carolyn about starting in the field. She enjoyed that the job was both physically and mentally demanding.

She also appreciated that the job allowed her to meet diverse members of her community. Evansville and Vanderburgh County were still fairly segregated, with most of the black community living in the city, away from the farms in the northern and western parts of the city and county. On the job, Carolyn had colleagues from throughout the community. “I had never been exposed to so many new things,” Carolyn says of the weekends spent with co-workers who invited her and her daughters to enjoy their farms (complete with chickens and ponds for swimming).

Although some of her colleagues were welcoming, many were not. Carolyn says, “The guys are just backwards. They did just terrible stuff to me. They kicked me and pushed me around.” However, Carolyn was willing to go toe-to-toe with them. She describes herself as “the oldest of five girls and my daddy’s boy.” The time spent with her father helped her be fearless in addressing her male colleagues. “If they had something to say to me, I had something to say back, ‘I have the same thing in my pants as you do: that’s a ticket to the local union.’ I would fight back.”

Starting her own electrical contracting business did not make Carolyn immune from discrimination. “They wouldn’t let me advance, so I started my own business in 1994.” Frustrated by seeing men who she had trained placed on plum assignments, Carolyn became her own boss. However, she found that discrimination was still rampant and that many of her competitors were not operating with integrity. “A lot of the guys will call the client, find out your bid, then try to beat your number. They think it’s an art.” Carolyn even found that when she hired a man, he was able to secure more contracts than she was. After fifteen years in business and one final costly and painful experience with city contracting, Carolyn retired in 2009.

Carolyn hopes to use her retirement to advocate for better working conditions for women. “Fifty-six is young. So, I need to find a new career. I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer and fight for women to not have to go through what I’ve gone through.”

Carolyn is also the aunt of Grace Boone, the graduate fellow who has been writing the weekly Tradeswomen Tuesday profiles.