The Trade was an all-male affair in 1971. Where other businesses employed women as cleaners and “tea girls”, the workshops were provided with menial workers in the form of apprentices as well polishers, the lowest workers on a ladder that stretched from polisher’s apprentice all the way to Meister. We did our own cleaning and made our own instant coffee. This has all changed during my lifetime, and now women are as common in workshops as men, in all roles.
In my second year as an apprentice we were joined by a young woman who was keen to learn the arcana of the trade. She was shy and somewhat conservative, not especially gifted with hand skills. She wanted to make jewellery and was bravely struggling with the prerequisite – using tools.
But she couldn’t endure the relentlessly male and sexist atmosphere of the workshop. The men would spend tea breaks looking out of the windows at the people in the street below, especially the women. What could she have made of it when a journeyman compared some hot-pants-clad girl’s pubic mound to a Volkswagen bonnet, or the on-going banter about the seamstresses who worked on the sixth floor across the street, and whom we could watch going about their work? The men decided that she was prudish, and teased her for it. I was in possession of the barest bones of feminism, then called “Women’s Liberation” from my year at UCT, and I cringed at the way she was treated, but to my shame I did not defend her. After a few months she didn’t return.