Sally Barber
Sally Barber

SALLY BARBER

“I’m blessed.”

Sally takes her leadership inspiration from Eleanor Roosevelt: “do the thing you think you cannot do” and from her own belief that her health and her children are her “greatest assets.”

As a child Sally was a tomboy who loved dolls but “wanted to be outdoors digging in the dirt or building something.” She was always interested in using tools, but “never thought I would be a construction worker, especially an electrician.” However, while working in a retail position and making minimum wage, Sally realized that her “son deserves a backyard” and decided to pursue an apprenticeship position in the building trades. As she summarized it, “I went out and got the job that no woman had ever applied for.” In 1972, only eight years after the Civil Rights Act had passed, Sally started the application process. In 1973, she formally applied: “I had all the qualifications. I had to be interviewed by six men at the table who asked, ‘What is the hardest work you’ve ever done?’ I told them I gave birth, but they couldn’t relate to that.” Even though they couldn’t relate to her atypical response, Sally was accepted into the apprenticeship program at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 153. Not only was Sally, therefore, the first woman to enter the electrician’s apprenticeship program, but she was also the first woman to enter any building trades apprenticeship program. She would continue as the only woman for five years.

In reflecting on her experiences of being the first woman in the building trades in Saint Joseph County, Sally acknowledges that “it was tough, not physically because I’m a worker. I’m not afraid of challenging myself. The hard part was psychological, being told you can’t do the work, being handed a broom.” Sally “sucked it up” and adopted a practice in which “I kept my mouth shut and did what I was told. I did my job and started getting a reputation that ‘she works and is a good worker.’” She realized that she would have to “break down” the other workers to help them see her. When they looked at her, they only saw a woman, not an electrician. In looking back, Sally notes that despite the obstacles and disparate treatment, “I got to do many things and met many good people.”

She took a small break from being an electrician and taught Industrial Technology in the Elkhart school system for five years. However, she didn’t like the unnecessary bureaucracy of working in the school system and missed the freedom and travel of being an electrical worker, so she returned to union work. During this time, Sally was also one of the first women working for Habitat for Humanity in the area.

Today she serves as Treasurer on the Executive Board for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 153. She is on the Board of Directors for the South Bend Elks, where she was also recognized as volunteer of the year, 2018. In her free time, Sally plays bass in three different bands – one that plays in nursing homes, one that plays jazz, one that plays dance music.  In hindsight, Sally observes that she understood she was being treated differently but I “didn’t care because no one could take it away from me.”

 Information compiled from oral history collected by Michiana Women Leaders, Inc.

Sally was a 2019 Celebrating Michiana Women Leaders honoree.