Almost 50 years ago, after scoring well on an engineering test, Janet Bonnema received a notification mistakenly addressed to “Mr. Jamet Bonnema” from the Colorado Department of Highways (CDOH) telling her of an opening with the Eisenhower Tunnel project. “When she called to question the salary, the person on the phone realized she was a woman,” says Jillian Allison, director of the Center for Colorado Women’s History. They told her that she couldn’t have the job because women weren’t allowed in the tunnel.
“Janet pushed back and, after two months, they created a desk job for her,” Allison says. It wasn’t until two years later, in 1972, when she won her sexual discrimination lawsuit against CDOH, that she was allowed into the tunnel, becoming the only woman to work inside it during construction.
Bonnema is just one of the women being featured in the Center for Colorado Women’s History’s newest exhibit, Women/Work/Justice, opening on March 30 at the Center’s gallery in the Byers-Evans House Museum’s carriage house. The six other stories all took place in the 1900s and involve a variety of industries and populations. Some stories highlight individuals, such as Jane Street, who organized domestic workers in the Housemaids Union in 1917, and Marie Greenwood, the first African-American teacher in Denver Public Schools to be given tenure. Other stories highlight movements, like the Floral Workers Strike, which advocated for agricultural workers, and the Bell System Telecommunications Workers who worked to open up management opportunities for women in telecommunications.
“When we look at these stories, they show us that a lot of the things we see in our everyday lives—our workplace conditions, the rights we have—were not put in place by accident,” Allison says. “People had to work for them and fight for them.”
In the process of preparing the exhibit, Allison was surprised to learn that women throughout the last century were dismissed with a lot of the same language and ideas that had been used in ads decades earlier in the 1800s.
“These women were able to achieve so much when they didn’t listen to the people who told them that they couldn’t do things,” she says.
The exhibit features a variety of photographs and ads to provide context about how women entered the workforce and found jobs in the 1900s. There are also some interactive elements, including a chalkboard that’s part of the Marie Greenwood section which visitors can write on and take photos with to “send a message about someone that inspired them,” Allison says. Visitors are also encouraged to provide feedback on the exhibit and share stories of their own.
The exhibit’s opening coincides with the Center’s one-year anniversary and kicks off its second year of programming. Many of the Center’s events for the next year will focus on workplace equity and women in the workplace.
The exhibit will be on display until next March, when the Center will open its 2020 exhibit, which will focus on women’s suffrage, in concurrence with the centennial of women’s suffrage in the United States.
If you go: The Center for Colorado Women’s History is located at 1310 Bannock St. Visitors can explore the exhibit Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. or Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is free.