Boston resident chronicles challenges of women in construction

May 4, 2018
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Susan Eisenberg, a Boston resident since 1974, has written two books from her own and other women’s experiences in the construction industry.

Stanley’s Girl is Eisenberg’s fifth book of poetry, which will be published by Cornell University Press. It is a book of lyrical poetry which is centered around Eisenberg’s experience as one of the first women to enter the construction industry in the 1970s and draws from interviews that she conducted with other women in the construction industry.

Cornell University Press will also be publishing a re-issue of Eisenberg’s book of nonfiction, “We’ll Call You If We Need You: Experiences of Women Working Construction.” This book weaves Eisenberg’s interviews with women, and this edition will include a preface that frames the issues of women in construction in the present.

“The stories are organized in a way that we are all one person with all varied experiences, so chapters are thematic, not by each woman,” Eisenberg said.

The original edition of “We’ll Call You If We Need You” was published on the 20th anniversary of the federal affirmative action regulations that opened construction jobs to women issued by President Carter in 1978. The re-issue this year marks the 40th anniversary.

Eisenberg became an apprentice electrician in 1978 in IBEW Local 103, and began working on Boston-area construction sites. In an interview to the Gazette, she reminisced about the training that she went through at the beginning of her career in construction.

“Forty years ago, our classes were in a makeshift school in a parochial school, and there were five of us that graduated together,” Eisenberg said, adding that four of the students were from Jamaica Plain and carpooled to their classes together. “Now there’s a very fancy and current training center in Dorchester, which serves as an equalizer because there is greater access to training. The opportunity is there.”

Eisenberg described the challenges that women in this industry have faced over the previous decades.

“[Women in the construction industry] had high expectations and we were so hopeful at the beginning,” Eisenberg said. “When it went from Carter to Reagan, things didn’t progress the way we thought they would.”

Eisenberg said that women are still not more than 3 percent of the construction workforce, and that this percentage has never really moved significantly. One major difference that has changed is the technology that exists now to make women feel less isolated because they can reach out to other women in the same situations to connect or for advice.

Another recent success was the introduction of six months maternity leave for women in the Iron Workers Union.

“[This maternity leave] sends a very bold signal, which says that we value our women members and don’t want to lose them, and will put our money on that,” Eisenberg said. “That’s very exciting.”

Stanley’s Girl examines more viscerally issues of sexual assault and being physically threatened, and is based partially on Eisenberg’s own experience in the trades but also draws on the stories of other women she has interviewed. The book explores issues of hierarchies and inclusion, how it is enforced, and how parts of a workforce can be excluded.

“In one sense [the construction industry] appears to be an open or fair system, so how does the reality become quite different from that?” Eisenberg said. “How do you learn if you’re coming into a system like that, if you want to be accepting and succeed, and how do you accommodate to whatever makes that happen?”

The book is written in open form poetry, with attention paid towards musicality in line breaks, syntax, and the sounds of words.

The first section of the book is about the individual’s induction into the industry and when everything is new, and probes at questions like being silent versus speaking out and how to learn how to behave if you want to succeed. The second section has themes of sexual violence and tells stories of women who have died or have had accidents on the job that might have been questionable. The final section looks at how to effect change and what responsibilities we have to do so.

The themes of the book may resonate with readers from all backgrounds.

“With poetry, it’s more writing the visceral experience of things that are unsettling and finding a shape for them,” Eisenberg said. “It has a focus on women in the construction industry, but in a sense that becomes a particular setting with a certain drama to it. Any hostile workplace can be dangerous, maybe in an office, so I think the poetry can speak to everyone in that sense. It’s really all the same sort of characters and narratives that repeat when you silence or exclude or control people.”

Themes of hierarchy are prominent in Eisenberg’s writings because of the necessity of hierarchy in the construction industry as a result of the danger of the work.

“There’s a lot of issues of assault in the workplace between someone who’s new and more vulnerable and who has more power,” Eisenberg said. “The trades are based in a hands on apprenticeship, and its dangerous work so there’s a very necessary hierarchy, but it’s very open to being exploited, especially for a person that is new in so many ways to that universe.”

Eisenberg said that her books aren’t looking for answers or giving suggestions, they are just describing what the situations look like to her.

“People are complicated because they aren’t only good or bad,” Eisenberg said. “So how do you set up structures to encourage people to be the better person as opposed to ones that do the opposite? In poetry you can show the consequences of not doing the right thing. In some ways it’s more about the cost of not acting more boldly or equitably.”

When asked what advice she had for women entering the construction workforce, Eisenberg said that it’s not necessarily the right question to be asking.

“What I’m more interested in is not what does the woman have to do to fit in or succeed, but how can we rethink the workplace so that it’s normal to have women?” Eisenberg said. “The construction industry began for white 18-year-old men who were sons of men who were also in the industry. It makes it a lot easier for a woman to succeed if it’s normal that they’re there.”

Eisenberg received a Mass Humanities Engaging New Audiences grant, so she is also working on an online exhibition about women in the construction industry called On Equal Terms: Gender and Solidarity. The exhibition will include a Listening Room where poems can be heard. The physical installation of On Equal Terms exhibited in the Boston area in 2008 and 2009.

Another book by Eisenberg called “Denise Levertov,” In Company will be published in June 2018. It will include an essay about Eisenberg’s introduction to the craft of poetry by Denise Levertov and their mentoring relationship and friendship.