About a thousand feet from the White House, a woman in a diamond hardhat stands on a ladder. Her name is Stella, but unlike Marlon Brando’s girl, she’s not walking down the steps of her staircase.
Stella represents the everywoman in the building trades. Women presently, and for the last forty years, comprise between two and three percent of the construction industry. This gender inequity matters for its social justice implications and more broadly for the future of work. The industry now faces a labor shortage, which is only expected to deepen as more baby boomers hit retirement age. One answer to addressing this impending crisis, some believe, may lie with women.
Stella, along with the other pieces in Susan Eisenberg’s moving exhibit, On Equal Terms, symbolizes the success and trials of women working in the trades. This multimedia art installation, which recently toured at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C., draws light on issues faced by a marginalized group in an already largely invisible industry.
Referred to as the poet laureate of the labor movement, Eisenberg’s poetry and prose for the past four decades have provided readers unflinching accounts of the setbacks and resilience of women in the building trades.
To him, she was a novelty:
a Lady Mechanic
with more years in the business
than him. Their partnership: a gauntlet
flung before his manhood
to bugle calls of testosterone.
Eisenberg conceived of the ideas for On Equal Terms as she was conducting the interviews for her remarkable and riveting non-fiction New York Times Notable book, We’ll Call You if We Need You. After months of listening and speaking to dozens of her fellow women in the trades, she “needed to get these stories out of my body”. Before becoming a licensed electrician, Eisenberg studied under the great social justice poet, Denise Levertov. Eisenberg sees the exhibit as a natural outgrowth of her previous work, like composing a three-dimensional poem.
For women in the trades, it’s frustrating that their numbers have barely budged since the Carter administration implemented affirmative action programs to increase the number of women and minorities on federal worksites. On view were some of the original campaign posters distributed to encourage women to apply to various apprenticeship programs.
The 1978 federal affirmative action regulations laid out a twenty-year timetable for the industry to become 25% female, the threshold that determines whether a career path is no longer “nontraditional” for women. While other professions like dentists, lawyers and postal service carriers have succeeded in integrating and retaining women in their workforce in the same forty-period time period, reaching or exceeding that 25% benchmark, the construction trades have hovered between two to three percent.
The demands of a changing labor market and a more mechanized industry further undermine arguments that women are not qualified or capable of the work. Women have been employed as ironworkers, plumbers, carpenters, welders, and electricians for years. And as the trades increasingly use lighter materials and rely more on computer and social skills, it becomes an even less viable argument to say that women are physically incapable of the work and are a safety hazard to themselves and their co-workers.
Women, like men, want to work with their hands, and crave the satisfaction of seeing the tangible evidence of one’s work.
Eisenberg herself was one of these women who enrolled in an apprenticeship program in 1978 with her local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the first year her Boston Local 103 included ‘sisters’. Four years later, she became one of the first female electricians in the city. She, like many women who responded to that call, was grateful to learn a trade that would provide her with good income and be both physically and intellectually challenging.
Few of these pioneering women, or the men who already made up its workforce, anticipated just how challenging this transition would be. The building trades were and continue to be dominated by a machismo culture. Sexual discrimination was implicitly practiced in various forms. Contractors might routinely pass over women for a job or transfer them from site to site over the smallest disagreement with a male co-worker. Women were often excluded from informal training and side work due to the existing network and brotherly comradery of the trades. Women have had to learn on the job what men learned from their fathers or brothers, tagging along on work sites or helping out around the house.
More dramatically, the risk and consequences of sexual harassment and assault are exacerbated when the occupation itself is hazardous. And the rate of incidence is even higher for women of color. One section of the exhibit — We Remember — commemorates women who have died from work-related incidents, including from accidents and acts of violence. Walk up close to Stella and you can read the tags that stud her coveralls — literal labels and verbal abuse handwritten by the women who received them. In fact, they were considered too graphic to display by some previous gallery hosts.
At a moment when women’s voices are reshaping the political landscape, Eisenberg believes that progress is possible through local, trade and union-by-union, efforts, rather than initiated by the federal government. It was only two years ago that the Ironworkers International became the first of any of the building trades to pass paid maternity leave policy. Other trades are now taking steps to pass their own policies in order not to lose a competitive edge in attracting women. Vicki O’Leary, General Organizer for the International and the author of the policy, says she gets at least one call every other week about how a trade or union can get a similar policy passed.
One important message that Eisenberg wants to emphasize in her exhibit is how this work is now cross-generational. Women have been made to feel that “pioneering, contrary to its meaning, became a seemingly permanent condition”, though this is becoming less true. I spoke to several women whose daughters were now in the trades following their footsteps, and part of the exhibit honors the challenges and pride that come with balancing motherhood and physical labor. Picture books display female plumbers and machine operators. A replica of a cake reads “My kids know which bridges in town are mine”. Photos of young children, especially daughters, watching their moms at work or with a drill in hand, are also displayed on the walls.
Eisenberg told me how gratifying it was to hear from young women who find themselves in the narratives of the women in We’ll Call You if We Need You. It may be small, but there’s certainly a sisterhood of tradeswomen. But Eisenberg’s work will also resonate with women who have never poured concrete or soldered wire. The loneliness of pioneering is the shared experience of working women of the last half-century, across professions. The testimonies of the tradeswomen offer albeit more dramatic portraits of gender bias and discrimination.
Eisenberg’s multimedia work — her poetry, oral history collection, and this exhibit — serves as one of the few documentations of the history of women in the trades. The exhibit has evolved over time and pieces of it have traveled to universities and art galleries across the country. It first exhibited in 2008 at Brandeis University, where Eisenberg is Resident Artist/Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, and where she directs the On Equal Terms Project.
The title of the exhibit comes from one of the conversations for her essay collection: “We’re here to stay; not on their terms, but on equal terms”. Which is why the ladder Stella stands on is so important. Identical treatment is not the same as equal treatment, Eisenberg repeatedly told me throughout our conversations. Some women need a taller ladder to reach the same height that men can reach, but they’re just as capable of doing their job if given that support.
It’s easy to miss this detail because it’s subtle, but Stella is up on the ladder holding one end of a communication cable. We don’t know who’s on the other side — man, woman — but we know she can’t do her job alone. Helping women succeed in the trades will be a collective effort.
On Equal Terms was open at the AFL-CIO headquarters at 815 16th St NW between May 15 and late June 2019. The exhibit was part of the Labor Heritage Foundation’s Great Labor Arts Exchange.