A lot has changed since 1998, when Boston Local 103 retiree
Susan Eisenberg published her first book detailing the struggles of women like
her in the building trades. And yet, as she notes in the preface to the
recently-released second edition, a lot has stayed the same.
|Author Susan Eisenberg, right, graduated from her apprenticeship in 1982 in the first Boston Local 103 class to include women. Eisenberg’s apprentice sisters included Jill Feblowitz, left, Margaret Gove, Sara Driscoll and Cathy Cunningham.
“We still haven’t gotten to critical mass,” said Eisenberg, who entered the trade in 1978 and later interviewed 30 fellow tradeswomen on their experiences as the first generation of women in a male-dominated field for her book, “We’ll Call You if We Need You: Experiences of Women Working in Construction.”
But the IBEW is just one of the organizations helping to lead the way for women seeking opportunities in a field that once threw up every imaginable obstacle to their success.
Eisenberg says she’s encouraged by many of the efforts being made today, like the IBEW’s women’s committees, the use of social media to connect with other women and the intentional recruiting by her home local, which recently ran a campaign that brought in a record number of applications from women and people of color.
The Ohio native and her peers were pioneers in a field that had opened up to them through government mandates more than a cultural shift. And as one man, a steward, told Eisenberg in those early years, “Just because we have to take you in doesn't mean anything has to change.”
As the stories recounted in the book detail, that attitude was pervasive. The title itself is the response she got from an apprenticeship director the first time she applied.
Fortunately, some of the journeymen were willing to teach Eisenberg and her sisters, and even to treat them as equals. The title of her new book of poetry, “Stanley’s Girl,” is a reference to one of those men, Stanley Plathe.
“Stanley was respected, and was respectful of me,” Eisenberg said. “He openly supported me, which helped a lot.”
Carolyn Williams, director of the Civic and Community Engagement Department, who entered the apprenticeship program at the same time as Eisenberg, noted the importance of telling these pioneering tales.
“Too often we fail to realize the power in stories, how they inspire and motivate others,” Williams said. “Each woman’s entry into the trades is different, and it’s important that these voices be heard.”
That first class of women across nearly every sector of the construction industry endured vile harassment of all kinds. As Eisenberg details in her book, some women had their hardhats urinated on. Obscenities were spewed at them. They were ostracized, and they had their lives threatened. Bathrooms were a common struggle, sometimes fighting just to get one, other times having them plastered with pornographic images and sexist slurs.
And yet, they persisted. They too, wanted a good job that paid a fair wage — one that could support their families — and they wanted career fulfillment. They liked the creativity found in electrical work, or carpentry, and they liked the combination of physical and intellectual challenge. They liked being able to point to a building in their hometown and say, “I built that.”
Eisenberg, who has spoken at the International Labour Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, and the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington, D.C., says she’s surprised by the stagnation of women’s representation in the trades, which sits stalled around 3 percent nationally, especially considering the progress in other male-dominated fields over the same time period, like dentistry, architecture and the military.
“It should have naturally changed more,” Eisenberg said. “It’s been a loss to the industry. We’re losing a lot of smart and capable people.”
For Eisenberg, poetry and prose both have important roles to play in storytelling – and in creating change. The stories in “We’ll Call You if We Need You” aren’t ordered by individual or chronologically, but by theme, which shows the shared experiences of the different women across trades and states, and how pervasive the harassment was. It didn’t just happen to electricians, or to women in the South. It was everywhere. These women weren’t just building stadiums and office buildings, they were breaking down barriers, often against the will of their male co-workers.
“In a way, we all started as success stories,” Eisenberg said. “You have to remember, we didn’t have anybody ahead of us.”
Much of “We’ll Call You if We Need You” uses direct quotes from the interviews. “Stanley’s Girl,” however, utilizes the creative license of poetry, which Eisenberg describes as a more raw and natural medium.
“It’s less censored,” said Eisenberg, who holds a Master of Fine Arts and has taught creative writing. “There’s an emotional accuracy to it. It can give shape to the chaos.”
Eisenberg says unions like the IBEW are filled with problem solvers who can create a more welcoming environment for women.
“The IBEW has long been at the forefront of a lot of this,” said Eisenberg, who helped plan the first IBEW women’s conference in 1997 and spoke at the 2018 IBEW International Women's Conference. “It’s great to see how supportive President [Lonnie R.] Stephenson is.”
Unions by design have a lot to offer in terms of creating a culture of equity and inclusivity, Eisenberg noted. Collective bargaining agreements are increasingly including language that addresses workplace discrimination on the basis of gender, race and sexual orientation. And women in unions make more than their nonunion counterparts, with women of color earning an even greater advantage.
“There’s a lot pulling the country back right now, and that’s a great opportunity for unions to step in and be a voice of solidarity,” she said. “But our house has to be in order. We have to acknowledge and address our issues, too.”