Essay

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Susan Eisenberg’s poetry documents the history of women in construction.

In the fall of 1978, the poet Susan Eisenberg walked onto a construction site for the first time. Then 28 years old, she was an apprentice electrician and a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. She and five other women had been accepted into the Boston Local 103 apprenticeship class, the first women ever admitted. “We wanted the career,” Eisenberg writes in “Pioneers, First Women in Construction.”

Not just skills and money,
but structure, focus, printed plans, the rowdy order
of raising buildings that years later would still stand
right where you left them. We joined a tradition,
expected a well-marked path and a welcome.

But this isn’t what Eisenberg found. In the 40 years since she first walked onto that construction site, she has written poetry and essays, performed on stage, and curated installations, all in an effort to tell one story: that of female construction workers. Her latest collection of poems, Stanley’s Girl (2018), presents Eisenberg as both a pioneer and an activist. The book exposes the limits of what legislation did for women in construction and reveals what remained beneath the industry’s official welcome: violence, isolation, and silencing.

***

By the time Eisenberg started as an apprentice, several events suggested that the gender barrier in construction, and in other industries, could finally be cracked. It had been 15 years since the passage of the Equal Pay Act, which prohibited wage differentials based on sex, and 14 years since the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, and—at the eleventh hour—sex. (Labor unions strongly opposed the latter.) Almost a decade earlier, Gloria Steinem’s article “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation,” published in New York magazine, created small seismic shifts in homes and workplaces across America. The Equal Rights Amendment had finally passed, nearly a half-century after it was introduced, and was awaiting state ratification. (The ERA remains in constitutional limbo to this day. A faction of conservative women thwarted its passage, arguing that it would lead to the draft and eventually to unisex bathrooms.)

In 1975, three years before Eisenberg started working on Boston construction sites, Time magazine awarded its annual Man of the Year honor to “American Women,” in recognition that the patriarchal gender balance was shifting across the country. Women, according to Time’s editorial team,

have arrived like a new immigrant wave in male America. They may be cops, judges, military officers, telephone linemen, cab drivers, pipefitters, editors, business executives—or mothers and housewives, but not quite the same subordinate creatures they were before. Across the broad range of American life, from suburban tract houses to state legislatures, from church pulpits to Army barracks, women’s lives are profoundly changing, and with them, the traditional relationships between the sexes.

Despite the cultural and political groundswell of support for equal rights, however, the construction industry had long locked out both men of color and women. Some unions had even formed in response to the spurious fear that Black workers from the South would take jobs away from white workers, a fear that never entirely dissipated. Although labor unions in the United States were 25 percent nonwhite by the 1960s, construction continued to be a monoculture dominated by white men. (And unions assured white families that their sons, nephews, and grandsons would have secure employment.) Local chapters denied apprenticeships to women and Black men, thus blocking the only gateway into construction. By the early 1970s, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act had begun to offer opportunities for Black men, but shifts for women on construction sites remained negligible.

In 1978, the trajectory of both the industry and Eisenberg’s career changed. President Jimmy Carter signed Executive Order 12086 that year, which mandated improvement in the construction gender gap. Carter set a goal of 6.9 percent of all hours worked on federally funded construction sites to be worked by women, a change he expected to take place over three years. “A door opened, and I went in,” Eisenberg explained in a recent interview. “It was a way to, at first, have a workday, and then a creative day.”

But the workplace Eisenberg entered didn’t represent the “earnest ads” that drew women to these new opportunities. In “Good News,” she shows how being a sister in the brotherhood carried unexpected obstacles.

An apprentice, I’m not allowed to quit,
so, for a month, I’ve dodged this foreman’s
cat-mouse tricks—broken ladder, towed car,
brand-new Kleins blown out cutting wire
he’d sworn was dead; and his medley
of warnings—Watch out! Or be boiled
by steam, beheaded by cables, crippled
cut up, or crushed.

Construction is dangerous work even under the best circumstances, but union sons and fathers did everything they could to make women apprentices give up, and to let them know that women didn’t belong on the job site. In “Welcome,” Eisenberg considers how women pioneers were set up for failure:

someone takes your ladder or tools,
imitates your voice on the loudspeaker,
spraypaints Cunt on your Baker staging,
urinates in your hard hat,
drives to your home
where you live alone
with your daughter
and keys your truck parked
in your own driveway.

In their apprenticeships and on construction sites, women’s experiences mirrored abusive relationships in the domestic sphere; women were bullied, sexually harassed, entrapped by mandatory apprenticeships, threatened, and even injured in “workplace accidents” when they complained. In “Pioneers, First Women in Construction,” Eisenberg reminds us that many women faced violence both at home and on the job: “Before the term, date-raped, she was. Before / domestic-violence, love punched her face.”

But as Eisenberg writes, the women “lied on postcards home” and shared only the “official story of equal pay.” In “My Classmate Subash Anand,” Eisenberg admits that for some time she, too, told only the pioneering narrative: “names-will-never-hurt-me, and selected truths: / camaraderie, pride, outdoor work in springtime.” Beyond the confidences of other women workers, she didn’t talk about the racism. She didn’t talk about her physical safety. She didn’t talk about “the pile-up of suicides on the pioneer trail.”

But she did begin to use her poetry to process her experiences, and eventually—through publication—connect with a larger community of tradeswomen.

***

While Eisenberg worked construction, she lived a parallel life as a poet and theater director. In 1978, just months before she started working construction, she gave her first reading inside her home in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Her mentor, the poet Denise Levertov, who’d introduced her to protest and documentary poetry, crossed the Charles River to be there. The evening marked three years since Eisenberg had applied to audit a year-long workshop with Levertov at Tufts University. Also in 1978, Eisenberg founded a theater ensemble focused on issues of working-class women. It was yet another outlet for her to process her day-to-day life in construction.

In 1984, Radical America, a journal of the New Left, published two of Eisenberg’s poems in their “Women and Labor Activism” issue. Eisenberg’s poems are tucked between a report on the rise of women leaders in the British Miner’s Strike and an essay about men and women working side-by-side on an assembly line. Each poem casts Eisenberg as a trailblazer, and each contemplates a moment of joy in her workplace. In “Through the Ceiling, Maiden Voyage,” we see Eisenberg “Sliding / under an airduct, then / scrabbling crab-like along pipes and crossbars—” and pausing, between the floor and the ceiling to ask, “has another woman passed / before me? / to witness this / pulsation of building life.” Unlike the articles that bookend her poems, she doesn’t protest her industry’s wrongs or highlight conflict. These early works are milder than the barbed documentary poetry developed in Stanley’s Girl.

After 18 years as an electrician, Eisenberg left construction in 1995 to start her MFA at Warren Wilson College. She wrote a work of nonfiction, We’ll Call If We Need You (1998), based on interviews with other women in construction, as well as her first full-length collection of poetry, Pioneering: Poems from the Construction Site (1998). The latter combines poems she initially wrote as private responses to her workplace (and published as a chapbook in 1984) with more recent poems written after she recognized just how understated her earlier work was regarding the harassment and discrimination that she and other tradeswomen faced.

Although the books were acclaimed, reviews such as one that appeared in the New York Times illustrate the inequitable expectations women face when writing or speaking about gender discrimination and sexual harassment. The reviewer, Samuel C. Florman, praises Eisenberg’s nonfiction when it delivers the triumphant narrative of tradeswomen who maintain a strong public face and are grateful for the opened door. But Florman—a white, male civil engineer, builder, and author—criticizes Eisenberg’s poetry when that benevolent mask slips:

 In this slim book we find, among other startling images, an electrocuted rat, an ominous male working partner with a knife, a falling body about to strike marble steps and a woman’s hand cut off by a saw. Some of the poems made me wince, which I suppose is one of the things poetry is supposed to do. But I hope that in her future verse Eisenberg will listen more intently to some of her interviewees— like the one who looks at a building she worked on and says, “I get a high off of it, just unbelievable.”

Eisenberg says that her poems were intended to counter the prevailing idea that women were to blame for Affirmative Action’s failure, as well as the notion that a lack of determination or skill kept the number of women in construction at just 3 percent. She wanted to create “a record of the collective experience,” she writes in Denise Levertov in Company (2018), a collection of tributes to Levertov written by former students and colleagues. Among the points of intersection in the women’s stories, Eisenberg could “hear the pauses and silences, the shifts in tone and volume, in particularities of diction, the meaning beneath the meaning.”

As a hybrid of witness and documentary poetry, Stanley’s Girl is arguably an extension, or re-envisioning, of Pioneering after 20 more years of hearing the narratives of other tradeswomen. In “Welcome,” for example, Eisenberg takes readers inside the start of her four-year apprenticeship. She learns a new language and a new rhythm, how “Everything you thought you knew / must be relearned overnight”—

How to do well in school
From the back row
Of a seat-assigned-Jim-Crow classroom.
How to learn the tricks-of-the-trade
From someone who does not like you.

Construction’s caste system was made clear to women and to tradesmen of color. It revealed itself in unfavorable job assignments and in moments when, as Eisenberg writes in “Point Made,” “Your folding Allen wrench set / the big one / goes missing from your tool box.” It was also clear in the expectation that women get coffee for the crew, or in women being made to carry materials up extra flights of stairs. The job was dangerous for everyone—falling to your death was a real possibility, as was electrocution. But before Eisenberg closes her second poem, she introduces the undiscussed danger that no skill or job assignment can lessen—“one of the women had been raped.”

Eisenberg rarely elaborates on this aspect of the job. However, in a 2013 article for The Progressive, she writes, “Tradeswomen have faced sexual assaults and even rapes on the job, and then have been advised to ‘forget about it’ by a training director or business manager.” In the 40 years since her apprenticeship, this has not changed, but her call to action has become clear: “The industry […] needs to practice fair employment, even when the perpetrator of discrimination and abuse is someone’s friend or brother-in-law or long-term employee.”

In “White Joe Miller and Black Joe Miller,” Eisenberg admits to having a “pinhole view” of the construction site when she started, describing herself as “green, strident, clueless.” She writes of the payoffs required to keep the job or secure site assignments. Union families had always kept things in the family, but women were not in the family. And certainly neither was “Martha, the black laborer / The feces smeared on the shitshacks she had to clean. And other degradations that can’t be said aloud.” Racism was part of life on the job site. Eisenberg observes the dualities of men like Stanley, the foreman of the book’s title, who mentors her kindly even as he looks at a Black worker and asks, “What’s that junglebunny doing here?”

Eisenberg learns other realities, too. She learns, for example, to shout “coming through!” instead of “excuse me” as she passes. She learns that callous construction life replaces “a man / whose burned shoes were still in the vault.” She faces pornography in the bathroom and racist cartoons in the breakroom. She recognizes that the man who stole her hammer has a wife with cancer and that “he needed this job.” Over the course of the book, Eisenberg moves from being a pioneer to a survivor to a fierce advocate.

The final third of Stanley’s Girl melds individual and collective narratives with tactile representations of sexism, racism, and violence. In “Troublemaker,” for example:

She could have obeyed
her foreman’s instruction: crawled
beneath the lunchshack table and sucked
his dick, while the crew enjoyed
their coffees and donuts
and Bill his tea 3 sugars

In “Poet’s Mailbag: The Picnic,” we learn of a young apprentice in 1979 who never returned to work:

several of my brothers
led me
a secluded part of the park

wake up for a few seconds
gang raped me
be out again
wake     out again

When the victim comes forward with her story, the official brotherhood response is: “Well honey, I really wouldn’t / make a big deal out of this”—a sentiment that continues to deter abused women across industries from coming forward.

These are the narratives that Eisenberg the documentarian has collected for decades in letters and in conversations, and through her own research and interviews. In “Power,” her call becomes clear:

…But perhaps
the betrayal can begin repair

if held to account.

In “First Week Apprentice,” a nameless journeyman teaches Eisenberg three things: “Watch out you don’t take a Dixie” (i.e., be safe on the job); “ Ignore them” (i.e., the men will gawk at you and abuse you); and what he learned in the Korean War, “You had to kill everyone. / Every one. Or kids, when they grew / Would avenge the deaths.” The implication of the latter is clear: unless a whole generation of men are wiped clean from the construction site, women will always be seen as invaders.

Ultimately, the evolution in Eisenberg’s poetry embodies larger changes in how American culture treats gender, an evolution reflected in Time magazine’s shift from “Man of the Year” to “Person of the Year;” a cover honoring “American Women” in 1975 honored “Silence Breakers” in 2017. Eisenberg shows readers what life was really like on the construction site 40 years ago and what it all too often remains today for women or outsiders of any kind.

Eisenberg’s work is particularly resonant in the MeToo era: Being a woman in the workplace is full of discrimination and danger, she suggests, and women have long kept that to themselves. Stanley’s Girl reinforces the necessity to say these things aloud—to speak openly of discrimination, sexual assault, and rape—and to be heard. Legislation was supposed to change the construction industry for women, but it will require far more than just Congress to establish a safe workplace. As Eisenberg writes in The Progressive, it will require everyone else on the job site—“job foremen and union stewards”—to stand up against sexual violence and discrimination and “not the victims.”

Originally Published: December 10th, 2018

Maggie Messitt is the author of The Rainy Season, longlisted for the 2016 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award in South Africa, where she was a journalist and editor for eight years. She now teaches in the MFA program at Goucher College and is the national director of Report for America.