I discovered the wonderful Susan Eisenberg more recently when an online performance by and for women in the trades was being organized, and there was a callout for performers. I thought, oh hey, maybe this is an opportunity to do some stand-up comedy, and I answered the email. Susan was the main organizer, and she was also promoting her book: We’ll Call You If We Need you: Experiences Of Women Working Construction, With a New Preface https://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/9781501719769/well-call-you-if-we-need-you/#bookTabs=1} during the performance by having trades women read a story from the book and then step out and relate their own experience.
Here’s the link to the video of performance https://vimeo.com/482772200 titled: ‘Tradeswomen Voices 2020: A tradeswomen cultural event in 3 parts: Tradeswomen Talk across Time readers’ theater; Susan Eisenberg reading poems from Stanley’s Girl & Pioneering; and an Open Mic! of poems, spoken word, stand-up comedy!’
And here’s a review of the book by someone who has been lucky enough to read it:
“[Susan Eisenberg] introduces us to the feminist pioneers who first ventured onto building sites, braving hatred, abuse, physical suffering, and even mortal danger. . . . This is an inspirational and life-affirming book constructed so skillfully that the reader is kept constantly engaged.”
— Samuel C. Florman, New York Times Book Review
I realized I had to know more about this Susan character, and took on the task of interviewing her.
Me: Hi Susan! So nice to meet you! Would you like to introduce yourself?
Susan: Sure, I’m Susan Eisenberg, in Boston Massachusetts. I’m a retired member of the IBEW, I entered the trade in 1978, and was the first class of my local that graduated women. I’ve been active in the trades women movement, I’m a writer, I’m a poet, and right now I’m at the Women’s Studies Research Centre at Brandeis University where I direct the On Equal Terms Project, https://www.brandeis.edu/wsrc/about/research-art/on-equal-terms.html, and I work on a variety of things including a touring art installation about women in the trades. Here’s the virtual exhibit: https://onequalter.ms/
Me: Very cool! you’re so busy! How did you get started as an electrician?
Susan: When I was growing up ads were Help Wanted: Male, Help Wanted: Female. And jobs were defined in that way. When I was in junior high school, boys had to take shop class, and girls had to take home economics. So I grew up in that era. That’s all before 1964, when all those things became illegal in the U.S. due to Title VII of the Civil Rights act of 1964 that said you can’t discriminate against people in employment. I think a lot of issues that trades women have now comes from that heritage, that there’s things women do and things men do. People growing up now might not have those ideas, but those ideas are so embedded in everything around us.
In the US particularly, black men and men of colour broke into the construction industry in the late 1960s, early 70s, and women followed. So for me there were still the messages of that when I started in my first year apprenticeship class. One of the instructors assigned seats for women and men of colour in the back rows. In a poem I wrote called “Welcome”, I refer to a “Jim Crow classroom” and that’s what I mean.
So then there was a lawsuit against the US Department of Labor that resulted in Executive Orders that opened US construction jobs to women in April 1978. Before that I was in a training program for Women in Non-traditional occupations it was called. When I finished the training program, I called up my electrical union to find out about work. I thought electricity was the most interesting work, and I wanted to do a union apprenticeship. The man that answered at the hall basically said: “The unions don’t want you, the contractors don’t want you, we’ll call you if we need you.” That’s where the title of my book came from. When President Carter issued orders against discrimination in 1978, then suddenly we were brought into the union. So there’s very much a sense of a legal ability to be a part of the trades. It was clear to me that I benefited from that.
But I think I grew up thinking that trades were good. My grandfather owned a hardware store, and my father would get me to help him out with trade related work.
Me : Do you have any memoirs about working? And poems?
Susan: I have essays, including one in a book Molly Martin did, it was about working while I was pregnant. It’s A Good Thing I’m Not Macho is a poetry book I wrote when I was an apprentice, and came out in 1984. Pioneering: Poems From The Construction Site came out in 1998, and so did the first edition of We’ll Call You If We Need You. I did a memorable book launch on the 20th anniversary of the anti-discrimination law too, at the US Department of Labor in Washington DC! You can find all this out and more on my website: http://susaneisenberg.com/
I think what’s exciting at this moment is there’s an interest by the industry to bring women in.
Me: is this a cultural shift?
Susan: I’m not sure of all the reasons why this is happening, but yeah, cultural shift, demographic shift, political moment. I think it’s a positive opportunity for women to get in and move up!
While her classmates cut in panels, bent pipe,
worked from blueprints, the black girl
ran for coffee, rustled stock, drilled
ceiling anchors by the mile, and swept
the shanty out; often worked alone. So,
when she was paired with a crackerjack
mechanic, a brother, and the foreman asked
how they’d like to disconnect
a transformer, high voltage, placing the cutters
in her palms, she leapt
like a racehorse out the starting gate.
The white boss walked them over to where the end
of cable lay in flaccid loop. Lifted it to show
the circle of fresh-cut copper, round
and wide-eyed as a shiny dollar coin: proof
power was dead. She was fired up.
But Omar, bless that man, had to teach.
They walked the length of the site
and back, retrieved his meter, as he explained
good practice: test equipment, take no one’s word.
The meter buzzed: 480 live.
The two looked down; saw wet mud
beneath their boots. Looked up:
white faces — like in a postcard
from a lynching — gathered
on the ledge above
-Susan Eisenberg, from Stanley’s Girl, 2018