Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Women in Construction 30 Years & Still Organizing



Showing no terms but equal terms:
'On Equal Terms: Women in Construction 30 Years & Still Organizing'
Erica Lawton
Issue date: 1/28/09 Section: Arts



A poetry reading by Susan Eisenberg, sponsored by the Women's and Gender Studies Program, is scheduled for Friday, Feb. 6, 1 to 2:15 at the Poetry Center, Sawyer Library.

Light refreshments will be provided.

A panel presentation on the historical and legal developments affecting women in the building trades will include Susan and other speakers. The event is Friday, March 6, 1 to 2:30
PM, location TBA.



On Melinda Hernandez's first day of work on a construction site in the late 1970s, she followed instructions. Having recently completed a two-month government funded training and bought a brand new tool belt, she navigated the rough terrain to find the electrician's shanty and reported to the foreman that she was ready to work.


In her words, "He looked at me and he says, 'Yes, little girl, what is it? Did your father leave his tools home?'"


As one of the many disenfranchised voices that occupy and inform the work of artist and master electrician Susan Eisenberg, Hernandez is not alone. As a tradeswoman pioneer in the early days of government-directed employment affirmative action, however, lonesome was just the beginning.


"On Equal Terms: Women in Construction 30 Years & Still Organizing" exposes the discrepancies between public policy and on the job procedure that women in building trades have been struggling with since the first executive order mandated gender equity in hiring practices in 1978. Despite these promises of gender equality enforced through affirmative action, today women still make up no more than three percent of the workforce in construction trades.


Through poetry, nonfiction and mixed media installations, Eisenberg has channeled the hope and disappointment, the rejection and the camaraderie of working where no woman had before into a different constructed environment. The exhibit, currently on display at the Adams Gallery at Suffolk University Law School, draws on testimonies from Eisenberg's book, "We'll Call You if We Need You: Experiences of Women Working Construction," a New York Times notable work of 1999, and poems excerpted from "Pioneering: Poems from the Construction Site," a collection she published in 1998, as well as interactive pieces reflective of her trade.


Two bright yellow ladders marked by caution tape lend themselves to a break in the removable tile ceiling while words on separate steps inquire, "How High Can You Reach Now," in a piece that addresses the (dis)advantages of physical size on the job.


A bridge is built on a pastel frosted cake, with support beams of rainbow twizzlers, flanked by mini plastic hammers, screwdrivers and wrenches. Pink icing on the sides of the confection says proudly, "My kids know which bridges in town are mine," reflecting the dual duties of tradeswomen mothers.


Next door Eisenberg has built a mock-up of a construction site toilet shanty, constructed of rough plywood and decorated with lewd graffiti typical of a working man's Port-a-Potty. Complete with an actual toilet, viewers are invited to hunker down and listen via headphones, coming from the first aid kit attached to the wall, to the many tradeswomen Eisenberg has interviewed over the years.


The artist explained in a phone conversation this past Monday that she was hoping the shack would, "give people a little window into that vulnerability," felt by the women who faced raw, often graphic discrimination daily.


In addition to working as an electrician and a tradeswoman activist for 15 years, Eisenberg received her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina and went on to travel as a lecturer with a special focus on labor and women's rights. Since 1987 she has been teaching as the College of Public and Community Service at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she met Patricia Reeve, assistant professor at Suffolk specializing in working class and labor history and histories of gender and women. The two quickly became friends, bonding over joint interests and work experience working toward labor and gender equality.


Now acting as Humanist for On Equal Terms, which is funded by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy and sponsored by the Center for Women's Studies at Brandeis University, Reeves has helped facilitate the installation here at Suffolk University.


Describing her friend's work as an articulation of the struggle to "reconcile political ideals and our social realities," Reeves believes that there is still much work to be done in the fight for equity. While most who enter the gallery will likely have no familiarity with construction or working a trade, Reeves hopes that they realize that injustice permeates every career path.


"If the threshold for equity is low in one sector of the workforce it is low everywhere," she said, reinforcing the need for solidarity amongst women and their male allies.


Change may be on the tip of the nation's tongue today, but both Eisenberg and Reeves realize the great challenge in transforming political rhetoric into public action. While struggling to meet that demand, the voices of the forerunners of the cause may help to build hope.


As Melinda Hernandez said, "All these things are just fighting for your rights. But to them, it's radical, because you're making them face the fact that you're here to stay. And not on their terms, on equal terms."


A poetry reading by Susan Eisenberg, sponsored by the Women's and Gender Studies Program, is scheduled for Friday, Feb. 6, 1 to 2:15 at the Poetry Center, Sawyer Library. Light refreshments will be provided.


A panel presentation on the historical and legal developments affecting women in the building trades will include Susan and other speakers. The event is Friday, March 6, 1 to 2:30 PM, location TBA.


On Equal Terms: Women in Construction 30 Years & Still Organizing


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