Curator’s Scrapbook


About The Curator

Susan Eisenberg, MFA, is a poet, author, visual artist, oral historian, and policy analyst who was among the first women in the country to become a journey-level electrician in union construction. For four decades she has endeavored to understand, frame, convey and advance issues of tradeswomen. Her books include We’ll Call You If We Need You: Experiences of Women Working Construction, With a New Preface (2018), re-issued from the original (1998); and the poetry collections, Stanley’s Girl: Poems (2018), Perpetual Care (2016), Blind Spot (2006), Pioneering: Poems from the Construction Site (1998), and It’s a Good Thing I’m Not Macho (1984).

Her essays have appeared in The Nation, Engineering News-Record, Utne Reader, and The Progressive; she lectures widely, including talks at the International Labour Organization, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the 2018 IBEW International Women’s Conference. She created the 900-square-foot touring mixed-media art installation, On Equal Terms (2008) and Not on a Silver Platter (1993). She is a Resident Artist/Scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center where she directs the On Equal Terms Project. On Equal Terms: gender & solidarity began as her 2016-2017 Twink Frey Visiting Social Activist project at the U-Michigan Center for the Education of Women.


Welcome! to On Equal Terms: gender & solidarity—an interactive exhibition honoring the experiences of women in the construction trades. I invite you to wander through these rooms as you might a gallery. If you’d like to read “wall text” for one of the rooms, the fuse (or, Stella’s eye) will navigate you here.

This online exhibition launches on the 40th anniversary of the federal affirmative action policies that—in 1978—opened construction jobs and apprenticeships to women. There were high expectations that dramatic change would follow, that the employment equity promises of the 1964 Civil Rights Act would be fulfilled. As one of the women who entered an electrical apprenticeship in 1978, I have been both participant in and documenter of this history, my perspective informed by the grassroots movement of women who sought to build careers in construction and similar industries. Some succeeded, many did not. According to the most recent Department of Labor statistics women are only 3% of the construction workforce. That discrepancy between policy goal and policy outcome, and the consequent costs—on tradeswomen and their families, on the country’s persistent gender wage gap, and on the construction industry itself—has inspired nearly four decades of inter-related projects: books, poems, articles, installations.

And now, On Equal Terms: gender & solidarity, an online exhibition that brings elements of the physical installation, audio from the We’ll Call You If We Need You interviews, poems, research, and historic documents accumulated over decades of activism, into a more accessible, content-rich format. The construction industry is both unique and emblematic of larger societal struggles between solidarity and division, between inclusiveness and other-ing. The choice for the industry—in situations of harassment or discrimination—between protecting the high-value veteran employee or the newcomer, is the same across all occupational fields.

As the Curator/Researcher/Artist, I owe deepest thanks to my brilliant creative team: Harlo Holmes, Technical Lead; Ashlee Rothfuss, Graphic Designer; Jonathan Butterick, Developer; and Devi Acharya, Curator’s Assistant. As you look and listen, I encourage you to consider what would be required to create a workplace, classroom, community, country where each person is treated—not hostilely, not identically, but—on equal terms.


Stella is the name of the life-sized mixed-media figure on a ladder in the On Equal Terms installation. First created in the early 1990s with art preparator Jack Fahey for the Not on a Silver Platter installation, she has grown over the years: her head larger, moving from a 4-foot ladder to a 6-footer. She wears the Carhartt coveralls that kept me warm working outdoors in Boston winters and a diamond hardhat: a celebratory image from “Hanging, In Solo,” a poem written during my apprenticeship. Stella’s a bit of an Everywoman having an Everyday. Her hair is made from flannel workshirts. The faces that combine for Stella’s mask come largely from Tradeswomen Magazine, a 19-year national journal. The tags attached to Stella’s coveralls—a counterpoint to her diamond hardhat—are a project of several decades: each handwritten by a tradeswoman responding to how she’d been labeled or diminished. I liked that they remind me of the tags sometimes used to label valves; that they don’t impede Stella’s physical ability to work; that no one tag is more prominent than another; that for different exhibitions Stella can wear a different arrangement of them, much like each jobsite is a different experience. The armband on Stella was issued by the Canadian Labor Congress in commemoration of the Montreal Massacre, cited in the We Remember room. Stella is meant to hold contradictions: she’s both armored and vulnerable, welcomed and assaulted, alone and in community. At the other end of the cable that Stella’s pulling in, she has a partner.

For On Equal Terms: gender and solidarity and gallery exhibitions, a video created from stills of Stella in a contractor’s pre-fab shop—as though she were on a jobsite—allows viewers to see her from all sides, stopping for close-ups of her tags and the collage of faces.

Diamond Hardhats

Visual messages are visceral. I’ve been struck that most photographs of working construction workers—are still of men. Or, when they are of a woman, she’s stopped work to smile at the camera; or her body posture or how she holds her tools reads out: apprentice; or she’s in a white hardhat touring the jobsite in footwear other than workboots. But women have been doing these jobs for forty plus years!

I wanted to show off how capable women are at all aspects of their trade!

Listening Room

In the 1990s, I began to interview women like myself who had started careers in construction during the briefly promising early years—late 1970s/early ’80s—when federal affirmative action was strongly enforced and, in many cases, reinforced by local initiatives. To give both range and focus, I talked with women from five trades: electricians, ironworkers, plumbers, painters, and carpenters who apprenticed in ten states and the District of Columbia. A third were women of color, a deliberately much higher percentage than would be statistically representative. These stories and perspectives and the conversations that followed helped me to better understand my own experiences; and became the basis for We’ll Call You If We Need You: Experiences of Women Working Construction, and informed the touring installation, On Equal Terms.

The Listening Room makes available excerpts from the We’ll Call You interviews, so that these thoughtful women can be heard in their own voices. Their stories have been arranged into four categories—Breaking In, Supporters and Path-Blockers, Family, and Passions—as though they speak to us in the break shack. Poems have been added from Pioneering (1998), published with the original We’ll Call You, and from Stanley’s Girl (2018), published alongside We’ll Call You If We Need You, With a New Preface. For me, poems have been life rafts that helped carry me through my apprenticeship, and helped give shape to my experiences working at journey-level and as a gatherer of testimonies.

While “success stories” are very important, limiting to those would misrepresent the narrative and make invisible the scars behind successful careers, and the capable women whose careers were cut short or limited. The experiences of all women who’ve worked in the industry add to our understanding of tradeswomen’s story as one composite inclusive narrative textured with many variations. How does context—the actions of contractors/companies, unions, developers, and co-workers, and the larger social/political environment—determine a woman’s actual opportunity? For those listening as a group, the stories allow for problem-solving: how could negative situations be anticipated and prevented, discrimination better addressed, and positive experiences replicated? Every local area has its own unique history to be recorded.


The Moms room slide show echoes a similar element in the touring On Equal Terms installation, where a range of tradeswomen’s parenting stories are written on architect’s paper unrolled over blueprints on a long Blueprint Table. Key words or phrases of the stories are spelled out in cookie letters. Work and home mix and mingle on the table—tools and stock with children’s books and toys—and, in the photographs of tradeswomen’s children using mom’s tools, working alongside her, or dressed in her work gear.

Most people’s primary work objective is to earn wages and benefits to support themselves and their families. In an all-male workforce, conflicts between work and home responsibilities often stay hidden. When women enter, they’re brought into the open. Are profits and good working conditions at odds with each other, or mutually reinforcing? Pregnancy disability leave, job assignments that accommodate for pregnancy, paid family medical leave, a clean place on the job where one can pump breast milk, meetings and classes timed with family responsibilities in mind, and the availability of quality childcare—-demonstrate a commitment to the value of children and families. And the value of the workers who value them.

Bathroom Shack

A reminder of vulnerability. The landing image documents the 6×6 foot plywood bathroom shack of the touring On Equal Terms installation. From the toilet seat the door with a broken latch—a wire around a nail—is out of reach. The walls are 8 feet high, but one knows that someone working nearby on a high ladder could see over them. The bathroom shack was also an audio site, and became a place to congregate.

Because initial installations were in galleries where children were among the viewers, graffiti that—on a jobsite—might appear anywhere, was kept to the bathroom shack walls, with more difficult images not viewable from the doorway. Graffiti normal to a construction site—brought into a gallery—created lots of conversations between construction workers and other viewers.

For the online exhibition, some graffiti pops up when you scroll across the plywood walls—as it might surprise a woman in the midst of her job. Or, by clicking on the toilet, a slide show opens. Are women’s needs for a secure, clean place to take care of normal bodily functions—to pee, shit, or change tampax—and to afterwards wash hands protected or denied depending on whether employers and supervisors want to keep them or discourage them?

Backed By Law

The Women’s Bureau, U.S. Department of Labor, created a popular education booklet distributed in presentations around the country, to help tradeswomen and the construction industry better understand the—then, brand new!—1978 federal affirmative action guidelines. I received this copy at a workshop given in Boston.

Printed in two colors—an added expense—the arrows, comments, and images in fuscia ink draw attention to significant sections of the comments and law, and guide readers in understanding the dense government text. It’s a strong example of the enormous federal effort to champion civil rights in the workplace underway at that time. Across the country, there were posters on buses encouraging women into skilled trades careers, 3- or 9-month full-time hands-on training programs funded by the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) to introduce women to the skills they’d need, advertisements posted at unemployment offices, and Equity Specialist positions funded in vocational high schools.

I re-read the April 7, 1978 “Goals and Timetables for Female and Minority Participation in the Construction Industry” and May 12, 1978 “Equal Employment Opportunity in Apprenticeship and Training” fifteen years later, when I began writing We’ll Call You If We Need You: Experiences of Women Working Construction. I was stunned to realize how many of the problems encountered and suggestions mentioned by the tradeswomen I interviewed were anticipated in the original guidelines. And how much more positively history might have played out, had enforcement carried through.

In the touring On Equal Terms installation, I’ve exhibited a framed copy—opened to pages 4 and 5, with those happy face/sad face drawings!—alongside one of the full color recruitment posters, to convey a glimpse into the optimism of that era. For the online exhibition, I’ve added comments from the present in sticky notes that viewers can open. What a wonderful model for making contract language or laws accessible!

We Remember

Vanessa Downing was killed June 24, 2010, at age 26, in a work accident on the Seattle waterfront. A proud member of Operating Engineers Union-Mechanics, she was close to completion of her apprenticeship. Her mother, Erin Mangan-Downing, donated Vanessa’s welding suit, that she’d modified herself with kneepads, to the touring On Equal Terms installation. Since there was no place where it quite fit, I created a new element, We Remember, focused on work-related deaths, that was added for the 2012 exhibition at the Smithsonian-affiliated MSU Museum in East Lansing, MI. Placed in a quiet area of the installation, an arrangement of tiles with each woman’s name and year-of-birth/year-of-death, along with explanatory text about each, and related artifacts, became a gathering place for reflection and conversation. For the online version, I am glad to be able to add a photograph for some of the women, and to include We Remember All Our Sisters—honoring tradeswomen whose deaths were not work-related, but whose loss was deeply felt—added, at the suggestion of NYC tradeswomen, for the 2013 Clemente Soto Velez Center exhibition on the Lower East Side.

To research We Remember I backtracked first to stories I knew personally, or that were mentioned to me over the years, in conversations or interviews, about deaths that tradeswomen identified as work-related. I asked for more detail, checking news or government accounts, following a range of other leads, and consulting with veteran tradeswomen to evaluate what seemed plausible. This is a poet’s account, not a legal one, of Work-Related Deaths of women working in construction and related occupations that took place across roughly four decades. It’s not meant as an exhaustive record, but rather follows a poet’s curiosity—with leads, advice and generous assistance from the tradeswomen community—to present the range of situations that became fatal. In a dangerous industry, storytelling about serious or fatal accidents is part of the culture, serving both as remembrance/honoring, and as cautionary tales. For women who work in historically-male industries, circumstances of work-related deaths include—but also go beyond—those normally associated with the occupation. Word of them travels, and can have deep personal impact for women who never knew the victim. I included representative fatalities from similar occupations that had resonance for tradeswomen. Though the intention had been to limit those to one each, exceptions were made for the 1989 Montreal Massacre and 9/11 deaths. Before I began, I imagined separate lists for accidents, murders, and suicides, and thought those categories would be easy to distinguish, and that whether a death was work-related or not would be obvious. I found otherwise, and for the latter, followed tradeswomen’s perceptions and the notion—as in work-related accidents or health conditions—that its role was significant.

When I’m told about a serious work-related injury or death of a woman, or any worker who might be unwelcome, I’ve learned to ask, Do you think it was an accident? I’ve found that this generates a deeper and more nuanced conversation, raising questions about norms that were not followed, added pressures to prove oneself, prior situations that shaped the current one, or how the danger could have been anticipated and prevented.

Wallpaper Testimonies

If one hovers over a teal rose, fragments of transcript pages emerge beneath the veneer of wallpaper. They’re from first person testimony given in New York City during the administration of Mayor David Dinkins. In the touring On Equal Terms installation, they exhibited much like this, on three wallpapered 4×8 panels.

Between March, 1990, and November, 1992, a series of 14 hearings were held by the New York City Commission on Human Rights and the New York City Office of Labor Services. Among the reasons for the inquiry cited by Commission Chair Dennis deLeon were that, “Even in the booming economy of the 1980s, women, African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans were kept at the margins of the growth within the industry. Further, reports of sexual harassment and other obstacles encountered by women seeking employment in construction have increased over the years, while many government-funded programs designed to assist women who enter this male-dominated work environment have ceased to exist.”

In all, 146 testimonies from witnesses representing all aspects of the industry were recorded. Some testimony and data were given voluntarily, some in response to subpoenas. Some witnesses testified openly before the commission; others from behind a screen, with voices altered. According to Director of Research Peggy Crull, “A huge part of that effort was creating an atmosphere where people felt safe. There was an opportunity to testify anonymously and so it was a huge logistical job because in our case we had a microphone that distorted their voices and a room that they had to be able to get to without anyone knowing how you would get to that room.” Building Barriers: Discrimination in New York City’s Construction Trades, the final report of findings and recommendations—addressing disparities in hiring, earnings, and health and pension benefits, and lack of due process—was filed in December, 1993. One month later, Rudolph Giuliani became New York City’s mayor; the Commission’s recommendations were not implemented. The Wallpaper Testimonies room links to that report and sample testimonies.

The NYC hearings are highlighted because the breadth of testimony and recommendations make them important in their own right, but also to represent the persistent efforts of tradeswomen across the country—from their first entrance into the industry—to call attention to problems. Informally and formally, as individuals, small groups, or grassroots organizations, they asked that industry gatekeepers obey the law, and that public officials and those tasked with enforcement do their jobs. Tradeswomen contributed their experiences and perceptions to conferences, hearings, media articles, and public reports. Often at personal risk. Responding to one question in a 1989 Minneapolis study, “Do you feel intimidation or reprisal will result if you complain about existing discriminatory practices? 97.4% of respondents of color and 89.1% of female respondents answered that they would “definitely receive reprisal such as termination, lay off, or failure to secure future employment, if they complained about existing practices.”

Poet’s Mailbag: The Picnic

Poet’s Mailbag: The Picnic was added to the On Equal Terms touring installation along with We Remember for the 2012 East Lansing, Michigan exhibition in the MSU Museum Main Gallery. Once an element about work-related deaths was being added, I realized an element focused on sexual assault also belonged. In the middle of one night, I woke and began looking for a long email I’d received in 2001, that continued to haunt me. Written in response to reading my poem “Pioneering,” the woman described being raped as an apprentice twenty years prior, at a work-related picnic, and the failure of her business manager to help her when she reported the incident to him. I wanted Poet’s Mailbag: The Picnic to allow viewers to experience the incident alongside her, capturing the lingering restlessness of her story while protecting her privacy. I let her know I was working on it and began to look closely at the text of her very clear, thoughtful, and coherent reflection. I set to work on a poem that rearranged the given language so that the reader could follow her choices in real time, and imagine—as I did—how they might well have made the same choices, each one being sound in its moment. I recognized in her story the same goals that I’d started out with—to succeed in my trade and fit in—and the same trusting.

I arranged fragments of text into a poem in seven sections. For the physical installation, I spelled the words in red and put them on plaster and gauze, like a bandage over a still-open wound, and hung them over a trail of leaves so they could spin—unsettled—the same words on both sides. Viewers read her story as they follow the path. For the online exhibition, we brought the same elements outdoors to an arboretum, and created a video. I hope it will be useful to discussions of the procedures and training required to prevent and address assault—and fall-back procedures needed if those fail.

What’s striking to me about this story is how populated it is, how many people could have—at so many points—intervened. How many must have seen something, but said and did nothing. Didn’t go over and sit beside her, or invite her to join their family group. One assumes her co-workers were basically decent guys, or she wouldn’t have gone to the picnic and been surprised that they ignored her. One assumes the business manager had been supportive in the past, or she wouldn’t have taken her story to him expecting things to be set right. Yet an outsider—the traveler—was able, fairly easily, to turn their picnic into a crime scene. I would guess many bystanders understood earlier than she did what the traveler was up to. And that the business manager was well aware of the incident before she reported it to him. I’d guess many of them had regrets later. I’ve found that this piece has evoked stories of workplace assault that had been long put away, untold to closest friends. One tradeswoman I’d known for more than thirty years revealed a never-reported sexual assault by the general foreman’s brother-in-law, who put a knife to her throat. One man told me of his wife’s jobsite rape by her foreman, and the words of her apprenticeship director to whom she reported the assault: Get tough or get out.

Bold Thinking Corner

Let’s play!

Re-shaping a career track—or any institution or social community where people are strongly-invested—requires BOLDNESS: a large wallop of courage (for when there’s pushback), thoughtful analysis, creative thinking, and a strong team of players who bring different skill-sets and perspectives. No worries!

Envision the finish line: a place where everyone is equally welcomed and equally supported to succeed. Give your game a name. You’re welcome to use ON EQUAL TERMS. Or, make one up. Back in 1997, the First IBEW National Women’s Conference used the phrase: “full and fair inclusion of women.” Choose a name that honors the long view, patience, and persistence you’ll need, because this will take more than a year or two. And the finish line will get more nuanced and further away as you go along. No worries! My Apprenticeship Director liked to say, “Every big job is made up of a lot of little jobs.” You got this!

For the Bold Thinking Corner room I wanted to create a hardhat to think under. And identify the criteria that makes a serious effort stand out. See if you agree with my 6:

—ACTIVE JOURNEY-LEVEL TRADESWOMEN (main stakeholders) in leadership role
—VISIBLE gatekeeper investment in joint venture
—Impact designed around strengths & problems SPECIFIC to community
—Addresses game-changer obstacle(s) to FULL CAREERS
—Signals industry belief in VALUE of women workers
—All in for the long haul! Act. EVALUATE. Adjust. EXPAND.

I’ve put up some examples of Bold Ideas that have impressed me. Look them over. If you think they meet criteria, fill in the matching colored circles they’ve earned!
Now the hardest part. Analyze the situation in an arena you feel you can impact: a contractor, union local, city, state, international union. Who could you have on your team? Design a Bold Idea that meets as many of the criteria as you can.

No pre-fab design! You’ll need to be site-specific, and have a team—like regular foremen’s meetings on any big project—that evaluates the situation and keeps things on track going forward to completion.

Get started!