The unexpected book, about subjects neglected and out of fashion, is often the very book we had been hoping for, although we didn't know it. Such a book is 'We'll Call You if We Need You: Experiences of Women Working Construction,' by Susan Eisenberg, a master electrician and poet. In this age of the computer, Eisenberg writes about hard hats, hammers and muddy boots. Just when affirmative action faces widespread cutbacks, she celebrates one of its lesser-known successes, the introduction of women into construction trades. With the women's movement in danger of being reduced to petty debates, she introduces us to the feminist pioneers who first ventured onto building sites, braving hatred, abuse, physical suffering and even mortal danger. She gives us firsthand reports of skills developed, obstacles overcome, self-esteem achieved. She takes us into a world where steel beams are hoisted into place and pipes installed, where, as one woman puts it in this book, 'You have this thing you can touch and see and experience.' |
This is an inspirational, life-affirming book, although its author didn't seem to plan it that way. She set out to write a work of protest, but the women in the book speak so movingly about their accomplishments and satisfactions that success, rather than failure, shines through as the main theme. Near the end, Eisenberg confesses that she found the women 'consistently generous' in their feelings about people who placed obstacles in their way. 'At the most profound human level,' she concludes, 'I don't understand parts of this book.'
In April 1978, the Department of Labor set goals and timetables for hiring women on Federally financed construction projects, aiming to see female representation rise to 6.9 percent of the work force in three years. The hope was that by the turn of the millennium, women would make up close to a quarter of the construction trades work force. This did not happen, and a number of men -- fearful, bigoted and nasty -- worked hard to see that it would not. In the early 80's, women's share of the construction force rose to just over 2 percent, where it has remained ever since.
As the first women showed up on construction sites, a drama unfolded that was little remarked at the time, and little remembered today. Eisenberg, who herself began an apprenticeship with Local 103 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in 1978, tells the story through interviews with 30 women -- carpenters, electricians, ironworkers, painters and plumbers. The form entails the risk of becoming tedious, but this book is constructed so skillfully that the reader is kept constantly engaged. Instead of bringing each woman on stage to tell her tale, Eisenberg moves adroitly from topic to topic, interweaving her own commentary with pertinent remarks by each of them. The loss is that we don't get to know the women individually as well as we might like. But the gain in pace and interest more than compensates. Although the taped conversations have been edited for continuity, the immediacy of the spoken word rings true, replete with colorful idiom.
Each chapter deals with a different aspect of the pioneering experience: hearing about the early opportunities and determining to pursue them; gaining entrance to unions and their apprenticeship programs; first days on the job; trying to learn the ropes in a hostile environment; contending with blatant, fearsome sexual harassment; coping with loneliness and the lack of a female support system; the elemental problem of sanitation facilities on site; the question of physical strength; the special difficulties faced by women of color and by lesbians; the roller-coaster economics of the industry (high hourly pay but no job security); prospects for the future. In the midst of this often grim but consistently rousing story, two chapters modulate pleasingly into a cheerier key, one on the pride and delight many of these women found in their work, and the other on the few 'exceptional men' who helped them along the way.
Interwoven with the main chronicle are many parenthetical themes -- the single parent and day care, differences in social norms from one region of the country to another, and labor unions (part of the problem, but a necessary part of the solution). It is a testament to the author and her collaborators that so many thought-provoking topics are addressed without sacrificing narrative energy and interest.
Eisenberg has also published a companion work, a collection of poems entitled 'Pioneering.' Here she unleashes her bitterness about the construction site with little of the upbeat sentiment in her prose. 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.'
There are highs aplenty in the history of women and construction, but lows as well. Today, old hostilities have mostly been overcome, but there are more subtle obstacles. Eisenberg concludes that affirmative action must be pursued until female representation reaches a critical mass. I agree. But there is a larger issue: the fundamental relationship of women to technology in this increasingly technological age. Women are underrepresented in every mechanical field. Even in engineering, after 30 years of intensive recruiting of women, more than 80 percent of the young people entering the profession are male. There is much work to be done. These two books, however, help to convince us that whatever may underlie the vexatious problems of sex and vocation, it is not lack of courage or ability.
A renowned author and civil engineer in New York City, Samuel Florman penned down the modern classic ‘’The Existential Pleasures of Engineering” and stays active with his much acclaimed speeches and writings on engineering. To know more on Samuel Florman and his works, visit Wikipedia.org.
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