Occupational segregation, poetry, politically-engaged art, mixed-media installation, gender equity in the construction industry
Susan Eisenberg is a poet, oral historian, visual artist, and policy analyst who was among the first women in the country to become a licensed journey-level electrician in union construction.
A retired member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), she has researched, framed, conveyed, and advanced issues of tradeswomen for more than four decades, providing a window on discrimination and exclusion in historically male occupations. Her books include We’ll Call You If We Need You: Experiences of Women Working Construction, With a New Preface (2018), reissued from the original New York Times Notable Book (1998); and the poetry collections, Stanley’s Girl (2018), Perpetual Care (2016), Blind Spot (2006), Pioneering (1998), and It’s a Good Thing I’m Not Macho (1984). Her work brings the voices and concerns of grassroots tradeswomen to the ears of government and industry gatekeepers. A member of the planning team for the 1997 First National IBEW Women’s Conference, she speaks widely on employment equity at conferences and universities—often mixing poetry and visual arts with analysis; venues include the International Labour Organization in Geneva, the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington D.C., and the union-sponsored Women Build Nations Conference in Seattle. A Resident Scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center, she was chosen as the 2016-2017 Twink Frey Visiting Social Activist at the University of Michigan’s Center for the Education of Women.
The On Equal Terms Project, directed by Susan Eisenberg, has been an affiliated program of the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center since 2007. Through publications, talks, workshops, and artwork, the project aims to invigorate and deepen conversations about the full and fair inclusion of women in occupations from which they have historically been excluded, asking what it would mean for an industry to fully implement Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Drawing on research, art, personal testimony, and humor, the project invites conversation on the re-design needed to achieve career pathways and workplaces that treat all workers on equal terms.
Recognizing the importance and quality of construction careers in the union sector, and the labor movement’s deep commitment to worker safety and dignity, the On Equal Terms Project considers not only larger policies but daily situations that might explain how—four decades after federal affirmative action and despite their demonstrated capabilities and interest — women are only three percent of the workforce. The project highlights and supports bold positive efforts and encourages collaborative problem-solving by working tradeswomen, industry leaders, and government officials at the local and national levels.
The significance and quality — especially in the union sector — of construction careers make them important, as well as illuminating workplace issues across all occupations. a dangerous industry where a hostile work environment can sometimes be fatal, The On Equal Terms Project developed a 900-square-foot touring mixed-media art installation, On Equal Terms, combining audio, poetry, found objects, photographs, historic artifacts and 3-D mixed media—including Stella, a life-sized figure on a ladder in a diamond hardhat—to bring viewers into the experiences of women who work on construction sites. Exhibition venues include Brandeis’ Kniznick Gallery, the Clemente Soto Velez Center in NYC, the Smithsonian-affiliated Michigan State University Museum in Lansing, MI, and the lobby gallery of the AFL-CIO in Washington, DC. In 2019, the AFL-CIO honored Susan Eisenberg with an award noting that she “captures in her work the grave injustices and incredible solidarity that define the experiences of many tradeswomen. Her art reminds us of our shared responsibility to build equal opportunities throughout the labor movement.” To make the installation more widely accessible and allow for sharing more content, a digital version, On Equal Terms: gender & solidarity was published on an independently-hosted website. The Landing Page and 12 interactive rooms continue to be developed.
Projects have received support from Mass Humanities, the 21st Century ILGWU Heritage Fund, the University of Michigan’s Center for the Education of Women, Berger-Marks Foundation, the WSRC’s SSP Program, the IBEW, the Ironworkers, CLUW, the AFL-CIO and generous individual donors. For more information, contact OnEqualTerms@brandeis.edu.