—by Susan Eisenberg
Celebrating holidays and the winter solstice, I find myself considering loss amidst the celebrations. Reflecting on our 30+ years history in the trades, some losses are easier to consider than others. My apprenticeship classmate and good friend, Margaret Gove, died June 23, 1983 bicycling home from her construction job at Harvard when a car ran a red light. Of that first group of five women to graduate from our Boston IBEW local, Margaret was the one who held us together. An excellent, well-respected mechanic, she was one of those people who had your back, and –– what most impressed me –– could always find the way to be outspoken and principled without sounding strident or insulting. Her death was tragic and unnecessary. When I was creating the On Equal Terms installation, I knew I wanted to find a place for Margaret’s face on Stella’s mask.
Some other losses are harder to acknowledge. I think of another apprenticeship classmate and friend, Subash Anand, who committed suicide when he thought he’d failed his state licensing exam in our fourth year, leaving behind a wife and two young children. A kind and caring man, Subash was Indian-American and like other trailblazers had to deal with the enormous pressure of isolation, and any failure being seen as collective rather than personal. Carol Porter, a white woman two years behind us in apprenticeship, committed suicide the following year. We had talked about the difficulty of explaining the world of construction to family and friends. I remember my classmate Xenia Williams, who was driven out after our first year, though she was the most skilled of the original six.
The death last year of NYC construction safety supervisor Bianca Wiśniewska-Kuroś in an apartment fire the day before the first preliminary conference on her sexual harassment lawsuit seemed to open a floodgate of difficult memories among tradeswomen. And raised questions of whether the large cost has been worth the small gains.
I think of women who loved their trade, but left after apprenticeship because they could not get consistent enough work at journeylevel to pay their bills. I think of hardworking, capable tradeswomen who could not get enough good years in to build up a pension. When I interviewed tradeswomen for We’ll Call You If We Need You, many spoke about the women in their union who’d vanished, and the lessons they took from that.
In military battles, collateral damage refers to unintended consequences, like civilian casualties (although often, there seems to be more intention than claimed). In some ways, many tradeswomen have been ‘collateral damage’ of this very fragile effort to open the construction trades. There’s been lots of rumblings of a renewed effort by government/unions/contractors/developers. I hope so, and I hope this time it’s done right. With the kind of follow-through and structural change that’s needed to create success. And that our history will be looked at unflinchingly, with tradeswomen who have cleared and kept open the path acknowledged and honored.
All best wishes for the New Year!