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The Women Who Build With Wood and Words by  Catherine Lacharité Mueller

 

The roller-coaster of women’s rights has seemed less wild in recent decades than in the ride’s beginnings. After a steep drop to a near total absence of liberty of expression and confinement to the domestic sphere, the historical rise to gender equality beginning in the early 20th century has been just as dramatic. The ascension has had some shaky rails, loose bolts, and a few heart-stopping drops, but a summit is being reached. Countless works have been done on the history of Western women in the workplace and women’s progression into the higher echelons of the public sphere; the present goal is not to repeat or summarizes these works, but to expose a contemporary issue that has come from years of strong women pursuing the unorthodox and culminating in their gradual, often painstaking, yet successful incursion into the tough, virile world of construction.

Through writing, female authors have exposed truths of the struggles of women forced into labour (any labour) to make ends meet and feed their children. From factual testimony to a secure place in the realm of fiction, these women have shared their pains and told their sorrows. But what of the women who have willingly chosen an education that led to male-identified physical labour? What of the women who love their job but must reposition their femininity and demand men to accept the changes they are bringing to the field? Their trials are different— their hardships come from sexist discrimination, from the misconception that manual labour is not for women, and even from their own bodies.  Like many minority writing voices, testimony broaches the subject and in the form of non-fiction, the realities of contemporary women in construction are being voiced. At first glance, literature and construction work seem worlds apart, and a person who does one must have trouble accomplishing the other. This may be a hasty conclusion: experienced construction workers such as Susan Eisenberg and Kate Braid have masterfully bridged the gap with their autobiographies, compiled testimonies, and their masterful poetry on women in construction.

Susan Eisenberg

The few women who began working in a male environment did not have an easy integration experience. Wanting to be part of the historical movement of women towards non-traditional careers, Susan Eisenberg began her apprenticeship as an electrician in 1978. In her book We’ll Call You If We Need You: Experiences of Women Working Construction she describes her first day on the job:

“For my very first day in union construction I was sent to a bank in downtown Boston where a journeyman needed a hand pulling wire. Arriving early with my new tools and pouch, I knocked on the glass door in the high-rise lobby and explained to the guard that I was a new apprentice working for the electrical contractor. He refused to let me in. So I sat down on the tile floor, my backpack and toolpouch beside me, and waited for the man whose name I had written down alongside the address and directions on a piece of paper: Dan. The guard explained to Dan later that he'd figured I was a terrorist planning to bomb the bank. In 1978, that seemed more likely than that I might actually be an apprentice electrician.”

Although this sounds almost funny, the frustration of not being taken seriously must have been overwhelming. Similar to early women writers like the Brontë sisters, who were accused of plagiarism, the mere thought of women accomplishing anything un-traditional was simply un-thinkable. In this same work, Eisenberg tells the stories and experiences of thirty different women in various construction jobs. She then focuses on why the number of women in construction has remained so small and what needs to be done to increase these same numbers.

Testimony is a rather straightforward form of non-fiction that requires a knack for writing and structure more than creativity. But Eisenberg is also a poet and her collection entitled Pioneering: Poems from the Construction Site is a statement to her diversity of talents. “Hanging In, Solo” is a poem on being the only woman on a job site and the accompanying troubles:


On the mud-cold-gray-no-
sun-in-a-week days womanhood
weighs me down in colorless arctic fatigues
hands me an empty survival kit

and binds my head in an iron hardhat
three sizes too small.

I burrow myself mole-like into my work, but
my tampax leaks
my diamond-tip bit burns out after one hole
my offsets are backwards
all of my measurements are wrong.

(Eisenberg 42-43, lines 15-25)



The speaker goes on to describe how the men laugh at her for every mistake, and that fortunately not all days are as dire as these ones. Some are actually too good to be true while others are just right and this is where she feels in the right place. (To view complete poem, http://www.womenworking.org/poem.htm)

Kate Braid

            Kate Braid worked many different jobs before finding her niche in construction, a field in which she worked for fifteen years. For lack of having another woman on the crew to talk to, she began talking to her journal and especially focused on trying to understand the masculine culture of construction. “Eventually as the working days grew longer and her lines shorter, she realized she was writing poetry.  This led to her first book, Covering Rough Ground (1991), which won the Pat Lowther Award for best book of poetry by a Canadian woman” (Braid Biography). In this collection of poems, “These Hips” describes the alternative uses women have of their gender-specific body parts:


These Hips

Some hips are made for bearing
children, built like stools
square and easy, right
for the passage of birth.

 

Others are built like mine.
A child’s head might never pass
but load me up with two-by-fours
and watch me
bear.

 

When the men carry sacks of concrete
they hold them high, like boys.
I bear mine low, like a girl
on small, strong hips
built for the birth
of buildings.

 

                   (Braid Poetry)


 

After this first book, Braid worked four more years in construction and went on to become a prolific poet and writer, publishing as many as three non-fiction books, six collections of poetry, and an article on poetry in less than twenty years. She has also been teaching creative writing in British-Columbian universities since 1995 (Braid Biography). In her most recent book of poetry, Turning Left to the Ladies (2009), Braid continues her study of gender differences on a construction crew. “Spy” tells of a diminished gap between the sexes until irrefutable biology makes its stand:


Spy


I parachute into man’s country,
hoist my beer in the bar as if native.

 

Cool, I talk shop, stand as they stand,
not quite sure
of the cocky swing of hips,
lift of the glass in a loud bass,
confidence laughing.

 

This is the world of the knowing.
It’s only a small slip into a minor key
when I turn left to go to the Ladies.

 

                   (Braid Poetry)


Susan Eisenberg and Kate Braid are only two examples of strong women who attempted a non-traditional career in a man’s world.  They dealt with adversity and constantly had to prove themselves worthy of their occupation. Their desire to share not only their own but also others’ experiences as women in construction has given the literary world something new into which to sink its teeth. The more women are encouraged and empowered to pursue non-traditional jobs, the more we will hear about their experiences. There will be more voices to be heard, and the women who can build both texts and houses will grow in number. Hopefully, the time will come when having women in construction will be just as normal as having women CEOs, politicians, engineers, bus drivers, writers...


Women in Construction: Web Sources to Consider

 

o   Canadian Association of Women in Construction: http://www.cawic.ca/

o   I am a Woman, See me Work: Women in Male-Dominated Careers: http://iamwomanseemework.wordpress.com/

o   National Association of Women in Construction: http://www.nawic.org/nawic/History_of_NAWIC.asp?SnID=1654414074

o   Oregon apprenticeship: Testimonials to encourage and inspire: http://www.oregonapprenticeship.org/?page_id=44

o   Perceptions of gender roles and attitudes toward work among male and female operatives in the Scottish construction industry: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0144619021000024989

o   Women in Construction 30 Years and Still Organizing: http://sistersinthebrotherhood.blogspot.com/2009/01/women-in-construction-30-years-still.html

o   Women in Construction: Breaking the Glass Ceiling: http://www.yourhome.ca/homes/newsfeatures/industrynews/article/925381--women-in-construction-breaking-the-glass-ceiling

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Work Cited

Braid, Kate. Kate Braid: Poet, Writer, Teacher. Genesis Theme Framework. 2011. Web. 18 Nov. 2011.

Eisenberg, Susan. “Hanging In, Solo.” Pioneering: Poems from the Construction Site. New York: Cornell UP, 1998. 42-43. Print.

Eisenberg, Susan. We’ll Call You If We Need You: Experiences of Women Working Construction. New York: Cornell UP, 1998. Print.

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The History of ChildBirth in America - Geneviève  d'Auteuil Hurtubise     

Throughout the years, there was controversy about the act of giving birth. In literature, many authors represented it as a way for women to have a voice. It was not always seen as an enriching experience and often it was more about the cultural differences than the actual act of giving birth.

Since Biblical times, childbirth has been a preoccupation for the women. They were taught to celebrate their bodies by giving birth. It was considered a great honour and one of God’s commandments. However, during the Renaissance, barber-surgeons were beginning to monopolize the way women were giving birth. In 1522, Dr. Wertt of Hamburg was burned alive because he was dressed up as a woman in order to attend a class on childbirth. Man midwives were not considered as highly renowned as the barber surgeons. Only men were allowed to medical school and women were even forbidden to practice midwifery. At that time, women were accused of being witches and many of them were tortured and even killed. Then, in Colonial times, the bishops were taking control over the midwifery. For them, giving birth implied that labour pain was a normal way to punish women who had committed sins (Birthologie).

Controversy within the history of childbirth further accentuates with the apparition of medical school. Until the 1700s, childbirth was mainly a female matter. It was more a social convention than a medical intervention. Most women were giving birth surrounded by midwives and relatives. However, in the first decades of the 1900s, midwives were, bit by bit, put aside to be replaced by male physicians (Dye 98). It was a shift from nonprofessional to professional aide but also a transition between births controlled by women to ones dominated by men (Dye 100). At the beginning of the 1920s, the government was more licensing laws which helped to build the medical system.

In 1980, more than 98% of births occurred in hospitals. In 1982, the Midwives Alliance of North America was founded giving, the opportunity to provide reassurance to mothers (Birthologie). Since birth was not defined as a pathological process with damages until the 1920s, it was allowing women to experience birth at home. In early America, midwifery was a way for women to bond (Dye 92). Nevertheless, since the nineteenth century, a new consciousness was raised. Women were no longer willing to endure the pain while they were able to have access to painless intervention.

In the end, giving birth is a natural experience which was not always seen as a peaceful adventure. Voices from the public, religious, scientific or social spheres interfere with childbirth. For a long time, the decisions about childbirth have been in the hands of others. It is time to have a voice about this rite of passage.

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Birthologie. “History of Childbirth.” Birthologie.com. Web. 22 Nov. 2011.

            < http://www.birthologie.com/pregnancy/the-history-of-childbirth/>

Dye, Nancy Schrom. “History of Childbirth in America.” Signs 6.1 (1980): 97-108. Web.

22 Nov. 2011. < http://www.jstor.org/stable/3173968 >

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The Evil Temptress by Anja Sesler

                        Women have been put down, controlled, and used by men under a patriarchal system in many places and in many historical eras. Humans are flawed with emotions they mostly do not control, and are often faced with situations they do not have control over. It is clear to me that at some point, some men decided they could at least control women and the power of procreating through them, since women were generally physically weaker than them. Of course, brute force was not the main asset for men to implement patriarchy. Some men were smarter than that and started creating reasons why women should be inferior to men, using religion as a medium for propaganda. This way, even women would have to agree that they were indeed inferior and would eventually have to comply to what religion dictated through the great stories of the Bible. These arguments do not imply that all men conspired in this made up story that is the Bible, but simply that some men were too proud and needed more control over what they could manipulate around them to eventually gain more power. This reasoning would somewhat explain the extremely horrible quotations on women found in the Bible. If women would have written the bible, would they really have portrayed themselves this way?

                        Christianity's arguments to diminish women start with Eve, a character that was created to men's advantage, the supposed first woman to have existed. Eve, in accordance to the Bible, is the first evil to be put in Man's way. We all know the story: God made Adam in his image. Adam was lonely. Hence, God created Eve with one of Adam's ribs. Eve was therefore only a copy of the original model without a real soul, her only purpose to entertain Adam, apparently. What a great image to set for young girls growing up in a Catholic family; your sole purpose is to entertain men! The only logical explanation for this kind of message to be sent out to the population is that some men, who were always longing for more power, wrote these lines in order to diminish the female role in society and people believed it. "No wickedness comes anywhere near the wickedness of a woman... Sin began with a woman and thanks to her we all must die" (Ecclesiasticus 25:19,24). This quote refers to Eve, the first temptress, the one who brought mankind down simply by enjoying what mother earth was offering: an apple. Even if that could logically be explained as a horrible act, must all women then be condemned for the “atrocities” of one? If we look back in human history there are plenty of men who committed atrocious crimes on humanity. Are they only exceptions? Adolf Hitler, Attila the Hun, and  Josef Stalin are only a few names and still, it is not implied that men are mainly evil. The Bible tells us that God is forgiving, yet he never seems to have forgiven Eve or any woman after that for that matter.

                        The Bible does not stop blaming women for sins and everything that is evil. Christianity creates clear guidelines on how a woman is to behave in full submission to man: "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I don't permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner" (I Timothy 2:11-14). This quote explicitly forbids women to have any kind of power, should it be towards acquiring knowledge, freedom of speech, or freedom of decision. This passage also emphasizes the silencing of women through patriarchal power.    It is clear here that the men who thought this out wanted to emphasize the fact that women should not have the right to speak so they would not be able to gather knowledge, express knowledge or share it with other women. The less women knew, the easier it was for men to make women believe all they had made up. Knowledge is the stairway to power, therefore men had to make sure it was out of reach to women if they wanted to keep the power.

                        Moreover, God's punishments are clearly unfair and seem to put forth a misogynistic point of view. According to the Bible, women are simply objects created in full submission to man, with the sole purpose of procreation in order to create new generations of men. The patriarchal lineage, fathers and sons, has a value, opposed to mothers and daughters who have no value whatsoever since the Bible  states that daughters are of no importance: "The birth of a daughter is a loss" (Ecclesiasticus 22:3). There is no value placed in the female gender except for child bearing. Even this  feminine role is portrayed in the Bible more as a punishment than a blessing: “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). Here, the men who wrote the Bible cleverly use Eve's temptation as an excuse to explain women's atrocious pain of birthing as if it was a logical consequence for her “evil” actions. Furthermore, women are simply objects since they are described as their husband's property. Yet, even while women are objects, they should muster some desire for their husband who can do as he pleases with her. What happens if a woman is infertile? Why would God sometimes create women that cannot bear children if their only purpose in life was to bear children? Are they simply a curse? An honest divine mistake? An irony of creation?

                         The bible is filled with extraordinary stories that reduce women to the lowest of creatures. One story even mentions a father who is willing to give his two daughters to be raped to avoid harm being done to a man who is a complete stranger! What a horrible message to send out to humanity! Where are the family values? All of it goes back to the evil Eve, the first sinner, the one who was deceived and who brought Adam and all the human race down with her. Hence, the Bible clearly obliterates any type of self-esteem a woman can ever have if she chooses to believe it or if she is forced to.

 

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The perceived threat to Colonialism and Masculinity in Wide Sargasso Sea by Freddie Jean

 

In her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys presents a complex tableau of feminist topics intertwined with colonial and racial issues. Though the novel centres around the life and misfortunes of Antoinette, through multiple character narrations Rhys exposes some of the fears nurtured by nineteenth century England about woman empowerment and slave emancipation.  This essay will take particular interest in Rochester, the dislocated Englishman, who's struggles and ultimate response is an act of resistance against the perceived decline of his male dominance and colonialist authority.

            To fully comprehend the nature of Rochester's struggle, it must be established that in his mind, Nature (the Caribbeans) and his wife Antoinette, possess similar dangerous and attractive traits. Wide Sargasso Sea is an almost tactile novel. The story is told with vivid vocabulary that makes heat, scents and colours, predominant features. Rochester uses analogous vocabulary to convey feelings about the island and Antoinette. When talking about Antoinette  he says, “She wore a tricorne hat which became her. At least it shadowed her eyes which are too large and can be disconcerting. She never blinks at all it seems to me. Long, sad, dark alien eyes” (37).  This description  intimates both fear and attraction. Later when speaking about the location of their home in Coulibri, Rochester describes the same ambivalence.  “It was a beautiful place wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness” (52). These two samples of the intertwined nature of Antoinette and the island serve to explain his profound mistrust of both. Rochester is out of place out of comfort on the island as well as in the presence of his new wife.  He must overcome this weakness and assume the dominant position that he believes to be his righteous place.

            Rochester is an Englishman bred in the knowledge of his social standing as a man and as a member of the colonizing nation. He must, above all, keep up appearances and play the part that is his. From the moment he arrives in Spanish Town everything he does and says is marked with keen awareness of his unnatural position. He is playing the role that has been ascribed to him. Recalling his first meeting with Antoinette he admits, “Every movement I made was an effort of will and sometimes I wondered that no one noticed this. I would listen to my own voice and marvel at it, calm, correct but toneless, surely. But I must have given a faultless performance” (44). The need to uphold an image of collectedness in the face of his ever loosening grasp is present throughout the novel and partly explains the cruelty of his final behaviour.

            Rochester's position is one that demands power and respect, but the subordinates he encounters and indeed nature itself appear to have more disregard than esteem towards  him. In Coulibri, the land that Antoinette instinctively understands, Rochester realizes that roles are subverted, his British standing commands no fear, power must be negotiated with Christophine, a black creole. “She looked at me steadily, not with approval, I thought.  We stared at each other for quite a minute. I looked away first and she smiled to herself, gave Antoinette a little push forward and disappeared into the shadows at the back of the house. The other servants had gone”(41).  In this passage it is interesting to note Christophine's authority over Antoinette, and also the fact that the other servants took leave with no consideration for the new master. One can argue that they did not care to see the face-off,  because they already knew the outcome. Time and again Rochester is dismissed, or made less than what he ought to be, a treatment more often reserved to women or subordinates. In this land, the servants have no particular reverence for Rochester as a man or as a colonizer. Amélie flirtatiously mocks him .“Amélie, who had been sitting with her back to us, turned round. Her expression was so full of delighted malice, so intelligent , above all so intimate that I felt ashamed and looked away” (38). Hired help is no more reverential: “As the young Bull was loaded up, he glanced at me sideways boastfully and he too sang to himself in English” (p38). Why would this young island man sing in English, if not to tell Rochester that he is not only superior physically, but he also knows, the language of the educated. Not even boys and girls fear Rochester. “Antoinette ran across the lawn and as I followed her I collided with a boy coming in the opposite direction. He rolled his eyes, looking alarmed and went on towards the horses without a word of apology. Hilda began to giggle. She was a young girls of about twelve or fourteen, wearing a sleeveless white dress which just reached her knees” (41). As for the island, which stands for Antoinette in Rochester's perception of the world, it caused a fever that left him weak and diminished “The place is beautiful but my illness has left me too exhausted to appreciated it fully. [...] I was down with fever for two weeks after I got to Spanish Town” (43). Everything is too much, I felt as I rode wearily after her.  Too much blue, too much purple, too much green . The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near. And the woman is a stranger” (39).

            Commanding no respect from his entourage, and in a diminished position, Rochester's new life is haunting and degrading. On a couple of occasions he mentions money, the real cause for his dislocation and latent shame. Sadly and scornfully, he admits that he is the one that was given into marriage and not the other way around. “Her pleading expression annoys me. I have not bought her, she has bought me or so she thinks. I looked down at the coarse mane of the horse... dear Father” (39).

            The final blow to Rochester's colonial pride and masculinity is the letter received from Antoinette's half brother, a mulatto. In it, he is informed that the lineage in which he has married is flawed. There is craziness in the family and his wife is not what she appears to be. The correspondence also insinuates that Antoinette, like her mother, might have been more than friends with a black men. This, to an Englishman raised in the upright patriarchal nineteenth century England, is too much to bear. The threat is manifold including: shame caused by a union with a women of unsavoury reputation, the perspective of a bloodline tainted with mental illness, the mere thought of close association with Negroes. Rochester's ambiguous love and fear relationship with Antoinette and her island ends on the day he receives the first letter.  From that moment his resolution is to do harm, he deeply loathes Antoinette and the nature that surrounds her.  “I sat listening to the river [...] At last I stood up, the sun was hot now. I walked stiffly nor could I force myself to think. Then I passed an orchid with long sprays of golden-brown flowers. One of them touched my cheek and I remembered picking some for her one day, 'they are like you' I told her. Now I stopped, broke a spray off and trampled it into the mud” (60).

            Up to that moment, Rochester's attitude was one of compliance, in a woman's world where a black servant was feared for her magic, he did not interfere. In response to his offence he chose a course of action loaded with masculine and colonial pride. Sleeping with his servant Amélie, the sensual black creole, served to establish his dominance over colony and wife. He exercised sexual dominance over Antoinette by showing that as a man, he  could and would do the very things he loathed of her. In this way he reassuming the posture he once had through boasting in the inequalities of a patriarchal system. As a colonizer, it was also a symbolic act perpetuating the tradition of slave owners using their properties for sexual relief as well as domestic labour. In the end, Rochester treats Antoinette and her island with similar contempt. After receiving his fortune from his Caribbeans wife, both island and wife are forgotten, put away and left away, never to look back again, but not freed.

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Work Cited

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. London: Penguin, 2001. Print.

 

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Writing in the Father’s House By Marie-Pier Gauvin

 

 

 

 

 

 

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©Martine Pelletier