At Women’s Woodshop, no one has to prove themselves to be a maker.
By Jess Hirsch
I fell in love with woodworking because of the material itself; wood’s movement with the seasons, its reactions to metals and oxidation and a grain that holds a history of seasonal storms, heavy branches and fungi. I work primarily with green wood. I love to relinquish control to the material, allowing my bowls to dry in oblong shapes and warp with knots.
I have been working with wood for the past 13 years, some in the craft world, some in the sculpture world. As a woman in the field, I have experienced some setbacks based on my gender: men taking tools from my hands during class or making cuts for me, experiencing sexism at the lumberyard and hardware store and having to prove my ability in order to gain trust. Some assume that, because I am a woman, I don’t know what I am doing.
Woodworking is a tough field to get into. It’s highly technical, dangerous and expensive. And then you add a gender dynamic on top of it, and it’s no wonder why women haven’t felt welcomed in the past. But, the field is rapidly changing as more women and nonbinary makers embrace woodworking and more men are asking how to help them.
I had been brainstorming Women’s Woodshop for the past five years, and 2017 felt like the right time to launch it. The shop was founded on creating a supportive community and producing positive experiences for people of all genders. I believe woodworking is extraordinarily empowering. I want to share information and give access to women and nonbinary makers that haven’t felt comfortable with learning woodworking in the past.
My woodshop is a tiny 600-square foot storefront in south Minneapolis. We’ve hosted more than 300 women, trans and male-bodied students in less than a year for classes such as birch bark weaving, power tools 101, bowl turning and joinery 101. Daily, I receive emails from women and trans folks asking for more woodworking classes, opportunities to teach or for advice on how to start a WTF (women trans femme) space in their own communities. Women’s Woodshop has become a beacon for women and non-binary makers to connect with one another. They are not anomalies, but actually a part of a greater movement. Spaces like mine are popping up everywhere, including A Workshop of Our Own in Baltimore, Lower 48 in Oakland, Calif., and She Skills in Australia.
How can we make this shift gracefully into equal treatment in the woodshop? I think of a beautiful quote by Sarah Marriage: “It’s not about the absence of men, it’s about the presence of women.” The goal isn’t to drive men out of the shop, but to work alongside one another in a way that feels comfortable for everyone. Women’s Woodshop is built upon an ethos of non-competition and inclusivity. No one has to prove themselves in order to be a maker. You can come into the shop as an expert or a beginner and your skills are not determined by your gender. For the men out there, wanting to encourage the women woodworkers in their lives, remember this: Learning happens through doing. Let your daughters, sisters and mothers use the table saw. If you are taking a class alongside a woman, don’t question her ability. Women know how to ask when they need help. She may have a decade of experience under her belt.
The future of woodworking is exciting. It’s also a space where we can see gender equality rapidly grow. I am grateful to all my male counterparts for supporting the endeavor rather than feeling excluded (I do offer co-ed classes), and even more grateful to the women and non-binary students that are showing up in droves with a powerful enthusiasm.
Jess Hirsch is an artist, teacher and owner of Women’s Woodshop. Learn more at womenswoodshop.com.
Purchase the June 2018 issue of Popular Woodworking here.