‘Woodworker’ & ‘Woman’ are Separate Nouns

I’ve been trying for weeks to write this editorial; it is difficult to do because my idealist view competes with reality. I have long been ambivalent about woodworking shops and classes specifically for women, because I don’t want them to be necessary. But they are. Also, I don’t want to seem as if I’m trying to be the voice of all woodworkers who happen to be women. No doubt our experiences, ideas and ideals differ. So here’s my take:

As a woodworker who happens to be a woman, I have experienced time and again what it feels like to be a “woman woodworker.” Yes, I am a woman. Yes, I am a woodworker. One has little to do with the other. “Woman” need not be used an adjective to modify “woodworker,” but it often is. Or worse, “woman” is perceived as “not woodworker.”

I have walked into woodworking stores and lumberyards and been asked if I’m shopping for my husband. I have been at industry events where there are many woodworkers trying out a new tool or sawblade or what have you, with the makers or booth workers looking on. I step up to try out whatever is on offer, and a couple of guys come rushing over to make sure I know how to use it safely. While I appreciate the concern, I do not appreciate the concurrent lack of concern for those with a Y chromosome. It is condescending; the assumption – whether conscious or not – is that because I am a woman, I need help. I do not. Or if I do, I’ll ask for it (as should anyone).

I’ve been at woodworking press events where I was overtly and repeatedly sexually harassed to the point where other attendees began keeping close by in an effort to forestall it. (Concern I absolutely appreciate.)

I’ve been in woodworking classes where more than half the male students therein asked if I needed assistance; they did not ask the other men. I have taught woodworking classes wherein more than one man repeatedly pointed out “that’s not the way ‘XY’ does it,” to the point where it was clear “XX’s methods couldn’t be as valid.” (To be fair, I’ve heard from many instructors that there’s typically one person like that in almost every class, the gender of the instructor notwithstanding.)

Now this is not to knock men (and not all men do any of the above); I like men. I just don’t like it when people assume I can’t do something or do something well because I am not one.

Which brings me to A Workshop of Our Own – a Baltimore collaborative woodshop for women and gender-non-conforming furniture makers. The goal, says founder Sarah Marriage, is to “provide women an area to work, free of male judgment or harassment,” and that when one walks through the door, she is perceived not as a “woman woodworker” but as a woodworker. That is good and it is necessary. It is only when we can be perceived and valued independent of gender that we will achieve gender equality.

After studying architecture at Princeton where classes were about equally populated by women and men, Marriage attended the College of the Redwoods (now the Krenov School) to study fine furniture making, where she was surprised to find herself firmly in the minority. “It was good environment, but there was something about it – a feeling of being a little bit outnumbered.

“There’s a little more of an attentiveness to you than to your male cohorts, and when you make a mistake, it’s a bigger deal than when a man does,” says Marriage. “I think in some ways there’s a fundamental underlying mistrust of your abilities.” After graduating and beginning to show her work (which is stunning – I can only hope to some day have her skill and design vision), Marriage said that though her name was on the wall, she was often asked if her husband had done the work.

Her experience, like mine, is nothing terrible. It is, as she says, just the constant awareness of being a “woman woodworker,” of “having to be the voice of all women because you’re the only one there, and the only one who might say, ‘hey, let’s not drool all over the ULINE rep.'” It’s draining.

So she founded A Workshop of Our Own, a full shop by and for women, with classes for women, as well as for children regardless of their gender. “The idea of teaching boys as well as girls is to expose the younger generation to women doing this job. Not only are girls empowered, but boys are educated,” she says. “Patriarchy is bad for everyone. You have to deal with the fact that the situation is suboptimal; you can’t just act like we’re equal. You need to actively work to correct it.”

You can help. Right now, A Workshop of Our Own has the opportunity to buy the building in which it’s located – but time is short. The collective needs to raise $100,000 overall and there are five days remaining in the Indiegogo campaign. Not only will you be supporting a good and necessary step toward equality, you can get some cool stuff in return. Check out the rewards, check your checkbook, and see if you can’t find a few dollars to help.

In my lifetime, I can likely expect to at best be perceived as a “woman woodworker” when I walk into a tool store – and that would sure beat the assumption that I’m shopping for my husband (or shopping for a husband). But I’m hopeful that, with a few more efforts like Marriage’s, those two words are used as separate nouns for future woodworkers who are women.

— Megan Fitzpatrick

p.s. Lest you think I’m wearing blinders, men, I hope you can some day soon walk into a fabric store and have it not be assumed you’re shopping for your wives (or for a wife).

 

15 thoughts on “‘Woodworker’ & ‘Woman’ are Separate Nouns

  1. bendur

    Good article, I wish them the best. And thanks for writing about your experiences.

    I’m disappointed with people saying things like the comments you reference were just made by people who are merely unprofessional. It’s dismissive of the problem and the woodworkers who experience it.

  2. wldrylie

    I’m going to have to agree with Zenmeister. Your readers can’t control the people you rub elbows with, and it’s apparent they are not professional. We read your blogs and buy your magazine for woodworking tips, and great projects. I certainly do not want to pay money for PWM and open up to the editors column and read a complaint from the Director of the college of the Redwoods Laura Mays about how only “white men” are represented in the magazine and now this blog. PWM is your magazine to make great or wreck, you have freedom of speech in this country, but I have the freedom to walk away when I don’t like what I hear or read, and I am now going to exercise that right.
    Effective immediately, I will not renew my subscription to PWM or purchase any more products from the book store and I will not be coming back to this blog.

  3. John Cashman

    I’m sorry you have to deal with those issues and attitudes Megan. I’ve never felt that sort of discomfort, not once. I can’t imagine what it would be like. It ain’t right.

    I’m also surprised by some of the responses here. No one is trying to take anything away from anyone. They are trying to add something. Build something. I can’t see how that is anything but a good thing, for all of us.

  4. flatpickn

    I hear you voicing two issues, one is “the constant awareness of being a “woman woodworker,” of “having to be the voice of all women because you’re the only one there” and two is “and the only one who might say, ‘hey, let’s not drool all over the ULINE rep.” For the first one, you don’t get much sympathy. That goes with being a pioneer. Wear it like a badge of honor, but don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for you.
    As to the second, yeah, I don’t much tolerate that either.
    In the end, which ever sex, we’re all human and our experiences drive our actions. I work in a hardware store. We see this consistently. Customers with an electrical/plumbing/hardware issue, both men and women, bypassing the women clerks to talk to me or one of the other male clerks. But have that same group of customers need help with paint, they’ll pass up the guys and go straight to the women. Never mind that several of us guys have plenty of knowledge about coatings.
    In the end, it does have some justification, I can talk you through how to put paint, stain, or clear coat onto all kinds of material. I can talk you silly about prep and application methods. But don’t ask me about color. Especially, the latest colors or decorative painting (eg glaze, vs borders vs sponging, etc). I might know how to do it, but I certainly don’t know what is in style.
    Same goes for the women clerks. If you want to know about the parts to replace your sink trap or changing a light switch they’ll fix you up. But if you’ve got an old house with steel hooked to ABS with some PVC and CPVC thrown in for good measure, they’ll probably grab one of us guys. And which guy they grab will depend on his experiences. Some of us have done more with electrical vs plumbing vs paint.
    And to throw in one more wrinkle, the knottier the problem, the more likely a customer is to go to one of the older guys. Kind of like going to grandpa for advice. It’s flattering, but it makes you feel, well, old. But as I said, that is their experience and it drives their instincts. Can some of those instincts be wrong, like obviously drooling over the Uline rep. Yep, and it’ll take negative experiences to change those instincts. In the end, we’re a sum of our experiences and how we choose to let them define us.

  5. lastchancewoodshop

    I find it ever so slightly ironic that it is perfectly acceptable for Ms. Marriage to group the overabundance of men together, making broad generalizations about the motives behind their actions and the likelihood that they will judge or harass (they must be excluded from her safe space) while denouncing “patriarchal” society that does the same to specific members of her gender that display positive though atypical behavior.

    When men or women step out of what is a socially “traditional” role it is remarked precisely because it is remarkable.

    Additionally, I suspect many men that attempt to help a woman are doing so out of courtesy rather than condescension. A man holding a door for a woman is no slight to her ability. The act shows his regard for women and alludes to the quality of his upbringing and used to be expected as basic manners.

  6. Eric Brown Dayton

    Made my donation. Hope they are very successful. There are many times where a woman could do the job as well as a man, and over the years I have met a bunch that can do things better than I. However, women are a minority in manufacturing, in the common trades, simply because they haven’t had the exposure like males have. Especially when they are younger. I see the same thing happening with younger males right now too. There is a shortage of skilled workers and as us older ones retire it will only get worse. I guess the trick is to figure out how to inspire their desire to work with their hands, and then help them succeed.

  7. Ngatkinson

    I have been a women woodworker for 30 years. I just delivered a table to a Frank Lloyd Wright museum house and a women who was there for docent training asked me if my husband helps me. That question would not have crossed her mind if a man was delivering a table. I can relate to everything you wrote about.

    1. Megan FitzpatrickMegan Fitzpatrick Post author

      Oof. That’s why I say this is not an attack on men. It’s a plea, if you will, to change the patriarchal thinking pervasive in society. It’s not only men who are surprised when a woman does something considered “not women’s work.” It’s an insidious conditioning in societal expectations that has a negative effect on everyone.

      1. Mark82

        Megan, you’re 100% right: classes specifically for women are necessary. They are long overdue. I fully support them. But here’s an even more radical idea: classes specifically for boys. Can you name a single workshop anywhere in the country devoted specifically to developing the unique talents of young men? I know of only one. And it focuses, positively, on developing ‘men of character”; it does not, negatively, denigrate women in its mission statement. We need to always think about the welfare of both our young women and men. We are leaving behind our young men. And it’s heartbreaking.

        1. Megan FitzpatrickMegan Fitzpatrick Post author

          Mark, I realize this is provocative, but I don’t mean for it to be. I would argue that most classes are specifically for boys, if by default though not by overt design. Nothing WOO is doing denigrates men; it simply removes the weight of having to constantly deal with (and it is constant) gender assumptions about women that are at best but annoying and at worst can be debilitating. And there are mixed classes at WOO for boys and girls – having kids work and learn together before gendered societal expectations kick in, and allowing kids to see that gender has no effect on skill and competency, is what will bring about a change that results in such spaces no longer being necessary. In the meantime, I wholeheartedly support the endeavor to create a workshop for women – a space free from the noise of expectations and assumptions based on gender.

          1. martinsmithjr

            “I would argue that most classes are specifically for boys, if by default though not by overt design.” This is complete and utter crap. 57% of college graduates are female and 87% of primary education teachers are female. From where I sit, 50% of the remaining relevant woodworking magazines left in the United States have a female editor in chief.

            After starting the June issue saying you were going to break the rule about talking about politics in the magazine, I worry this is the new normal. Nothing could be worse for the craft of woodworking than an activist Popular Woodworking magazine.

  8. Zenmeister

    We can’t control your experiences. You have a terrific job. Please stick with woodworking and leave your personal issues at home. Same as any other man or woman. We pay for useful and practical information, not therapy.

    1. Eric

      Zenmeister – It must be nice to live in your little world. Just because this doesn’t affect you personally doesn’t mean it’s not a real issue. All she is saying is that she wants to be treated as an equal. To extend on her thought how would you like it if you were in, say a fabric store, and people automatically assumed that you didn’t know anything about it even though you were editor of a sewing magazine and accomplished maker. How would you feel. This is real and affects our craft. As such it not only reasonable to discuss it but it should be discussed. And she has had to deal with over sexual harassment. Personally, I’m embarrassed by the conduct of our gender.

  9. jshroyer

    Thanks for the P.S.
    When I walk into the fabric store I get really weird looks. Normal I just get really bad customer service and I wonder now if its the same for a woman in a hardware store. These are some interesting thoughts though.

  10. alpen

    Good stuff. Yeah, it shouldn’t be necessary, but it is. “Separate nouns” is a great way of describing how they ought to be perceived.

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