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.
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).