‘Woodworker’ & ‘Woman’ are Separate Nouns

(reposted from popularwoodworking.com)

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).


About fitz

Woodworker, writer, editor, teacher, ailurophile, Shakespearean. Will write for air-dried walnut.
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19 Responses to ‘Woodworker’ & ‘Woman’ are Separate Nouns

  1. nrhiller says:

    Now that the internet service has been restored to our domicile, I can send you massive fistbumps for this articulate and nuanced message. So much more I could say, and (to the relief of all, no doubt) I will refrain. Thank you for putting your time, energy, and intelligence into this cause.

  2. Steve Southwood says:

    Once again, thanks for this and Ally thanks you as well

  3. SSteve says:

    I’ve been sitting here for getting on 45 minutes, starting and deleting replies trying to express how tired I am of this situation. For now, in the interest of getting to bed, I’m going to simply say thank you for this post and that I have the utmost respect for you and the work you’re doing.

  4. J.C. says:

    Ditto! I discovered the latter when looking for a bolt of black velvet fabric made of 100% rayon. The bewildered lady at the fabric store had never heard of such a thing till she looked it up. She ordered a bolt of it for me. When I told her what I used it for she also said she had never heard of such a thing. Again! I think I made her day.

  5. James says:

    I’m in a several facebook groups with a lot of woodturners, some of whom are women. (The bulk of these group tends to be older, white men.) It seems like every time a women post a photo, it gets at least some form of catcalling as a comment (“That’s really pretty, and the bowl is too…” for example). Most of the time, I bite my tongue, because it feels like it’s not my place to a) police their comments or b) to be perceived as defending a helpless woman who can’t stand up for herself. It’s good to hear that, at least in some cases, the concern is appreciated – I may start speaking up more often.

    • SSteve says:

      Go for it. Just be prepared to be branded “politically correct,” which is apparently one of the worst things you can be according to conservative talk shows. You may even make the ranks of Social Justice Warrior. In which case, welcome!

      On the other hand, it’s probably too late to enlighten many of these guys so you may want to save yourself the frustration. But they’ll all be dead sooner or later and their places will hopefully be filled with men who were brought up to respect all humans, regardless of gender status. Societal change mostly happens through attrition.

    • fitz says:

      All appropriate condemnations are much appreciated (by me, anyway). And I hope they also stand up for themselves.

  6. bsrlee says:

    Women also make some of the best decorative blacksmiths, mainly because they have to treat the material correctly, not just try to bash it into submission. Ditto woodworking – if I was doing a barn raising I’d hire a bunch of muscly doofuses who can take orders, but when I wanted the joints done right I’d be looking for someone who has good hand-eye co-ordination and is going to do the job right, not just hack away with a ‘near enough is good enough’ attitude.

    As for fabric shops, I’ve been on nodding terms with some counter staff for 30+ years. we commiserate of the idiocy of management and bemoan the lack of good quality cloth. I hate the people who seem to think scattering glitter over everything makes it better – it just makes everything it touches unusable.

    • Wombat says:

      Glitter? You mean craft herpes!
      As a generalisation, I’ve found that female friends that I’ve introduced to woodworking are far more receptive to the ideas, as well as the ‘feel’ required.. compared to my male friends, who think they know it already, and that the harder you hit a chisel, the better it works. I truly hope that’s not because of a steeper ‘authority gradient’ that I (as a man) would be responsible for,

  7. richmondp says:

    I am a seventy year old male woodworker. Three comments:
    – I used to rock climb, back in the late sixties. I recall many initiatives by women to form all female climbing combinations.
    – In the early seventies, my then wife joined the crew of an all female commercial fish boat.
    – When I finally got around to going to art school in the mid eighties, the tech who ran the wood shop told me that, in the past, his male students would have been his best, probably because they had received some prior instruction as young children, but that now, mid eighties, male and female seemed to have equal prior experience (none) and his female students were the best. Paid better attention to detail and accepted coaching better than the males.
    That’s all I got. It’s sorta discouraging, suggesting that some things never seem to change.

  8. SteveM says:

    Oddly enough, the one time I stopped at a fabric store on my way home from work to get some fabric for my wife I was asked what I was making. No assumptions were made about it being for my wife.

  9. Deniseg says:

    Yes, yes, yes. The stories I could tell! Thank you for this article. I would also like to say I see a wonderful wave of change growing in the ww community. I just finished a one week class in Maine and I had the most amazing and respectful experiences with several of the men in the class and leading the class. There was also one real boob, but really, just ONE in the whole class.

  10. I noticed the campaign is up to $62K as opposed to $50K when you posted this originally. This is likely in no small part due to efforts like yours Megan. I, like many others, tried to comment with something pithy and inspirational when I first saw this. Alas, the words escaped me and have all through the holiday weekend. Instead, I contributed what I could to the campaign and made sure my little girls got in some workshop time. Maybe they’ll know the power of separate, AND equal, nouns one day. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

  11. Drew Lawson says:

    “[B]ecause I don’t want them to be necessary.” — Thank you. This is the gut reaction that I have (as a man) when first encountering something like this. I want my world to be ideal. I caught the Schwarz post about this before yours, and he cut through the bull for me nicely — If this isn’t needed, why it WW still 95% male.

    Oh, by the way, I have no concerns in the fabric store that people think I’m shopping for my wife (who doesn’t sew anyway). I just assume they think I’m gay.

  12. It’s natural that guys are smitten with women that use tools. I met you in Chicago a few years ago and was awkwardly polite – for all the reasons you state. But… damn, it’s tough for a single guy to meet a woman with similar interests and not be attracted and possibly say something stupid. It took me 20 years, a lot of mistakes and eHarmony to meet the woman I’ll marry on August 12th. BYW, I have a vintage Pfaff and like getting attention at the fabric store!

  13. edfurlong says:

    The “are you buying this for your husband?” has variants. My wife has designed and is building a tiny house and when shopping for some specific screws was asked “what is your husband planning to use these for?” Me, I’m just the tool with the tools.

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