I’ve lost track of how many times people have written “So great to see a woman in the magazine!” following the publication of a project feature. For years I’d roll my eyes and think Never mind my gender. WHAT ABOUT THE WORK?
It’s thorny, this issue of gender representation in woodworking. You can say pretty much the same about race. When you’re the odd one out, it’s easy for readers to see only what makes you different. Which is galling when, for you, what matters is the work.
While I was on hold during a recent phone call, I glanced at Instagram and found myself tagged by Sarah Marriage at A Workshop of Our Own. She was commenting on a post by Phoebe Kuo. “Have you heard about our woodshop drinking game?” asked Sarah. “You take a shot every time you see a woman depicted working in the field of woodworking (ie, not a customer service rep with a headset asking you to call today) in a woodworking periodical. It’s usually safe for the woodshop because you never take a shot!”
Of course she was exaggerating (a little), as she acknowledged by referring to a recent issue of Fine Woodworking. I replied with a comment listing a few other publications that have recently featured work by women: Woodcraft, Furniture & Cabinetmaking, and most recently a cover feature in Popular Woodworking. But as I continued working into the evening and ruminated on Sarah’s remark, her point sank in: It’s important to go beyond publishing work by women to publishing images of women working. While it was exceedingly rare to see a woman in a workshop or on a building site just three decades ago when I started in the field, it’s verging on common today. But outside of publications directed specifically at women, the percentage of females to males in woodworking publications is still low.
This dearth of representation is not due solely to sexism. There are also some distinctly prosaic explanations, among them:
- some women are so busy with commissioned work and other activities that they don’t want to take the time, which can be considerable, to propose, write, and do the hands-on work for an article, and
- while some of us are set up to photograph ourselves, others (guilty!) are not. As a result, in publications that use photographs provided by authors, work by women is published more often than images of women doing the work.
For years I felt like gagging at the mention of gender in relation to my profession. It wasn’t just the unintentionally demeaning remarks — “Did your husband teach you to do this?” It was the focus on the novelty of finding a woman in a field populated primarily by men. I just wanted to be Nancy Hiller, not a token female. Sarah and Megan Fitzpatrick have expressed the same frustration; no doubt many other women have, too. So why are we now paying so much attention to gender and calling for more images of women woodworkers?
Because we all need role models.
As a young woodworker, my models were men. Even without wanting to, I fell into the role of “cute tough-girl in the shop.” That was how others (though thankfully not all of them) made clear they saw me. I was “decorative,” to use a frequently cited word. This worked fine as long as I was thin. But when I gained 40 pounds in response to a devastating heartbreak, the reactions to the female in the shop turned to pity — and occasionally disdain, such as when the foreman at one of the shops where I worked greeted me with a hearty “MOO” when I arrived one Saturday morning to put in some extra hours on a deadline-sensitive job. (Note: Despite my appearance, I was still doing the work.)
What would a mature, confident woman in a workshop look like? I had no idea. To be honest, the question didn’t even occur to me. Instead, I had a vague sense that I should get out of the field before the age of 40, because a mature woman in jeans and work boots would be, well, kind of scary. Or maybe people would assume, based on her work clothes and dusty appearance, that she was not very smart. She would definitely not look “professional” or “desirable.” I’m embarrassed to admit that I ever felt this way, that I had so thoroughly internalized female norms presented by advertising and publishing that 40 represented the end of the road for me as a woodworker.
This is one of the reasons why it’s important to present images of real women working. Not just demure young women with wood chips gathering on their chests while they use power tools, not just intentionally sexy babes using table saws, and not just tattooed tough-girls. We need to include women in mom-jeans and make-up, women of color, big strong women…you get the picture. In other words, we would like to see images of real women woodworkers, ideally in numbers proportionate to the population of women woodworkers, whether woodworking is their hobby or their job — pretty much as we do with men. (After all, not every man looks like Tommy Mac.)
As Megan pointed out in a recent Popular Woodworking editor’s letter, it’s hard to aspire to something for which you have no example. –Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work
Video made by Frank Miller Lumber featuring what Raney Nelson would call “your humble narrator” (with apologies to Raney)