On seeing and being seen


A knockout indeed

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.


Image from http://www.awfullibrarybooks.net. (Yes, that is the title of the site.)

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


Anissa Kapsales, editor at Fine Woodworking


Anne Briggs (a.k.a. Anne of All Trades)


Ouida Vincent with her Dutch tool chest


Denise Gaul


Sarah Marriage (Photo by Allison Crowley)


Ivy Siosi and Audim Culver of Siosi Design + Build (Photo: Anna Powell Teeter)

Video made by Frank Miller Lumber featuring what Raney Nelson would call “your humble narrator” (with apologies to Raney)

About nrhiller

cabinetmaker and author
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43 Responses to On seeing and being seen

  1. Richard Mahler says:

    As a retired professional artist, graphic designer and photographer in corporate marketing, and as a lifelong woodworker, I hear everything you are saying, even between the lines. As a man who has a spouse of 49 years who has always been one who will tackle plumbing, take apart and reassemble a lawn tractor or a snowblower, do heavy gardening without a thought of her appearance while engaged in any of it, and all because it needs to be done and she takes particular satisfaction in doing it, she is not one whit less “feminine” or “sexy” to me – whatever those words may mean in our distorted popular culture and parlance. What in hell should any craftsman or worker look like when engaged in what they do – and what does gender have to do with any of it unless your vocation of choice deliberately panders to gender norms and expectations? There is an inexcusable gender double standard in our world and I do not pretend to have the answers to how we change that, only that I hope we make considerable headway before I get too old to any longer know what is going on!

  2. Interviews, ‘demo’ photos and interviewing women in every woodworking capacity imaginable! What percentage of magazine staff are female that are working with wood? Does your next hire need to another grad from one of the Woodworking schools that happens to be female?
    (Hopefully not the wiener in the comments!!!)

    • Justin Williams says:

      “Does your next hire need to another grad from one of the Woodworking schools that happens to be female?”

      Heavens! Not that! The horror!

    • nrhiller says:

      Thanks for your comment. Some pictures of women working in their shops will be added to this post later today.

      • Lou Robbio says:

        Women should be encouraged to begin and continue in the woodworking craft. No question about any women’s ability to equal anything a man can do. So, do we now move to racial matters? How many black woodworkers have been given an opportunity to be seen as role models and successful woodworkers in furniture, boxes, veneer, on magazine covers, in magazine articles or videos? Where do we begin and where do we end with gender and race politics? I engage in woodworking pursuits for the pleasure of creating something out of a hunk of wood and I am inspired by anyone, male, female, black ,white or whatever. History has left women behind in many areas and apparently woodworking is one of them. Encourage, present role models and correct the errors of the past and move on.

        • Justin Williams says:

          “Where do we begin and where do we end with gender and race politics?”
          I guess we should end at the point of equality, which we clearly don’t have.
          ” I engage in woodworking pursuits for the pleasure of creating something out of a hunk of wood and I am inspired by anyone, male, female, black ,white or whatever.”
          You are free to continue enjoying woodworking. You shouldn’t do so, though, under the presumption that you’re escaping gender and race (and class, by the way) inequality. Nancy is asking for more (and better) representations of women in woodworking, in part as a solution to those historical inequalities you point out. That needn’t be a threat to your enjoyment of the craft; it does suggest that woodworking isn’t a politically neutral leisure pursuit.

          • Lou Robbio says:

            It is not a threat to my woodworking pursuits. I have fought for the equality of every man, woman and child, white, black and native American in many courts across this land for over forty years. To me it is not just a word but a life pursuit. Of course women should be represented in woodworking. It would be asinine to believe otherwise. I know the ugly face of inequality and prejudice on every level and it certainly has been and may continue to present in the field of woodworking. It should be eradicated first by those within the profession and then we can join in to assist.

          • nrhiller says:

            Wiener alert: I own this. Justin, dare I ask you to contact me directly? I’d like to be in touch. You can reach me via nrhiller@nrhillerdesign.com. (Please don’t tell/remind me that by divulging this address I have opened myself up to untold assault by “bots” at an international level.”

          • wldrylie says:

            I am kind of tired of it too. So much so that when I read the editors column in a Popular Woodworking magazine issue about the College of the Redwoods and the Directors thoughts about who and what was represented in the magazine, I dropped the subscription, and it’s permanent. The nice thing about our country is people have the freedom of speech and the right to express their thoughts but people also have the right to cover their ears and walk away and avert their eyes from printed matter, or not purchase it. When trade publications, tool manufacturers and others who have no business espousing some politically correct agenda to the purchase of their publication or product, that induces my wallet to stay in my pocket. My wife of 35 years who is a most excellent Registered Nurse got tired of it long before I did. As a Union Steamfitter for 38 years, I educated 4 gals in the trade until they took their high pressure welding test and scratched out their 8 hour licensing exam for steam and ammonia in Minnesota. All passed, went on to be great Building Trades Journeyman Steamfitters and now they are licensed Masters, being Superintendents on large construction projects. They have all told me, they have had the best times of their lives and love what they are doing. UA apprenticeships are open. When there is a call, all who apply are given a fair shake at admission to apprenticeship. They are interviewed by a diverse board. The problem when it comes to females is not many show up when there is a call and many times none at all. If you are really interested in that trade, you show up for an apprenticeship call, right?
            My last year in the trade, I actually worked for one of my apprentices. She pulled a Darth Vader on me near the end of the job, “Once, you were the Master and I was the apprentice. The circle is complete. I am now the Master, even though your powers are still strong, old man.” Those were the days.

  3. Lou Robbio says:

    I enjoy seeing all sorts of people of every persuasion, gender, sexual orientation, color, etc in magazines. However, I do not read and apply what I learn from woodworking magazines, videos and books for the political comment. Are we now moving to race, sexual orientation and gender in how to build a project or what method we can use in finishing or using hand tools? I thought woodworking was the one safe area to avoid these political issues. Who cares what gender a woodworker is. It is the work that counts.


    • Justin Williams says:

      The problem is one that Nancy already brought up: she got mooed at on the jobsite and she is asked to stand for “women in woodworking” and she is condescended to by customers (and maybe colleagues?). By Nancy’s report, her participation in woodworking is already seen as exceptional. So even though it’s a nice ideal to imagine that the work is all that counts and woodworking is somehow insulated from gender politics, it just ain’t so (can you imagine a man being mooed at on the jobsite? A little hard to picture, given all the portly fellows I see at woodworking shows with nary a barnyard call to be heard).

      Maybe, someday in some bright future, gender will actually not matter in woodworking (or in any other aspect of our lives). Until then, we simply can’t bury our heads in the sand and pretend that woodworking is a safe space where we men don’t have to be bothered with the inconveniences of actually existing inequality.

      • nrhiller says:

        I appreciate this, Justin, though I’m not sure about the exceptional part, other than that as a woman I was a rare exception decades back. I tried to make clear in this post that gender has until recently struck me as a non-issue — that is, I didn’t want to give it the power that comes with focusing a spotlight on it. I’ve always preferred to note that plenty of men also lack opportunities, good role models, economic power, etc. Sarah and Megan have helped me to see more of the nuance involved when it comes to gender and woodworking. Reflecting on points they’ve made in private or public discussion has opened my eyes to some of the ways this stuff (forgive the sloppy expression; I need to get back to work) has played a role in my self perception and behavior. I’m glad that for the most part I dismissed it (at least at a conscious level) and just carried on. Not everyone has that ability (though knowing myself, I’m inclined to call it a sort of willful blindness rather than an “ability”).

  4. captainjack1024 says:

    Hear, hear. While not being able to sympathize directly (I’m swimming in Y chromosomes) I can empathize. I have been, in other circumstances, the odd one out in situations where I was just trying to do the job and be appreciated for it. However, I was judged ineffective based on nothing to do with the production and work. Being immersed in a culture that communicates personal value based on irrelevant factors that are innate and beyond ones control is frustrating and damaging in ways hard to comprehend; especially difficult to comprehend by the people who don’t have to go through it (however otherwise well intentioned they might be). How many excellent woodworkers and furniture designers never get started because they think that they won’t be welcome or, worse, that they can’t ever learn the skill? Bring on the role models of every stripe, seek out the skilled hands in every sawdust filled corner, and let us all see what everyone can do.

  5. Marilyn says:

    I’d like to enthusiastically agree and expand a little on the need for female role models. I’ve taken several runs at attempting to do things with my hands and break into what in Texas was well establish male roles. My first run was in Jr. Highschool. I wanted to take shop but was told that girls had to take homemaking and weren’t allowed to take shop.

    I’ve always envied my male friend whose dad and perhaps grandfather was a wood worker. Not only did they inherit tools but also a base of knowledge that I will likely never know especially since I didn’t start woodworking until in my 40s. Had I been exposed, I’m certain that I would have immersed myself but just didn’t know how.

    When I started my woodworking blog, I wanted a name that would help women know that I was a female woodworker. I picked SheWorksWood.com and made my tag line “A woman, her woodworking projects and a blog. I hope you find useful information here.”

    While I’m not the world’s greatest blogger or woodworker and my day job really limits both, I have gotten comments from other women that my work and photos have help them explore their own woodworking. Phew!

    I’ve also seen dads on Instagram working with their daughters in the shop and it always make my heart melt. I hope someday to see mom or maybe grandma in the shop with her daughter or granddaughter.

    • ouidavincent says:

      Here, here. I was one of those women who found your blog after I returned to Woodworking after a long hiatus.

    • One love Marilyn. I’m proud to be one of those dads.

      • Marilyn says:

        Love it!

      • Allan Grant says:

        After a dozen years or so, my daughter (now 23) asked me to help her make a project for her best friend’s wedding. So I showed her the basics and she (truly, 90%+) made an American flag cutting board out of bubinga, sassafras, and walnut. She was in the shop getting sawdust all over herself, and I had the glimmering of a future hobby for her; one that will stay with her for the rest of her life. X chromosome or not, she got the bug. I doubt she’ll ever be in a magazine, but she will be “one of us.”

  6. Justin Williams says:

    Thank you for tackling this difficult problem directly. Given that you have so much more experience than I do in the woodworking world, I’m glad to hear that you encounter more women than I do in the craft (as a hobbyist in the Midwest, I encounter almost exclusively 40-70 year old white guys with a good deal of disposable income. Granted, I don’t try that hard to find anyone else).

    In addition to your own argument about the need for young women to have role models, I wonder if there’s another good reason to increase representation of women in the craft: doing so might disrupt the ease with which men often think of women in woodworking as exceptional and (implicitly) marginal. As I look at the woodworking magazines, it is easy for me – a young white guy – to imagine that the craft is entirely composed of people whom I will eventually become. More representation of women could, in the long run, normalize their participation in the minds of woodworking’s dominant group – men. And normalizing that experience might also make it less likely for some jerk to moo at you, Nancy.

    Finally, a question for the art history sleuths at Lost Art Press: where and how do women appear in woodworking images of the past? Is there a history to uncover here?

  7. Tom Angle says:

    “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.”

    You should never mind the (gender, race, etc…) and look a the work and how the person does it for inspiration. If you as a need to find another to inspire. Well, you are as guilty as the person making the comments.

    • tangle70 says:

      They took out the “fill in the blank” parts

      You should never mind the “fill in the blank” (gender, race, etc…) and look at the work and how the person does it for inspiration. If you as a need to find another “fill in the blank” to inspire you. Well, you are as guilty as the person making the comments.

    • nrhiller says:

      I agree with you in principle — and also as someone who has done just what you recommend throughout her life. However, as I remarked in an earlier comment, Megan and Sarah have made me think much harder about this issue instead of dismissing it as optional. The effects of not having role models to whom you can relate are complex and nuanced. In my case, I simply held men up as my role models, which served me fine up to a point. It’s that “point” where the problems can arise.

      I don’t think we’re talking about role models being important as sources of inspiration; at least, I’m not. Of course you can be inspired to pursue something without having one or more role models for that particular project (using “project” in a broad, general sense of the word). Nor do I mean to suggest that it’s impossible to come up with an idea or goal in the absence of an existing exemplar. Clearly that is not the case; if it were, we’d have no new inventions. Rather, this is about having a sense that there’s a place for you in the world. As a stubborn, determined child and then young woman, I just plowed ahead and did my best to ignore the gender-related challenges that met me, just as I’d been taught that sticks and stones will break our bones while words will never hurt us. Clearly that is not the full story, either literally, where words versus material weapons are concerned, or in the case of attitudes and behaviors related to gender.

      • tangle70 says:

        I may get in trouble here, but what is wrong with having role models of the opposite sex? I am not talking about I want to be just like that person when I grow up, or I lacked something from my mom or dad and I want to be them to fulfill that yearning.

        I have never met something that I wanted to be exactly like. I have met people that in certain aspects, I admired something about them and wanted to be more like that. That is what I thought a role model was.

        If I ever wanted to really learn to carve, Mary May would be my role model. I see nothing wrong with it. She is a master at what she does.

        Sticks, stone and words are all bumps in the road of life. I mean this in no ill in this, but when someone step out of the “normal”, they should expect a little more resistance. It is wrong, but that is life.

        • nrhiller says:

          I think that we are on the same page where “being on the same page” ultimately counts. Thank you for taking part in this discussion.

  8. Mike Wallace says:

    This Male Nurse(RN) could not agree more. I heard it al as well. But I’m still a male and would get B.S. over how women were treated in Nursing, never mind woodworking or law enforcement and so on. I have three daughters,two are nurses as well and I told them don’t take any crap from any men,you are better than most of them. Of course now they don’t listen to me. Great stuff.

    • nrhiller says:

      No one is better than anyone else on account of gender, race, wealth, etc. I appreciate that you’re a nurse. Thank you for stepping outside of the normal boundaries and doing important work.

  9. Eric from Dayton says:

    Perhaps some of the bias is rooted in our language and the words we use. Take the word “History” for instance. Male oriented isn’t it? “Herstory” would bias the subject the other way. We need more gender neutral word usage. I do agree with Nancy that females need to be seen actually performing the tasks to be given their due credit. How many TV shows on woodworking have female hosts? None. This need to change. As this isn’t likely to happen soon, short You-Tube videos might be a good start.

    • nrhiller says:

      The etymology of the word “history” has nothing to do with gender, though some feminists (there is as broad a spectrum of feminisms as there is of any other branch of thought) believe as much. Our word “history” comes from the French “histoire,” which translates simply as “story.” History is the narrative we make by way of explaining our (or/and) others’ existence. But aside from this detail of etymology, you’re making an important point. I’m amassing a collection of images of women woodworkers and adding them to this post, in case you’re interested. You can Google them by their names to learn more about them.

  10. way0utwest says:

    Great piece, and thanks for writing it. I work in technology (wood is a hobby), and we have similar issues. Plenty of people dismiss them, but I think we have some systemic issues, and more than a few generations of poor cultural views of women in many industries. In tech, we have the WIT (http://www.womenintechnology.org/) groups, and I was honored to be asked to speak at a meeting when they didn’t have anyone else scheduled.

    I have a wife and daughter, and seeing their care and concern over appearance makes me rethink how I’ve viewed women, and how the US culture does so. It’s sad, and we have work to do.

    I encourage you to be a role model. We do need more, we need to showcase that talent and inspiration doesn’t need to be presented any way. I can’t say it would be easy for you, or that the men around you (or readers) will change, but it’s an honorable action and battle that you can take on.

    I try to treat my daughter like my sons, and I think I’ve given her some skills and confidence to do some things. Here she helped on a horse paddock (http://lh5.ggpht.com/-DciLikhtgys/VGAfKcZHKcI/AAAAAAAALFA/kU1gkrc9Ya0/shed3_thumb%25255B1%25255D.jpg?imgmax=800), but I am sad that she doesn’t always feel that way because of the way others will view her appearance as a sex object, instead of her character in whatever endeavor she undertakes.

    Thanks again, and I really appreciated reading your post, despite a bit of sadness.

  11. Sam Morgan says:

    This is not unique to the woodworking industry, and probably applies to modeling, STEM, trash collectors, medicine, military, sports, etc. I think anyone can do (Mostly) whatever they want, but denying the strengths of a person’s race/culture/gender/”blank” isn’t the correct approach.

  12. Jacque Wells says:

    As a seventy-five-year-old Marine married to a very competent investigator, who was born a woman, I am delighted with this article. As a male, I seemed to have had the choice of any job or profession I cold qualify for, why should my wife or daughters or granddaughters be denied the same choices I cannot fathom.

  13. Deniseg says:

    It matters. I don’t know if it should or shouldn’t make a difference that I see role models of my same gender doing woodwork, but the fact is it makes a significant positive and encouraging impact on me and my continued development in furniture and cabinet making. It has NOTHING to do with politics or feminism, there is simply something very powerful about seeing “some one like me” doing the things I’m interested in doing. I was doing woodwork long before I regularly saw other women doing the same, but it sure is nice to see the community of female woodworkers growing and gaining visibility in the field. The effects of inclusion are part of the human psyche.
    Does it surprise you then that most of my furniture making heroes, those who’s work most inspires me are men? Ultimately it is about the work.

  14. The tenets of this post ring loudly for me – especially as I raise my two daughters and spend time in the shop with my nieces. Thanks for posting Nancy, and to others who’ve commented. I don’t mean to be trite, but if we focus on the things we can influence (our neighbors, our family, our friends) than we can be the change we want to see in the world.

  15. Reblogged this on Writer's Resource Blog and commented:
    Yesterday I came across a New York Times article about a guy who listened to all the records on NPR’s list of greatest music by women. Whenever he talked about his dedication to hearing all the music on the list, people were shocked that he would be listening to “women’s music.”
    Now, “women’s music” is, according to him, a genre that (as he describes it) is one woman and a guitar. Folksy, perhaps. But specific. And not the kind that is widely popular.
    Even though he constantly said no, he was listening to “music by women” rather than “women’s music,” the misunderstandings continued.
    It reminded me, painfully, of the idea in publishing and among readers (and reviewers, and art organizations that provide awards) that fiction about women is “women’s fiction” (i.e., chick lit or romance or fill in the blank with whatever genre is currently considered the lowest of the lowbrow). Or, on the wildly mistaken far end of that opinion, that fiction written by women is also always women’s fiction.
    Then my partner, who is a woodworker and is reading the book of a woman who has made a name for herself as a woodworker, shared this article.
    Let’s change publishing, fiction, and reading (and thus the world) by having parity for women in publishing options, review options, marketing deals, and awards opportunities.

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