This weekend I went through the final proof of Marc Adams’s forthcoming book, The Difference Makers, to be published this summer by Lost Art Press. It’s a rich portfolio of work by 30 makers in diverse woodworking forms and styles. Although I was familiar with some of the woodworkers before I read the book, Marc introduced me to several new ones. The work is gorgeous—technically brilliant and in many cases jaw-droppingly inspiring. I also found Marc’s profiles of the artists a compelling read. Even though I’ve now read every word of this book twice, I am going to purchase a copy when it’s available. I want to be able to look back at those photographs and be reminded to do my best.
Each of us can come up with a list of individuals we admire. Marc presents the artists in this book as exemplary members of a generation on the cutting edge of craft, not only on account of their hands-on work, but for their thinking (and in some cases, writing) about tools, furniture, sculpture and surface decoration. As I reflected on who might be included in my own list of difference makers during a Sunday afternoon walk, I came up with a short list of names: Megan Fitzpatrick, Sarah Marriage and Laura Mays. Here’s why.
I’ve been a woodworker since 1980 and have made my living as a cabinetmaker for most of those years. As a woman in a field long populated primarily by men, I’ve had my challenges, ranging from vague expressions of gender-based discrimination to sexist hijinks and one straightforward sexual proposition. Worst of all, one skilled co-worker at a small shop in rural England quit his job a few weeks after I was hired and killed himself a few months later. “It’s because of you,” said another employee who had known us both. It was 1985, and I was in my mid 20s, mature enough to recognize the insanity of this response to the hiring of a woman, yet still vulnerable to a deep sense of guilt.
Even so, the most insidious effect of being a woman in a field where men have almost exclusively made the rules and determined the standards has come from seeing woodworking as a field into which I was intruding. The problem was not that I minded being an intruder in a men’s club (I didn’t); it had more to do with how I perceived myself and others. On the exceedingly rare occasions when a woman woodworker did appear in the national media (most notably, Aimé Ontario Fraser in the pages of Fine Woodworking), the main thing I, along with most people, noticed was that she was a woman. By far the most common response from readers to editors upon the publication of an article by a woman has long been “Thank you for featuring a woman in the magazine!” What about her work?! Oh, sorry; that has long been secondary to her gender by virtue of its rarity in this context.
Accepting that you don’t really belong does a number on how you see yourself and others, no matter how hard you tell yourself to ignore this message, recognizing intellectually that its validity has long passed. I am of a generation raised to be nice, even in the face of insult. “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me” was the prescribed mantra when I was a child. “They’re being stupid. Just ignore them” came later on, followed by “Don’t make a big deal of your gender. That only makes gender even more of a focus. Just get on with your work. It will speak for itself.” (Please see the last sentence of the previous paragraph.)
Three decades later, Megan, Sarah, and Laura seriously shook up my world. Not only did they mention gender; they made it a focus of their work (note: a focus, not the only one), and they had a powerful rationale for doing so. Women now constitute a significant percentage of woodworkers, especially in the field of studio furniture. Publishing media should represent this shift, not only by citing statistics, but by including images of women working, as they long have with men. When it comes to influencing how we see the world at an existential level, visual imagery is far more powerful than numbers.
Beyond concern for proportionate representation, we all need role models. My role models in woodworking have all been men. Sure, the world of social media today is filled with young women working with wood, but those depictions are new, and notably, most are self-generated. For decades I was comfortable being the tough girl in the shop or on the jobsite, but I couldn’t see myself continuing in this field once I reached middle age. I couldn’t even conceive of how a 50-year-old woman cabinetmaker might look. What Megan and Sarah wrote and said about the importance of visibility catapulted me into a visceral realization that the question of who is granted visibility is not a matter of chance. Sure, as some have pointed out, it depends in part on the willingness of members of under-represented groups to be seen–a willingness that isn’t always present. But ultimately the people who determine visibility, at least, beyond social media, are those who control traditional publishing media and the institutions and organizations with sufficient cultural clout to venture beyond prevailing norms. Finding bases for inclusion often entails broadening the criteria for acceptance (whether into a publication, an exhibit, a club, or a guild) beyond long-established understandings of what constitutes success and what’s considered worthwhile.
Every day I look at Instagram posts by women woodworkers—sculptors, studio furniture makers, designer-builders of custom work and more. More and more women are appearing on the pages of Fine Woodworking magazine, American Craft and related periodicals. My eyes are now so saturated by images of women woodworkers that I no longer focus on their gender, but on their work. One paradox we face today is that the only way to stop going on and on about gender is by drawing attention to skewed proportional representation and calling for an overdue adjustment, as Laura Mays did in an influential Facebook post in February, 2017, Megan did in her editor’s letter that same year and Sarah did in an essay for American Craft.
These three women, all accomplished teachers as well as woodworkers, have significantly shifted my views on the importance of paying attention to gender. In doing so, they have also helped me see myself in a healthier way. I call that making a difference.—Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work