Three who make a difference

dovetails by jim 3

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

About nrhiller

cabinetmaker and author
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20 Responses to Three who make a difference

  1. kerry Doyle says:

    Heck yes we should be aware of gender. Be aware until the disparity is gone and no need exists to consider it. And that’s just one category to eliminate.

  2. thospenner says:

    Another reason why I feel comfortable with the Lost Art Press Family, I have never sensed a gender bias, you just work together as a team and don’t shout to the world how “equal” things are here. Actions speak louder than words.

    I’m an old white guy, who acknowledges the privilege I was given by the “accident” of birth, and has struggled to live up to my Fathers example of empathy to All, to resist judgement and try to see the world from another persons perspective. I’ll never know what it truly feels like, but I can acknowledge the courage it takes, and work in my sphere of influence to make things better.

    Our craft, the ability to use our hands, minds and hearts, to make useful and beautiful things, needs to be as inclusive and welcoming as we can make it, thank you for pushing it in the right direction.

    Sorry if this comment is a little disjointed, I just found out and watched the spire fall on Notre Dame Cathedral, it is a terrible terrible tragedy. The only good thing I can think of right now, is that it may bring about a resurgence in handcraft similar to that in England when Windsor Castle burned in 1992.

  3. Andrew Brant says:

    Wonderful piece, thank you Nancy!

  4. johncashman73 says:

    Great post Nancy. Woodworking is a difficult career path for anyone. To follow it at the highest level for decades takes great talent and perseverance. Much more so for women. Megan especially deserves acclaim for spreading woodworking knowledge as widely as she does.

    I’ll add your name to the above woodworking leaders you nominated. You’ve sure earned it.

  5. David Scott Goen says:

    Wow, that’s a heck of a guilt trip. Having someone kill themselves and assigning the blame to you is beyond the pale. And complete bullshit, as I hope you realize. After reading your book (thanks again for the inscription), I would definitely add you to the list.

  6. tsstahl says:

    Very thought provoking. Thank you, Nancy.

    I’m of the Don’t-care-about-wedding-tackle camp. Mary May has been one of my heroes for years-with absolutely nothing to do with gender.

    Not long ago, I read about one of these ‘inclusive’ studios only open to women, children, and–anything but hetero seeming males (might even be the one you obliquely cited; I don’t remember). My first thought was, at what age do they tell the male children to GTFO, and whose job is it to do so? For reasons like the preceding, I’m generally against that type of arrangement. Equality through segregation really, to me, is another face of the ‘separate, but equal’ argument of the civil rights era. However, you have an undeniable point, i.e. fact, “…who is granted visibility is not a matter of chance…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…beyond long-established understandings of what constitutes success and what’s considered worthwhile”. Simply acknowledging the changing demographic of ‘woodworker’ is truly including everyone without harm (exclusion) to anyone already in the camp. As an added benefit, your get a richer tapestry of world view in the lexicon, to boot.

    You have given more to think about beyond the above. I’m comfortable in my positions and beliefs, and am not threatened by trying to see through different eyes. Thanks, again.

    • DrDave says:

      Thank you for eloquently phrasing this. I struggle with the “women only” classes.. to exclude on the basis of being inclusive… is a difficult logic puzzle. While I recognize the issues of sexism and bias (overt and unconscious) I also don’t see how creating separate spaces, brings people together. It feels in a way a declaration of war that one group is “Bad” and rightfully excluded.. today because of the sins of the father in our culture, and an admission of defeat, deciding that women are incapable of working with men so need their space. The Boy Scouts evolved… this movement seems to go the wrong way.

  7. Todd Reid says:

    I think that you know that I share your sentiments about this and i too am so happy to see so many women woodworkers now on IG building some of the best furniture out there today. This includes you one of my heroes of woodworking. Great article.

  8. lignumvitay says:

    It’s not just women. Visible minorities are significantly under represented in the public woodworking space. With a few exceptions all of the woodworking folks I have seen are “middle aged white guys.” I would love to see more diversity in woodworking magazines and crafts people if for nothing else than a different perspective.

  9. Judith Katz says:

    First, I am a male who plays in woodworking (I’m Judy’s husband, I do not have a FB account). That being said it is my understanding that for most of woodworking history women WERE involved in the craft and only economics and misogynistic religious leaders pushed them into the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant. We all see the world with a different pair of eyes. The interpretation of that vision makes the world more interesting and far from mundane.

  10. Anthony says:

    Nancy, you are at the top of my list. #1.

  11. Nancy, it pleases me greatly to see the growing number of women woodworkers. I’m constantly amazed by the talents of these furniture makers/craftswomen using their skills to build furniture and make art. I follow a number of talented craftswomen on Instagram. I learn from them and I’m motivated by them. Kim McIntyre, Ivey SIosi and Audie Culver, Jennifer Bower (not a woodworker but a talented craftswoman), Amanda Russel are just a few of the talents I love to follow. My mother became a physician in the early 1950’s. I heard the stories of abuse and sexism she had to wade through. I pray we are moving past all that to a place where we see the craft, the talent and the gender of the craftsperson is not the defining factor.

  12. I don’t know how to go back and edit my comment. I would be remiss to leave out Kari Hultman. Kari’s talents are not limited to woodworking or leather craft. She is a very talented craftsperson.

    • Jared says:

      As long as we’re doing a bit of a roll call here, I think Kate Duncan is awesome and Wu Hanyen (wuch) is quite talented, not to mention freaking ripped as well.

      Kudos to Nancy and all these women who have lit a candle instead of cursing the darkness. Your light inspires so many!

  13. Helen Welch says:

    Well said Nancy. As a woman who started her woodworking career in 1984 I’m familiar with all the bullsh*t shenanigans of that time and the intervening years. I rejoice in seeing the work of women finally getting the credit they deserve without having to make it all about our gender. But as lignumvitay points out representations of mddle-aged white men still outweigh images of everybody else. Frankly, as a middle-aged black woman I’m knackered from 35 years of being virtually invisible and sticking out like a sore thumb. I’m looking forward to seeing all of us getting more airtime where the differences aren’t noteworthy but just part of everyday life.

  14. Richard J says:

    In a previous role as the programme leader of an undergraduate programme in furniture design and making here in the UK I was always disappointed if the year’s intake didn’t include females. Typically, a year’s intake of students was roughly 90% male to ~10% female, but I was always encouraged when the number of females in the cohort increased noticeably. I found females in the group generally had a positive moderating influence on some of the less attractive gung-ho tendencies and unconscious sexism of an all male cohort. This moderating effect I suspect was frequently unconscious, but not always so – so, good for the girls I always thought whenever they felt the need to stand up for themselves and give some guy(s) a roasting!

    In my forty plus years in the furniture field (industry, academia/education, author, freelance work and consultancy) I’ve never been able to perceive a significant difference in creativity, technical competence/ making ability, problem solving ability, etc between female and male woodworkers. True, female woodworkers tend not to be as physically strong as male woodworkers, but there are always means to work around a physical challenge, e.g., levers, asking for help, etc.

    Proportionately, my anecdotal observation over my career suggests there are essentially equal numbers of male and female woodworkers that are terrible, excellent and everything between in furniture designing and making, and in other woodworking fields.

    • Andrew Brant says:

      Not to wade into it too much, but I think the physical difference can be overstated by a lot. Like you said, there are workarounds. I started in furniture at a shop where I was the one guy who was 5’4” and 120lbs, and the other two guys were very fit, strong and 6’3” or so. Yeah, I couldn’t wrap my arms around a recliner and lift it alone like they could but it didn’t stop me any. And I wouldn’t want anyone to think that woodworking of furniture is so physically demanding that they couldn’t take part either, especially as a hobby or passion.

  15. jayedcoins says:

    Great post, very well said.

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