One comment on my last post moved me to respond.
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.
Thank you, reader, for grappling with the subject at hand, which demands finer distinctions than are often made in contemporary discourse. I hope that what follows will shed some light on the matter.
For decades I, too, rebelled against the idea of woodworking classes limited to women. As a woman trained in the City & Guilds trades system in England beginning in 1979, I took for granted that my woodworking classes would include primarily be made up of men, so I wasn’t at all surprised that I was the only female in my cohort. In most of the shops where I’ve worked since 1980, I continued to be the only woman–a laudable exception being the shop of Wall-Goldfinger in Northfield, Vermont, during the late 1980s, where women made up between 25 and 30 percent of the shop-floor workforce. (Kudos to John Wall, Michael Goldfinger, and David Haber, and also to their wives.)
Over the past 20 years I’ve encountered the argument that women-only classes are necessary because some women learn better in a setting without men, where they’re freed from having to compete with men or be insulted by them.* Until recently, I resisted those arguments. “In the real world of professional woodworking, most women have to work side-by-side with men,” I told Megan Fitzpatrick when discussing this subject in 2017. “Women just need to get used to it.” She disagreed, and because I respect her (greatly), I tried to figure out why. As another commenter put it: “You have given [me] 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.”
As I tried to see Sarah’s project at A Workshop of Our Own through different eyes, I remembered that I’d gone to a women’s high school. I didn’t choose the school; my mother and grandparents did. They chose it because they were convinced that my sister and I would be better able to focus on learning, instead of on socializing. Of course, children who go to mixed-gender schools are also learning about gender relations, in addition to their subjects of formal study. That can be valuable. But because of the circumstances that had culminated in our parents’ divorce, they thought we needed to spend less time thinking about boys than about algebra, the Periodic Table, the life cycle of Taenia solium and the question of whether all animals are equal or some are perhaps more equal than others.
It’s undeniable that one of the lessons girls and boys learn in mixed-gender schools concerns how they’re expected to behave if they want to be attractive to others. There’s nothing wrong with that, at least in principle–unless it discourages boys from taking sewing and cooking classes, or from cultivating their gentler side (I’m really grateful that my husband did not get that memo), and girls from applying themselves to their studies and publicly acknowledging what they know on the grounds that being smart or skilled might be is often considered threatening.
Only after I gave my high school experience some serious reflection did I begin to understand the rationale behind classes, or even an entire school, for women only. (For the record, I also kicked myself for having been tone-deaf to my own privilege as a beneficiary of single-gender high-schooling. One thing about privilege–it’s easy to take for granted.) It’s not about excluding men, but about creating an environment where students can simply focus on the subject at hand.
Some people excel at multitasking. They can dictate the draft of a doctoral dissertation into Notes on their i-Phone while jogging through traffic with their dog. However, most of us function best in relatively controlled conditions. One friend of mine swears she’s incapable of writing unless her desk is clear of clutter. Another says he writes his funniest stories at night, after the rest of his family’s in bed. Another “cannot function” without coffee first thing in the morning. All of these are examples in which we have no trouble acknowledging that controlling select aspects of our circumstances, whether social or physical, aids focus.
Again, the point is not to exclude men, nor to vilify them. Nor is anyone claiming that women are “incapable of working with men so need their space.” Beyond the doors of those classrooms is a world where the same women who sign up for the classes speak, work, ride the subway, eat, and in many cases, have children with men. But it’s also a world in which graduates of those classes may feel just a little more confident asserting themselves because they did not have to deal with fellow students who resented their presence in a woodworking class/golf club/voting booth/branch of government and expressed their resentment by calling them vulgar names under their breath, defacing their work in the dark of night, sending anonymous threatening letters or complaining to the instructor about their underarm hair (while finding their fellow men’s underarm hair completely normal and inoffensive).
This is just a tiny sampling of the stuff that still, amazingly, goes on in 2019. Some of us deal with such behavior by filing it under “desperate stuff some people do when they feel threatened or impotent”–i.e., compartmentalizing it with a degree of empathy–and moving on. Some of us report the behavior in the hope that those institutional cultures that (still?) silently overlook it will change. But can I now understand why some women respond by shaping their circumstances so that they don’t have to waste their time or emotional energy reacting to this kind of stuff? You bet.–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work
*Please don’t read this as implying that all men insult women. Clearly they don’t. Nor am I denying that women sometimes compete with and insult each other.