Women’s History Month and Fine Woodworking
An eye-opening series of Instagram posts sparked some inspiring discussions—and some that weren't so inspiring.
It was an honor to have access to Fine Woodworking’s Instagram account last week to commemorate Women’s History Month. When Anissa Kapsales asked if I would take on the assignment (one to three posts per day, for five days), which included a commitment to write a follow-up blog post (this one), she stressed that I was to write whatever I thought appropriate – there was no expectation that I would toe some corporate line. So that’s exactly what I did.
I gave considerable thought to what I would post each day, starting with a historical overview on Monday. On Tuesday I acknowledged the paucity of women visible in editorial content and ads on the pages of Fine Woodworking magazine relative to the number of skilled women in woodworking today. Wednesday was a chance to respond by encouraging women and members of other under-represented groups to submit proposals, which is how most woodworkers come to be published in the magazine. Thursday focused on women who work behind the scenes maintaining the machines in shops at schools, in addition to one woman who teaches machine maintenance. Friday continued that hidden-women theme with grateful acknowledgement of four women without whom the magazine would not be published. I finished out the week with examples of work by 20 women, a tiny fraction of the women woodworkers out there today.
The comments on these Instagram posts were all over the map. Many were appreciative – always nice for the writer. Some took issue with the need to focus attention on women (a “need” implied by my posts’ very existence), given that the offerings on YouTube and other branches of social media make clear that there are lots of women in the field today. Duh, lady, we know there are lots of women woodworkers; we don’t need to see them on the pages of Fine Woodworking to be persuaded of that.
Let me rephrase that: Problem? I don’t see a problem. Definitely a point that warrants engagement. Look at the particular media (a plural noun) you are citing. You’re comparing the significance of
(a) seeing tons of women woodworkers in publications that cost nothing to read, and are produced with no editorial oversight or fact checking (as with all things, there are professional-caliber exceptions such as YouTube videos and Instagram posts by @anneofalltrades that are powerful encouragement to girls and women who might have hesitated to take the plunge into wood-tool use)
(b) seeing women and their work published infrequently by one of our field’s most widely respected publications, which has been around for over 40 years.
Think about that a minute. Oh, you may infer, if the editors of Fine Woodworking aren’t publishing work by a representative percentage of women woodworkers, it must be because not that many women are interested in woodworking, or because the caliber of women’s work is not up to the standards of the magazine. These would be reasonable inferences, but neither is true. I realize that using a logical syllogism to illustrate this point is problematic, as the premises are not iron-clad, but I still consider the following helpful. To wit:
Logical premise number 1: There’s a burgeoning number of women woodworkers, many of whom are highly skilled and do the kinds of excellent, inspiring work for which Fine Woodworking is known. (Doubters, please look at the Instagram pages of the women I tagged in my posts, and then visit the pages of their friends.)
Logical premise number 2: Fine Woodworking magazine is widely associated with excellent, inspiring work and proud to publish articles written by, and appealing to, woodworkers at different skill levels across the diversity of the field, from Federal furniture to hand-carved greenwood bowls, and 200-year-old handplanes to portable CNC routers.
Conclusion: It seems reasonable to expect approximately the same percentage of women and men woodworkers actually in the field whose work fits into the category “excellent and inspiring” to be published in Fine Woodworking magazine.[i] In other words, the magazine would represent what many of us, men and women, know from decades of experience to be reality – well, unless some evil force was excluding women.
But no; I don’t believe there is an evil women-excluding force at Fine Woodworking. I have seen women in the magazine for decades, albeit occasionally. The dearth of women in the magazine didn’t really bother me until a few years ago, when some younger friends, men as well as women, began explaining the power of subtle cultural cues that women receive, such as I don’t see girls or women doing X, so X is not for me. (My personal reaction over the decades: It couldn’t be more obvious that X is not meant for me, so let’s do X. I didn’t “whine”; I just challenged myself and did it. So really, please drop the thing about whining.)
Please also note that I am not even the one who brought up this matter of representation. One of those people who have enlightened me with their less-androcentric perspectives (and it’s not hard to be less androcentric than I have been for much of my life) is Laura Mays, director of the Krenov School (Laura is in the mask in the illustration at the start of this post), who called Fine Woodworking out on Facebook a few years ago for the disproportionately white male representation on its pages. When it comes to addressing this matter with Fine Woodworking, Laura’s voice has been undeniably strong – far more so than mine. And the 15 Instagram posts commemorating Women’s History Month were not my idea; I said yes when editors at Fine Woodworking offered me the chance to take on this topic, because they agree that there’s a problem and would like to feature work in approximately the real-world proportions of members in the group “woodworkers of the caliber we want to publish.” That would be one way to bring the magazine’s content in line with contemporary reality.
But the really funny thing is, I’m doing the opposite of blaming men alone, either for the historical denial of opportunities to women, or the current undeniable scarcity of women on the magazine’s pages. I have pointed out that women are a good part of the problem, because so few of us submit article proposals. If you want to see more women in the magazine, submit a proposal. Be one of them. This is why I devoted the second day to informing readers about the basics of pitching an article. That’s not what Brits call “bitching and moaning”; it’s being constructive.
I hope I’ve justified why I agree with the editors that it’s time for improvement on the representation front, so let’s move on. I offer the following analysis of one particular comment as an example of some broad-brush claims and dismissals that characterize so many comments in response to posts here and elsewhere that even mention gender or race.
As one reader put it in a reply to another, “Some random person” (I take it the commenter is referring to me, the author of the posts?) “can whine and complain and use hot buttons to stir the masses.”
Hot buttons? I had no intention of doing anything so emotionally motivated as using “hot buttons” to “stir the masses.” To the contrary, I repeatedly vetted the text of each of my posts to ensure that there were no appeals to emotion, which would have constituted a logical fallacy. I based every claim on historical evidence and lived experience – my own, as well as others’. I checked, then re-checked, the rigor of my reasoning, using what I’ve learned through my academic background in Classics, ethics, and religious and political history. Writer, if you see the question of equitable representation as a matter that stirs your passion and so constitutes a hot button issue, please take responsibility for that instead of projecting it onto others.
“The proof has to come from the complainer, not the other way around. No proof has been presented to prove the whiner’s complaint. One article isn’t going to cut it. A search of help wanted adds [sic] reveals no exclusionary language. A search of Instagram reveals tons of women’s woodworking pages – same goes for YouTube. For every whiner you present, I can produce success stories.”
Let’s back the horse up. First, a complaint is not always a bad thing. It’s often a heartfelt acknowledgement that there is a problem to be addressed, combined with a plea for the necessary attention to address it. Complaints work similarly to pain in the body; both indicate that something may be wrong.
However, neither the idea behind nor the content of these posts constitutes “whining.” I am not a whiner (except when I really want some chocolate and can’t have any); I was brought up to be tough and self-reliant. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “whine” as “a somewhat shrill, protracted cry, usu. [sic.] of pain or distress.” Chocolate? Guilty; I whine. But nothing in these posts qualifies as whining.
Instead, the text of each post is grounded in history. In one of them I even added the following note because I anticipated that some readers might quibble with what I take this commenter to be demanding when he refers to “proof” that women were long excluded from opportunities to learn and practice woodworking (not to mention voting, which is arguably a lot more important).[ii] No one in 2021 is obliged to republish all of this history for your convenience. It’s out there for the reading. And this scholarly material, along with the avowedly activist writings of social reformers such as Catharine Beecher in the 19th century, formed the foundation of my little series for Women’s History Month.
At this point let’s note that the exclusion of women from woodworking and other pursuits doesn’t always come from men. I know of woodworking-related businesses owned by men whose wives have in effect forbidden them to hire women employees, because they don’t want their husbands tempted by working in proximity to other women. (For what I believe are obvious reasons, I am not going to mention any particular names.)
But the most visible and intentional forms of “exclusion,” often called “barriers to entry,” are a smaller problem than the insidious ones, as reader Steve Hogarth took pains to explain in his comments. I won’t repeat Steve’s remarks here; everything is in the original posts and comments. Instead, I’ll offer a few examples of this subtle discouragement from my own experience.
Being less than fully welcome in the field never bothered me when I was growing up, or as a woman who became a professional woodworker in 1980 at the age of 21 and went on to work in a few shops that (other than me) only employed men. The world in which I grew up valorized men; men did the important work that was recognized and appreciated. I wanted to be like them, because they were the cool people, and being a girl didn’t stop me from modeling myself in various ways on men, or wanting to be recognized for my work, as they were. I did not want to stay home and bake cookies, to use an admittedly risky metaphor, though I’m glad to say I now have a worthy appreciation for those who do. Luckily for me, I felt sufficiently free from societal norms and expectations concerning feminine behavior to flout them. Not everyone feels up to that. I didn’t whine or complain about being the only female. I embraced it.
For me, working in a male-dominated field had the added bonus that working alongside men made it more likely that I would someday find a good man to be a partner for me. (I did.) I was an accepted colleague of the men with whom I worked, even if a couple of them treated me to some sexist behavior that even the least-PC dad would never wish upon his daughter, all of which I did my best to laugh off, because I was taught not to whine. But not everyone feels safe being the only girl.
For much of my career I have been met with expressions of doubt when I mention that I make my living as a designer-maker of custom furniture and built-ins (You don’t actually do that for a living, though, right?) and low expectations (My wife does exactly the same work as you, said one man who proceeded to show me examples of her work in nailed-together home-store pine and decorated with cut-outs of hearts and bunnies – more power to her, but that is not “exactly the same work” as I do). Reader, if you need “proof” of these subtler forces that can lead women to exclude ourselves from this and other fields, just as many men have felt excluded from traditional “women’s work” such as stay-at-home parenting, teaching primary school, and nursing, talk to some women woodworkers; you may find this kind of attitude a lot more prevalent among members of older generations than those in their 20s through 40s.
One way in which I did internalize the message I got from people I knew, as well as ads, articles, and other depictions of how women should look and be, had to do with age. I planned to get out of woodworking by the age of 40 because I was sure people would look at me and think I was not only poorly educated, based on my work in a manual trade (the tracking in English education when I started out was hardcore, and contrary to appearances, I was in the academic, not the trades, track), but probably also not very sharp. This is how I imagined that people would see me, a 40-year-old woman in glue-stained jeans, a blob of paint encrusted on my T-shirt over my right breast, and clearly someone who does not know how to “do” her hair. I didn’t want to be viewed that way.
Trying to change careers in a small-ish town in my 30s and 40s proved next to impossible. And things ended up being just fine. For me, this was largely because Fine Woodworking and other publications started to publish my work. As a result I made a whole new group of friends who appreciated me and respected my work. A person could get spoiled by such treatment. Many of my new friends were younger. Conversations with members of younger generations, who are literally shaping the future, changed my mind about the importance of representation, not to mention speaking up on matters that are important to me, and to others. They convinced me that merely offering an example, without engaging in the type of forthright, reasoned discussion this reader sees as whining and complaining, is not sufficient.
“A search of help wanted adds reveals no exclusionary language,” the commenter continues, heading toward his conclusion. Of course no one puts sexist or other exclusionary language in their job postings. It’s illegal to do so. That doesn’t mean the exclusion isn’t going on. I have heard professional friends talk about various ways to exclude women and members of other groups without running afoul of the law. Again, for obvious reasons I’m not going to provide names.
“A search of Instagram reveals tons of women’s woodworking pages – same goes for YouTube. For every whiner you present, I can produce success stories.” At this point in the reader’s comment, dismissing those of us working for change as whiners has become a basic ad hominem fallacy; the commenter has simply replaced the word “author” with “whiner.” This sleight of hand does not strengthen the commenter’s position, but undermines it, whether or not the repeated characterization of me, and perhaps others, was intentional or a result of the writer’s dashing off a remark without taking a moment for self-critical editing.
One other thing. A number of people pointed out the danger of wearing sandals in a workshop, as Laura Mays was doing in the photo I used to show her at work. If you look at the photo, you’ll see that Laura is not using tools, but teaching; she’s standing several feet away from her student and the tools. They appear to be the only two people in the shop, whether the shot came from a weekend or simply reflects the significantly-decreased number of students at the school for in-person lessons due to Covid. Yes, safety is of the utmost importance; I wear work boots most of the time in my shop. But if I have to apply another coat of finish on a weekend in summer (and am not using sharp tools or machines) I often wear sandals.
Beyond this, as a few readers pointed out, the question of what constitutes safe footwear in a woodworking shop is culturally relative. Father John Abraham @dumont69 noted “I was a candle maker for 25 years…I worked barefoot all the time, around 200-degree molten beeswax. I’ve also shoveled snow barefoot, done yardwork, gone for a run…last time I checked, LOTS of indigenous people still doing things barefoot, things way more dangerous than using a chisel…”
And Thiago Endrigo @sabercomasmaos privately shared an image of Jesus doing carpentry work in sandals.
That said, I’m sticking with work boots myself, as I recommend you do.
[i] I’m aware that “excellent” and “inspiring” are relatively subjective attributes. And I am also aware that the editors of the magazine pretty much agree that they want to publish work by more women.
[ii] “Please don’t accuse me of spouting mere opinion in the opening paragraph. This stuff has umpteen books’-worth of documentation and analysis in the scholarly fields of history, English literature, economics, and even in many religions, going back long before the disciplines of women’s studies and gender studies even existed. I may be a professional woodworker, but I also have a master’s degree related to the subject matter I’m addressing, and wrote a book, The Hoosier Cabinet in Kitchen History (published by the Indiana University Press) that’s heavy with references to some of those tomes.”