Fine Woodworking and Women’s History Month, Part One

Fine Woodworking editor Anissa Kapsales

The editors at Fine Woodworking offered me the opportunity to commemorate Women’s History Month with a week of daily posts at their Instagram account. Because that platform doesn’t allow for texts as long as mine (don’t judge!), we had to split the text into multiple posts. I’m sharing the content here because it’s easier to follow an argument when the whole of it is laid out in one place. Full disclosure: I’m being paid for the Instagram posts, but I agreed to the assignment because (1) I value the work done by the people at Fine Woodworking, (2) this topic matters to me, and (3) the editors expressly gave me carte blanche to share my thoughts, with no expectation that I would promote their company’s products.

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As a woman who has made her living primarily as a cabinetmaker since 1980, I’ve seen a lot of changes. When I did my training in traditional furniture craft through the UK’s City & Guilds program, I was the only woman in the class. That lone-woman standing stuck with me at other workshops until 1987, when I hired on at a progressive company, Wall-Goldfinger, in Vermont, where I was one of several women on the shop floor.

There were women in the field centuries before our time. One well-known example that will be familiar to readers of the blog at Lost Art Press is Frenchwoman Juliette Caron, who was born in 1882; Lost Art Press research maven Suzanne Ellison has unearthed scads of information and fabulous images of women working wood centuries before then. True, women have constituted a small minority among woodworkers. Yet our visibility (beyond the genre of tool-promoting girlie posters) has been disproportionately lower than that of men.

Until about the past 25 years, women were rarely seen in woodworking publications. For me, Aime Ontario Fraser was the most visible, thanks to her work with Fine Woodworking, to which my partner and I subscribed; I’m pretty sure I also recall the Rockler company publishing images of women working (not just watching their husbands do so) in their catalogs going back to the early 1990s.

There are a number of reasons for this relative invisibility, the most damning among them concern that publishing pictures of people who didn’t fit the stereotypical image of woodworkers might diminish a publication’s credibility. We can no longer afford that kind of thinking.

Some have worked to correct this glaring lack by publishing magazines and books aimed specifically at teaching skills to women. While these publications have brought more women into the field, their single-minded focus on women set them apart from the mainstream conversation. Projects were often simpler, which left them open to derision from those with more experience, most of them men. There is without doubt a need for women-focused classes and publications (in addition to those that appeal specifically to members of other underrepresented groups), and it’s crucial to acknowledge that these women-centered projects have enabled many to level up with men, gaining a voice that’s now strong enough to cry foul on the lack of representation. But we also need to be part of widely-respected publications – and those have historically been dominated by men.

All branches of social media have their drawbacks, but their potential to give voice to those who have been relatively voiceless is a strength. Instagram, in particular, has made it possible for anyone showing their work to say “I’m here too. And maybe there are more of us.”

The number of women in woodworking has exploded over the past 20 years. Editors of many publications, including Fine Woodworking, are making a point of including women and our work. Some are doing a better job than others. There’s plenty of room for improvement. Not only is this visibility long overdue – the dramatically greater percentage of skilled, creative women in woodworking argues for representation proportionate to our actual numbers – it’s also plain good business. It’s no longer news that women constitute a significant market for publications and their advertisers’ products.

For me, the most ironic recognition of women’s potential value to the field came several years ago from a carpenter with whom I was working on a jobsite. He said he was thinking of naming his company “Venus Woodworking.” Venus was a family name, and he thought he’d get more business if people thought he was a woman. I was speechless at the irony, but now I have regained my voice.

The Instagram posts are below, in case you’d like to read the comments or add to them.

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5 responses to “Fine Woodworking and Women’s History Month, Part One

  1. I have always subscribed to gender difference and readily acknowledge the prejudice. I find that women often have a unique perspecitive to working in any material or form. They have a different eye and understanding of the art and function. For me that is to be celebrated. Still, to your point, in reviewing Fine Woodworking Contributors there is much work to be done. Even more rare is a contributor of color.

    • Absolutely! That’s why, although I’m focusing on women in particular (per the assignment), I’m trying to include women woodworkers of different races. And I know for a fact that the magazine’s editors would love to see more proposals from woodworkers of color. It’s all about representation!

  2. Nancy, another great piece. I agree with you, more needs to be done. I am mentoring a young woman in my shop. We have done several projects together and she learns quickly. More importantly, she is having fun and gaining some great skills. I know it only one person, but it’s more then none.

  3. Thanks for writing this, Nancy.

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