Fine Woodworking and Women’s History Month, Part Four: A salute to those who support others from behind the scenes

In many cultures (including ours, for North American readers), women have historically worked in occupations behind the scenes of public life. Generally speaking, western culture (I can’t speak for any other) has long privileged the grand, the public, the exceptional, and taken the work that sustains those who are publicly lauded for being grand and exceptional for granted; I’m referring to those who grow, harvest, and prepare food; who clean houses or launder clothes; who bear children; who care for those who are ill. Men have historically been raised to dream big and to lead in positions that are widely acknowledged as important; they have benefited from opportunities and support (some of it tangible, some less so) to help them reach their goals, while women have been brought up to marry well, run the home, and raise a family. If this sounds like a stretch, ask your grandmothers and great-grandmothers about their experience. And please see my note at the end of this post.

One of the most incisive critics of this perverse ascription of value was the 19th-century social critic and reformer Catharine Beecher, who calmly pointed out that “the chief cause of these evils is the fact that the honor and duties of the family state are not duly appreciated,” even though the most powerful men – from the owner and managers of your local factory to heads of state – typically had wives and female domestic workers at home whose dependable labor made it possible for those men to focus on their Important Business. Remember, Beecher was referring to the mid- and late-19th century. So, who really had the power, considering that without the necessary labor provided by those women, men would have had no time to go to school, let alone obtain professional training and go on to achieve Great Things?

Today let’s look at a fun twist on that historical picture with a note of appreciation for the women who run the workshops at some of this country’s schools. Accomplished woodworkers themselves, their work provides a foundation for that of others. Workshop techs of any gender tend to operate in the background, echoing domestic workers in the 19th century.

I readily admit I’d rather be doing any number of things than changing the knives in my century-old jointer or tweaking the adjustment of my drum sander to get rid of snipe. A skilled shop tech is invaluable. I’d love one of my own.

@littleforestswontdo Chelsea Witt at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship

@hittme Mary Ellen Hitt, formerly on the maintenance crew at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship

@ellenkasperndesign Ellen Kaspern, who teaches machine maintenance at North Bennet Street School

@aspen_golann Aspen Golann, who runs the workshop at Penland

@ellieinthewoods Ellie Richards, who ran the shop at Penland before Aspen and is currently a resident artist at Penland

@carnahanwoodworks Lacey Carnahan at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking

@robins.angela Angela Robbins, who ran the shop at North House Folk School in MN

Please add others in the comments. The original posts are below, in case you’d like to read comments and add to them.

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