Women Who Love Power Tools

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Dec. 27 2012 7:33 AM

Drill Baby Drill

Why are women suddenly really into power tools?

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When you think about it, it makes sense that woodworking would be the next extension of the contemporary DIY movement, much of which has been quite visibly female, from Martha Stewart to Pinterest. For a long time, DIY seemed to adhere to more narrow gender roles, with women sticking to small endeavors like making Christmas ornaments out of pine cones and spray paint. The more ambitious female DIY-er might paint a nursery mural, or refinish a bedside table.

But lately the DIY movement seems to be flattening gender roles. Men have gotten into artisanal mayonnaise-making and lampshade-crafting, and, according to the Times, Martha Stewart has become for a certain set of male hipster what Streisand is to the gays. Women, meanwhile, have wandered into the realm of sawdust motes. Once you buy a circular saw, you can no longer be considered merely “crafty.”

Which is good, because why is using a power drill considered so much more complicated than, say, refinishing a table? A drill is, as White puts it, really just “a handmixer with a different bit on the end.” The physicality of working with wood may be one of the reasons why it’s taken women awhile to come around to it, even though you don’t actually need great upper body strength to hold a drill, or to feed a 1x8 plank of pine into a wood saw. (If you had any doubt about this, scores of out-of-shape male handymen exist to make the point.)

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I suspect female carpentry may also speak to a cultural shift in the way we see our own bodies, part of a larger trend toward what cultural historian Maud Lavin considers a more physical, action-oriented type of American woman. In her book Push Comes to Shove, Lavin documents the rise of “positive representations of aggressive women,” in realms as far-ranging as movies, sports and Riot Grrrl music. As the New York Times pointed out recently, Hollywood in 2012 provided a particularly good example of this trend, with a sword-wielding Snow White, a skilled archer in Brave’s Merida, and, of course, the warrior Katniss Everdeen. These are not merely heroines, but heroines whose strong bodies are as essential to their victories as their wits. If Katniss wanted a new sideboard, would she really ask Peeta to build it for her?

Lately, I’ve started to reconsider the mental block I have against power tools, which is, let’s face it, the same kind of gender-driven helplessness that leads some men to claim they don’t “know how” to change a child’s diaper. For years, when my husband was building things, including that picnic table, a flight of stairs, and a closet, I’ve been happy to know as little as possible about the process. He’s also started talking about building a bench for our living room that would double as toy storage for our toddler daughter.  

The other night, when we were talking about activities we’d like to do together on free evenings, Dan suggested that perhaps I’d like to build that bench with him.

My first reaction was mild annoyance. I thought of all the time it would take, all the mistakes we’d make in measuring and cutting. Buying the damn thing would be so much easier. But then I paused. I considered the time I’d spend with him and the pleasure I’ve recently discovered in establishing mild competencies in new areas—sparring in karate class, riding a bike again after years of not riding. If Ana White could do it, I thought.

I said yes.

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at libbycopeland@gmail.com.

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