Posted in Writing Life

*Power Tools for Women

I grew up in a house that didn’t value the work of hands, deeming it lower class. The adults’ skills in this regard varied, but the important thing was that whatever skills they possessed weren’t passed along to the next generation. Intellectual work was valued, not for itself, but for what it could garner in status and in possessions that spoke of that status. This was the instruction: Never do it yourself; buy or hire. There was more instruction and graver: to work with hands is stupid; if you are stupid, you will fail, and if you fail you will starve, beg, be homeless or live in a hovel unless you die first. Alone.

When I was a kid, I often had a yearning to make something, but I had no instruction for that and no supplies. No paints (my beloved and cheap paintbox had been left behind in the old house when we moved), no coloured pencils, no paper (unless I wanted to use the white shelf paper that curled), no scissors, no kits, one ball of yarn (I can’t remember where it came from; I was eleven and it was pink and scratchy), certainly no nails, wood, saw or hammer that I was allowed.

I remember the toolbox in the furnace room, small drawers of hardware, mysterious, untouchable. In a low cupboard in the kitchen there were balls of darning thread and a big needle. I wanted to learn how to darn socks. My mother said forget it, throw out socks when they have a hole in them. My father was reputed to be handy, but I have no evidence one way or another since I was shut out of it and so were my siblings. There were no living plants in the house. As my parents’ fortunes increased, they acquired silk flowers.

This past Saturday, I took a workshop on power tools for women. It was put on by a tool shop and conducted by two women. I expected to love it but instead I was terrified from start to finish, keeping my feelings to myself and doing what had to be done at each stage. The workshop was well organized, and the instructors wonderful. My terror was absolutely no reflection on them.

We got to use about a dozen power tools, half table versions and the other half portable hand held versions of the same tools: saws, jig saws, drills, routers. It was safe, all the tools (top of the line) with guards, the instructors standing close. And I was terrified, picturing blood flying, thinking how much longer? How many more cuts, grooves, holes do I have to do? The saws buzzed, the smell of wood dust stayed with me even after I got home.

I made a toolbox. I’m proud of that toolbox even though I had to get help for the very last screw. My right hand shakes. It’s benign, hereditary, a tremor that is sometimes absent, sometimes barely noticeable but under stress it gets worse and I just couldn’t do that last, final thing. The drill kept slipping and after the second round gouge, I asked one of the instructors to do it for me.

She looked at the two small indentations, like eyes, like snake eyes in the wood, and she considered how to fix it. No, I said. I don’t mind them. They’re the imperfection that make this box perfect.

The day was arduous, not because of the tools or the other women, who were delightful, or the instructors who were funny, solid, grounded and smart, but because I was breaking the rules of my childhood.

Those rules are tracks upon the heart, deep and ingrained. To replace them requires this: lift a freight train off the tracks, hold it in the air with one hand while laying new tracks with the other, and then place the train down, ready to travel. It took that much effort and I was sick to my stomach scared, but I rode the top of the train.

I made a toolbox with snake eyes. I sanded it until it felt like silk. In my house there are no silk flowers. There are plants with roots in soil, watered and misted every day. My daughters have tools of all kinds. They have power in their hands.

Proverbs 31: 10-31
A woman of valour who can find? Her worth is above rubies…She seeks wool and flax and works willingly with her hands. She is like merchant ships; she brings food from afar…She gives food to her household and a portion to her maidens. She considers a field, and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She girds her loins with strength, and makes strong her arms. She stretches out her hand to the poor; yes, she reaches forth her hands to the needy…She is not afraid of the snow for her household; for all her household are clothed with scarlet… Strength and dignity are her clothing; and she laughs at the time to come… Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her works praise her in the gates.

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Lilian is the author of Web of Angels, a novel about a mom with DID (multiple personalities). She's also the author of the historical novels, The River Midnight and The Singing Fire, about secrets, friendship and motherhood in 19th century Poland and London.

17 thoughts on “*Power Tools for Women

  1. Wow, how sad for you! I can’t even imagine a life like that. I grew up on a farm, where everything was made by hand — homes, fences, clothes, food, even violins and guitars. Currently my elder brother is making his own airplane (from a kit). One weekend I visited my brother and saw he had bought a book, “How to Build a House”, and the following year he and his partner moved in to the house they built. My sister built some of her own furniture. Now my daughter makes wildly decorated cupcakes, because we enjoy baking, my son and I are doing some drywalling on the main floor, and I am finally putting away the leftover fabric from sewing yet another Halloween costume, making my own pattern from looking at the pictures my kids brought to me and said, Lets do this! My childhood saw us looking at people with store-bought everything as lazy and, sorry, useless. I mean, even a doctor needs to know how to sew.

    Glad to hear you’re empowering yourself. If power tools are too scary, hand tools were around for a long time before electricity. I saw some hand drills at an antique fair just last week that you might feel more comfortable with. It’s kind of more “your” project when it really is done by hand.

  2. I love that you did it 😀

    I grew up in a DIY family – carpentry, building, decorating, card-making, knitting… anything you can name, one of my parents probably DIYs it. I grew up believing it was perfectly normal to turn my hand to anything. But I’m still not good with power tools.

    1. Rachel, I love it too now that I’m home and can look at the toolbox. Thank God for lifelong learning! I think it’s wonderful to come from a crafty home and so we do our best to provide a creative environment for our kids. We don’t have a coffee table, but we do have a microscope on the end table.

  3. SM, I love to hear about people who can do all that and thanks for the suggestion. I don’t mind a power drill, but I would prefer using hand tools otherwise for now. And I’m also learning to knit and sew. My younger daughter wants slipper socks, so I think I’ll start knitting them while watching older daughter at her basketball game today. The same tool shop where I took that workshop offers another on making violins, btw.

  4. I know many people (men and women) who were raised equally incapable due to affluence and a blue collar bias, were apartment dwellers who either lived in squallor where nothing got fixed or those landlord fixed everything while they were at school/work.

    It seems that too much of society is either so specialized in one thing only or have no real skills at all, its really quite pitiful I know people who can’t sew on a button, cook a simple meal from scratch, hang a painting, and don’t see anything wrong with it.

    I think it’s a great achievment for you, a new skill is a great gift.

    1. Thanks Green Assassin. And I’d also add that bias exists among some of those who aspire to affluence. Eventually that might change because prices will go up and limits in natural resources felt. It’s crazy that it costs more to repair something than to throw it out and replace.

  5. How very brave of you to break those childhood rules, and I’m not surprised your hand shook. Your heart was quaking in there. It is odd and yet fascinating (when it happens to someone other than myself!) how those forbidden areas are bound around with fierce emotions. And watch out for the backlash – moving into new territories when they are emotional minefields can be one step forward and two back. But you can look at your box and be proud. I too grew up in a family like a cottage industry – my mother sewing and baking, my father gardening and manning a small printing press, my brother making things out of electronics. But me? No practical skills whatsoever. I read my books and thought I was a changeling.

    1. Thanks, Litlove (and btw I wondered who Andrew was!). You are so right about the backlash. While writing this, I also wondered about kids who are the bookreaders in families that aren’t. Yet when parents expand their own horizons to take in their kids’ interests, it can open up their world.

  6. Our family life and preferences so often govern what we become and what we fear – in big and small ways. I’m glad you stood up to this giant! I have a feeling you have faced (and overcome) many such leftover hurdles from your past.

    My father worked with his hands – he was a tool and die maker, which was an up and coming trade in the post WWII era. It enabled him to have a successul business of his own for over 30 years, even though he never finished high school. I was always very impressed with his skill as a businessman, and as a tradesman, although the sound of the huge grinders in his shop was rather daunting to a little girl. I did like to watch the sparks fly from the diamond grinding wheels 🙂

    Writing is a kind of handiwork, isn’t it? You take words, then mold and shape them to fit the pattern you’re working in.

    And a laptop is your power tool 🙂

    1. Thank you Becca, and you’re right about this being just one of many such hurdles. I was thinking about writing that way too after I wrote the post, as something that I make with my hands as well as mind. Thank goodness for grade 9 typing! It was the alternative to home ec, which I’m just trying to learn now.

  7. Congratulations on taking that daring leap into a new world of possibilities. You are not alone in your experience. Remember that there are some of us around that freely support ‘leapers’ – all you need to do is ask.

    Contact me if you’d like more info about female-friendly tools and supportive environments where you can learn how to become capable & confident with your home improvements, repairs, and tool use.

  8. Glad you asked. Tomboy Tools was created by a couple of women that were tired of struggling with tools designed by men, for men (i.e. over-weighted, over-sized, and over-powered). They put forward a product line of blue-only tools so women would focus on the change in design (yes, the features are different), and not get distracted by a girly colour.

    Then one year, they offered a pink 13oz hammer to raise funds to fight breast cancer. The response was terrific, and it came with a loud “what else do you have that’s pink?”. Why? Because if it’s pink….. ‘he’ won’t take it.

    So many women have empty toolboxes, because the contents have been borrowed and (since the tools didn’t look any different than the borrower’s tools) never returned.

    Many of the tools offered by Tomboy Tools are still blue, but the pink is what’s selling the fastest.

    Look past the pink – they’re the same terrific designs with an affordable price.


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