by Jen Pennington
Female empowerment comes in many forms, but it always comes with a strong sense of self. Over the years I have been lucky enough to know and work with some of strongest women I’ve ever met. Some are powerful business women, while others are in the business of using powerful tools in the workplace, and I’m not talking about PowerPoint presentations. No, these are women who have strayed from normal conventions and entered into metal fabrication, welding, blacksmithing and carpentry—all predominantly male-dominated industries. They are taking charge and teaching women of all ages to feel comfortable going into the trades and getting their hands dirty. As we know women often play an important role in history getting into this line of work.
Recently, while working on a historical society project in Henderson, Nevada our team came across “Magnesium Maggies,” a term coined by researcher, Irene Rostine. Sisters to the Rosie the Riveters of their generation, these women worked in the middle of the desert, at the Basic Magnesium Plant during the 40s making magnesium ingots. The ingots were then shipped to ammunition factories to aid in the war effort making bullets and bombs. Many worked as forklift operators, stackers and shippers. Did they feel a sense of empowerment or gain a sense of self-sufficiency that one gets from working with large machines and power tools? When their jobs ended and the plant closed, did their skills stay with them for the rest of their life? I wondered.
I thought about my mom. She was the same age as some of these women, but her path took her into a secretarial/bookkeeper career. She worked hard her whole life and was a force to be reckoned with in other ways against the male chauvinists of her time. Dad used to say, he was a feminist because of her. But she never really got into the idea of getting her hands dirty…at least on purpose. After my father died, I stayed with my mom for awhile. I realized she was totally unprepared to live on her own. I asked her one day to change the batteries in something and she said to me, “I don’t how to do that.” I said, “Didn’t you ever change the batteries in a flashlight?” She said, “No. Dad always took care of that.” I was shocked. How could I have not understood what it really meant to lose my Dad to my mom? She hadn’t just lost the love of her life, but the man who always took care of her so she wouldn’t have to worry about the “little things.” It was incomprehensible and chilling to me. This very independent, strong woman felt vulnerable. I realized her empty house was now a metaphor for another part of her of her life that was missing—hands-on self-sufficiency.
Learning along the way
Dad had taught me how to take care of my car, how to keep the lawnmowers running, and how to work with tools. He was self-taught, and not a mechanic or carpenter by any means, but he taught me what he could. In college at School of Visual Arts I studied sculpture and learned how to weld, use the shop, work in different mediums, cast bronze and aluminum and work with all kinds of tools. I worked as an artist’s assistant stretching canvases, and even worked for my cousin one summer doing construction on an art installation crew in New York City. Today, I am in the process of building my own house, from the foundation to the roof, working alongside my husband every step of the way. I am continually learning and determined to understand every inch of my house. Even if my mechanical skills are not all there, I will know where all the pipes are, where they go, how to shut off water and propane valves, cut power, run a chainsaw, and how to get a generator going.
Granted when you design or make objects and get them to look or function the way you want, you hone your troubleshooting skills and learn new ones in the process. Add one more layer to that. Be a woman in a man’s world of tools and procedures. Have someone say to you just once, “Oh honey, let me help you with that.” Or, “You don’t want to use that tool, it’s going to be too heavy for you.” Or, “Is this for your husband?” Oh the array of expletives in my head! Sometimes it’s not even what is said, but how it’s said. A condescending tone makes me crazy. Later as you learn more, you drop the aggressive pose you take when you are younger, and just move on.
This why I believe women of every age still need role models. In the next few weeks I’m excited to bring video profiles of some very self-sufficient, craftswomen to Ecozome. Women in non-traditional settings who are garnering a following of their own. From Jessi Combs, a professional welder and fabricator known for her roles on Overhaulin‘, Xtreme 4×4, and appearances on Mythbusters to Maria Cristalli, a well-respected blacksmith with a ten-year old apprentice, forging steel and fabricating work in her studio.
So ladies, roll-up your sleeves. It’s time to get some dirt under those fingernails.
Photo by Robert J. Pennington