This Is My Work: The Rise of Women in Woodworking
From American Craft Inquiry: Volume 2, Issue 1
On February 12, 2017, Laura Mays, program director of the College of the Redwoods fine woodworking program, posted a photograph of the most recent issue of Fine Woodworking magazine on Facebook and Instagram.1,2 Along with the photo, she provided a table of statistics from the issue:
- Number of articles written by women: 0
- Number of female faces (in both editorial and advertising): 1 [size of face in image 3/16 inches or 4.6 mm]
- Number of male faces (in both editorial and advertising): 58
- Number of faces of people of color (identifiable, in both editorial and advertising): 1
- Number of pieces featured in Gallery: 13
- Number of pieces featured in Gallery made by women (identified by first name): 2
Mays followed with two questions, first asking in earnest, “Do these statistics matter?” The second question she identified as rhetorical, asking, “Is this going to encourage women or people of color to enter the field of fine woodworking, at least as laid out by Fine Woodworking magazine?”
According to recent Census Bureau figures, about 62 percent of the US population identifies as single-ethnicity white.3 From construction sites to fine art education, the woodworking field spans a broad socioeconomic and ideological spectrum within a relatively small community. In a field where the art school workshop is closely connected to the lumberyard, how the woodworking community chooses to address the complex challenges faced by women in the field may point the way to affecting positive, systemic change in today’s political landscape. Mays’ questions challenge the gatekeepers of the craft woodworking community to be proactive in fostering diversity and to make a direct contribution to increasing the visibility of women, minorities, and people of color working in the field. The questions she presents are intimately tied to the recording and telling of history, as well as the entanglements of identity politics.
Often associated with mediums like ceramics and textiles, women emerged in the late 20th century as major figures in the American studio furniture movement and confirmed their place in the studio craft canon. Nonetheless, they have faced the gender exclusion and opposition often found in studio crafts derived from the fundamental elements of architecture – glass, masonry, and metalwork. Following the civil rights and women’s liberation movements, the number of female students entering studio craft and applied arts programs at large universities continued to grow. However, during the same period, female enrollment statistics at woodworking-specific programs hovered between 15 and 20 percent.4 Listening to the experiences of women in the woodworking field, it becomes evident that despite tremendous efforts to include women in the narratives of design history, and to include and champion underrepresented identities, there is still a considerable amount of progress yet to be made. To that end, this essay relies heavily on the voices of women. Women woodworkers have taken on roles as instructors, researchers, program heads, and presidents of institutions across the country, yet many still report they have encountered sexism and discrimination in their professional practice. Theirs is a community marked by collaborative efforts, a focus on inclusion and diversity, and an awareness of what it means to be a woman working in a traditionally male-dominated field.
Preventing narrative histories from sliding back into complacent assumptions requires sustained effort and resilience. The histories and works of women, minorities, and people of color are often subsumed into the legacies of their male, likely white, collaborators and colleagues. “Their contribution has been marginalized in the way their histories are presented,” says Nina Stritzler-Levine, gallery director at Bard Graduate Center.5 She continues, “Historically, furniture design is a microcosm of the architecture macrocosm, and architecture has always been very male-dominated.” Stritzler-Levine’s recently curated exhibition, “Artek and the Aaltos: Creating a Modern World,” highlighted the role of Aino Marsio Aalto, who earned her architecture degree in 1911 alongside her husband, Alvar Aalto.6 In April of 1988, Stritzler-Levine, (then an assistant curator at the American Craft Museum, now the Museum of Arts and Design) collaborated with gallerist Bernice Steinbaum to develop an exhibition titled “Pioneers & Pioneering: 20th Century Women Furniture Designers & Furniture Designer/Makers.”7 According to an article in the New York Times Home and Garden section, the exhibition was conceived following a case of misattribution. A prominent gallerist dedicated to promoting the careers of women, Steinbaum was confident that her office swivel chair was designed by Le Corbusier until Stritzler-Levine informed her that the chair was actually a design by Charlotte Perriand.8 Running at Bernice Steinbaum Gallery in New York City for just under a month, the exhibition included two Shaker chairs (highlighting the contributions of women in Shaker furniture production) along with pieces by modernist designers Perriand, Eileen Gray, and Lily Reich.9,10 The exhibition also featured six of the best-known women contemporary furniture makers: Gail Fredell, Rosanne Somerson, Kristina Madsen, Judy Kensley McKie, Wendy Maruyama, and Wendy Stayman. With the exception of Fredell, this same group of women was included in a subsequent exhibition, “New American Furniture: The Second Generation of Studio Furnituremakers.” Curated by studio furniture scholar Edward S. Cooke Jr., the exhibition opened on December 8, 1989, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston before heading to the Smithsonian Institute’s Renwick Gallery.11 The group took five spaces on the roster of the 26 artists selected, or roughly 20 percent – a ratio that reappears in this discussion several times as a depressing “magic number.”12
“Pioneers and New American Furniture” were not the first exhibitions displaying work by these women in the same space. Somerson recalls meeting many in the group through a show of women woodworkers at New York City’s Workbench Gallery.13 As part of a group that included Susan Working, Christina Madsen, and others, Somerson feared the constant association of her work with her gender. She comments, “I was a little reluctant always to be kind of categorized as this ‘woman woodworker,’ because I really felt like it just so happened that I was a woman. Early on, I wanted to sort of deny that, and just be like anyone else in the field.”14 Many women who wish to keep their gender separate from their profession echo Somerson’s concerns. Woodworker Kim Winkle recalls “being sort of offended when asked to participate in a show of female woodworkers – I wanted to be known for what I made, not that it was made by a woman.”15 Woodworker Annette Lippert also expresses concern that questions of gender are distracting, stating, “I want the discussion to be about the craft. I want the discussion to be about my skills in the craft.”16 However, several women have come to embrace the conversation around gender and their work, and they consider gender identity as inherent in their artistic process and product. After initially deciding to disassociate from any kind of gender discussion regarding her work, Somerson came to see a strong connection between her work and female identity. Moreover, she believes this to be true for all artists, stating “everyone’s identity [is] so much at the heart of their creative process that it’s actually important to acknowledge that the work is being made by a woman.”17 Woodworker and educator Annie Meyer describes a similar conundrum: “It didn’t take very long outside of my progressive art-school bubble to truly learn why this discussion is not only still relevant, but incredibly important to participate in.”18
Wendy Maruyama has been answering questions about what it’s like to be a woman and woodworker for more than 35 years.19 Maruyama was a 26-year-old graduate student at Rochester Institute of Technology when she told author Laura Cehanowicz that she learned to “ignore trivia such as bulletin-board pin-ups” for the article “Portfolio: Woodworking Women,” which was published in the July/August 1979 issue of Fine Woodworking.20 Maruyama, who, along with Somerson and others, was barred from taking woodshop in high school, writes,
I feel fortunate to have embarked on my learning experience in an academic background … the academic environment (i.e., college art programs) definitely provides an insulated space: One realizes exactly how sheltered it is when one goes out to the ‘outside world’, i.e., lumberyards and cabinet shops run by burly men, and enduring patronizing and condescending behavior.21
Somerson and Maruyama are part of what is considered the “early guard” of prominent women studio furniture makers, but women have been participating in woodworking classes in American formal education for well over 100 years.
Edward S. Cooke Jr. points to the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century as the beginning of women and formal woodworking education.22 Cooke observes that “given the number of women who enrolled in woodworking at school [in the early 20th century] … it is surprising how few are presently known and how little of their work has been documented.”23 Unsurprisingly, women are often behind efforts to recognize other members of their gender. Among the many photographs Frances Benjamin Johnston took of the African American community at the turn of the century is an image of young women taking “a class in sloyd” at the all-black Hampton Institute in Virginia.24 Cooke goes on to describe how women were responsible for crafting a significant amount of the decorative “surface enrichments” (painting and carving) in fashion at the time – work considered best suited to feminine tendencies and skill sets, though their work often went unattributed.25
American attitudes toward women’s education, as defined by the design reform movement, shifted in the 1910s due to the influence of emerging European modernist theory.26 The worldwide depression of the 1930s further cemented the place of educational systems that prioritized practicality and efficiency.27 As a result, American schools developed a pedagogical model that favored a male-centric program of industrial design.28 After World War II, however, women began to reemerge as makers because of the combined effects of their wartime labor experience, access to hobby tools ostensibly for men, and, later, a backlash against 1950s consumerism.29 Anti-consumerist sentiment drove the development of the counterculture and “back to the land” movements of the 1960s and 1970s as outlined in publications like The Whole Earth Catalogue (1968)30 and Mother Earth News (1970).31 The back to the land movement, with its focus on homesteading, small-scale makers, and the act of making highlights the tension between new age, liberal identity politics and traditional gender roles. While many women presumably found liberation, and increased artistic freedom through countercultural movements, it is false to assume that the liberal left and its associated studio crafts were flawlessly separated concepts of a “simple” agrarian lifestyle from a tacit understanding of traditional homesteading gender roles. The result is a tenacious variety of everyday sexism, in which individuals agree with equality in theory and incorrectly assume they follow this theory in practice.
Patriarchal oppression does not emerge solely from conceptions of the traditional past. Today, small-scale makers and woodworkers are confronted with relatively easy access to technological advancements capable of profoundly affecting their work and process. Despite this access, women woodworkers have found themselves excluded on both fronts – excluded from nostalgic, patriarchal notions of the past as well as from the tech-sector work considered vital to shaping the future.32 The bias against women in the workshop is easily transferrable. Whereas women were assumed to be physically unable to handle large slabs of wood or operate woodworking machines, now others doubt their ability to comprehend sophisticated, computer-driven design. Despite this tendency, artist-woodworker and RISD furniture department instructor Yuri Kobayashi believes that women might receive special benefit from fabrication technology as it supersedes traditional definitions and labels.33 The hope is that by departing from traditional methods and titles, women can avoid the frustration of contending with the traditional male woodworker identity, preferring instead to adopt the title of “artist” or “designer.” Moreover, given the number of women enrolled in high-profile, comfortably endowed art schools, it is clear that women are gaining access to cutting-edge fabrication techniques, often in greater numbers than their male counterparts.34
Women have been earning more college degrees than men since the early 1980s, and their presence in art institutions has been especially strong. At RISD and Cranbrook, for example, women make up around 70 percent of the student body.35 The number of women in the college woodshop has also increased in non-coastal cities with smaller populations, albeit at a slower rate. Graduating from Iowa State University’s College of Design just last year, Taylor Bryan notes, “My woodworking professor commented several times on the boy-to-girl ratio in our class. Our class was the first class he had seen that had more girls than boys, and the ratio wasn’t even close. Almost 75 percent of my class was female. My professor loved that we were breaking the stereotype.”36 Others report less positive experiences. Needlessly warned by a teacher in high school that she shouldn’t get her hopes up for RISD, woodworker and educator Alison Croney recalls feeling nervous going into her first year at the prestigious program.37 She eventually found a supportive group of mentors and professors, but her first year was a challenge. She recalls;
During my first year studying furniture design, I often felt like the professors noticed the male students a bit more, checked in casually with them to see how things were going without being prompted. On the other hand, I could make it through the day without anyone stopping in to check on my process unless I specifically signed up for a check-in. This subtle difference did two things: Told the male students that their work was interesting, valuable, and worth pursuing outside of the academic setting, [and second] I remember feeling a lot of self-doubt because I wasn’t getting the extra interest in my work and way of thinking. My response was always to continue pursuing my goals, at times stubbornly… . Being a black female, it is not always clear if the differences can be attributed to race or gender.38
Croney’s experience shows how feelings of invisibility and a sense that potential mentors lack interest can create added mental and emotional work, especially in an atmosphere that is already emotionally and physically taxing.
Comparatively, smaller, specialized woodworking, and furniture craft schools report much lower female enrollment– a fairly steady 15 to 20 percent.39 This imbalance creates an atmosphere with a noticeably male tilt. Woodworker and educator Jess Osserman remarks on her time at College of the Redwoods, “The space felt very safe for white men to talk about their interests and experiences without filters an impossible amount of time was spent talking about beards. I am not joking.” While protracted conversations about beards seem harmless, the social isolation is not. The lack of camaraderie among women takes an emotional toll and can also translate into a loss of networking opportunities. As Croney describes, often there is a period of “adjustment” in which women are treated as inconsequential or troublesome until they prove themselves worthy of their place in the wood shop. Even then their success isn’t necessarily met with approval. Osserman continues, “When I cut dovetails for the first time ahead of some of my peers, then I had to deal with their egos being bruised by being beaten by a girl. I didn’t want to hurt anyone's feelings. It was a tense few months as I adjusted to this environment and the pecking order was established.”40
During her time at College of the Redwoods, Osserman studied under Mays, who, along with Dierdre Visser and Phoebe Kuo, is compiling a series of interviews with women woodworkers. The team eventually hopes to publish the project as a book for general audiences. By recording and publishing a compendium of women’s thoughts and experiences, framed for the average reader, the project seeks to directly counteract the erasure of women’s voices. Mays understands the fluidity of perception and how it can shift over time, and she aims to recover voices that have been lost. Although Mays recalls her own educational experience as positive and “unaffected” by being a woman, exposure to the stories of multiple other women woodworkers has led her to revise her position. She explains:
In the course of researching this book I have realized that my experience is not typical … that there were perhaps subtle things going on that I just barreled through, and that it's not easy to always be in about a 10 percent minority.
Mays’ current thinking is a direct result of hearing the experiences of other women. This shows how giving women a space to express themselves can help both men and other women arrive at a better place of mutual understanding. Moreover, Mays echoes Croney’s and Ossermans’ thoughts on the difficulty of being in a small minority not only in an educational setting, but also a professional one. When referring to the professional world, the percentage of women drops from 20 percent to 10, but the overall proportion of women employed as woodworkers is actually much lower.
According to a 2015 Department of Labor statistics report, women make up just 1.8 percent of all carpenters, up from the 1.4 reported in 2010.41 The number of “cabinetmakers and bench carpenters” shows a slightly better rate of improvement, with women making up 7.9 percent out of a sample size of 60, up from the 2010 statistic of 2.8 percent. These statistics also highlight issues of diversity. The report, based on the most recent population survey, lists the percentage of black or African American carpenters at 5.4, and Hispanic and Latino at 33.9 percent. It seems that whereas women comprise a large percentage of the student body of fine art institutions, they have made little progress entering the carpentry trade. Conversely, the percentage of minorities working in carpentry is far higher than in art and design schools, suggesting minorities and people of color are less likely to gain access to higher art and design education.42
In their attempts to close the professional gap, it is likely that risk-averse young women choose four-year liberal arts programs rather than specialized schools for woodworking. We know, for example, that women often strive for degrees and good grades in order to legitimize themselves in the eyes of future employers, rather than assuming their success is a given.43 In other words, women are doing everything they can to increase their chances of success, to prove themselves, ahead of the moment when they will be judged professionally.
Finally, older women participate in continuing education at very high rates. Described as an “art camp for grown-ups,” Snowfarm: The New England Craft School reports that 80 percent of all enrolled students are women, with the woodworking workshops showing a 50 percent enrollment rate. Enrollment at Boston’s North Bennet Street School follows a similar trend, with a 15 percent enrollment rate in their furniture program, but much higher numbers in their continuing education courses.44 These statistics suggest that without the pressure of developing a viable career, the interest in woodworking remains equal.45
Many women woodworkers indicate that they have endured tedious and repeated questions about their competency, and they report that people often refuse to believe that a woman could produce fine woodwork. Most of the women woodworkers I interviewed for this article report that their work is often assumed to be that of a male partner. Woodworker Leslie Webb describes an exchange:
The most common question I get asked at shows to this day, regardless of the fact that one, there is a sign that says ‘Leslie Webb Design,’ two, I am wearing a badge that says ‘Leslie Webb,’ and three, I am alone in my booth, is ‘Is this your husband’s work?’ and when I say no, it is inevitably followed by ‘You and your husband?’ and when I say no again, there is a long and awkward pause before the light goes on and they say ‘This is your work?!’I would like to note that no woman has ever asked me these questions, nor any man of color.
In the professional woodworking world, gender discrimination ranges from subtle to shocking, with women reporting everything from the occasional raised eyebrow to physical threats and actual bodily harm. Sarah McCollum, a woodworker, educator, and founding member of the Furniture Society, has felt this undercurrent of disapproval for many years. She comments, “I think it’s fair to say that on levels underneath, I was not welcome. Not me personally, but my gender. I think my gender is still not welcome on a job site.”
Woodturner Beth Ireland also relays that in early 1980s Boston, crew members hung a fellow female carpenter over the side of a building by her ankles for defying a co-worker’s warning to stay home.47 For her part, Ireland recounts how, while at a worksite, a piece of temporary flooring was pulled out from underneath her feet, causing her to fall a full story below and fracture her back.48 Looking down at her from the hole in the floor above, a crew member stated “I guess now you’ll think twice about showing up here, won’t you?”49 The message is unmistakable: Disappear.
How is one to respond in the face of this kind of pressure? As I have previously suggested, collectives and movements offer one type of solution, and an effective solution can be contagious. The increased visibility of women in the studio furniture movement, for example, had a direct effect on other women who saw their success. Phoebe Kuo often returns to the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” in which Adichie states, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”50 Kim Winkle had been living with a single story of men as woodworkers until she came across an article on Judy Kensley McKie in Fine Woodworking, an experience she describes as a “pivotal” moment, which prompted her to think, “I could do this.”51 Without the McKie article, Winkle might never have had that catalytic moment.
As a discipline, woodworking enjoys a small list of generally approved, authoritative venues that implicitly express through their content what it means to be a woodworker. What action might be taken when a woodworker doesn’t fit that mold? Collectives provide one form of response. New media provide another. Not seeing themselves in the printed pages of established trade magazines, for example, women and people of color have found other means of self-publishing via digital technologies.
Social media platforms have come to occupy an undeniable position in public consciousness. They have become some of our most important, if informal, archives. The woodworking community has embraced social media, and many women woodworkers use online platforms as a way to connect with their community. Greenwood carver Amy Umbel credits Instagram, specifically, when she describes how the image sharing app has helped her to feel less isolated. She comments, “Telling yourself you can be a woman woodworker is one thing, but when you actually see other women in your field, that is something totally different. It validates your efforts and instincts.”52 Moreover, social media is responsive. It can fill in gaps in representation and model positive behavior. If early conditioning leads a woman to see herself as a delicate homemaker, and man as the tool wielding boss of the house, exposure to other types of female behavior can be quite powerful.53 This type of reparative exposure helps to explain why Leslie Webb looks optimistically on the rise of women’s woodworking on social media. As she notes, “There is a huge woodworking community on Instagram, and quite often these days I will see videos of men teaching their daughters how to use a hand plane or a hand saw or building a project with them. And that is a pretty significant shift.”54 If Webb and others are encouraged by what they see and read on Instagram and Facebook, then why wouldn’t that reality be reflected in trade magazines that are ostensibly driven by readers’ interests?
Complacency, Responsibility, Inclusion
Following Mays’ initial Instagram and Facebook posts, the comment sections steadily filled with responses from the men and women in her extended network.55 The conversations remained mostly civil and positive, with many expressing thanks or sharing their own thoughts on whether the diversity represented in Fine Woodworking mattered and what, if any, responsibility the publication bears. Fine Woodworking editor Matthew Kenney responded on Instagram, “I can say definitively that our targeted audience is woodworkers interested in making beautiful furniture using smart technique, whoever they might be … ”56 He then called on the community to submit article ideas and propose work for the magazine’s gallery section. Even as he acknowledged the insufficiency of his solution, he encouraged readers to submit articles and work.57 Woodworker and executive art director Michael Pekovich seconded Kenney’s sentiments, adding, “ … I would love for the magazine to represent a true cross section of the work that’s being done, but we don’t have the resources to do as much outreach as we should to make that happen. … We’re not a mindless marketing-driven corporation, we’re a really small, overworked staff trying to put out a good magazine, and we depend on the help of a lot of woodworkers to make that happen.”58 Their question thus becomes: Why is it that “a lot” of woodworkers who contribute to the pages of Fine Woodworking somehow fail to represent a “true cross section”? Where does the point of disconnect between community and publication occur, and what is the best course of action to address this issue?
The overwhelming consensus is that deliberate, focused action will be required. Many of the women interviewed for this article agree that without actively and substantively addressing questions of diversity and inclusion, there is little point in discussing the progress of women in woodworking. This imperative extends to other underserved populations, as well. Alison Croney, for example, notes some progress for women, but not necessarily for people of color:
When I started out in the woodworking field, it seemed as though many young women were establishing themselves in the field, but it was still a majority of older white males. Since then, I have seen more white women, younger and older, pursuing careers in woodworking. Unfortunately, I continue to see limited access, exposure and encouragement for people of color to pursue careers in woodworking.59
Pekovich and Kenney’s reflections on Fine Woodworking indicate that they are committed to diversity and inclusion in theory, but that a feedback loop of visible white male woodworkers, combined with the magazine’s limited resources, prevents them from enacting the diversity and inclusion that they desire. This dialogue suggests that the woodworking community is poised to effect meaningful change with regard to diversity and inclusion. If we take Kenney and Pekovich at their word, it is within our reach to bridge the ideological chasm between the lumberyard and the university. In the case of Fine Woodworking, at least, a relatively small push may be all that is required to significantly move representation in the field in the direction of parity and diversity. Of course, Fine Woodworking is just one of many publications looking to serve the greater woodworking community, but the point Mays implicitly makes is that key magazines like Fine Woodworking not only reflect the woodworking community back to itself, but that trade publications are also a point of visibility for a broader audience. Like any trade magazine, if they fail to seek out diverse voices, to shift the feedback loop, and to anticipate the changing scope of the field, their readership will continue to imagine itself narrowly, and eventually to shrink past the point of sustainability.
In the last days of June, just over four months after Mays’ initial posts, both Popular Woodworking and Fine Woodworking posted blog entries about “A Workshop of Our Own,” or “WOO,” a project headed by woodworker Sarah Marriage and defined as a “collaborative professional woodshop and educational space for women and gender-nonconforming furniture makers.”60 With the help of social media, the Baltimore-based project initiated a crowdfunding campaign to buy a shop building, raising more than $65,000, and gaining many supporters in the process.61 Woodworkers across the country offered to donate work for the project’s fundraising effort. For a $500 pledge, a contributor could choose to receive one of five “Mini Mickey Mackintosh” chairs – artists proofs that show quarter-scale replicas of Wendy Maruyama’s iconic Mickey Mackintosh chair.
Also among those who donated their work was Megan Fitzpatrick, editor of Popular Woodworking. In an editorial blog entry on the publication website on June 29, 2017, Fitzpatrick addressed her own experiences as a woman and woodworker before turning to her interview with Marriage about the project. Her comments were a mix of support, commiseration, and concern. One commenter complained, “After starting the June issue saying you were going to break the rule about talking about politics in the magazine, I worry this is the new normal. Nothing could be worse for the craft of woodworking than an activist Popular Woodworking magazine.”62 In her editorial, Fitzpatrick had described instances of significant sexual harassment while in a professional environment, to which commenter responded, “We can’t control your experiences. You have a terrific job. Please stick with woodworking and leave your personal issues at home. Same as any other man or woman. We pay for useful and practical information, not therapy.”63
A day earlier, the Fine Woodworking blog ran a short piece about WOO written by Heide Martin, which met a similar response.64 Even the less inflammatory comments expressed the basic sentiment that politics should have no place in woodworking and that woodworking should provide a measure of escape.65 One commenter, for instance, asked that readers “just celebrate the creativity that is high-quality woodworking,” adding, “I come here to get away from the rest of the world’s controversies.”66 These comments help to illuminate why a call to amplify voices might appear first on the list of WOO’s stated aims.67 When fighting assumptions and attempts at erasure, women must work hard to be heard, and even harder to be understood. Phoebe Kuo, for instance, recalls a recent conversation about WOO with a male woodworking colleague who expressed his jealousy of Marriage’s considerable number of Instagram followers, adding “And the crazy thing is, she doesn’t even make anything!” Kuo was struck by how his remarks revealed “a bias toward object- making versus community-making,” a relevant observation when considering reasons women might want their own workshop. Perhaps more to the point, Kuo’s colleague was misinformed. For a $5,000 pledge to WOO, contributors could receive Marriage’s rhomboidal Feint Coffee Table in ash, or her Fiddler Mantis Music Stand, an intricate yet solid form inspired by insect limbs, beautifully rendered in blue gum eucalyptus and Pacific madrone.
In this context, it is important to remember that the patronage relationship is one of the oldest and most politically charged elements in art writ large.68 We may choose not to engage with identity politics, or any kind of politics, in our work, but politics may very well choose to engage with us. Shortly after her husband’s inauguration in January 1993, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton called on Michael W. Monroe, curator-in-charge at the Renwick Gallery, to organize a collection of contemporary American crafts for display in the White House. The collection was thought to be a fitting start for 1993’s designation as the “Year of American Craft: A Celebration of the Creative Work of the Hand” – a designation signed into being by George H.W. Bush only a few months earlier.69 Clinton, who described craft as “one of our most vibrant, creative forms of cultural expression,” felt an obligation to ensure that the White House would continue “to reflect the vital role that art and culture have played in our democracy for more than two centuries… . ”70 The show consisted of 72 objects from 77 established and lesser-known artists, of glass, fiber, metal, and wood.71 Noting that all the objects were donated either by the artists or their patrons, Monroe intended the collection to reflect the current state of American craft. In his words:
Today, crafts have become more diversified than at any time in American history, as the contemporary American craft movement continues to expand its visibility and reach … all the finely crafted objects [the artists] produce serve as a material record that bridges the past and the present.72
Of the 77 artists, 21 were female, or roughly 27 percent. Among the 20 wood artists, there were two women – woodturners Robyn Horn and Virginia Dotson. The roster also included one person of color, woodturner Frank E. Cummings III, and Po Shun Leong, an English expat of Chinese heritage.73 Of the men remaining, there were two fathers and sons, Mark and Mel Lindquist, and Phillip and Edward Moulthrop.74
In just a few generations, women have made remarkable progress in woodworking. Still, the work of elevating women, minorities, and people of color to a place of parity is clearly not over. By reaching across the disciplinary aisle and acknowledging the permeable borders shared by art, studio craft, and trade, it becomes possible to push back against social and cultural biases against women and minorities strengthened by the pull of habit, nostalgia, complacency, and conceptions of “tradition.” Twenty-four years on, it is difficult to say with any certainty how many women might be included in a 2017 presidential contemporary studio craft collection, but even if the ratio were to double, there is still no denying that percentage is far from parity. While recent studio craft culture has provided more opportunities for visibility and exploration than in decades past, it is of vital importance to ensure that women, minorities, and people of color are represented regardless of the particularities of patrons or influential coteries. Craft, design, and politics are undeniably entangled. Now is the time to be fully engaged and to embody our convictions in our practice. Put another way, by combining compassion and openness with decisive action in our work and in our lives, we give the field of woodworking its best chance to directly affect which pieces of work eventually reach the White House.