When I first started making boxes I assumed that there were not many women in woodworking. However, it didn't take long to realize I was wrong. Not only was I wrong about the number of women woodworking today, but women have always been involved with woodworking.
If I had thought about it I would have realized that women in woodworking must have just as long a history as women in other non-traditional fields. We've always been there, just not always visibly.
In the photo above (circa 1899-1900) young African American women are training in woodworking at Hampton Institute in Hampton, VA. Who are these women? How did they come to get this training? I wonder how many of them had a chance to use their woodworking skills, where, and in what fashion? I'd love to know.
Although the photo is over 100 years old, these women were certainly not the first women woodworkers. In fact, women have always been innovators in the field.
One of the earliest known woodworkers was a Chinese woman by the name of Lady Yun. While it is her husband Lu Ban who is recognized as an originator of the craft of woodworking, Lady Yun is said to have had a talent as great as or greater than her husband’s:
So is it not excellent and grand how our master, starting from the objects, mastered their manufacture and in the course of their manufacture fully perceived the spirit behind it? And his chaste spouse, Lady Yun…, was also blessed with heavenly skill. It is hard to enumerate one by one the objects she made, but if we compare them with those of the master, they may be even still more beautiful. Husband and wife helped each other, and thus they were able to enjoy a great and everlasting fame.
Carpentry and Building in Late Imperial China: A Study of the Fifteenth-Century Carpenter's Manual Lu Ban Jing By Klaas Ruitenbeek, Ban Lu, Pan Lu, p153
Lady Yun and Lu Ban lived during the Spring and Autumn period (722 BC through 481 BC). It is said that what Lu Ban invented the Lady Yun would improve. (Lady Yun is also credited with inventing the umbrella.)
A more recent example of innovative women is a Shaker sister by the name of Tabitha Babbitt, who in 1813, invented the first circular saw that was used in a saw mill.
While various forms of the circular saw were already in use at the time, Tabitha Babbitt is credited with the idea of using water to power a circular blade, thereby making it much easier to cut lumber.
The story is that she was working in a spinning house at the Shaker community in Harvard, Ma when she decided to improve upon the two person pit saws that were common at the time.
Instead of a straight blade, she considered a round blade that would spin by water power, thus making it much easier to cut lumber.
image from Eric Sloane
Tabitha Babbitt is also credited with inventing an improved version of cut nails, a new method of making false teeth, and an improved spinning wheel head.
Another woman also helped the history of saws. In the mid 19th Century bandsaws were starting to become popular, but the blades were prone to breaking.
In 1846 a French woman, named Mlle Crepin, came up with a new method for brazing the ends of the blades together. This, along with improvements in the metal of the blades increased the strength of the blades. This in turn made the bandsaw more practical and popular.
By the 1970's women were featured in woodworking magazines such as Workbench.
While I'm not sure the shoes are entirely appropriate (!), it's impressive that in the photo she is using the panel saw, not looking on while someone else does the work (and nowhere does it say "so easy your wife can do it").
Interestingly enough, photos of women actually holding tools seem to disappear for a while from the journals as the backlash against feminism began. However, in this new millennium women woodworkers are steadily making a comeback in the popular press.
Women woodworkers are in the magazines, on the forums, writing blogs and even creating websites!
We will never know the history of all the anonymous women who helped pave the way for contemporary women woodworkers, but no doubt we owe them a debt of gratitude for helping pave the way for all those women who are working wood today in so many beautiful and interesting ways.
Click here for a link to some of my favorite women woodworkers websites: