Redefining Women’s Work
Frailty Myths wants to empower women, one woodworking workshop at a time.
Photo courtesy of Frailty Myths
It started as casual conversation among friends. After college, Georgia Faye Hirsty and Erinn Carter took divergent career paths. Carter got her Ph.D. and worked in politics while Hirsty sailed the Arctic for Greenpeace. But when they talked about their jobs, they discovered they had similar complaints.
Both worked in male-dominated fields and found themselves faced with near-constant indignities. Sometimes, their co-workers assumed they didn’t understand the technical aspects of their jobs. Other times, they had to repeat themselves to be heard, only to have male co-workers present their ideas as their own. Over and over, in tiny ways both explicit and implicit, they were made to feel inferior.
What would it be like, they wondered, if there was a space without that kind of low-level hum of sexism and racism? Could they find a way to change what was thought of as women’s work, so men could stop being so surprised when they knew how to use power tools? What if there were a space where people—not just women, but transgender and nonconforming people—could feel safe to explore and learn skills traditionally considered the domain of men, free from society’s lowered expectations?
With the help of their friend Susan Goodwillie, they formalized the project, assigning it a name—Frailty Myths—and a Facebook page. Then late one night at Carter’s house last fall, Hirsty and Carter decided enough was enough. They created a Facebook event: a woodworking workshop for everyone who identified as a woman.
The next morning, they had 50 people interested in the event. After two weeks, they had more than 500 sign-ups. They originally planned for one class; they eventually hosted five woodworking workshops to meet demand. Since then, with the help of director Pearl Robinson, they’ve held other workshops on skills historically taught to men, like sailing and strength training.
Carter said they want the workshops to be a space where women can share their experiences, “without having to explain or justify or water down—so that folks will be able to say, ‘I’m tired of people taking a tool out of my hand,’ and everyone [will] nod their heads in agreement, instead of [receiving] a look of confusion.
“If you identify yourselves as a man, we’re asking you not to operate in the space,” she added. “We’re talking about some very sensitive topics, stuff that, as women, we battle with every day.”
Photo courtesy of frailty myths
Frailty Myths eventually hosted five woodworking workshops to meet demand.
The classes encourage participants to make mistakes and take their time, instead of aiming for immediate mastery. At the woodworking workshops, participants use a jigsaw to cut a straight line. It can be difficult for participants, especially if it’s their first time using the tool. Some become frantic, Hirsty said, approaching it with an attitude of, “‘If I don’t do it perfectly, I don’t want to do it.’ At that moment, we’re able to pull back, to have a conversation about the way perfectionism and franticness show up for non-men—this idea that if we mess up, then we’ll lose access.”
It can be difficult to fill the so-called “confidence gap” that plagues women as they grow up. “For a lot of participants, we’re trying to work through 20, 25, 30 years of subconsciously and consciously hearing, ‘You shouldn’t do this,’” Carter said. “I have to say this all the time: do not start a sentence with, ‘I’m wrong but …’; ‘This might be stupid, but ...’, ‘You don’t have to listen to me, but ...’ Women do that all the time.”
So far, the group’s free workshops have been entirely self-funded. They’re currently exploring ways to make the group financially sustainable and recently started offering corporate retreat-type workshops. They’re also mulling over how to accommodate demand from a new group eager for their classes: men, many of whom have requested a workshop they can attend. “We’re hoping to launch workshops for men—what it means for people who identify as male to be allies to smash patriarchy and to practice what it feels like to learn skills without toxic masculinity,” Hirsty said.
The nonprofit group wants women to leave their classes with concrete skills. But their true value isn’t just in learning how to wield a power tool or tie a sailing knot. The biggest takeaway, according to Hirsty and Carter, is the confidence that comes with knowing you can rely on yourself.
At the inaugural workshop, the first person to build her stepstool put it down in front of her and stared at it. “She didn’t believe that it was going to hold her weight. The idea that she had just created something with her hands that could actually, physically lift her up and hold her was a difficult thing for her to conceptualize,” Hirsty said. “She slowly and cautiously stepped on the stool, and everybody stopped what they were doing to applaud her. And then person-by-person, as they finished, they stepped on [their stools].
“It was this kind of uplifting, powerful experience, to see this small moment of ‘This is something I’ve always been told—either tacitly or blatantly—that I cannot do, [that I’ve now] just done.’”