Sunday, November 14, 2021

Women In Lutherie


(Messy desk, clean desk.... the cycle of it is fun and exciting, a lot like life in general.)


For me, the best thing to come out of the pandemic was the Women In Lutherie group.

The result of the efforts two women in the luthier community (Jeemin Kim and Jennifer Creadick), Women In Lutherie began as a private Facebook group back in February of this year, and has grown into something remarkable and necessary. I believe when I accepted the invitation to join there were only eight other people there. As of this writing, membership has topped 500.

That's astonishing to me. If we had collected 50 women in the field into one place, I would have been impressed. 500? When I consider how many more women doing this work exist who are probably (quite understandably) nowhere near Facebook, I'm overwhelmed.

I had no idea. And apparently no one else did, either.

Instrument making and repair tends to be an isolating kind of profession. The mentality to do it is rather exacting and introverted. We're happy alone in our space with our tools.

But it's also lovely to be understood. There is pleasure in being able to make remarks about your obscure experience and to have someone else relate without further elaboration. There is a very small subset of people to whom I can say, "The last person glued in the slide" or "The projection is only 15" who will wince along with me. Or who will truly appreciate what it means when I announce, "I finished the corners!" It's a wonderful thing to be able to gather at conventions or workshops and feel like you are with your people.

The Women In Lutherie group takes that one step further, where work experience and life experience converge into something surprisingly meaningful.

Because if you are a minority in a field, your experience is different. Which is why I think it's great that there are now additional groups like the Queer Strings Alliance, and Luthiers of Color. People need spaces where it's safe to be themselves.

There are lots of lutherie groups online. Women In Lutherie is the first one where I feel at home. Which is interesting, because for years I've been under the perception that to identify oneself as a woman luthier was to be associated with a lesser category. One should strive to be the best luthier one can, and gender shouldn't enter into it, right?

Except that "woman" shouldn't automatically be a negative qualifier, which is the impression you get when people steer away from it. However, it's a useful identifier in this industry where we are so few and far between. Maybe one day there will be balance, and the additional information will be irrelevant, much in the same way people don't really say, "woman doctor" or "male nurse" anymore.

I'm a luthier. I'm also a woman. I can put "woman" in front of "luthier" and feel fine about both parts of the label. If someone else wants to sneer at it, that's their problem.

And some do sneer. The number of men who blithely dismiss the idea of a Women In Lutherie group is depressingly high. When I invite a woman in one of the other groups over to WIL, inevitably a man will voice his opinion that any group that discriminates against men is wrong, and women simply need to strive for competence, and there is no reason for us to gather separately.


Let me tell you what is different about our group that makes it necessary.

On the darker side (to get that out of the way), women need a safe space to discuss how they have been mistreated by men. That's simply true. There are some bad, harmful, and oblivious men out there in our industry, and when women share that information among one another, it's a means of protection and healing. We can steer others away from places of danger. We can arm each other with words and knowledge to better confront difficult situations in the future. Our individual experiences with inequitable treatment tend to feel like awkward personal traumas, but collectively, we can see patterns. We realize we're not alone. We can begin to find ways to stand up to it.

Has every woman had such problems with discriminatory behavior at work like that? Of course not. But we all know someone who has, and that's enough for it to be a concern for all. Specific incidents of unequal treatment based on my sex or gender in my work life are minor at best. But I still can't walk alone at night without fear. The way I navigate the world is by necessity simply different from that of my male counterparts, whether they think that is relevant or not.

On the neutral side, some things are just different for women. For instance, until we started discussions online about the tools we prefer, I don't think many of us realized we were trying to adapt to tools not designed for us.

When I was in school, I was one of two female students. Our male teacher wanted us to have the same basic block plane he used. Which makes sense. Good teachers recommend what works for them because they want their students to succeed. But when I got my first nice plane, it was a low angle version. My fellow student did the same. We were just attracted to them and didn't know why. Same when we started purchasing smaller boat-shaped planes. Our teacher was perplexed, and kept saying, "Why do you keep getting these planes?" Until the WIL discussion, it never occurred to me that it was because they fit our smaller hands better. I know why our teacher wanted us to have the high angle planes, but in his hands they felt different. I also had an epiphany about the cabinet scraper he wanted me to use in school. He made using it to scrape ribs look easy. I thought something was wrong with me that I found it so difficult. I thought it was a failing when I left school that I started using a smaller more flexible version. After hearing from dozens of women that they did the same, I don't feel bad anymore. WIL has since begun a list of tools for smaller bodies, that also just includes tools we love, and it's a great resource. 

Childbearing and childcare concerns are also overwhelming female-centric issues. No one ever asks a man when he's about to add children to his family how he will raise them and also work. This is a huge and important topic, and to have other women to discuss this with is sanity saving.

And on the lighter side, the way women discuss things in the group is simply kinder and more productive.

The first week I was in WIL I wasn't sure what I would post there that would be different from any of the other luthier groups I was a part of. But then I had a bad morning and decided to say that I'd just spent ten minutes crying at my bench but was pulling myself back together to get some work done. I never would have admitted that in a normal violin group. What would be the point? But all these women piped up to say they totally got it, and they had also had a good cry at their benches recently, and they had my back, and it was going to be okay. I don't know if I can describe how much better that made me feel.

There are regular Zoom meet ups on weekends where we discuss mental and physical health, safety, tools, techniques... And the rules include things like not apologizing or minimizing ourselves. Women are socialized to not take up space or attract attention for our accomplishments. We are taught to apologize just for being who we are. "I'm sorry" is not allowed and it's liberating. I think many of us have felt empowered to start erasing those tendencies from our speech outside the group.

And then I started noticing the way the women addressed questions about our work.

This group has some of the very best builders and restorers in the entire world. You want to see mind blowing work? Iris Carr can move f-holes. I still don't know why anyone would do this, but she does it in a way that I can't even wrap my brain around. You want to know who other makers use for restoration work? Check out Stacey Styles. You want to meet my building idol? Marilyn Wallin rocks. The list of talent and credentials on the Women In Lutherie page is very long.

And yet the group also welcomes beginners, amateurs, and anyone who wants to be a part of this field. All are included and treated with respect and care.

How is that significant?

Well, on a typical lutherie site, the emphasis is more about being right than anything else. It's exhausting.

Men are probably socialized to be right the same way women are socialized to apologize, and everyone needs to get past these things. But in the meantime, discussions among groups of mostly men about lutherie work is not particularly welcoming.

I know many many perfectly reasonable and charming men in my field. Men who are kind and knowledgeable and would find it uncouth and embarrassing to treat people badly online or anywhere else. In online discussions I skim until I find their names to specifically read their contributions, and I value their input. None of these men are the ones who question the need for a Women In Lutherie group.

The ones who do, however.... Well, they are more vocal than their more civil counterparts.

Language interests me. And how people phrase things in the different groups says a lot.

In a typical lutherie group, if someone poses a question or shares something, there is often a lot of posturing. People tell you there is one way to do something. Anything that deviates is wrong. They are happy to tell you straight up if they think you are wrong.

Also, it doesn't matter how specific you are in tailoring your question, you will get instructions you didn't ask for. My favorite example of this was when a friend of mine simply wanted to know what colors people had on their retouch boards. That's it. She made it clear that she was not looking for advice about doing retouch work, because she was fine there, but she was curious about the names of the pigments other people had as their day-to-day kit. That did not stop a number of men from telling her at length how to do retouch work.

They can be so quick to want to tell you how to do things, they speak up before they even know the real question. I was in a thread the other day where a man went on at length about how my suggestions to someone about gluing a seam were wrong. After reading his own explanation carefully, I realized he'd misunderstood the original question, and was describing what to do with a crack, which is a different thing entirely. (What I was suggesting would be bad for a crack, but maybe make sure you understand the context before slapping someone down?)

You know how people answer questions on the WIL page?

We tend to say, "I do this." We don't tell other people what to do. We describe what we do, and why.

Then we get to compare how other people do things, ask questions, and learn something new.

There are so many interesting ideas out there! I have learned so much! There is not one way to do this work, and when you shut down a real discussion, you lose out on so much experience and knowledge beyond your own. I eat it up, frankly, the myriad of suggestions and approaches that people from everywhere have to offer.

The best was when I went on the page to ask for either help or sympathy for while I was working with a soundpost inside a very tiny violin. None of my standard tools were helpful with something that size, and that kind of job usually took more than an hour. (To be fair, a chunk of that time included swearing and getting up to walk around the shop repeatedly so as not to go crazy.) Most of the women agreed it was a frustrating job to do. But a few had helpful tips, including a luthier in Spain who showed me a picture of a pin she uses to get a soundpost out of a tiny f-hole. Another in Oklahoma had modified a safety pin into a mini-soundpost setter. What a simple and practical solution! Now that job which I used to set aside an hour to do takes me a matter of minutes. If that's the only thing WIL ever gives me, it was enough.

Nobody bickers or nitpicks or lectures anyone. They simply state what they do, and you can take it or leave it without judgement. If someone is new to a repair or a technique, people will walk them through it, offer help through private messaging, or share links to other resources. No one is ever mean or dismissive. And it's definitely the place to go if you are having a bad day and need people to commiserate.

The closest thing I can think of to an argument on the WIL page so far was a polarized thread about geared pegs. The word "abomination" was used. Did anyone take it personally? No. The thing overall was really amusing. And there was even the (impossible to witness anywhere else on Facebook) occasional person saying, "Well that's an interesting take I hadn't thought of. I will reconsider my opinion."

WIL is the first place I ask industry questions now. I know I will get thoughtful answers, and the best possible advice. Occasionally I still pipe up in other groups, but I'm taken aback by the bluntness that does less to be direct than it does to sound authoritative. I'm over that.

In the early weeks of the group, someone posted a violin bridge they'd carved and asked for a critique. For those not in this field, this was a real act of courage. People get really judgemental about how others carve their bridges, and it puts you in a vulnerable place to simply put one out there. I thought the bridge in question was lovely, and I said so. Others did as well. Then the poster insisted we were being too nice and she wanted a real critique. She was bracing for something brutal.

But the thing is, beyond a certain level of detail that is a necessary part of function, bridge carving is subjective. It's a place where, within narrow parameters, you can use some artistic flair. Her bridge was attractive, balanced, and fine. To pretend my interpretation of those curves and lines was "right" thereby making hers in need of a brutal critique, is wrong in my opinion. That was an interesting discussion, and I think helped several of us reexamine the point of such critiques.

The main thing to come out of that post was that more of us have been empowered to show our work to each other with less fear. We also found it moving to see other bridges stamped with women's names.

This rethinking of how to hold our work to high standards while not using a competitive model to measure what we do is useful. It also feeds into what we've come to realize is a different concept of what success is for women. I've thought for years about how the way I run my small business might not meet the standard of what many consider successful, in that our model is not based around growth. I want my business to be sustainable, and enable me to support my family and contribute good things to my community. Success for me means a life that includes many things in some kind of harmony, rather than a few specific areas of trying to be "the best" by someone else's metric. It's reassuring to be in a group that supports that idea.

Other traditional ways of viewing life as a luthier are also being shifted to fit better how women interact and learn. Jeemin Kim was the architect of the Women In Lutherie Fellowship program earlier this year. She matched women at the tops of their specialties with women who wanted to learn from them. But unlike other mentorship programs, this one involved group discussions and an exchange of information that made it more of a collaboration, and less of a hierarchical setup. It was lovely to hear how much everyone involved got from the program, and I know great things will come from it in the future.

Women In Lutherie had it's first conference last month. Three days of really excellent talks and demonstrations. I got to lead one on the last day with the amazing Laura Wallace about pregnancy and parenting in lutherie. Since Women In Lutherie is international, it was fascinating to discover how being in different parts of the world impacted women's choices and options about doing this work while starting a family. (The United States comes out very badly on this score. People in places like Canada listened in disbelief at how little support new parents are offered here.) It's the kind of talk that I think men could benefit from as well, but would be hard to convince them to attend at a mainstream convention.

The rate at which the Women In Lutherie Instagram account alone has grown is incredible. There are currently over 3400 followers of @womeninlutherie on Instagram. I know that's not up there with makeup influencers, but for a group about women who build stringed instruments? That's way more than I ever would have believed would want to follow such a niche group. (But it's good! Check it out!)

So there has been lots to despair about during the pandemic. It's been sad, and lonely, and heartbreaking. But out of it, there was time to create something many of us didn't know we needed so badly. It's long been my hope to raise the profile of women in our industry enough that girls see it as an option open to them, and not an oddity. I love my job. I think there are many other women who would love it too.

I love Women In Lutherie. It's come a long way in a matter of months. I cannot wait to see where we go from such promising beginnings.