Gender Politics of Fixing Things

Gender Politics of Fixing Things

Marie Plamondon fixing her car

This is my grandmother’s aunt, Marie Plamondon — known later in life during the many decades when she ran the Madonna Center settlement house as “the Duchess,” fixing her car sometime in the early decades of the 20th century. I love this photo because it’s the best illustration I have of the way that my family has never assumed that the ability to fix things is gendered.

My grandmother, my aunt, my mother have all never hesitated to pick up tools and go to work — they’ve built everything from porches to houses to barns to inventive shelving units in rental apartments (my mother’s specialty). The idea that a woman needs a man to fix things, or build things, or put things together has always been considered ridiculous by the women in my family. “You’re smart,” was the mantra I heard growing up. “Go figure it out.” There was never any hint that my brother or my male cousins were more competent at mechanical or building tasks than I am, and especially as little kids, there wasn’t any strength differential between us. It got us all in trouble sometimes, like the day my mother took the television apart, but having been raised by people who had that kind of confidence in our own skills made me always willing to experiment, to try stuff, and not to sit around waiting for some guy to come along … (although I’ve certainly been quick to hire people for stuff I don’t know how to do).

It was a marvelously liberating way to be raised although it did leave me somewhat bewildered later in life by people with strong ideas about the purviews of the genders. Luckily, my sweetheart, while a talented contractor who can build anything, is also a person with strong beliefs about gender equality. And while part of me was tempted to go all girly to see if I could get him to put together the new barbecue grill I bought yesterday, I’m glad I did it myself. For one thing, it was very cleverly designed — the parts fit together in really clever ways and all one had to do was tighten the machine screws.

So now I have my first gas grill — it was on sale, and it’s been so hot this past week that I can’t bear to cook inside. There’s even a sideburner so I could heat up the pasta water — or, I’m hoping, perhaps do some of the canning/jam making out here later on. I kept my charcoal grill, because I love the char you get off the real wood charcoal, but today’s experiment is going to be pulled pork shoulder.

2 thoughts on “Gender Politics of Fixing Things

  1. That’s really interesting. I grew up in a family that couldn’t fix anything — not a one of us, male or female — so I carry inside me the idea that only experts can fix things. I feel myself having to overcome that sometimes — you know: I can’t try to fix my own bike! What if I break it?

    I did grow up in a family with gender equity regarding sports, but I very clearly remember other students, in elementary and jr high, always remarking about how I could “keep up with the boys.” (I could do more pull-ups and sit-ups than any of them. Hooray gymnastics.) So despite my family members expecting me to be able to lift my weight, it’s society’s attitude that got into me. When I went backcountry snowboarding this winter, I kept having to kick myself for thinking, “Pretty good for a girl!”

  2. I married a guy who does not enjoy fixing things, so if it gets fixed here either I do it or we hire it done. My daughters grew up with a mother who fixes things and a dad who does laundry, and they are fine with that. By the way, congratulations on the grill — I put one of those together a few years ago (different brand), and it was a challenge!

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