Yesterday, in a hardware store, I had what has come to be an oft repeated conversation. It happens so frequently that I can practically psychically predict when it will happen. It always occurs when I'm intently looking through either tools, lumber, fasteners, or plumbing supplies. A male sales person will come up to me and politely tap me on the shoulder and say, "Do you need help finding something, ma'am?". First misstep - calling me ma'am. I'm 34. Knock it off. I reply, "Nope, I've got it. Thanks.". He'll stare at me with a slight hint of disbelief. He'll look me over and decide that I do not fit the mold of someone who knows what they're doing with tools, lumber, fasteners, or plumbing supplies. I'm usually in a dress, because I like dresses. They're comfortable. Second misstep - judging me by my appearance. He'll say, "Are you sure? Are you picking up something for your husband?". Third misstep - expecting that I'm picking up something for my husband. This use to really make me chuckle before I was married. I'll say, because now he's ticked me off, "Actually no. It's for me. Can I ask why you assumed it would be for my husband?" At which point he usually stammers and wanders off. One sales person actually said, "Sorry, didn't realize you were one of those feminists". I made sure to make a comment to his manager on the way out after that particular trip.
The thing is, this doesn't just happen in one particular hardware store. It happens in all of them with varying degrees of similarity. Some ask me if I'm looking for something for my husband, some ask me if I'm picking something out for someone else, and some just don't listen when I say I don't need help and continue to probe me about my projects. I've watched what happens when my husband shops in those same stores. They usually just nod at him and say hello. He, apparently, looks the part.
And - drum roll please - my least favorite thing? When someone asks me who helped me with my projects. It's like I'm a kid at a science fair who couldn't possibly have completed my exhibit without my parents stepping in. I get it. I don't look the part. I really don't. I wear dresses and dress shoes. I like long wool coats as opposed to the heavy duty outdoor gear most people around here sport. My bag is bright blue and has a hummingbird appliqued on it. I never, ever, look like I'm wearing anything weather appropriate. None of this fits most people's assumptions of a woman who likes to build complex biological based plumbing systems in her home. Or fix her own car. Or wire her own electronics. But I love doing all those things. Figuring out how things work is one of my great joys in life.
I've been a tinkerer since I was quite young. After age 9, I lived alone with my mom in a big, rambling house just outside of Boston. After school, I would hole myself up in the living room and watch PBS. This was the golden time when I'd religiously watch Julia Child, the Frugal Gourmet, Yan Can Cook, This Old House, The Victory Garden, and - my very favorite - NOVA. I learned ALL OF THE THINGS. When our vacuum cleaner broke, I took it apart and figured out which belts had slipped and replaced them. When the toilet ran, I knew how to tweak the float so that it shut off when it was supposed to. I fixed the washer when it broke, and replaced the thermostat on the dryer when it wouldn't heat up. I knew more about how to choose insulation than any 10 year old should have. And in our basement, I found my ultimate treasure, and perhaps one of the most defining influences of my childhood: The Encyclopedia of Crafts. 26 glorious volumes of projects covering everything from how to make your own sandals out of scrap leather to how to install a greenhouse. I went methodically through each one, completing every project I could. Since it was just my mother and me, there was no one around to tell me that these weren't typical projects for girls.
What bothers me the most about all of this is not that I don't fit in the template expectations people have for me. It's that occasionally I buy into it. When someone tells you enough times that your husband should check over your wiring work, you start to believe them. Luckily those moments are few and far between, but I worry about all those kids out there who didn't have my unfettered childhood. How many of them could be incredible tinkerers and makers, but don't feel welcome in stores, or don't have the confidence to take something apart?
Do the world a favor, everyone. Let every kid tinker, regardless of gender. Don't hover, don't fuss, just let them take something apart and see how it works. And while you're at it, take it apart yourself. Consider it an act of rebellion in a world of pre-made things and stubborn stereotypes. .