The front brakes on my bicycle were busted, and close examination suggested that I needed to take them apart to fix them. It’s not that I used my bike for commuting – I was thirteen, and I caught the train to school. I did, however, use it for rollicking around the park and getting exercise and having fun, and I wanted it working, so this was a priority for me.
I went inside. “Mum, where do we keep our screwdrivers?”
“I need a Philips head screwdriver to fix my bike.”
My mother looked puzzled. “We don’t have any screwdrivers.”
It was my turn for a blank, flabbergasted expression. “That’s really stupid,” I said, being an outspoken, slightly bratty, introverted thirteen year old with a very limited grasp of keeping your temper when your parents say things that don’t make sense. “How are we going to fix things?”
There was a lecture about rudeness, but it did not address the fact that it was just stupid to not have your own screwdrivers.
Here’s the background: my parents had been divorced for a year or so at this point. (formally or informally, I forget when the paperwork went through. I don’t think this was something either of them felt the need to tell me about, and that’s quite fair). They had a pretty traditional division of labour back in the early days.
But I grew up with a father who spent most of his free hours mucking about happily in the garage with old motorbikes and other various engineering projects. The idea that I lived in a house without any tools was honestly bizarre. It was as though I’d been told we didn’t need oxygen, we’d just get it from Mal next door. I’d assembled my mother’s gigantic brass bed with only a firm grip and my own double-jointedness, and it occurred to me at this point that a shifting spanner (that’s a wrench to you Americans) would have made the process a little simpler.
(please note that, due to this problem, in my early adolescence I once assembled a bookshelf using one of Mum’s high heeled boots from the 80s as a hammer. I had no personal transport or cash to go and buy tools, and I wanted my bookshelf, damn it, and even IKEA flatpacks tend to assume you possess a hammer)
I called my father and complained that we didn’t have any tools, so how was I supposed to fix my bike?
My fourteenth birthday came around, and my Dad gave me a present.
It was – ta-da! – a set of tools, appropriate for a fourteen year old who had limited applications for them, but perfectly sensible for fixing bicycles (I later learned that they were not really appropriate for disassembling computers, but to be fair, I had taken apart and reassembled my computer case about eight times, including removal and replacement of CD drives, RAM, hard drives and floppy drives, before I finally managed to completely strip the screws and learned that it was important to have a selection of sizes in screwdrivers). One flat-head screwdriver, one Philips-head screwdriver, one set of bull-nosed pliers, one set of needle-nosed pliers, and a small claw hammer.
My mother looked at the tools when I proudly brought them home from my birthday visit with my father, along with the AD&D second edition Monstrous Manual, and then looked at me, and said dryly, “He does know you’re a girl, doesn’t he?”
If any of y’all wonder where my feminism comes from, look ye no further.
My mother did not believe in fixing things, or fiddling with technology. I’d been moved out of the house for about four years before she stopped calling me and asking me to come over and reset the clock on her VCR, and I suspect that’s only because she replaced the VCR with a DVD player, and by that time I had a boyfriend she could ask for help instead (see below).
I played the role of “man of the house” for my mother. I absolutely did not mind. It was more important to me to get things done, and I thought the gender shit was stupid.
As the years went by and I progressed into puberty, my mother would get wistful and start talking about how we should build a collection of perfumes and cosmetics for me to play with. I had literally zero interest in this, to the point where a close friend got really, really insulted because I pointed out that expecting women to wear make-up – and not applying that expectation to men – was sexist (she actually sulked. Quite possibly it came across as me judging her for being interested in cosmetics, and quite possibly she was right, and I was judging her, because I freely admit that at that age I lacked nuance on these issues. It mostly came from the fact that I had no interest in that stuff and I was sick of being made to feel weird for it).
(my eventual curiosity about make-up made more of an appearance much later. Amateur classical theatre had a lot to do with it)
At fifteen, I hosted a sleepover for my friends. One of those friends was a guy. He was not particularly burly (on account of being fifteen), and this wasn’t anything I’d ever really paid attention to. I was hauling the spare mattress into the lounge room so we could all sit around and talk teenager crap in a shared space, when my mother saw me and said, “Kate!”
She sounded quite shocked. Horrified, even. I’d say embarrassed.
“Shouldn’t you let [male friend] do that?”
I exchanged a glance with my male friend in question. We both suddenly felt very awkward. Not being attracted to each other – a fortunate thing in a high school hetero-friendship – we pretty much ignored the fact that we happened to be different sexes. He suddenly shuffled and looked as though he were about to offer to take the mattress, and I think I gave him the sort of look that promised evisceration if he tried.
“No, that’s okay,” I said calmly, “I can do it myself.” I actually prickled. Like a spiny hedgehog.
I feel like “No, that’s okay, I can do it myself,” is the catch-cry for my life and for my feminism. And here’s the thing: my mother was perfectly happy for me to pick up the slack, carry heavy things, reassemble complicated pieces of furniture and machinery, handle any necessary computing and the like. This worked for her, entirely, because it got her off the hook and to be fair she had other things to do. She was comfortable with it and, if we’re honest, she sometimes seemed a little proud of me for it (when she wasn’t busy being defensive about the fact that she couldn’t or wouldn’t do it herself).
Unless there was a male around. At that point, it all went to hell, and she began to worry that I wasn’t feminine enough; that there was a pattern of social expectation and that I was not following it. She see-sawed between wanting me to be an independent sort of woman and wanting me to follow the sort of pattern she could relate to and recognise. I think it was hard for her.
But Mum never mowed a lawn if she had a male neighbour she could ask to do it for her.
(I once confided to her that I was considering asking out a boy I liked. She was horrified. “No, Kate,” she said. “You wait to be asked.” I thought about all the boys I knew and how they were just as anxious and shy and nerdy as I was, and I thought I would be waiting a very long time for that to happen. There were no more confidences after that)
The minute I entered an adult long term relationship, it wasn’t me who was being asked to set clocks or repair things – it was my boyfriend. If I was the only one around, sure, I would do, but I was a second choice.
Now, again, to be fair: this no doubt had a lot to do with how she was raised. But the way I was raised clearly taught me that if I waited around for a guy to show up and do things for me, I’d be waiting a long time, and nothing would get done, because we didn’t have any guys at the house. QED. It also taught me that I was perfectly capable of lifting and hauling and carrying and building and, incidentally, reading the freaking instruction manual (RTFM, people). It taught me that these are not things that are demarcated by gender.
The message I got from my mother was this: I was allowed to do things for myself, and I was capable of doing things for myself, unless there was a guy around, in which case I should ask him to do it for me, because reasons. Because I should pretend I couldn’t do it, so I could ask him. Because I should pretend to be less than I am in his presence.
I took her logic – such as it was – to its obvious conclusion, and I didn’t like that conclusion. It pissed me off. It still pisses me off today.
If you’re reading this, and you’re a man, and you have ever wondered why a perfectly innocent offer of help with physical labour has been poorly received by a woman, this is why. There’s a context and a history there.
I’m not saying don’t offer. I’m not saying you’re a bad person for doing it – quite the contrary! I offer to help people as well when I see they are having difficulty. It is nice when people offer to help (true facts). It is true that in terms of muscle mass there is a common female disadvantage, and I have occasionally had to accept that what is a gruelling trial for me will be a minor effort for the bloke who has just offered to give me a hand, even if he doesn’t work out (mutter mutter so unfair mutter). It does still feel like failure to accept that hand, but occasional exhaustion has forced me to do so, with graciousness (because he wouldn’t have offered if I hadn’t been visibly struggling, so kudos).
But if you are offering to help a woman lift something because she is a woman and not because she appears to be having difficulty, you won’t always get a polite response. You might get a very strained, clenched-teeth reply of “NO THANKS, I AM FINE,” because that woman has been raised to pretend she can’t do things, to contribute to a culture that thinks that woman can’t do certain things, to maintain a façade – a legal fiction – that makes no freaking sense, and that is not a good feeling. It is kind of a dirty feeling, and not in a fun way.
If you are offering to help a woman with something technical or mathematical because she is a woman and not because you are personally familiar with the gaps in her personal skill set, that’s a problem, not a kindness. I was in the nerd class with all the other nerds, and there were plenty of girls who were super awesome at maths, so coming out into a world where guys – any guys – would assume I was not able to do maths or science or technical things was a bit of a shock for me, and completely at odds with my experience. It was amazing how quickly I started to buy back into it, too, but that’s another story for another time.
Now, most of us receive these messages about what it is and is not possible/appropriate/normal for you to do as a woman (and there are some pretty toxic messages about masculinity floating around as well, I’m not even kidding). But not all of us get these messages reinforced at home, or by our peer groups, or our schools, or any of the places where we get these messages and ideas and roles imprinted on our brains as a kid.
I felt like a lot of the messages I was receiving were amazingly conflicting. I was reading – as referenced previously – Anne McCaffrey and CJ Cherryh and Patricia C Wrede books where women were kicking arse and taking names. And I was reading Conan and various problematic fantasty novels where women were only existing as temptresses or princesses (so to speak; the virgin/whore dichotomy). I was watching movies were women mostly needed to be rescued and were mostly only relevant if they had a romantic interest. I was watching TV shows where women would constantly get men around to “fix” things, because that was an option for them, and I was playing computer games where, if women appeared, they were usually prizes (80s, early to mid 90s), with very few exceptions (honestly, the first even faintly well-rounded female character that appeared on my radar was Rebecca Snoot, from Return to Zork. I was a PC gamer, remember).
So when it comes to those of us who grit our teeth, and say “No, that’s okay, I can do it,” and have trouble asking for help – it’s easy for people who haven’t felt those conflicting influences, who haven’t had their presumed ineptitude and weakness reinforced at home with weird stereotypes, to say, “But it’s not like you’ve got something to prove, is it?” and mutter about egos and chips on shoulders (sigh).
But sometimes, yes, we do have something to prove – not to you, the observer, but to ourselves. Because those imprints last, and there are still little voices in the back of our heads that are saying, “You should get a guy to do that.” And it doesn’t matter that intellectually we know that’s bullshit; we’ve internalised it at a young age, and it sticks like glue from that point, and now I prove it to myself, over and over, easier each time and with a little glow of pride, that yes, I’ve got this, and I don’t need a guy to do that. It makes it hard to ask for help because that little glow, that little “I proved it again!” victory, and the opportunity to smack that gender-norm-reinforcing voice in its stupid metaphorical face – those things are good, and they feel good.
They feel empowering.
And by the way, I did fix my bike, and I do still have those tools. I treasure them as recognition from my father that sometimes you just have to get shit done, and you can’t wait around for someone else to do it, regardless of gender.
“He does know you’re a girl, doesn’t he?”
He does. And he knows I’ve got this.