I am a woman and an artist blacksmith, which leads to conversations that begin like this –
“What do you do?”
“I’m an artist blacksmith, what do you -”
“Oh reaaally? I’ve never met a blacksmith before!”
“There aren’t many of us.”
“But you’re a girl!”
“Yup, I am a girl.”
“But how do you do it all? You’re so slight! (*squinting at my arms*) Can you lift a hammer?”
And so it goes on… Depending on who I’m talking to, there might be a bit of casual homophobia thrown in, sometimes it segues quickly into talking about swords and horseshoes and all of the other blacksmithing cliches, but I’ve had very few conversations about what I do without the start being a little bit sexist. This isn’t anyone’s fault – the view of a blacksmith in the media, in films and books and society is of a big, strong man. It was quite a shock to see a female blacksmith in A Knights Tale. In fact, I’m often guilty of this way of thinking too, and feel terrible about it.
One of the hardest moments to be a woman doing this kind of job is the first time you walk into any hardware shop. You can walk around the aisles searching for something or walk directly up to the counter, but you will always been looked at as if you know nothing. In the past, I’ve gone straight up and asked for something, only to be told it doesn’t exist by someone who looks at me with a look that clearly says I don’t belong. This is particularly annoying when I have been using the very item I’m asking for earlier that day. I sometimes remedy this by bringing it with me, but sometimes that’s not possible so I tend to start with a little conversation about something tool related to show I know what I’m talking about and then move onto the thing I need. If they then say it doesn’t exist, I feel at least they know I have some knowledge about tools and will point me in the right direction. I also try to not stand out in the shop – my boyfriend was confused when, a few years ago, I got into my workshop clothes when I wasn’t going in to work. I had to explain that I was off to a hardware shop and didn’t want to give the wrong impression. So off came the dress, on came the overalls.
But, as I said, I am guilty of this kind of sexism too. If there are both men and women at the tills, I tend to go to the men to ask for things. I wondered why this was, whether I truly believed it was because they knew more, or whether it was something else. Partly, it’s because of a feeling that I feel I ought to go to the women – for that sort of all girls together feeling, a need to be comfortable with the people who you’re talking to. She might be the one who is less likely to laugh me out of the shop if I ask for something unusual. So I tend to march up to the man and act as if I don’t notice her. But I know this isn’t everything, and I’m sure that it is in part a sexist feeling that they don’t know as much. Because I’ve been told I don’t know as much as the men who do my job, and maybe they’re right, so I follow what I am told, that the man will know more. Or perhaps I want to prove to the man that I know enough to not need to talk to the woman. Whatever the reason, I feel ridiculous that I follow the very same assumptions that anger me so much. I am determined to break them. Maybe the important thing is challenging those assumptions whenever you feel them or see them – in yourself or in others. And knowing the truth AND also feeling the assumptions, perhaps I’m in a good position to argue them away, to dismiss them.
As part of a business development course I was on a few years ago I was often told by a people that I should really make the most out of being a woman and a blacksmith, to push the idea that it was an exciting combination. I didn’t want to as I thought it was silly to make something out of the fact that I was a woman – to paint my tools pink and feminise the job, to add to this idea that women doing typically masculine jobs is unusual. It reminded me of the discussion I had heard at the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths about whether to call female blacksmiths Women Blacksmiths, Female Blacksmiths or just Blacksmiths. Thankfully they settled for Blacksmiths, realising that gender shouldn’t matter, that the work should speak for itself. I hope this will slowly filter down into other conversations, so that talking about my job will become about the work I make and not who I am. In the meantime, I promise to go to the woman at the shop counter next time.