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Girls and Maker Culture: Nothing New

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Earlier this week I had the pleasure of experiencing Poughkeepsie Day School’s admirable “From STEM to STEAM and Beyond” conference, including an outstanding “un”-keynote by Pam Moran and Alison Dwier-Selden and some terrific sessions on STEAM education and “Maker” culture in schools.

As I bade farewell to Poughkeepsie Day head Josie Holford and hit the orad for home I found myself reflecting on a book I read earlier this year, The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made (2002) by Bruce Watson, a biography of A. C. Gilbert, inventor of the Erector Set. Gilbert, as it turned out, was obsessed with the interests of boys and equally obsessed with the notion that his unabashedly educational toys—his company created a range of educational kits and tools for children—not find their way into schools and curricula. Turning his toys into classroom tools, Gilbert felt, would suck the fun right out of them and associate them forever more with the drudgery of school. Ouch.

Gilbert, a medically trained Yale man, was no opponent of education, but his view of the school experience was clearly pretty grim. But it’s true that school has the potential extract the joy from kids’ lives, and perhaps this was more true in Gilbert’s time. But it does make one ponder whether today we’re in some way reducing the potential inspirational pleasures of the various technologies we’re introducing into our classrooms. Probably, in an era when kids’ lives are heavily programmed both in and out of school, less than in Gilbert’s day, when kids could bolt their Erector parts into swords and create little explosions with Gilbert chemistry sets without being expelled from schools or having their parents brought up on charges.

Gilbert’s interest in boys and boy culture, however, ran pretty deep, and to a degree his approach to marketing Erector Sets did define a new culture of independent, serious boyhood that seems to have set the stage for “manly” careers in mechanics, engineering, and science for many of his young customers. There were of course girls among those who were playing with Erector Sets (as well as some of the other Gilbert educational kits), but boys remained in the center of Gilbert’s marketing target.

Thinking about all this got me to wondering whether the Erector Set and Gilbert’s marketing had in fact been transformative—whether making things out of metal parts was in fact a new aspect of boyhood. I have always assumed that rural boys had plenty of practice banging things together as they helped on family farms, but I suppose that suburban and urban kids of the early twentieth century may have been missing out on that—hence the Erector Set’s popularity as a toy that filled a “maker” niche in their lives.

What then, I began to wonder, of girls? It dawned on me that what the Erector Set did for middle-class boys in 1915 or 1940, many girls of all social conditions had been experiencing forever, which was to make things and exercising their creativity in the act of making.

At the risk of sounding sexist—and surely the origins of many gender-associated tasks are rooted in male-dominated cultural history—girls have been (or were until the advent of ready-to-wear clothing and prepared foods) makers all along. The quaint samplers and theorem paintings on the walls of museums and “historic homes” are examples of a kind of enforced maker culture for girls and young women, providing—even in their more dictated forms—opportunities for young female humans to use their hands as they explored and exercised their creative selves before they moved on to the full-scale making of clothing and designing living and working spaces for their household. The same could be said for “cooking,” as any foodie knows, because traditional recipes all come in multifarious forms and are in their own continual states of evolution. My grandmother’s pot roast was not her grandmother’s, nor is it the same as what I prepare for my family. Grandma’s recipes have a little bit of Grandma in them because she gave them her own twists, just as Alice Waters gives her recipes new twists today.

A subtext of the STEM to STEAM event was the need to get more girls involved in STEM and STEAM work, and certainly we can’t read about the subject without encountering references to the gender discrepancies in STE(A)M graduate work and related professions. Maybe we ought to consider how to understand and capitalize on the real, robust, and active history of girls and young women as “makers” rather than presenting them to half of our population as if these were “guy things, but we’re trying to get girls involved because that’d be great.”

Girls and their older sisters and mothers have been makers—in a sense of inspired, constrained, creative, intellectually and physically and even spiritually demanding endeavor—as long as there have been humans, and I think we can acknowledge this without reducing or mischaracterizing that role as simply being home-makers.

I’m not an anthropologist or an archaeologist, but I’m know that humanity’s history of made objects is stuffed with examples of napped flint, ceramics, textiles, foodstuffs, and other important tools and culturally significant things designed and made and iterated and improved by women. Simply because the technologies we have developed in the last century have largely been created in a male-dominated world ought not to obscure the rather compelling record of women as makers.

The trick, of course (to use a phrase I seem to like) is to help ourselves to see these connections as age-old and empowering rather than somehow reductive or quaint. They’re not. If A. C. Gilbert had to re-invent boyhood by providing metal toys with nuts and bolts, maybe we missed a chance in the same era to re-invent girlhood with similar “maker” toys, other than such sorry analogues as the Easy Bake Oven.

But it’s not too late to reinvent childhood by putting the tools for making back in the hands of kids, in or out of school. Even if the trend is for Lego to create more and more specialized kits with kit-specific parts (many, sadly, apparently reinforcing some unreconstructed ideas of girldom), we have the the power of Arduino, or Scratch, or a chunk of scrap metal, or a piece of cloth, or a stick of wood and a jackknife (now banned in schools and public spaces, alas) to express new ideas, to creatively transform existing materials into new things to solve new (or old) problems. And this is work to which girls are as well suited as boys. History proves this, over and over.

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