I would love to tell y’all that I took Industrial Arts when I was seventeen in order to challenge the misconceived gender roles in a patriarchal society. That, however, would be a bald-faced lie, and it sounds much smarter than anything I would have done. There was only one good reason that this girl took a class that was typically considered “masculine” — boys, of course! I envisioned that I would be surrounded by them and could flirt with them all.
I know. It wasn’t very progressive of me, but give me a break. I was seventeen and my hormones were raging. Besides, my scheme backfired. As so often happens, I didn’t think it through. The only time that Industrial Arts fit into my class schedule was during the last period of the day, during which time the older boys I hoped would be in my class were taking Athletics. Everyone in the class was at least two grades behind me, a head shorter than me, and most of them were what would today be called “Geeks.”
The age difference wouldn’t bother me so much today (ask Mr. Tucker — I’m a “cougar”), and I’d be in awe of the Geeks, because they probably turned into people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. At seventeen, trust me, this mattered; a girl who was a Junior in High School did not chase after shorter, Freshman boys! It was our loss.
I was further deflated that I didn’t even get to use heavy equipment. The instructor would not let me touch the circular saws! He told me that girls didn’t use saws, and said something to the effect of, “besides, your Daddy would shoot me if I let you cut off your ring finger.” My “ring finger?” The testosterone-filled chauvinist! I only wish I knew then what I know now!
I would have loved to tell that teacher, “Mister, that circular saw you think is just for men was invented by a woman!” Yes, it was.
That woman was Sister Tabitha Babbitt, a quiet Shaker woman from Harvard, Massachusetts. In about 1810, she sat at her spinning wheel watching two men struggle to cut logs into lumber with a pit saw. She realized that half of their labor, as they pulled the saw back and forth, was wasted, because the saw only cut on the forward stroke. Having the keen imagination of an inventor, Sister Tabitha looked down at her spinning wheel and saw a better way. She made a tin wheel with “teeth” … notches around the edge … and attached it to her spinning wheel. Wood pushed against those teeth when it was spinning cut much more quickly.
Hers wasn’t the first “cutting machine” for wood, but it was the first in America. She was also credited with inventing a process to manufacture false teeth, and helping Ely Whitney develop cut nails. However, being from a religious sect that valued modesty, Sister Tabitha never patented her inventions. It’s amazing that during her lifetime she was able to do so much that was considered “men’s work” in those days, but the Shakers embraced equality of the sexes. They also embraced celibacy … which is why you probably don’t know anyone who is a Shaker.
Unlike Tabitha Babbitt, I would never have dreamed of looking at my spinning wheel in 1813 and deciding to invent a circular saw. Do y’all see a saw when you look at a spinning wheel? Neither do my cats, but they see a toy. It takes imagination to look at one thing and envision another.
The history books I read in school (when I bothered to read them) never mentioned Sister Tabitha Babbitt, though they mentioned many other inventors — who were, of course, men. It’s why they call it his-story. Her inventions might not have been life changing for most of us, but if I had been told about the women in history who achieved lofty goals, I think it would have changed my life. It would have been an epiphany for me and I might have decided to become an engineer … no wait, I don’t “do math.” But, I did learn to use a chainsaw. Do you need any firewood cut?
Parents, be sure to tell your children (both boys and girls) that, like Sister Tabitha Babbitt, they can do anything if they use their imaginations. Teach them to think, to try new things, and to dream of lofty goals. And, all you manly men in your workshops, come down to earth and ignore your testosterone for a moment to remember that you owe a debt to the inventiveness of this quiet Shaker woman.