Women's Studies 30

I was born in 1979 in Massachusetts. I grew up and have always lived in the same house, a yellow Victorian-era house with green shutters on the corner of two streets in suburban Boston. Both of my parents attended college; my mother was a second-grade teacher before she had children and has since gone back to school to receive her Masters' degree in Library Sciences. She is now a children's librarian. My father went to graduate school soon after graduating college and worked for a PhD in electrical engineering. He worked at the same company for 23 years as a technical analyst, but he has just recently changed companies.

I went to public school in my hometown and I spent my weekends at home, either at our summer home in Maine or in Massachusetts. The environments in which I grew up had strong effects on me, my awareness of technology and my role as a female both in my culture and my household.

My mother used to be a part-time seamstress while she was staying at home with my older sister and myself. From a very young age I would sit in the sewing room and play on the floor while mom made curtains or prom and wedding dresses, quilted, or hemmed dress pants. I learned the names of all the parts of dressmaking - I understood what she meant when she would say to me " just a minute, Annie, I need to finish this hem and then we can go outside." I spent happy hours sorting through the box of buttons and the piles of patterns, and when I was old enough to know how to, I ironed things for mom as fast as she could put them out. The sound of her sewing machine and serger are warm memories for me; along with a patch of sunny afternoon light on the blue rug in that room I can feel like I'm five years old again. When I was eight or ten, my mother had an old Singer sewing machine fixed up for my sister and myself to use. We got it for Christmas that year, wrapped in long yards of flannel that we used to make pajamas. It was the first time that I sewed something for myself, something that I wore almost every night until I outgrew it; a project that I started and completed with my own hands and of my own initiative. Soon I was able to make many different things - from a stuffed-animal as a present to a friend to a quilt for my bed. I helped make my prom dresses in high school and my dress for graduation.

When I was not spending time with my mother in the sewing room, I followed my father around in his woodworking shop. Dad has always been what some people call 'handy' - he loves to make furniture and to fix things. There is not a room in our house that doesn't have a table or bed or bookshelf that my father made. His workshop used to be in the basement of the house but is now in the room above the garage. It comes from hours of leaning on my elbows watching him work that I know the names of all his tools and I know most of the oldies songs that play on the old silver radio. I know how to use hand tools, a bandsaw, a tablesaw, a router and a jointer; I know tricks on how to hide hinges or cover mistakes. I know which way you are supposed to cut a piece of wood so that it won't split, which way a board will warp and the difference between 'good wood' and 'bad wood.' I have fished electrical lines up through the walls in our house, wriggled in next to Dad under the bathroom sink to fix a leaky faucet, knocked down plaster walls with a sledgehammer and rebuilt the porch on our summer house. I know every square inch of the outside of our house because Dad and I went up on ladders to repaint it. I have cleaned out the gutters above the back bedroom and tarred the roof outside my parents' bedroom when it was leaky. I know how to drive a nail straight. I know how to wield a tool and when to watch out for my fingers. I realized a few years back that before I left home for college I should learn as much as possible from my father - that I wanted to be able to build my own furniture and fix my own sinks when I was older. When I did arrive here at Swarthmore I found that I already had learned volumes from him; I fixed the broken toilets in the women's bathroom many times last year. I inherited a certain amount of talent and manual dexterity and a definite passion for making things with my hands.

During middle school all the students had mandatory Woodshop and Home Economics - both of which came easily to me due to my parents' influence at home. The "name this tool" quiz in Woodshop and "thread the sewing machine" test in Home Economics were simple for me. The technology that most students were just confronting at that age were already second nature to me. Another class that we all took was the Computer class - where we learned simple programming and word processing on Apple IIE computers.

My family had an IBM PC computer at home, so I was at a slight disadvantage not knowing the workings of an Apple computer, but I was familiar with personal computers and what one can do for you. I used a word processor for the first time in fifth grade for a creative writing assignment. I learned how to use a web browser and the Internet as a resource sometime between middle school and high school, and I began emailing when my sister left for college when I was 13. Now that I am at college myself, I cannot imagine my life without my computer or my email. My family and friends and I keep in touch with each other electronically; one of my first actions every time I come home to my dorm room is to check my email and my voicemail. My own computer was a gift to me for Christmas my senior year in high school. It came with me to college and is a permanent part of my lifestyle now.

We just recently came "out of the stove age" at home when my father installed a microwave in our kitchen. The advance was soon followed by the appearance of an answering machine and call-waiting and a CD player in the living room. I adapted very quickly to using all of these conveniences, as I had used them at friends' houses. I remember how to program the VCR and change the message on the answering machine and program the auto-dial from the kitchen phone. These instruments are almost instinctive to me as a member of the generation growing up in a new age of technology.

My family's summer home is on a small private island in Maine. While plumbing and running water and electricity and telephones are amenities we are used to having there, many things are appropriately missing from life in Maine. There are no cars on the island. We get to the island using our motorboat. We don't use the telephone much at all - the sound of the phone ringing is out of place. We use rainwater for doing laundry and showering, and we wash all of our dishes by hand. We lug our groceries to the house up the hill using a little pull-cart. We don't have a television; we don't listen to the radio much except to find out the weather reports. My schedule shifts when I am in Maine - I rise early and go to sleep early. We never wear watches; everything is done at a slower pace and with less attention to scheduling. It is a very different lifestyle, one with few technological aspects, but it is one that I am extremely glad to be a part of. I appreciate an afternoon in a hammock listening to the gulls circle overhead and a sailboat halyard clang against a metal mast, playing capture-the-flag at night in a field and then trekking back home in the dark without a flashlight.

Many people are surprised to find that I can fix things with my hands, that I know as much as I do about sewing and how much I value those lessons that my parents gave to me as a child. It is expected that a member of my generation knows a lot about the Internet and computers and technological advances in that area; most of my friends and peers are well accomplished in regards to information technology. I come from a unique background in that I know what it is like to live without many of the conveniences we have grown accustomed to in modern society. I also have kept ahold of some older techniques - technologies that have since been replaced by societal mechanisms or distribution of labor.

It has been interesting to see how my role as a female changed according to my environment. At home, it was normal for me to follow my father around and learn what he was doing just as it was normal for me to learn what my mother had to offer. When I got to school, other students and my teachers were surprised at my proficiency in Woodshop or my confidence with small repairs in plumbing. Now I have discovered that others find these talents admirable, but I think of them as part of what makes me a well-rounded person. I believe that everyone should hold on to a few non-technical skills (no matter one's sex) and not leave everything up to machines or prefabricated materials.

Annie Baumgartner

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last updated 9/15/98