America's gender wars waged in the DIY store



The latest chapter in America's gender wars is being waged in the aisles of a Home Depot in Fairfax, Virginia.

As they wait in line to pay for paint, Leslie Rowen, 63, and her daughter Lucky Bennett, 32, proclaim that they are "taking over the home repairs." Meanwhile, a few aisles over, the store is having a "Do-It-Herself" workshop, where women of all ages and ethnicities pull on blue rubber gloves and learn how to lay kitchen tile and mix grout.

"I have a husband, and he does not do anything. He likes to watch TV, so we are taking over. We can do it! But my mother would have never believed this," Rowen said. "For her generation, it would be like girls playing sports — shocking and tomboyish. That's just not true anymore."

Welcome to the latest field in which women are joining and sometimes outshining men — home repair. As the country's demographics shift, more women are making more money and staying single longer than ever. Consider this seismic shift: There are nearly twice as many single female home buyers as there are single male home buyers, according to 2011 data from the National Association of Realtors. These women don't have to rely on men to financially support them — but somebody still needs to rewire that light switch and unclog that drain. That somebody is them.

They are power women with power tools.

"But what are husbands for?" quipped Jon Otis, 64, who wandered by the workshop, slightly bewildered by the shower-grouting women. "But they're gonna do it better than us, I bet."

Others have no reservations. "I think it's just wonderful," said Barnabas Mogan of the do-it-herselfers, "because someone has to do it."

That women are encroaching on previously male-dominated territory is nothing new. But, until recently, home repair — like automotive mechanics — has seemed inviolable. "Fixing things around the house was the last bastion of manliness," said Hanna Rosin, author of "The End of Men" and co-founder of Slate's Double X blog. "But now, even that is getting taken away. As women become more economically independent, they are starting to fix things around the house for themselves."

The fact that mainstream American women are picking up power tools is significant, Rosin said, because it's different from more women becoming, say, lawyers or accountants. These women aren't just Martha Stewart with wrenches, they're taking on heavy-duty repairs such as patching roofs and finishing basements — tough physical work that has long been left to men.

"But the truth is, nothing belongs to anybody anymore," Rosin added. "If men can quilt and take over the kitchen, then women can pick up a wrench and fix a leaky pipe."

These days, would-be handywomen, should they be so inclined, can buy pink tool kits, complete with pink pliers, hammers, drills and utility knives. It's a big change from the stratified gender roles of the 1950s. Lillian Ann Baumbach, a "21-year-old miss from Arlington, VA and the country's first woman master plumber," was profiled in a 1951 Washington Evening Star article headlined "Pretty Plumber."

"The Pretty Plumber has been a cover girl for a national plumbing magazine and has received gifts — including a light-weight wrench — from manufacturers in her trade. Lillian, who sticks close to the service manager's desk at her father's plumbing business, 4147 Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, and leaves the heavier work to the men, is taking her sudden rise to fame calmly," noted the article.

The trend is being driven by economics as well as demographics. "Ignorance is expensive, especially in today's economy," said Julie Sussman, who co-wrote with Stephanie Glakas-Tenet the bestseller "Dare to Repair: A Do-It-Herself Guide to Fixing (Almost) Anything in the Home." Throwing money at a pricey plumber or electrician if your husband can't or won't fix it just isn't as realistic an option as it used to be, they said.

"Women have broken through glass ceilings, we just haven't learned to fix them," Sussman and Glakas-Tenet write in their book, which sold so well that they wrote two more do-it-yourself books, including one for women about how to fix their cars.

"For so long, women have been so afraid to take on home repairs, but our message is: This is not the hardest thing you have done. Women take care of our elderly parents, our neighbors, our spouses, our friends. So is that any easier than repairing a garbage disposal?" asked Glakas-Tenet, who along with Sussman, has had a husband in the CIA and lives in the Washington area.

The pair had the idea for the book because they didn't like calling their husbands for help while they were abroad, especially about seemingly small problems such as how to fix the toilet. On their book tour, Sussman and Glakas-Tenet hosted home-repair clinics at military bases to help women whose husbands were deployed.

"Our mothers' generation was more concerned about their daughters being in a stable marriage," Sussman said. "We no longer worry about that anymore. We want our daughters to above all be independent."

On college campuses, initiatives such as Habitat for Humanity's Women Build program have made it "cool and comfortable" for young women to learn construction skills, said Annie Stom, who owns Annie's Ace Hardware in Northwest Washington's Petworth neighborhood. From 2006 to 2011, Stom was the national project director for the Department of Labor's YouthBuild program, which taught at-risk young people — girls and boys — to build affordable housing while getting their high school diplomas.

"More young women are feeling really empowered and even encouraged to do this stuff," Stom said.

With her tool belt and her extra-large cup of cold 7-Eleven coffee, Cecilia Moore, 49, is one of Washington's most well-known handywomen. Men fear her. Women want to be her. They long to know all that this heroine with a hammer knows.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Moore is fixing a leaky water heater and touching up her paint job as she renovates a basement apartment in Mount Pleasant, another Northwest Washington neighborhood. She wears baggy jeans and a Husky headlamp, carries a power saw and smokes Camel Crush cigarettes. On speed dial is Wench With a Wrench, a.k.a. Kelli Pletsch, 43, of Bowie, Md., whom she calls in on jobs that have plumbing issues.

"She always makes me look good," said Moore, as she shook up a can of paint. "Plus there's just so much work now for women in this field. My dream has always been to have a consortium of Janes of all trades, including girl electricians, carpenters and contractors."

She has been at this job for years and comes from a family that has long worked in home repairs. Lately, she's noticed more young women taking an interest in choosing her career, so she's starting a "Handywoman" blog to encourage them.

Changing times notwithstanding, Moore said she had to take the word "Handywoman" off her van.

"Men were calling the number and asking if I had a blonde or brunette for hire," she said, taking a swig of coffee. "They are foolish. The thing is, there are lot of men who can't fix a darn thing — but just because they can't or won't doesn't mean they want you to."

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