Tuesday, 10 January 2012

A female craftsman?

The title of Grayson Perry’s new exhibition at the British Museum is misleading to say the least. “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman” certainly does not evoke the image of ‘woman’ – but as the description elaborates, we are to encounter not only men but “an installation of his new works alongside objects made by unknown men and women” (British Museum 2012). But if we are to encounter women also, why are we led to read, hear and picture only ‘craftsmen’?

According to its definition, a ‘craftsman’ is “a worker skilled in a particular craft” (OD 2012). While some might argue this to be a universal term, the dictionary has recognised that it is not and listed ‘craftswoman’ as the female alternative. But even so, others might counter, how could Perry have incorporated this into his resonant title? ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman and Craftswoman’ hardly has the same ring to it after all.

The problem goes of course much deeper than Perry’s exhibition theme. As we have not yet (successfully) linguistically revised the historical preference of ‘man’ over ‘woman’, the once exclusive term ‘man’ is today often used as a universal short-hand for ‘man’ and ‘woman’. While this might seem a convenient option for some, it also raises several concerns: firstly, it perpetuates the underlying ideology which considers ‘man’ to be the main/only human, and secondly, it denies the linguistic recognition of women’s achievement. And without such linguistic recognition, we are not only hindered from conceptually picturing women as potential ‘workers skilled in a particular craft’, namely as ‘craftswomen’, but further led to believe that ‘man’, due to his linguistic dominance, must be the main/only ‘craftsman’.

And just as ‘craftswoman’, more neutral alternatives such as ‘craftsperson/craftspeople’ have not caught on. The question is: why is this the case? Why are we still presented with the specific, that is, ‘man’, to stand for all of humanity? Why do we continue to not only linguistically (and conceptually?) prefer ‘man’ over ‘woman’, but also over a more balanced view of humanity?

The lesser familiarity of the terms has been claimed as the root-cause ever since feminist linguistics presented its challenge to the patriarchal nature of language. But is this lack of familiarity still a valid enough reason today? Further, going back to Perry’s exhibition, is it a valid enough reason in art? Is art not meant to present the less familiar, that is, to defamiliarise and make anew? Is art not the one place that could (finally) create “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsperson”? And if it does not, what does that make ‘art’ if not the exact opposite of its definition: “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination” (OD 2012), namely, conservative: “averse to change or innovation and holding traditional values” (OD 2012)?

It seems until art is brave enough to give voice to ‘craftswomen’ and/or ‘craftspeople’, we are stuck with the unlikely image of the female ‘craftsman’. It seems until art is brave enough, we are stuck with our historically singular view of humanity.


  1. A pleasure to come across your website Christiane!
    a brilliantly reasoned expose of what passes for 'logic' under patriarchal thinking! I find if I question this sort of thinking, I am usually told some variant of how silly to focus on such trivia,1 Kook at al the probems facing mankind {!} How can i focus on such marginal matters?
    But if being rendered marginal and invisible, linguisitically and conceptually, is such a minor thing, why don't these objectors just humour me me and employ the opposite term?

    Of course, they never do any such thing!

  2. The Tomb of the Unknown Artisan

    1. This might seem like a solution in English but 'Artisan' comes from French and in French it is the masculine version of the word (Artisan/Artisane). This is in the end another, maybe less obvious, default to the masculine version.

    2. This is a really good point, thank you!

  3. My partner (female) and I (male) are in the process of starting a business as “craftsmen” and I stumbled upon this post in search of a gender neutral alternative to that word. I just wanted to say thanks for writing about this. It’s something I’ve never really had to think about until now and I’m determined to find a better where to describe who we are. Artisan was my first thought, but upon learning that this is also a masculine description I’m a bit lost at the moment. Does the argument that the “man” in “craftsman” doesn’t necessarily have to represent males but humans instead have any legs in your opinion?

  4. Thanks for your comment, and sorry it took me a while to reply! I agree it can be quite tricky to deal with this. But how about using ‘craftsperson’ or ‘craftspeople’ as alternatives? They might seem less familiar at the moment but, like any linguistic change, the more people employ new terms the more established they become. In fact, most dictionaries now list ‘craftsperson/craftspeople’ so they are already an accepted choice. And in contrast to ‘man’, the terms are truly gender-neutral. I don’t think ‘man’ is able to represent both ‘women’ and ‘men’ as the term is (today) understood as specifically ‘male’. I conducted a little thought experiment in another post to illustrate this: http://alittlefeministblogonlanguage.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/man-gender-neutral.html
    I hope this helps and good luck with your craft business! Which reminds me, you could also rephrase as and when needed to: ‘We craft bespoke furniture’ or ‘Our chairs have been hand-crafted’, for example.

  5. I run a degree program in an Art and Design University with a cohort that comprises of approximately 50/50 male and female students. We explored this debate a few years ago while re-writing our course documentation. All but one student felt that the term 'craftsmanship' was gender neutral and that the term 'craftsmanship' was indicative of the achievement of exceptional quality, a mastery of specialist skills and knowledge.

    To answer your question, why neutral alternatives such as 'craftswoman, craftsperson, craftspeople' have not caught on? In my opinion, it's not an issue with the term 'man' because the greater issue is the perception of the word 'craft'.

    To put it very simply the perception of the 'master craftsman' or 'demonstration of craftsmanship' is one of high status, someone with skills and knowledge that exceeds the abilities of the average person who look at the work produced in awe. Meanwhile, the term 'craft' has been long associated with hobbyists and therefore the perception of 'craft activities' is of a lower status, something anyone can have a go at.

    So, I would argue that the longer history of the term 'craftsman' has given it a higher status than the new alternatives can achieve, in the short term at least.

  6. Thank you for your comment! This is an interesting perspective and made me think of two things in particular. Firstly, as you say the term ‘craftsman’ is associated with high status, and that ‘craft’ is perceived as something anyone can do. Curiously, ‘craft’ when linked to ‘man’ does not seem to have a lowering or neutralising effect, it only seems to do so when linked to woman, person, people. I would argue that this is due to the perception of a higher status of ‘man’, i.e. a male person who performs the craft is considered to have above average skill and knowledge. As in an androcentric society men have higher status than women, any task performed by a man is likely to be considered of higher value than if performed by a (crafty) woman.

    There are some insightful studies into how people perceive terms which have either ‘man’ or ‘person’ suffixes. For example, McConnell and Fazio showed in ‘Women as Men and People: Effects of Gender-Marked Language’ that ‘man-suffix titles result in assessments consistent with masculine stereotypes (and less consistent with feminine stereotypes) and person-suffix titles result in assessments consistent with feminine stereotypes (and less consistent with masculine stereotypes)’ (1996, p. 1008). And as ‘masculine stereotypes’ are valued higher in a society biased toward men, it is conceivable that speakers might prefer to be associated with ‘male’ – whatever their sex/gender.

    Secondly, I’m reading a lot about group dynamics at the moment and how group norms influence people’s responses. It would be interesting to observe who the dominant voices are in your cohort – especially, considering that being a ‘craftsman’ is traditionally considered a male profession, which will shape the perceptions of both women and men. For example, some might want to preserve the status quo and others to be accepted by/affiliated with higher status. And I’m not necessarily surprised that only one student raised concerns about the inclusiveness of ‘craftsman’. I myself don’t always speak up, and am even less likely if the group seems predominantly in favour of one particular position.

    But either way, having a conversation is the most important start! It allows people to understand that language is a tool – just like a paintbrush or chisel – and to realise it is in their hands to select the most appropriate utensil/terminology. They might not necessarily voice this in a group setting but it might stay with them long after this awareness has first been raised. And while I agree with you that the dominant position of ‘craftsman’ is difficult to shift considering its long history, I also believe that it is by slowly chipping away that we can make a profound difference.

    1. Fortunately, for us at least, the complexity and quality of our work speaks for itself regardless of the gender of the maker.

      In my experience it is possible to influence the evolution of our language but some terms and words are much harder to dislodge than others.

      The debate I referred to took place on a social media platform and the majority of the conversation originated from female students.

      As for group dynamics, every new cohort comes with its own personality. The loudest voices are rarely the most influential voices and they are not tolerated for very long. The most dominant, most respected voices usually come from the most confident students, anecdotally I would say we have as many confident female students as we do male.

      After a lot of deliberation, we decided to use the term 'craftsmanship' in our documentation but we did not refer to 'craftsman' or 'crafts' for that matter. We describe ourselves as 'makers' and we are very proud of what we do.

      I will take on board your comments and carry on the conversion.

  7. I really like the term 'maker', it's a great way to get around the issue of 'craftsman/craftsperson'! I just had a quick look and it's used by the Crafts Council too: http://www.craftscouncil.org.uk/iama/making

    I'm wondering whether an alternative term might be the best solution for 'craftsmanship' too? Or until there is such a term perhaps we could describe it? 'We pride ourselves in creating quality bespoke furniture' could be one option? Or more general, 'we pride ourselves in our expertise, innovation and material know-how'?

    Thanks for continuing the conversation. I often find that the hardest part as most people believe language is 'just' language. But it's also really rewarding when one realises a sense of ownership and agency. Luise F. Pusch and Dale Spender (among many other fantastic feminist linguists) opened that door for me!