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A Review of From Curlers to Chainsaws: Women and Their Machines

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From Curlers to Chainsaws: Women and Their Machines
Joyce Dyer, Jennifer Cognard-Black, and Elizabeth MacLeod Walls
Michigan State University Press; 2016; $29.95

The anthology From Curlers to Chainsaws: Women and Their Machines, features essays examining women's relationships with a wide range of tools: from tractor to typewriter, sewing machine to microphone, radio to prosthetic leg. The book offers a timely focus, during an era when cell phones, laptops, and fitness trackers can feel like extensions of our very selves. Edited by Joyce Dyer, Jennifer Cognard-Black, and Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, the anthology focuses on machines in use from the early 20th century through today. It offers historical context for contemporary discussions about how today's technologies shape our lives—the ways we think, the relationships we have, and the identities we adopt—and it provides insight into how these machines connect with the experiences of women, including daughters and mothers.

While the book examines contemporary tools such as cell phones and laptops, many of the pieces feature machines from the authors' pasts: a lawn mower, a stapler, 1967 Dodge Dart. These pieces remind us that, while smartphones and 3-D printers certainly mediate our understanding of who we can be and of what is possible now, machines have always served that purpose. For example, Maureen Stanton, author of Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: An Insider's Look at the World of Flea Markets, Antiques, and Collecting, describes the personal significance of buying and using a lawn mower in 1988. Stanton's long-time boyfriend had just died, and she'd been forced to take on a new independence. "I'd never considered using a lawn mower before, much less buying one," she writes. "Mowing was a man's chore." Yet she both bought and learned how to use a lawn mower—and, in the process, began the "long period of learning to live without him—but also learning to live with myself, to tend to my life."

As in Stanton's essay, the book illustrates the vast range of issues to which our machines have always connected us: loss, beauty, strength, ability, motherhood, family, history—so much of human experience.  And, in particular, so much of women's experiences. Within these essays, machines offer many women independence, while also representing interconnectedness. Ana Maria Spagna, author of Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness, describes how the chainsaw she used to clear trails in national parks offered her and her partner layers of autonomy: "The chainsaw allowed Laurie and me to make men's wages . . . The chainsaw gave us the confidence to build a house . . . Mostly the chainsaw got us out there . . . I slept tentless in the dirt and stared up at the sky where tree limbs crisscrossed my view of the stars."

The chainsaw allowed Spagna to escape the limitations women so often face. Yet, in ways we might not expect, machines traditionally associated with women's work offer a similar independence. Dyer, author of Goosetown: Reconstructing an Akron Neighborhood, describes how, from the 1940s through the 1990s, a sewing machine offered her mother a place for her own private work. Rebecca McClanahan, author of The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change, explores her love for ironing and, along the way, develops a personal definition of feminism. She describes her guilt, during the 1970s, over her love of traditionally domestic arts, her "passion for cooking, scrubbing, polishing. And the pièce de résistance: my secret, fiery affair with my Ironmaster." Then she describes the insight she has gained since: that feminism is about offering women choices. "I understand now that oppression can take many forms. That moving into your own as a woman doesn't always have to be a bitter, bloody journey. Sometimes it means accepting what is given to you without asking, and letting the rest fall away."

Even as machines offer independence, they also represent connection to mothers, fathers, children, lovers, and family at large. For example, Diane Salman, who now works on development issues in Africa and the Middle East, remembers the year when her family, torn apart by war, relied on a tape recorder to maintain a connection that felt terrifyingly tenuous. She, her mother, and sister recorded messages to send from Lebanon to her father in Congo—messages she never felt sure he would receive. "During the long nights when I would try to go to bed, thoughts of baba being dead kept me awake," she writes. At the same time, other machines offered her comfort: her grandfather's radio, where she found poetry and music, and her grandparents' television, where she found characters who reminded her of her father. "They reminded me of the way he laughed, with his whole body and his deep voice. They reminded me of the infinite tenderness with which he loved Sara and me. Baba was my home."

Salman focuses on her father, but in many essays, mothers take on a particular prominence. Writers offer moving explorations of the machines that connect them to their own mothers: the Maytag Washer, the piano, the stove. Norma Tilden, professor of English at Georgetown, writes an essay directed to the Maytag washers she remembers from her childhood: "And in your presence, clustered around you with our mothers, their faces blushed with steam, we would learn what it was to be born a woman: the intricate mechanics of beauty and use."  In an essay focused on the stove, Psyche Williams-Forson, author of Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power, describes how stove top cooking represented for her mother both a labor of love and a way to pass on to her children their African American heritage. "The hiss of the frying pan and the stove that provided its heat serve as vehicles of remembrance: a breeding ground for acts of agency and activism, and a bridge to cultural transmission, preservation, and sustainability." For both women, machines serve as a site where they learned from their mothers about family, gender, culture, and identity.

Machines also open explorations of the complexities of motherhood. Joy Castro, author of Nearer Home, offers a prose poem describing the gun she keeps to protect her son after her own mother's assault. Emily Rapp, author of The Still Point of the Turning World, connects her conflicted feelings about the prosthetic leg she has worn since childhood with societal conceptions of the worth of women's bodies. Then, devastatingly, she describes how those feelings changed after her young son's diagnosis with a serious illness. "I wasn't monstrous," she realized, "difference can't be so easily understood. Everything, everything, everything was wrong with my son, and yet he was gorgeous and singular." In the wake of her son's death, Rapp develops a new understanding of the strength and beauty inherent in her own "partly mechanical" body.

In many of the essays, machines serve as metaphors.  For Karen Salyer McElmurray, author of Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother's Story, cars stand as a metaphor for freedom, for movement, for the ways she has re-defined her life, and the ways she still wants to. For Mary Quade, author of Guide to Native Beasts, the tractors her family has farmed with, kept, and restored represent her family's connections to the land, and all the ways we do and do not keep the past alive.

Machines often serve as conduits for the authors to explore other issues, questions, and experiences. Co-editor Dyer has her mother's sewing machine repaired and, through the process, seeks to recover and understand her mother years after her death. As Dyer begins to use the repaired sewing machine, she discovers a new way to hear a mother who spoke sparingly while alive. "So what is my mother saying to me in the familiar voice that I hear again today; hear after an absence of so many years; hear, perhaps, for the first time, with ears and heart that are ready for her?" In an essay on the curling iron, co-editor Cognard-Black, author of Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal, explores the lessons she learned about beauty as a girl and those she wants to pass on to her daughter. And Nikky Finney, author of Head Off & Split, reflects on the power that pencils held for her as an African American girl in South Carolina. She connects that power to her own developing desire to be a writer. "As soon as I could hold a pencil, I began to recognize what moved me to action and to tears, and I paid close attention. I remember scribbling furiously in private notebooks, hoping to join that band of inquisitors and insurgents that refused normalcy and popularity." Machines, then, link the authors to past and future, childhood and adulthood, public and private desire.

Taken together, the essays urge us to continue to ask new questions about the impact of machinery and technology on our lives. What is the metaphorical value of our newest machines? In what unexpected ways do they connect to our goals, our pasts, our passions? What is particular to women's experiences with them, and why?

In the book's Preface, the authors write that their goal is to:

think carefully and deliberately about our unthinking tools, to have a conversation with metal and plastic in order to try to understand what our machines mean—why we need them, or if we do; where they came from, or what they might signify; and what the future holds for further integrations of body and contraption.

Rather than answering in a single voice, the essayists approach these questions and others from a rich diversity of directions. They do so with humor, with lyricism, and with good old-fashioned storytelling. Machines in these pieces have constrained women, and they have empowered them—often in unexpected ways. They connect them to their mothers and their children and to all of the fears, longing, resistance, love, and loss that offer those relationships their depth. From Curlers to Chainsaws will leave readers pondering those depths, along with all of the ways machines allow women to move, to create, and to shape their own identities.


Heather McEntarfer is an assistant professor of English at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Her book, Navigating Gender and Sexuality in Education: Narrative Insights from Educators and Students, focuses on preparing teacher candidates to create gender-inclusive schools, and her creative nonfiction essays have appeared in journals including River Teeth, The Laurel Review, and Terrain.org. She lives in Fredonia, NY with her wife and 11-month-old son.


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