Personal is Political: Ms. Fix It

My bathroom door has been broken since August of 2008. This might not seem like a feminist issue, but stick with me…
I own my apartment and so I’m really proud of my space and like to make it better. So, why have I not fixed this? Presumably a door knob isn’t too expensive. It’s not a financial issue. Sure, I could claim I’m too busy, but I’ve spent time on far less immediate and important things in the last couple of years. Let’s be real, there are deeper reasons.
Part of why I haven’t fixed it is due to a nasty combo of personality and socialization–I tend to think that fixing a problem is more difficult than it is or see myself as inherently ill-equipped to solve certain kinds of problems (sadly, this feels like it started back in my 5th grade math class when I decided I was shitty at math.) In addition, I have had many experiences where locksmiths, hardware store workers, or plumbers have treated me like an idiot. They’ve tried to rip me off and/or asked to speak to my father or boyfriend. I had a terrible encounter with a locksmith late at night. Read about it here.
I’m not in the business of making generalizations. I know there are some feminist-minded folks who work in these fields, women and men alike. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the good fortune of interacting with many of them.
So I avoid fixing what’s broken in my own space. It sucks. It makes me feel like I can’t take care of myself, or get the help I need, in very basic ways. I am proud to own my apartment and I want to feel empowered to make it functional and beautiful. I could read books or watch You Tube videos about how to fix door knobs or other issues around the apartment, but I don’t learn best that way. I like learning by interacting with people. The guy I’m now dating has offered to fix it, which is sweet, but I also recognize that his generosity lets me off the hook from “figuring” this out.
Any insights?

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  • dirtybird

    The way I get around dealing with potential sexism in hardware stores is by making sure I know what I need when I go into the store. That way, all I might need to say to an employee is “Where is the (whatever)?” I’ve found that the internet is usually good for tips on how to do repairs I’m not quite sure about.


    I’ve never really done the freelance carpentry thing (I always worked for union contractors) but I can tell you, there is an adversarial relationship between client and contractor (you try to get as much as you can and pay the least – on the other side, we do as little work as possible for as much money as possible).
    With that said, female clients do get treated very differently – and a lot worse than men!
    Firstly, there is the assumption that the female client is stupid, cheap, petty, overly picky, too finicky about how the work looks, oversensitive to the dirt and dust naturally created by any construction project and are just plain less than male clients, contractors and tradespeople.
    Based on this mentality, the opinions and ideas of female clients can be and usually are dismissed out of hand especially if the opinion of the female clientis actually correct
    In the construction environment, female clients who come on the site very frequently get the “elevator eyes” treatment – often with sexual comments made, and occasionally the guys don’t even bother to wait til she gets out of earshot to offer their opinions on her body parts.
    There is a hard core of male tradespeople who have a downright rapist-ish view of female clients – I’ve occasionally heard bosses and fellow workers make comments about wanting to force themselves on particular female clients sexually (such comments frequently made after a disagreement with said client – and always said once the female client is out of earshot)
    This attitude towards women clients is pretty much universal in the trades – generally speaking, unless you hire a tradeswoman, 49 times out of 50, you will run into those attitudes.
    Bottom line, Timothy, I’m sure you’ve had a male tradesperson overcharge you – but I doubt you had a male tradesperson overcharge you, stare at you ass and then comment to his coworkers about what he wanted to do to you sexually.
    Big difference.

  • Sex Toy James

    I may have overlooked your sexist experience with tradespeople because these people try to rip everyone off. Mechanics, plumbers, heating and AC guys are not people I generally trust not to rip me off. I’m not the least bit surprised that they’d try to use your femininity to put you in a weaker negotiating position and make you feel powerless. They may feel that they run a higher risk of being recognized as rip off artists and kicked out for trying similar tactics on a man. They also can’t add physical intimidation to the equation as easily with men. You had some bad experiences that were pretty much definitely worse because of your gender, but probably would have been bad anyway. Pretty much the only way out that I see is learning to do things on your own, or finding someone honest.
    The bathroom door knob hit me as something that you can do on your own, so I jumped to that solution in the hope that replacing a bathroom door knob will give you confidence in your ability to do home repairs on your own and reduce the number of sexist negative interactions you have.
    I’m very interested to hear how you do end up dealing with this particular door knob issue.

  • AMM

    I agree with gmonkey42. Work on it yourself.
    Even if it ends up costing more, what with all the tools you end up buying and that the hardware guy convinces you to buy, it will be worth it just for the sense of self-confidence.
    A few more thoughts:
    Read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (ZatAoMM), especially the parts where he talks about working on the motorcycle.
    Don’t worry about doing it wrong, or not doing it the best way the first time. We guys don’t come with an instinct as to how to work on stuff, it’s just lots of experience, which means: we did it 1,000 times, we screwed it up royally the first 999 times, and now we’ve run out of wrong ways to do it. When we started working on our house, I had to learn to plaster (_not_ drywall!) After about 30 times, and ripping stuff out a dozen times, I sort of figured out how to put up a plaster patch that wouldn’t fall out. I’m learning to sew clothes now; you don’t want to even be in the same room with my first dozen attempts.
    Allow lots of time to get familiar with everything. When you go to take the knob (or the entire lockset) out, spend as much time as you like fiddling and poking and looking. If you want to put it back and take it out a dozen times to convince yourself you know how, do it. Nothing breeds frustration and “gumption traps” (cf. ZatAoMM) like rushing things, or feeling you have to know everything.
    Worried about really, really screwing it up? It’s pretty hard to do all that much damage if you’re just fixing a doorknob. (If you’re really creative, you might have to replace the door.) But if you do, you’ll be in good (male) company, and you’ll have a good story to tell your grandchildren[*]. Men are forever doing DIY’s that end up costing ten times as much to fix as it would have cost to hire someone in the first place. And there’s almost no disaster that can’t be fixed with enough time and money. Listen to Car Talk sometime!
    [*] That was my father’s point of view: it doesn’t matter what happens, as long as you can turn it into a good story.

  • m. leblanc

    Courtney, I completely feel you. I actually like fixing things myself, but I feel a huge wave of anxiety come over me when I start anything. It’s like if I fail, or if I need someone’s help, or if I can’t figure something out, it just proves that women are stupid and weak and need men to help them. I remember one time I was in the parking lot of an AutoZone, trying to replace one of the lamps in my blinker light. I had all figured out what I was supposed to do, but there was a bolt I couldn’t get dislodged. I tried for something like fifteen minutes. Finally this dude came over and offered his help. I declined, but he insisted and I was desperate.
    He loosened the bolt in about ten seconds. And was like “see, you just needed a man’s arm” and winked at me.
    I cried a lot after that. I knew what I was supposed to do, but I just couldn’t do it because apparently not having enough arm strength or not properly applying torque or whatever. Later a friend told me that I should get a ratchet. There are tools that make tasks easier to do and require less strength.
    But I know strength isn’t your issue with the doorknob. It’s the principle of the thing. It sucks. But if you do it yourself, you are going to feel so good. Get a female friend, a couple beers, put on some music, and DIY.

  • William

    “sadly, this feels like it started back in my 5th grade math class when I decided I was shitty at math.”
    I remember reading a Discover article by a mathematician who said, in passing, that math will always find a way to make you feel stupid, and that you first become mathematically useless when you get tired of feeling dumb (and this was someone who models 10+ dimensional situations). I think it must be easy for sexists to take advantage of this natural feeling about mathematics, and make it seem to young girls that they are naturally bad at it. I don’t know if this is helpful, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to throw it out there.

  • Kathleen Hagerty

    I think that you and the boyfriend should have a skill-swap meet. He can teach you how to fix the door-knob (and perhaps some other household fix -it jobs,) and you can teach him how to do something you’re good at. My roommate and I “trade” skills like this pretty often. For example, he taught me how to use a power drill and I taught him how to sew a curtain.
    Also, I learned many of my skills around the house by volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. We literally built a house from the ground up. It was a great experience and I learned how to use a hammer.