Cool Tools for Living: Women Look to Hardware, Not Software

Suzanne Fields

1/21/2008 12:01:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

While the candidates argue over who's on first, who got to second and who won the gold and who won the silver, the rest of us can concentrate on the really important things. What will their world be like when our little girls grow up to be president of the United States? We may be ignoring what we shouldn't. Not every little girl wants to grow up to be Hillary Clinton.

Politics is tough. Tough enough to bring a candidate to tears, even the first female candidate. Sexism isn't the only reason that many women avoid politics. More than two decades ago, Betty Freidan, who challenged the "feminine mystique" as obsolete, nevertheless worried that in the second stage of feminism workaholic women would give up motherhood or wait too long to bear children. They would regret missing out on the important "traditional 'caring' that women had for women, as well as for men and children."

She predicted that a lot of men would eagerly abandon their traditional protective male roles without taking on their half of the traditional woman's share of housework. Statistics suggest she was right. Working women often do double duty and seek new hardware for hard times. A diamond-tip drill trumps a diamond on the third finger, left hand.

Gone are the days when women could rely on helpful Mr. Fix-It. One of the last male bastions of masculinity is falling to women. A scene that got a big laugh in the sitcom "Home Improvement" was when Tim Allen, noted for fixing things around the house (no matter how clumsily), wanted to browse the hardware department at Sears, but his wife refused because he couldn't be pulled away from drooling and fondling all the tools, his eyes bugging out in ways that they never did her. Today, she might be drooling and fondling too, cohabiting with the hardware.

The marketing gurus are on to this. Women are learning how to use a "stud finder," and this isn't about the personal ads. "There has been an explosion of woman-targeted self-help books, videos, radio shows (including one called 'A Repair to Remember'), TV spots and home-improvement Web sites," writes Kay Hymowitz in the Wall Street Journal. The largest group of women in this phenomenon are single young women who have bought a house or condo. Husbands, in new wives' tales, are less capable and less responsible these days for fixing the leak in the kitchen faucet or figuring out why the bathroom toilet is forever humming.

Calling a repairman is not only expensive, but requires hours, if not days, of waiting for someone to arrive. Although do-it-yourself instruction manuals claim to make assembling things as easy as building with Tinker Toys or Legos, many women fantasize about divorce watching their husbands, growing ever more frustrated, struggle with how tab A goes into slot B, usually with a profusion of imaginative profanity. (The kids are not necessarily asleep.) Dashboard satellite maps have reduced the severity of husband-wife fights over how to get directions to the vacation house, but there's no such wizardry for fixing clogged garbage disposals or preventing floods spilling out of the washing machine. To avoid being cast as the nagging wife, a woman has to be the Little Red Hen of house repair: " All right, I'll do it myself." Cool tools replace Tupperware for coffee klatch partying. "Dare to Share" morphs into "Dare to Repair."

As Valentine's Day approaches, husbands are exhorted to buy their wives hammers in hot pink by Tomboy Tools, as advertised in Brides magazine. But the wise husband is well-advised to include matching hot-pink thong panties in the gift box. A girly tool belt in purple suede holds drills, hacksaws and screwdrivers. "Femme fatale" takes on an entirely new meaning. Rosie the Riveter in contemporary mode flexes muscle both on the job and in the boudoir.

Discussions of machine tools always include suggested techniques for coupling systems, with instructions for how to fit connections, evocatively described as "male" and "female." Men and women are finding ways not to depend on each another. Independence can be a great asset, particularly when you've only got yourself to rely on, but cool tools can make human coupling more difficult than ever. Running for president might be easier.