Girls Just Wanna Build Cars

Cora Lewis PhotoMothers and daughters spent hours tinkering with wheels and wires the other day, while brothers and dads stayed home. That was part of the point of an event organized by the Eli Whitney Museum to “Take Back the Erector Set” on its 100th birthday: females ran the shop for a change.

More than 185 women and girls showed up to the museum to experiment with the famous century-old contraption that A.C. Gilbert invented and manufactured in New Haven. They participated in an event that was part of a year-long series of Connecticut Humanities Council-sponsored events called “New Haven Works.”

Moms and daughters constructed simple motors for little wooden cars at the Friday evening event, linking the wheels with rubber bands and wiring the vehicles with battery packs. The inter-generational teams raced their final creations across the museum floor, engines whirring, voices raised and spirits high.

Others screwed together metal beams to make child-sized indoor skyscrapers – “ceiling-scrapers.”

“One mother told me, ‘Any time you offer women a chance to do something with their daughters that’s not “pink,” they’re going to jump on it,’” said Eli Whitney Museum Associate Director Sally Hill, explaining the unprecedented turnout.

Gillian Fattal, attending with her daughter Sofia, 6, agreed.

“Gendered marketing is not just about clothes. It’s about toys, it’s about fast food now,” she said. “You have to work and make an effort at introducing science toys for girls.”

Fattal told her daughter, “There was a time, when I was growing up, when people thought only boys liked these things. And now your Uncle Kevin is a scientist, and I definitely am not.”

Plenty of moms drew the same causal connection, though some said they thought they may even have had it better as children, before pastel “Lego Friends” targeted female children and servers handed out boy/girl-specific Happy Meal toys at McDonald’s.

“Frankly, I’m offended by pink and purple Legos,” said Megan Barnett, who said she has emailed the company multiple times with no response about the branding decision.

Keturah Arnold, who brought her daughter Jael, 7 (pictured at the top of the story), to the event, said she remembered taking wood shop in school, which isn’t a guarantee anymore.

Hill said she grew up playing with three older brothers, learning from her dad, a self-taught manufacturer, and pursuing whatever interested her, which included engineering and graphic design.

“When the phone repairman visited the house, I paid attention,” she said. “I fixed it myself the next time.”

When Jean Paupeck, 68, was small, she recalled, her brother forbid her from touching his prized A. C. Gilbert erector set. This day, there were reports of multiple “brother meltdowns” at home: little boys who threw tantrums when told that the workshop was just for daughters.

Leslie Cohen said she thought the all-female environment made a difference in the way her daughter, 8-year-old Sasha Cohen-Cox (pictured), was playing Friday night.

“Before I had kids, I was more of a ‘humanist,’ I think,” she said. “But I see there is a certain amount of freedom girls can get when they’re just around other girls.”

Other mothers said sometimes “the boys” hog the cars, trains or construction toys. They said they were grateful the Eli Whitney Museum had set aside a women-only night.

The admission price to the Friday workshop included a contribution to the Catherine Greene Fund, which underwrites scholarships to encourage inventive girls. 

Hill said in a way she also had a freedom her brothers lacked during their formative years. “There was not that expectation that I would have to get a job to support a family,” she said. “That’s also anatomy as destiny, right there.”

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posted by: robn on January 22, 2014  2:21pm

If we don’t nourish our young women’s creative impulses, were destined to be a society that’s suppressing 50% of its potential.

posted by: Josiah Brown on January 23, 2014  10:44pm

It’s good to see this coverage of the Eli Whitney Museum.

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