On Wednesday, the second installment of my Q&A with Why Quilts Matter went live on their blog. It should be something that I am truly happy and excited about; I have long respected the work that everyone at WQM does, and I was truly honored to be asked to share some thoughts. But instead of overjoyed I find myself frustrated, saddened, and even a little bit angry. What was intended to be a part of an open discussion of quilts today and what I see as some of the pressing issues surrounding the practice has turned into a mini-referendum on gender, and by extension my gender.

As one half of an academic couple, there are few out there that are more sensitive to the issues surrounding gender and the professional world; I have always been acutely aware of the different issues that will always face my wife. That said, I cannot quite find the words to express how disappointed I was to see the first comment made on the second half of my Q&A. The fact that I’m a man apparently counts for more than anything I might have said; the motivations of WQM for involving men (accomplished, talented, experienced, and esteemed in their own right) are questioned.


This one comment profoundly changes the context of anything I’ve written in my Q&A, and anything I might possibly do with WQM in the future. My position with WQM has been tainted, and I have been marked as an outsider, an interloper, and distinctly a usurper of women’s position.

If this were an isolated event I might be able to let it go, but this has happened far too frequently. Everything I do is marked by the question of whether I received this or that opportunity because of my gender; hard work is reduced to a perk of novelty, and in crediting my difference for my accomplishment I am doubly marked as outsider.

And here is the thing; it is perpetually put upon me. Every interview and article comes around to the question of my gender, sometimes subtly, and others explicitly. For example, a recent interview with Webcents


And I must say I give them a lot of credit for the way the question was asked and for printing my full answer; not everyone would have done so. Here’s the thing: I am every day reminded of my outsideness around here; I have actually taken to cutting ties with any organization that starts an email I am included on with “Hey ladies” or anything of the like. It may seem like a throwaway line, the sort of thing that is just how the way things are, but it serves as a perpetual reminder of my otherness, of a certain degree of not quite being welcome.

And in the end, that is what it eventually comes down to: I don’t know if I do feel welcome in this industry. For every warm embrace I have received a dozen skeptical looks. For every shop that treats me with courtesy when I come in to shop I have found a dozen who eye me suspiciously, ask if I am lost, or simply ignore me altogether.

I love quilts. I have come to love them profoundly and treasure the practice, the tradition, and its future. At the same time I am frustrated, and I am dismayed. Actually, I am just sad because I feel like something I was very proud of has been stolen from me. While I am perfectly happy to justify my work and my words (heck, I wish they were scrutinized more seriously) I cannot help but be angry that I once more have to justify my gender.


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29 Responses to Gender…

  1. 1
    Flaun says:

    Wait, you have a penis?! I’m shocked.

    I’m deeply upset on your behalf. Please know there are plenty of us here who adore you and your work and have no feelings on your gender one way or another.

  2. 2

    Thomas, I can not in any way be surprised that this has changed the tenor of your articles. I am “guilty” of those feelings myself on occasion. My personal, occasional feelings do not, in any way change the fact that I recognize the skill of the men in our community. A skill that complements our own, that helps us strive for something beautiful and better. I KNOW deep down that we are not having a “gender” issue here but an “insecurity” issue. They are very, very different things. I know that my feelings are shaped by my own insecurity in my lack of skill, in the lack of being recognized and to put a bit of a Seth Godin spin on it, Picked. There may, indeed, be female quilters in the community who would be qualified to write this article however YOU are writing these articles and QA sessions. YOU are being recognized for your knowledge, skill and contribution to the quilting world. You’ve had to work hard to get where you are in this community. If you feel this was stolen please consider this the gift, the treasure, the pleasure given back.
    Quilting and fabric designing are your work. Hold onto the inherent dignity of your work Thomas.


  3. 3
    Ken Casey says:

    I agree 100% Thomas! I have been quilting for over 28 years. Since the very beginning, every time I step into a shop, I’ve had to take a DEEP breath and prepare myself for how I might be treated and/or COMPLETELY ignored. I’ve worked in 2 quilt shops for over seven years now. I am competent, experienced, and I’m told I have an excellent eye for color and scale YET I still have customers that don’t know me that will actively (and obviously!) seek out a female employee. What makes that fun is when even if they do know the answer to the customer’s inquiry, they will pretend to not know and come and ask me! Good times…
    I have begun to contact pattern designers, magazines, fabric/quilting websites that continue to use feminine pronouns instead of gender neutrals. I always point out the many male quilters in the world that have made incredible contributions to the quilting industry: Ricky Timms, John Flynn, Kaffe Fassett, and David Taylor to name a few.
    Hang in there Thomas. WE ARE making a difference, one person at a time. Often infuriating, but worth it still the same.
    Ken Casey Phoenix AZ

  4. 4
    Helena says:

    When I see your work or read your blog. … and with all sincerity. …. gender never enters my mind! When I see pics of you with your children then it does! Here is a man with beautiful children, comes to mind.

  5. 5

    As much as one would like to think that the world is Gender neutral, race neutral and/or socioeconomically neutral is is just not so. I think all one can do is take each instance as another learning experience (for you and for those that constantly question you about your gender) and move on. Although you might not want to be a trail blazer you are..Own it. After all you are rather good at sharing your feelings and displaying your art. Perhaps just one or maybe even more than one of the ‘gender unenlightened’ will shift their thinking to embrace the potential of it all and that is an OK thing to claim as one of life’s accomplishments.

    • 5.1

      I was thinking the same thing as Tina. While I am sorry that you are feeling unappreciated or cast aside, I can think of a million instances where others feel the same way. As a woman, my opinion and expertise is routinely ignored by men. The military world in which I live caters to the majority Christians who serve, leaving out Jews, Sihks, atheists to name a few. My black friends often point out to me how black stories are rarely accepted unless introduced by whites. And you can’t say life is easy and accepting for the LGBT community. Accept that even though you are an educated, white, hetero, man living in the Western world, you are, in this instance as a quilter, a minority. There are uncomfortable aspects to being a minority, but there are opportunities as well.

  6. 6
    Andres says:

    I don’t particularly care what anyone thinks of me as a male quilter. OTOH, I’ve had nothing but great experiences when I tell people I quilt. You need to ignore online comments, they are %150 more a-hole than they would ever be in person.

  7. 7
    Jean says:

    I believe you are a novelty, but not because you are male. It is you academic approach to the subjects that is so “outstanding” — stands out— to me. Your thoughtful, literate comments are not the norm. I do not only mean in the quilt world! Your writing always makes me think, and that is special.

    • 7.1
      Ekaterina Kat Balaban says:

      Jean, I second that! I just discovered Thomas’ writing, and I cannot get enough – really, truly thirsty for the kind of intelligence that his writing encompasses. It’s so refreshing, and it feels great to know that there are people out there who view the world pretty close to the way one does! The world is a less lonely place now, one person, one connection at a time.

  8. 8
    Marcy says:

    You know, Thomas… if you were a woman, we would tell you not to be so sensitive ;-P

    • 8.1

      Yes Marcy, haven’t we all heard that. In this arena Thomas is in the minority and in a ‘mans world’ that has traditionally been the place of the woman. I expect way more women have felt what he has expressed so ironically that does allow him to be one of the girls! Laugh, it’s just quilting….and here’s to the men who will follow by seeing its ok. Women who are not welcoming – not worth bothering with, not all are created equal. At our Guild we start with ‘Good evening ladies & gentleman’ every time. The Hon. treasurer being our token male whom we all value greatly. He is not a quilter but a great gender balancer. If only we could add more men to our quilting ranks.

  9. 9
    Karen Walters says:

    As another commenter said, I never make an issue of gender when it comes to who’s work, I admire, follow, etc. I love your fabrics, and your voice, and I think its great that we know you as a quilter, a dad,…and as a MAN. You are NOT the only male quilter and/or fabric designer, that’s for sure! We get so used to seeing a particular gender in a role, that we get ‘confused’, when we for example, see a male nurse. We question, “is he less of a man?”, or “why didnt he want to be a doctor???” Never mind that being a nurse is an incredibly important duty and its all about patient care. It says something about the male nurse – that he doesn’t care about so-called gender stereotypes, but he became a nurse because he wanted to, and loves taking care of people, duh. Again, so many people are used to seeing women sew (and quilt), that a red flag goes up if its a man behind the machine. “Oh, well he must be gay, if he’s sewing!!”, is prob the attitude of some people. All of these attitudes, and stereotpes, are based on pure ignorance (and lack of exposure). Clearly, the woman who made the comment has some kind of chip on her shoulder, and doesn’t visit that site enough to know that they feature women ALL the time. What freaking difference does it matter if its a man or a woman?!? Generally, you revisit a particular site, or blog because of the content. Is it really less interesting because it’s a man talking about quilting?!?!? Of course not. In fact, many of us think it’s totally cool when a man can sew or quilt. For the record, my dad is super-manly, a carpenter, but he also uses a sewing machine. Why???: Because it’s a tool. I was shocked when I found out, but very proud;-)In regard to men who quilt,…quilting to me is an art form and just another medium to express ourselves. Who put gender boundaries on ART?? I think the (prejudiced) attitude is largely a generational thing, and some people were just raised a certain way. Some people are (still) prejudice about race, gender, and sexuality, and (sadly)there will always be those narrow-minded and sheltered people. Changing their minds won’t happen, but they will continue to be bombarded with REALITY, especially if they are frolicking on the internet or watching any TV. You can’t escape reality, can you?!?! (Maybe if you live in seclusion in the woods, or something.) Unfortunately, you may never escape the question about you being male in a predominatly female trade, but like another said, it just gives you the opportunity to be a trailblazer! (Like you aren’t already.) Embrace the (inevitable) questions and be proud!! Please don’t be sad. To state your joy has been stolen, is similar to admitting defeat. I understand that you are tired of the scrutiny, but the male nurse prob gets shit about it everday, too. It’s not worth giving up something you love, just to avoid the drama, is it?? Embrace it, yo. Eventually people will catch on. And the ones that don’t, you don’t really want to hang with them anyway, do you? Best wishes Thomas! Keep your head up! …. p.s. I apologize for any grammar/punctuation errors, but naptime is nearly over and I don’t have the time to edit. Peace, Love and QUILTS!

    • 9.1
      Ekaterina Kat Balaban says:

      Karen, well put! I cannot agree more with what you said. It’s about what we do, how we contribute to the world, how we share our talents, not about how the nature created us and which group (racial, gender, social, etc.) we end up being placed into, by nature or by the society itself.

  10. 10
    lois pasternack says:

    Yes, it is tiresome, and anger provoking to be treated the way you were. I felt the same way when similar attitudes existed about my entering what had largely been a “man’s” profession nearly forty years ago.

    But, consider- your talent for design, sewing, and writing is such that the fabric and quilting world is better off because you didn’t stop to consider that you were entering what is regarded by the narrow minded as a “woman’s” field.
    You not only have talent, you have the discipline to use that talent to produce fabric designs, quilts, and ideas that are inspiring to others.

    I find their attitudes narrow and parochial.
    Too bad (for them.)

  11. 11
    mjb says:

    I was in a meeting today of 40 (influential people) where there were only 3 women and no one who was not white. It’s one of the things that keeps me motivated to stay in my field of work – it’s important to fight for the outsider perspective or at least to show that we don’t need to be limited by our gender.

    • 11.1
      Ekaterina Kat Balaban says:

      I haven’t thought of it from this perspective, but it makes a lot of sense. Thank you, Meagan! 🙂

  12. 12
    Alyce says:

    She obviously hasn’t seen you in your skirt! Best Quilt Market outfit ever.

    • 12.1
      Ekaterina Kat Balaban says:

      LOL! Photo, please? Maybe, that’s how the “issue” with this lady is remedied? If she has a sense of humor, of course!!! 😀

  13. 13
    Belinda Shreeve says:

    Because no woman ever, anywhere, has experienced gender bias.

  14. 14
    Amy says:

    Locally there is a shop that gives a discount during your birth month. As any smart shopper would do, I made a shopping trek with my husband in tow so that we could use his birth month for the discount too. (I am going to state that I did not bring my Mother, MIL, cousin, etc. for their months as well – aka gaming the system.) The shop owner stated that “he is not our customer.” (Well, I’m not either anymore.) I beg to differ, our household is run out of one bank account, so if we go to a shop that caters to my husband or one that caters to me, we are both their customers.

    So while I don’t share your gender, I do sort of understand your position.

  15. 15
    Sandi says:

    If you read further in the comments on that post, the commenter points out that more than 60% of the editorial content on that blog has been about male quilters: “By my count, of the 16 blogs this year that were not book reviews, announcements or giveaways: 10 of them were by or about men. So 62,5% of your content is focusing on men.” Even you have to agree it is disproportionate considering the ratio of male to female quilters. She doesn’t question whether any of the men who quilt are skilled, or have a point of view worth sharing. She asks why the blog seems to be perpetuating the belief that “if a man isn’t involved, it isn’t important.” This isn’t about you personally. It isn’t even about men who quilt. This is an observation that the opinions of men are being given a disproportionately larger value than the opinions of women. Again. And in a place that we had, previously, felt comfortable.
    I’m sure you have no idea how offensive it is to some people to hear you complain that your gender is affecting how people view you in your chosen field. “People think I’m a novelty, people think I only succeed because I have a penis.” When I think of the women who have fought for equality in traditionally male fields, I’m pretty sure none of them pouted because people looked at them differently. Mostly they hoped they wouldn’t be fired for no reason, given crap work, sexually harassed, threatened, or raped. Oh, sorry, I wrote that in past tense. Read any stories about women serving in the US military today?

    • 15.1
      Ekaterina Kat Balaban says:

      Sandi, just a quick one – 62.5% being disproportionate could be something to tout about, but suffice it to say that this commenter decided to get a slice of the data that suited her needs to express her frustrations, whatever they are. Using this “statistical” approach is a two-ended stick. She decided to measure year-to-date stats and then announce to the entire world that the editorial schedule is skewed. I have a problem with that. One: you have an issue with an editorial, write to the editor, don’t start this argument under the post and take the entire post off-topic. Second, last time I checked, no one has instituted the norms of “we have to cover things proportionally to the representation of men and women in the industry that we are talking about.” By this token, we’ll have to police and complain that we have too many women journalists covering “male” issues – how ridiculous is that? Thirdly, I would not refuse someone to post the news or opinion just because they are a man or a woman and it does not fit in my “men vs. women” quote if this person has something to say about what’s important right now, that’s relevant to the events that are happening, and if it brings value to the audience. So… If this lady decided to vent, she should have written to the Why Quilts Matter contact info, which is very clearly stated on each page of the website. Taking her grudge against the editorial approach, whatever that is, on the thread where a guest was interviewed was just plain wrong, and, as we have seen, is also offensive. That’s my two cents. 🙂

    • 15.2
      Ekaterina Kat Balaban says:

      PS: Just for the fun of it (and to show that statistical methods can be bent to suit someone’s need to “prove” a point – as the person who started this grumpy session did): the WQM’s Q&A series has 9 posts so far, out of which 6 (2/3) are with women and only 3 (1/3) are interviews with 2 men in the quilt world; the one with Thomas was 1 interview, but it’s broken down into 2 parts, and the reason for it is stated very clearly in the first part. So… If anyone wants to take on the statistical approach to something that’s supposed to be purely enjoyable, there is a variety of ways to measure it and come to any conclusions that their hearts desire or egos want to prove, and then kill the fun in the process. Statistics has its place, but I see it was misused in this case from the very beginning.

  16. 16
    Ekaterina Kat Balaban says:

    Thomas, I have been overjoyed when I heard that you have enthusiastically agreed to contribute to the Why Quilts Matter blog. I do agree with you and with the MAJORITY of respondents here (don’t care, men or women) – the comment that that person left under your article had nothing to do with the thoughtful and fresh perspective that you shared, answering the Q&A. I tend to dismiss the gender-related ramblings of some people as I personally think when they start this bickering it’s their insecurities talking. I really, TRULY hope that you can brush it off and will not let this person taint how you feel about what you do, what you feel and what you do in the future. Again, personally – let the universe deal with grumpy ladies, follow your passion! Wiser people can tell the difference between those who contribute to the common good and those who get on a public forum to get grumpy. 🙂 Much respect to YOU!!!

  17. 17
    Jeifner says:

    How unfortunate that many quilters don’t know their own history. Perhaps it was the post war 50’s that manufactured a false sense in America that only women were quilters. There is a long and wonderful history of men quilters. Some beautiful examples have been shown on shows like Antiques Roadshow. It was a common pastime in the 1800’s and before. Soldiers would quilt when not on duty. In more modern times I believe it’s Tony Curtis who quilts. There’s also a long history in other countries as well. Still in Egypt you can go to the cloth or tent-makers area of markets and buy some beautiful hand appliquéd quilts entirely made by men. You can see them working on them as they wait for customers. Why? Because its totally normal. There are also men quilters in my area.
    Then again there is a lot of ignorance and discrimination in the world and perhaps when we experience it we have a chance to strengthen our empathy, patience and forgiveness.
    You know, in some of my local quilt shops if you’re not one of their regular known favorite customers you also get ignored or they tell you your selections are “depressing… no one would use those in a quilt.” Actually said to me one day when I wanted some grey fabric for a quilt. So you just keep on doing the wonderful things you do knowing we all appreciate your design skills, intelligence and wit because of what they are. I’d help you if I had a quilt shop 🙂

  18. 18

    In the five years I worked at a local quilt museum I found the vast majority of complainers were all women. Not once did a male (quilter or not, and we had plenty) feel the need to police and/or pass judgment on an exhibit, dismiss the work of another quilter, or invent a reason to get his undies in a twist. I’ve long believed women could be their own worse enemies and this kerfuffle is a case in point. How to take an insightful and well written commentary and turn it in to a gender issue is beyond me, and frankly I’m thankful I lack that crippling mentality.

    I came of age in the late 1970’s so I’ve seen (and experienced) my share of inappropriate treatment and glass ceilings. It doesn’t define me, and it did not create this dark lens through which I view the world and make irrational arguments. I don’t care who it is, I just want someone to explain to me how to get a consistent 1/4 inch seam, be better at choosing and mixing color, and inspire me with their insights on a craft I love dearly. Thomas rocks in every one of those aspects and that is why I follow this blog. If you are offended by his, don’t read mine. While I don’t have a penis, if I took off my bra there would definitely be something swinging down by my knees. Let’s focus on the issues – the gender of the author is NOT one of them.

  19. 19
    Leanne says:

    I will come back and read all the comments later. I wanted to say that I am saddened that you are treated this way, it is neither fair or reasonable or warranted. But welcome to my world and that of so many women who work, professional or not. Every day that we go to work, for years and years, and years. We don’t give up, we try not to be discouraged, and we continue to do our excellent work in our chosen fields while we are facing exactly the same gender bias and exclusion on the basis of gender. I hope you will do the same in this field. It is a slow battle, the gender one, and it is not going to be solved for you by not accepting emails inappropriately addressed. I only wish it were that simple. Hang in there.

  20. 20
    Judy B says:

    Sometimes, like when I read comments like that, I can sort of understand why some men have a problem accepting women as equals … I am a woman and I have trouble accepting that some women are equal! Demanding equal time is something most of grow out of when we grow up.

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