I Survived the Cleveland Women’s Show 2009 With a Little Help From My Friends: Thank You Tomboy Tools and Rose Guardian

Listening to my radio one morning as I drove around (and around and around- you University of Akron students know what I’m talking about) the Exchange parking deck desperately searching for a space and hoping the day’s parking-time would be clocked in under an hour, I heard an advertisement for the Cleveland Women’s Show. Excited for an excuse to leave all my academic responsibilities aside and hang with a friend, I checked it out online (poorly I might add, had I done a better job researching I would have already known what awaited me. But who wants to do more research when you’re already doing a ton of research? Not this gal. Sorry, I digressed), purchased a ticket, invited a friend, and anxiously awaited Sunday when I could leave all my cares, worries, homework, and grading behind. Who didn’t want to spend a day perusing Cleveland’s I-X center full of exhibits and watching little shows specifically designed for a female audience? Unfortunately, my feminist-altered mindset had created a very different expectation of the women’s show.

I had conjured up ideas of booths regarding women’s health, careers, business ventures, and protective shelters (rape crisis centers and battered women’s shelters specifically). I had pictured women-centered paraphernalia spouting “girl power” ideologies. I imagined clothing, jewelry, and accessories created, designed, and made by women entrepreneurs in the arts. Or, even better, made by women in third world countries trying to make a living. I was thinking sisterhood and empowerment. I was thinking, it’s about (bleepin’) time we get some ladies together to pamper ourselves and help the rest of our sisters out there in the big scary world.

Unfortunately, “I was thinking” turned into, “what was I thinking?” Seriously, had I actually thought this expo would be about sisterhood and empowerment? About women taking control of their lives? I am one of few individuals who are consciously aware of today’s patriarchy and sexism. I know that most people are not aware of either of these things. In fact, I know most people couldn’t even define them if they wanted to. So, how did I let my expectations get so high? Lets call it hope. And lets not have that again (just kidding).

My friend and I spent the afternoon wandering up and down repetitious aisles of stereotypical female junk. Don’t get me wrong, I like a new handbag or a new sparkly piece of jewelry as much as any other girl. And I’m not against making my skin smooth or my teeth white. But come on, just how many handbags or pieces of jewelry does a woman need? Enough for, let’s say, more than ten booths worth of merchandise? And just how many different teeth- whitening, weight-loss inducing, “natural-looking” make-up (side note, all of the women who demonstrated their “natural-looking” products on me were hiding their real faces behind an orange-multilayer mask of foundation. Natural, I suppose, if you’re an Oompa Loompa.) products can a woman buy before she finally reaches “perfection”?

There were a few valid booths sprinkled throughout which addressed women’s health (Breast Cancer, Heart Disease, and Diabetes), but on a grand scheme of things, there just wasn’t much aside from the everyday commercialized femininity. It seemed that our (me and my friend) definition of “woman” was entirely different than what was being sold to us here, leaving us with an “us” (the consciously- aware chicks) versus “them” (the not-so-aware chicks) attitude. To top it off, when my friend and I were finished looking through bags, pretending to be interested; and picking up and trying on jewelry we couldn’t afford; and testing out various beauty products that were guaranteed to enhance our natural beauty; and forcing smiles through gritted jaw-clenched teeth, feeling like we were being reduced to nothing more than an object to be gazed at and adored for its wonderfully superficial aesthetic qualities, we discovered the other parts of ourselves that were being commercialized in booths: our domestic selves. Oh, goody!

A whole other section of the exhibit hall featured small stages for cooking shows and various venues for redecorating your kitchens. Once again, I’m not down on some home-cooking. I actually love to cook and bake and try new recipes. But, what exactly was this “show” trying to tell me and all the other women there? Was it that when I was done adhering to today’s beauty standards, I could go and perfect my culinary abilities and innate feminine sense of home décor? I realize that most women are still the ones positioned in the kitchen behind the stove, either by choice (and if this is your choice I don’t knock it, I’ve already identified myself as a lover of food preparation) or force, and so it seems somewhat fitting to have these types of venues present. But, by that point in the day, I was up to my ears in the bullshit, stereotyped gender roles and identities that perpetuate contemporary images of femininity and womanhood. Yes, some women do want handbags, makeup, jewelry, softer skin, less cellulite, redecorated kitchens, and a juicy steak with homemade marinades, but what about everything else? What about hobbies? Education? Professionalism? Advocacy? Equality, anyone? Where were those exhibits?

Teetering on boredom, passed disappointment and close to outrage, we went to find ourselves something to eat. I was half surprised to see venues for pizza and burgers. What, no side salads with crushed nuts sprinkled across the top and bottles of water hyped up on vitamins and minerals? How disappointing.Was I really supposed to eat a greasy, fattening cheeseburger that was going to go right to my thighs? *&$% yes! And I loved every bite. “Get thee to thy hips you delicious piece of meat.”

Following our much-needed eating break, we made our way to one of the stages in preparation for the “highlight” of the day’s festivities: the firefighter’s fashion (apparently, when they say fashion they really mean strip) show. I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to see afire![1] bunch of men objectified by a huge crowd of women. I like it when the tables turn (insert evil diabolical laughter here). Unfortunately, it was only somewhat entertaining considering they were volunteering to be objectified and doing so for a worthy cause: child burn victims. To add to my disappointment, I was not  impressed with the floods of women rushing the stage to stuff dollar bills down a firefighter’s pants as he stripped to Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On.” It was all very primal and I found myself sadly laughing at how pathetic it all was.

We had a few more rows to get to before we’d call it a day. I think we both were hoping to be saved. “Please, let there be at least one booth in here that is worth a damn.” Miraculously, we didn’t find just one. We found two!

Tucked away in the back of the hall, virtually unnoticed, overlooked, and underappreciated, was the first saving grace: Tomboy Tools, an exhibit that glowed pink and was showered with a plethora of tools. tomboy_tools[1]Awesome, right?! I walked right up to the women running the booth. “God bless it! Thank you. Finally, a booth that actually wants women to do something other than put on their makeup and strap on a handbag.” These women were friendly and outgoing and they asked us things like, “Do you do your own home repairs?” Did she really just ask me something other than, “What make-up do you use currently?” or “Do you have problems with your skin?” Yes. Yes, they did. I loved these women. They cared that women were capable and independent. They cared that women were more than just another pretty thing. We talked shop, literally, as we gleamed over pink hammers, screwdrivers, exact-o knives, helmets, and tool belts imagining all the wonderful things we could create. Build, with our own two hands, manicured or not. And if I had a reason to buy myself a whole damn tool box, complete with tools and also serving as a stepping stool, I would have without batting a mascara-painted eyelash. I became even more impressed when I snatched their catalog, flipped it open and found the company’s mission: “To build confidence and empower women through education, quality tools and an independent business opportunity” (Tomboy Tools Product Catalog, Fall 2009, p. 2). It gets better. The tools are “pink for a purpose” (p.12). tools2[1]Tomboy Tools donates money from certain sales items to support the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer which raises money to fight breast cancer and bring awareness and education about the disease up front and center. How cool is this company? I mean, really. Their tagline: “Women. Tools. Knowledge. Pass it on.” Seriously, I am thinking about booking a Tool Party asap and you should, too. Check these ladies out at www.tomboytools.com.

The second saving  grace came from the Rose Guardian’s booth, a new store opening in Cleveland dedicated to self-defense and protection products for today’s women. This exhibit was totally kick-ass and provided you with everything you needed to really do so. There was so much cool stuff we had a hard time deciding which self-defense weapon to purchase. Every product looked like a harmless daily accessory, a hairbrush, comb, lipstick, etc., but in reality they were all artillery. The lipstick, dubbed Lipstick Surprise, was of particular interest to us. It looks like a real lipstick applicator, but twist that ruby- red rouge up and instead, you’ll find yourself lip locking with a Captain Hook- style blade. Unfortunately, they were sold out of those. As they should be since they rockshank[1]! No matter though, I had a love- at- first- sight moment with a navy blue pen with a gold pinstripe around the bottom of the cap (there’s my little darling to the right). I was instantly attracted to it because one, I’m a writer and as a writer I love any instrument used in the craft of writing; two, I knew it had to be a weapon and since its weaponry wasn’t visible to the naked eye, I was instantly intrigued. The very helpful Carlos ripped the beautiful pen’s cap off and voila: an incredible shanking blade (for those of you not down with the lingo, ‘to shank’ is to stab). This pen is my one true love, both crafty and deadly. Seriously, don’t mess with the girl with the pen. She’ll write you off (pun totally intended).  I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve shown since purchasing it yesterday, this is how taken I am with my little master weapon of disguise and surprise. My friend and I are already planning a trip up to Cleveland once the store actually gets up and running, which should be within the week. Until then, check them out at http://www.roseguardian.com and see how you can outfit your purse and your person with nifty gadgets guaranteed to serve and protect. And a personal shout-out to Carlos who answered all our questions and helped us with the purchasing of our products: “Shank-you very much for such cool products designed to protect today’s women. You and the company really do kick some ass!”

And so our day at the Cleveland Women’s Show took a one-hundred-eighty degree turn for the better. We left feeling strong, mighty and capable of activating change in both our own lives and the lives of others. I guess, in some ways, I got what I went for; my expectations were met on even the smallest scale. But the credit can only be given to Tomboy Tools and Rose Guardian for making women feel empowered and ever so much more than just another pretty face.

Student moms have a voice online

Moms who are also students can share stories, tips and resources through a new blog set up by members of the new University of Akron student organization Mothers Achieving More Academically (MAMA).

You can read more about the group in the Sept. 3 issue of the Buchtelite, the University of Akron’s student newspaper.

For more information about MAMA, contact Patricia Millhoff, director of Women’s Studies, at 330-972-7008 or at millhof@uakron.edu.

Student moms can join MAMA

Are you a student who is also a mother? Consider joining the new student organization on campus designed to serve your needs.

It’s called Mothers Achieving More Academically or MAMA for short. You can read more about it in the Sept. 3 issue of the Buchtelite, the University of Akron’s student newspaper.

For more information, contact Patricia Millhoff, director of Women’s Studies, at 330-972-7008 or at millhof@uakron.edu.