From pink hammers to flamethrowers: Triad tradeswomen defy stereotypes
Not one of the four Triad tradeswomen profiled in this article was taught her trade by her father.
Adrienne Mattson-Perdue learned how to use a hammer from her mother. Michelle Belanger discovered an aptitude for carpentry while working at a woodshop. Charmaine Brown learned from her best friend’s father. London Brown grew up working in the family vegetable garden, but neither parent was a professional landscaper like their daughter became.
The inspiration for this article began with Adrienne Mattson-Perdue, who recently founded Pink Carpenter, LLC, in Greensboro, and whom a mutual friend had suggested as a good subject for an article about local tradeswomen defying masculine stereotypes.
“I spray paint all my tools pink,” Adrienne said. It is a practice she began while earning her carpentry diploma at Guilford Technical Community College.
“Everybody has the same tools, and at the end of the day, you want yours back. I figured a dude has to be pretty fucking secure in his masculinity before he’ll borrow a pink hammer, and he’ll be sure to return it.”
As a child, Adrienne was “always weirded out” by Father’s Day ads selling tools. “I never learned any of that shit from my Dad. My mom was the only one with any trade skills whatsoever.”
Her mother signed up for shop classes in high school but was told to take home economics instead. This enraged Adrienne’s grandfather, a former escalator repairman who lost both legs after being sucked into one.
“In what was one of the best acts of misogynistic feminism ever, he dragged himself out there, a huge pain in the ass when you’re in a wheelchair in the ‘70s. He told them ‘my daughter doesn’t need home economics; she already knows that shit because she’s a girl!’”
When he said she needed shop classes because he couldn’t teach her, they let her enroll.
Adrienne’s mother became a psychology professor, but her shop skills proved useful when she bought a building in New Britain, Connecticut.
“It was called a two-family, a style of architecture which looks like a house, usually Victorian, but is actually two or more apartments stacked on top of each other.”
This building contained two, and her mother rented out the other one.
“We had our house set on fire when I was 9 because apparently drug dealers don’t appreciate having the police called on them. That’s when I met Paul, who my mother hired for repairs. The first time I was allowed to help was when I was 10 or 11, and Paul built the front porch. He taught me how to use a nail gun.”
“The next time we flipped over the apartment, I was 12 or 13. Paul installed a floor and taught me how to work on that.”
Adrienne moved to North Carolina to major in English and education studies at Guilford College. “I was going to earn my certificate in secondary school English, but I don’t like lying to children. When they’d ask why they had to be there, I’d tell them they didn’t. After all, I’d dropped out of high school, and here I was teaching them.”
She considered teaching in college, “but full-time professors are going the way of the brontosaurus. It’s all adjunct slavery now.”
“I had a couple of crappy jobs and reached a breaking point last summer when I realized I just couldn’t keep working shit jobs that don’t pay a living wage, where I still found myself doing hard physical labor. I’d gotten a bachelor’s degree to avoid that.”
So, she enrolled in the carpentry program at GTCC and earned her diploma in that trade.
“As long as I have to do hard physical labor, it might as well be something I enjoy and am skilled at, one that the entire current generation of workers is actually going to retire or die in.”
Michelle Belanger, owner, and carpenter at Jill of Many Trades in Winston-Salem, also came to those trades from a completely unrelated field. She had been studying young child development at a community college in Traverse City, Michigan, but found out how much the staff at local daycare centers earned.
“Even the ones with teaching degrees were making a very low wage.”
So she took what she thought would be temporary work at a woodshop connected to a lumber yard and hardware store.
“The entry-level pay was at least 50% more, with potential for increases. I had a chance to learn from some really experienced woodworkers and use some nice tools. They hired me to help with a side project they had taken on and then decided to keep me working in the regular shop.”
She proved a natural despite no previous training, due to what she described as “my visual and spatial relationship/geometry brain type,” and because she’s strong and agile.
“Years of yoga, hiking, and dancing gave me good balance and an understanding of how to move from my center of gravity. That still helps me all the time.”
She’s been steadily employed as a carpenter for decades now, and all her training has been on the job.
“Mostly just applying the principals of plumb, level, and square, and my understanding of wood, combined with my experience. I don’t really have any formal certification. My work and experience speak for themselves.”
Since founding Jill of Many Trades while living in the Triangle, most of her clients have been women; which has continued since she relocated to the Triad in 2001.
“I got tired of dealing with men on crews and was considering trying to find some other kind of work. Then I started working for myself after getting laid off from a crew. I ran a classified ad in Carolina Parent magazine, and it was mostly women who responded for the first several months. They loved that I treated them well and got along with their kids and pets. And that I clean up and communicate well. Also, we bond over all kinds of things; the fabrics or paint colors in their houses, their gardens, kids, pets, music.”
But she’s also had good experiences with male clients.
“Sometimes it ends up being part of my job to help them not feel bad that they’re not good at this stuff. I usually explain that learning any skill involves making a lot of mistakes and putting in the practice time. Then I ask what they would rather do with their time off. Practice a skill they will have limited use for, or pay someone who has already made a lot of mistakes and learned from them,” Michelle said. “What I sell is Jill Of Many Trades, non-smoking child and pet-friendly woman carpenter. I am the product, a very cool, interesting person who you will love, and who happens to be a great carpenter. I can help you enjoy your house more, be good company, and show your kids that women can do non-traditional things and be in charge. That has its own value. And kids love me, as do pets. Which makes their parents/people love me more. And people can feel comfortable leaving their teenage daughter alone in the house with me working.”
Charmaine Brown, owner of Modish Construction & Design, LLC, became interested in carpentry during her junior year of high school in Fayetteville.
“One of my best friends’ dad was a carpenter so that I would work on projects with him. We built stairs and stuff around the house. He’d be making things and ask if we wanted to help. She never did, but I did, and I grew to love it. I sort of became his apprentice, or as he would say, his real daughter.”
Charmaine studied biology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
“I wanted to be a doctor but decided it wasn’t for me. So, I started to explore just what made me happy. Bought a couple of investment properties a few years ago and started fiddling around with it, and kind of fell into construction.”
She also took a year-long carpentry class at GTTC.
“We worked on Habitat for Humanity projects, so we built or helped build three different homes.”
She plans to take her general contractor’s test next month.
“I’ve been working on two projects, one of my own and one of my friend’s addition to a barn. I have a partner that I work with before I took the class in general contracting construction, he did most of the work, and I did more of the interior design and ideas, but now I’m much more hands-on with the building process, which is great.”
She told me she’s particularly proud of her most recent project.
“This is the first full renovation I’ve done. We’ve completely gutted the house, and I’ve gone all the way through it. So, I think I’m really proud of this just to say I’ve done it from the beginning to the end on my own.”
For the last three years, Charmaine and her boyfriend have also owned DJ’s Transportation, LLC.
“We read a lot of articles, then bought one truck and started out. We now have two-day cabs and two sleepers; one Freightliner and one Peterbilt. We have some contracts with LKQ Pick Your Part, the junkyard here in Greensboro. We haul their crushed cars to the Kernersville area.”
Landscaping and gardening may not seem quite as stereotypically “masculine” as carpentry or trucking but have also historically been male-dominated. And how many other trades sometimes require a flamethrower?
London Brown, owner of Barefoot Gardening in Greensboro, said that she enjoys using that tool not just for the sheer badassery of it, but because it’s better for the environment.
“When I was Foreman of the Dirty Hoe Landscaping and Gardening in Asheville, we used flamethrowers a lot for weed suppression, and I love them. Because if you go on a hard surface and just spray it with Roundup, that’s putting poison in the system.”
She explained the reason for her company’s name being Barefoot Gardening is because “I want you, your children and your dog – whoever wants to go outside barefoot in their garden – to be able to do that without getting chemicals on their feet. Anyone can come inside and suck their toes and be perfectly fine.”
London considers herself an educator as well as a tradeswoman.
“Part of my job is teaching. When someone’s got square bushes, I explain that I’m not going to be shearing those bushes into that shape from the outside, I’m going to be making a lot of holes, to open the bush back up, get the airflow back in, and try to get it re-growing on the inside. That way, the plant can be healthy, rather than a breeding ground for fungus and insect problems later down the road. You need to selectively prune it, cutting out the dead, dying and decaying, but so many people mutilate them here because that’s what became common practice.”
London rejects common practice for best practice and insists on doing what’s right for the plant, the lawn, and the environment. “If you want someone to do something incorrectly, you’ll have to hire somebody else, because I won’t do it. I’m here for my clients, but I’m even more here for my client’s plants.”
She has a degree in Turf and Golf Course Management from GTCC and apprenticed with Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, which USA Today and 10Best.com voted the best botanical garden in the U.S.
She said that her business has been going well and that she has four to five subcontractors and one apprentice working with her every week.
“The majority of my workforce is female and neurodivergent.”
There have been times when she employed a more traditional demographic. “When I had a big stone job, we brought in some big strong guys in to help us move rock and move big wheelbarrows of dirt and things, so that me and the women could really focus on leveling and laying stone properly, with the guys there to help us lift it and set it back down. My women are good at the tedious leveling and shaving and making it perfect, and the guys are good at being strong, although we are, too! We moved 10,000 pounds of stone in two months.”
Most of the women profiled in this piece said they’ve encountered resistance, or at least sexist assumptions, from men, either as customers or co-workers.
“I sort of go out expecting it,” Adrienne said. “I’ve primed to expect sexism and misogyny everywhere I go because, as it turns out, it’s everywhere I go. And so, I have occasional things where I’m very certain that it’s sexism, and somebody else will tell me that’s it not necessarily there, maybe that person is just an asshole to everyone.” But she doesn’t buy that excuse. “Sure, I can be an asshole to everyone, too. But there needs to be space for women in trades, and if you’re trying to make space for women in the workplace, you need to understand that we’re coming into this expecting sexism because that’s what our experience has been. And so, I feel like people need to be more conscious of not sounding sexist, even if they’re doing it by accident, people need to pay attention to what they’re saying and how they’re saying it. They need to pay attention to whether they’re arguing with a woman over whether plasterwork and drywall are different substances. I promise you, they fucking are.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.