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Craftswomen work hard for the money

Colorful book details how women worldwide earn and spend

Twenty-five percent of the world's households are supported solely by women. Another 25 percent are largely supported by women.

These statistics, which came from the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China, caused California businesswoman Paola Gianturco to wonder. Why, in a world dominated by patriarchal societies, are so many women working? How do they earn money, and how do they spend it?

Seeking answers to these intriguing questions, Gianturco enlisted her former business associate Toby Tuttle for a worldwide fact-finding expedition. In the next two years, the two of them made six trips to 28 villages in 12 countries on four continents.

The result is their moving and colorful book, 'In Her Hands: Craftswomen Changing the World' Ñ the topic of a lecture being sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Oregon.

A graduate of Portland's Grant High School, Tuttle now lives in San Francisco. She accepted Gianturco's invitation because she had recently turned 60 and wanted to start her next decade with something new. 'I thought about it for all of 4 seconds' before committing to the project, Tuttle says.

Her previous international travel had been limited to a few tourist turns around Europe and business stays with her husband in high-end Asian hotels. She was neither a professional writer nor a photographer. She and Gianturco had not yet found a publisher when they made their first trip in 1996, and they had to underwrite the expenses themselves.

Before each trip Gianturco made extensive contacts with local women who would help them identify craftswomen to interview, make introductions and translate for them.

'We didn't want to just go knocking on doors as two more nosy Americans,' Tuttle says.

They assumed that all of this advance work would guarantee their getting the stories that would best suit the project. But that assumption wasn't always correct, as Tuttle wrote in her journal-style comments on their visit with Bolivian seamstresses:

'I don't think they like us,' she wrote. 'Our questions elicit very short answers, or no answers, some vacant stares. Then we ask what we think is a simple getting-acquainted question: 'How did you and your husband meet?' Our interpreter is shocked. 'I would never ask her that. Much too private. Your questions are so personal! That's not done here.' '

Eventually the language and cultural differences were overcome, their interviews completed and their sometimes achingly beautiful photographs taken. And Tuttle and Gianturco found that the answer to their questions about why these women work and how they spend their money was the same everywhere they went.

'The universal response was that they were paying for their kids' education costs,' Tuttle says. 'Even if tuition was free, the kids may need uniforms, lunches or transportation.'

For these expenses, she explains, the households need cash.

'Even if there was a papa in the family, and even if he was working his heart out, none of what he does produces cash,' Tuttle says. 'These societies had mostly been subsistence societies. They didn't need cash; now they do.

'The women we met were all very poor,' she says, 'but, universally, they had retained their pride and their senses of humor. They were proud of their kids and their homes. We had lots of good times.'

Contact Janine Robben at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..