What: Permaculture Design Course for Women
When: 30 October — 12 November, 2011
Where: Just up the road from the PRI’s Zaytuna Farm, at Eternity Springs Art Farm
Why set up permaculture design courses just for women? There are both practical and historical reasons to do so. Let’s begin with the practical and round off with a little permaculture history.
Firstly, it can be useful for women to have opportunities to learn new skills in an all-female environment. “As soon as the equipment came out, the men took it over and we never got a chance to do anything with it,” a young woman commented as she recounted her first experience with permaculture. It reminded me of another young woman expressing her pleasure at getting a barbeque fire going after having considerable difficulty getting it to catch. “As soon as it’s obvious I’m having trouble, a man comes and takes over, so I never have the chance to learn how to do it.” Neither of these young women are shrinking violets; they are both used to holding their own in mixed company. Nor were they complaining; only commenting on a cultural bias that causes men to cluster around tools while women hold back.
In an all female environment women can support each other to acquire new skills together.
Secondly, women generally have less disposable income than men, so creating low cost courses specifically for women enables more women to attend. Thirdly, women still have a greater responsibility for caring for children, so courses with at least some childcare also make it easier for women to attend.
The first permaculture design course for women was held on my farm in north-eastern New South Wales, Australia in 1983. The first gathering of permaculture course graduates had occurred in South Australia earlier that year. We were a small group — about forty of us: only three of us were women. It may be nearly thirty years ago, but I remember clearly what a wonderful feeling we generated by being together. And how I thought Bill was exaggerating wildly when he told us that we — this ragtag assemblage of individuals — would spread the ideas of permaculture all around the world!
I remember particularly Bill’s assertion that in order to spread the ideas of sustainability, a permaculture organization would itself have to be sustainable. He commented that having so few women in it was not a good indicator of sustainability. Suddenly all the men’s eyes were on us three women. “Where are all the women?” one of them asked us. “Don’t ask us: we’re here. Why don’t you ask your wives, who are at home.” That took the spotlight off us for the moment. But later, we women talked about that conversation and the fact that all three of us found it somewhat intimidating to be so few women among such a large majority of men. It was then than we — Judith Turley, Susie Edwards, and myself — came up with the idea of holding a permaculture design course just for women.
We had no idea what difficulties we were setting for ourselves when we decided we would need to make this course low cost and that there would have to be child-care. Somehow we surmounted apparently endless difficulties and 26 women — with 12 children in tow — attended and completed that course. Many mentioned marking out a series of swales around a hillside as a highlight and our mounting enthusiasm peaked as they presented their practice designs. I wonder if any of us ever forgot the culmination of our concert: the flight of a tissue paper hot air balloon which one woman constructed with my young son (he’s 40 now) and how a shooting star shot through the sky above it as it reached its zenith.
Many more women have completed subsequent women’s courses here and in other countries, and women’s courses have been particularly well attended in developing countries where cultural constraints between men and women are considerably more limiting that in the West.
The success of women’s courses lies not only in increasing the number of women involved in permaculture; or in the considerable number of women’s course participants who have gone on to teach permaculture themselves, or to incorporate sustainability into other professional occupations. Perhaps the greatest benefit of teaching women is that when they incorporate any of these ideas into their daily lives, their children pick up these sustainable practices as an integral part of their lives too.