I’m ready. My earth walls are thick, in fact they’re bullet-proof, which may be just as well, because whenever you approach the subject of gender, you are guaranteed plenty of disagreement. So I'll dive straight in. It might not be what people want to hear, but I say, if you’re a woman out there wanting the house of your dreams, the chances are you’re not going to get it unless you do it by yourself.
Living the life I do, I’ve run into many folk who’ve run from the conventional and galloped into the hills after their dream life. Some are couples. Some are groups. Some are single. Some are continually in transition between all three states. But when it comes to women actually taking a hammer in their hand and constructing their very own dream house, top to bottom, I’ve only ever seen it happen without a man. (Though I’d love to hear a story where that wasn’t the case, so if anyone has got one, let me know).
Now, I freely admit, I have been the fortunate beneficiary of barrel loads of assistance from both genders in the creation of my home. House-building is rarely a job for the Lone Ranger. Who builds single-handedly? But the question is, who is owning the project? When constructing something unconventional or even ground-breaking, women, for a variety of reasons, tend not to take ownership when there is a man on the scene. And when you don’t take ownership, you don’t have the final say, which means when it comes to choosing between your dream of a hand-crafted stone wall with natural mud mortar that hasn’t be en invented yet, or a quicker but less earth-friendly concrete solution, your ‘impractical’ vision is likely to hit the wayside.
All of this is not necessarily the fault of men. Over the past two years, I have been blessed by streams of benevolent testosterone cascading onto my land; men who have genuinely gunned for me and been there for me when the going has got a little bumpy. But I must add, for the sake of honesty and truth, that there have been deep ravines of misogynist contempt to negotiate, too. Once, before the earthbag adventure, when I was in the Kabak valley and trying to glean how a platform was put together, the builder turned to me and sneered, ‘you’ll never be able to do this.’ His group of cronies laughed so hard, you’d have thought I was trying to push testicles out of my groin, not understand the hardly brain-stretching logic behind what was basically a wooden gazebo light years from rocket science.
Events like the one above hurt. And it’s one (but definitely not the only) reason women stay away from construction. But in all honesty, Mr Builder was only voicing a belief that the group subconscious (both male and female) has accepted, no matter how polite a face it puts on it. Please note that I said subconscious. Consciously, many of us want to promote equality of opportunity. The trouble is, women whacking nails in, or revving a chainsaw, is not an image we have been taught to absorb or project (unless it’s via a few music videos of buttock-wobblingly dubious content). And women can excel when it comes discrimination, too. How many times have women gone through my site and referred to me as a man!
But let me get the plywood straight, before a thousand and one oestrogen propelled jigsaw blades are whirred in my direction. This isn’t about blame. I can be just as bad. What this says to me is, forget the guys, quite a few women don’t view women as being able to build. And the reason for this is that there are some deeply-rooted, widely promulgated myths floating through the ether, and
they flit in and out of our ears, time and time again. They are in women’s heads. They are in men’s heads. And they are lethal. I have, at various times in my life, believed some of them. But over the past two years, pretty much every single one has been smashed to genderless smithereens.
“Women aren’t strong enough to build alone.”
Oh yeah, the all-time classic. I’m sorry to say even the most well-intentioned are prone to voicing this. Really, shelve this belief right now. We live in the 21st century, and there is a tool for pretty much any job you can think of. And when there isn’t? Well, you’d be amazed at just what you can lift, or drag when you put your mind to it. In my experience, physical fitness, stamina, lateral thinking and sheer obstinacy are far more useful than size (which rarely equals strength anyway). But whoever you are, however big you are, the more you lift, the stronger you get. If the worst comes to the worst, you can always hire some muscle. This way you retain ownership of the project rather than having to compromise your vision.
“I have no experience. No one builds without experience.”
This is a tough nut to crack. When you have no experience, it’s hard to find someone generous enough to let you get your greenhorn mitts on their prized Black and Decker. That’s why ultimately, I think women only build alone or in groups of other women. Because it’s nigh impossible to get a foot in the door otherwise (though I am indebted to Adam Frost back in 1987 for patiently letting me grapple with his bike spanners and Swarfega, these things are not forgotten.)
“It’s much easier just to flirt a bit, and get a guy to do it.”
Yeees. It’s so very “convenient” to allow the man in the group to sweat through all the “difficult” jobs, right? (I raise my hand here, guilty all the way to the compost heap). Though, seriously, I’m starting to think our human bent for convenience is our worst enemy. It makes slaves of us all. We lose our independence, our muscles and our self-belief for what initially appears to be an easier life, and invariably is the road to ruin. The physically challenging jobs can often be the most rewarding ones, too. You finish the day exhausted but aglow with a feeling of self-confidence and accomplishment. Who needs a gym?
“When I mess up, I’ll be ridiculed until kingdom come because I’m a woman.”
This is not a myth. It’s absolutely true. One only has to skim through the net to see the unparalleled mockery women are subject to when they make the slightest cock-up in any area considered male. But the beauty is, the derision always seems to come from small, jealous wannabes who’ve never managed a single gutsy project in their life. So take refuge in that, I know I do. Personally, I’ve never met anyone that’s actually built an eco-home who has criticised anyone else. It’s a supportive community. It is also why I proudly display every blunder I have made, because if you haven’t made an error, you haven’t built a damn thing. You’ve sat in front of a screen and typed instead.
“I don’t want to build. I can’t think of anything worse!”
I have no idea how much of this is self-imposed myth and how much is a genuine dislike of construction. There are presumably people of either gender who have as little desire to build, as I have to organise a dinner party. My poor, long-suffering friend Elif is one of them. No doubt traumatised by my relentless efforts to ‘give her a chance’ to build (I’ve had her plastering doors, holding up beams and carrying water tanks), last month she drew the line. When I offered her the drill, she shook her head in outright refusal. ‘Ooof! I’ve no idea what you see in all of this!’ She said. ‘Now, I’d like to cook dinner if that’s alright with you.’
And yes. It was very alright with me. The best I’ve eaten in a long while.
Atulya K Bingham
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