This post begins with a simple yet instructive exercise. Launch your favorite browser and search for the following terms as images:
Do you notice any similarities? (hint: most of the images are of men)
Many people are aware that women, generally speaking, are paid less than men for doing the same work. In the U.S., for instance, women are paid an average of 80 cents to every dollar paid to men holding the same job. For African-American women working full-time and year-round in the U.S. the discrepancy is even greater--61 cents to every dollar paid to their white, non-Hispanic male counterparts. (1) Less commonly discussed than this substantial wage gap, however, is the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles in most industries and professions. Permaculture offers no exception to this inequity. While the majority of participants in permaculture design courses are women, women occupy few positions of leadership--such as designers, teachers, authors and speakers--in this field. (2) A simple internet search reveals that the majority of permaculture “leaders” are men, including founding patriarchs Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. There is even a term among women and queer folks in the permaculture community to describe the tendency of white, middle-class, often outspoken and overbearing men to dominate permaculture projects: ”spermaculture”. (3)
Pandora Thomas, a leading permaculturist in the San Francisco Bay Area, describes the proper focus of permaculture. She states "...there's this misconception that permaculture is about farming and gardening, which it isn't--it's mostly about relationships. It's about looking at a systemic problem and finding relationship-based whole system solutions--and one of the most vital systemic issues, along with the status of women, is cultural and racial inequality."(4) Permaculture cannot effectively address systemic issues while it remains middle-class, male-driven, and white-washed. It is crucial to prioritize space for persons of color, members of first nations, LGBQT+ individuals, and other marginalized groups.
For a society that has symbolically tied women and femininity to the natural environment, it's ironic that we have more men than women to look to as leaders in permaculture. Deep Dirt Institute’s program director Kate Tirion describes the current suffering of our planet as "an attack on the feminine" and aims to introduce women to the practices of permaculture through DDI's Women Grow Food (WGF) program. Every Friday morning local and visiting women come together at the DDI farm campus to learn how to grow food and conserve water in our arid environment, join thought-provoking conversations, and harvest wholesome, organically-grown vegetables (5).
Long-time WGF member Kathryn describes her participation as "being a member at a gym (good physical workout), a member of a social club (working and talking with a fabulous group of women of all ages and stories), a student in a seminar (learning about permaculture and social topics of the day), a shopper at the best seasonal organic produce market, and a donor to an important organization--all that in one morning a week!" Encouraging members to be leaders is an important component of WGF. "Women are often creative and compassionate leaders, so more of them in every field is a good thing, including permaculture. Our planet and all its inhabitants will need more women in leadership to have a chance of survival," suggests Lynn, another veteran WGF participant.
Students in permaculture are taught the salience of diversity--from plants to animals to structures--yet racial, social and cultural diversity is largely missing from permaculture curriculum and practice. Feminists in permaculture must find it important to make space and include voices from racial, ethnic, age, and gender identities that are routinely left behind, because "feminism" does not mean only women, and "women in permaculture" does not mean only white women.