On Tools



Barbara Jones talks about her career as a builder, and the sexist and misogynistic attitudes she encountered while training in carpentry.

Amazon Nails and Straw Works

Barbara Jones initially founded the building company Amazon Nails. Many members of this company now work with Straw Works, which specialises in straw-bale building. This is an environmentally friendly technique that uses sustainable materials to create unusual and beautiful buildings. It is no accident that Jones is committed to ecological as well as feminist ideals. An important strand of the Women’s Liberation Movement overlapped with the emerging Green movement in the 1970s, eventually forming a rich branch of eco-feminist philosophy. This was informed in particular by the ideas of the Indian activist Vandana Shiva, the French philosopher Françoise d’Eaubonne and the American philosopher Susan Griffin. You can hear more about Barbara Jones’ sense of their relationship in her oral history, as well as in Rebecca Johnson's account of living outside and on the land as a peace activist at Greenham Common.

Do you think women can make good builders? Why or why not?

What do you think Barbara Jones means when she talks about a ‘woman-friendly’ building site?

How might feminist and Green politics find common ground? Where might they clash?

Film credits
Producer / Director / Editor: Lizzie Thynne



Four of us bought this house. We didn’t really have a clear vision of what we wanted to do, but we all wanted to be more in the countryside and to have land that we could do stuff with. I particularly wanted to become self-sufficient for energy so this place has got its own water, it’s an old stone house so it was originally built with the right materials, with lime, and it gave the opportunity to get the house back to how it was originally built, which is a much healthier living environment than cement or gypsum offers you.

When I first did my training the statistics were about one percent of women were actually on tools doing practical work and now thirty years later it’s exactly the same. There are more women in construction, but they all get whisked off into management very quick.
The first time I did carpentry was an evening class that I took in London, just an ordinary evening class which was all blokes and a male teacher. I wanted to know how to put up shelves, really, and all the guys were doing kitchen cabinets, and the teacher didn’t really know what to do with me and didn’t do very much with me. Certainly didn’t teach me much. It was very demoralising actually. I ended up at the end of it thinking this isn’t for me, I’m no good. Well, it was a couple of years after I’d done that first disastrous carpentry course and Ken Livingstone was starting to fund organisations to redress the balance of inequality and that included women only courses in practical skills in non-traditional areas for women. And Lambeth Women’s Workshop was set up to do just that and I was lucky enough to get on the very first course that they ran and it was wonderful, really I absolutely loved it. Again I just wanted to learn basic skills and that’s what they taught me. They had all women teachers, they didn’t assume any prior knowledge, they didn’t talk down to you or make you feel stupid and they showed you everything: how to measure, how to use hand tools, how to make joints and just progressed your skills.

After the war, the government set up a training opportunities program which was the TOPS course for blokes coming out of the army. They had skill centres all around the country where you could learn carpentry, car mechanics, plumbing, electric, the whole range of trades. It was very very good skills training, and a lot of women in the ‘70s and ‘80s and early ‘90s got trained that way. There we were in the skills centre, there was two women and three hundred men, and imagine that you’ve got to be tough and you’ve got to be absolutely determined that that is what you want to do because at lunch time you’re all in the same canteen, you walk in, and everything goes silent. I was not going to let them put me off, but you could see why most women would leave. And if you asked them why they’ve left they wouldn’t say it was because of that they’d say oh I don’t want to do carpentry. They wouldn’t say it’s because that environment really is not conducive to me learning.

It’s a challenge for builders to work with us because there are quite a few things they’re just not used to. Our values are just completely different: we work with cooperation, we skill share, we help each other. If we see someone’s in a predicament we try and give them a hand. We start every day with a group inside a circle where everyone has the chance to say what they feel and talk about the work we’re going to do and that freaks the builders out. They don’t know what we’re doing. They think we’re some sort of religious cult. But those sorts of things that we do bind us together as a team and they are part of how we’re able to produce very high quality work with people who are in training, if you like.

I do a lot of on-site training in straw bale building, lime plastering, clay plastering, and we take complete novices and we work on real buildings. When I realised that was the way to go, was to share the knowledge rather than to do the job for somebody like a contractor. Women and men come on our courses and they realise that they can do things they never thought they could, and that has a major effect on their lives and they maybe won’t ever do straw bale building again but what they will do is make some major changes in their lives. They’ll make life changing decisions: they’ll change their job, they’ll change their relationship, they’ll change where they live and they start feeling like they can do things that they didn’t think that they could.
On Tools
Sisterhood and After: The Women's Liberation Oral History Project
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