Gender and the Garden World

February 9, 2008

in Articles, General Interest

“It is well known that one of the baleful symptoms of female middle age – along with hot flushes, sudden weight gain, incapacitating vagueness, wrinkles, invisibility, powerlessness and an interest in gardening – is not having a thing to wear.”

“The Stranger in the Mirror” Jane Shilling

“Many viewers assumed that I’d turned down the job but in fact I was never offered it. Had I been asked, I would have loved to have done it.” Carol Klein, Telegraph

“…She’s a woman of a certain age, a grandmother, from the north of England, and even if she didn’t gallivant around dressed as a woodland faun, she’d still be horribly patronised; a slight improvement possibly on any other century in which she would probably have been ducked in the nearest river.

Carole Cadwalladr on Vivienne Westwood in the Observer 2.12.07

“My relationship building, co-operative questions were gleefully seen as one-down acts of submission on my part.” Jane Stevens – below

Putting the cat back in the pigeon house by Anne Wareham

A great many women ‘forgot’ about feminism. We began to assume the issues had been resolved, got fed up of the ‘victim culture’ it promoted, got on with our lives. I reverted to assuming it was all me and a private struggle. After all, in the garden world you would expect to have to struggle to be taken seriously and to earn some respect. And I was struggling on two fronts at the same time – as a garden creator and as a writer.

But my consciousness began to be roused from its doze by a few odd things. A noted woman designer complained from the floor of a Society of Garden Designer’s conference about how women were not invited to speak at the conferences. She was fairly promptly invited to speak and since then? – we’ve had the occasional token woman. And indeed, if you look around, and start counting, there’s a lot of that about in the garden world. I just opened my post – an invitation to an RHS press event where there will be presentations by four – men.

The BBC’s flagship garden programme, Gardeners’ World, has always been presented by men. For some years they have had a coterie of women in support. Consider how different it would be to have Rachel de Thame as lead presenter, assisted by Monty Don (doing the flowery bits). All these men? The coach parties and visitors who come to my garden are 90% women and a count at the Society of Garden Designer’s conference showed that 85% were women. Are we being patronised at all?

My career as a garden writer has followed an interesting trajectory. I managed to get published, principally garden stories and some ‘light’ pieces about gardens (the garden world loves ‘light’ along with ‘lovely’) but also some articles about the sad lack of serious garden reviews in the garden press, newspapers and cultural magazines. I was told often that I would have no effect, but now I believe an impression has been made, some proper garden reviews written and it feels time to widen the debate. But I have mostly been dropped from writing the garden stories. “Too much baggage,” I’m told.

I get two messages from the world – a kind of excited encouragement from women. They tell me they love my writing, rely on my book reviews, they enthusiastically discuss the topics I raise in the garden world with me. Men? They say things like: “Stop being angry. You do yourself no good. People complain about you. People don’t like it.” Or they indulge me as a kind of oddity that they’re fond of but don’t know quite how to deal with.

I’ve been being told off and patronised all my life.. but then a friend points out that, although we all hate to think like this at all, this is a gender issue. And my sleeping tiger begins to wake up. How come my excitement and passion get described as ‘anger’? We’ve been here before, haven’t we, everyone? We know about this kind of stereotyping. We know how noisy women get demonised. It’s not news to women that you get strident when you’re sidelined and get sidelined when you’re strident. It goes with the territory. Easy to be nice if you have a voice and ‘respect’?

If I speak personally, vulnerably, lay open my questions and uncertainties in and about the garden world, I get patronised – or worse – because, as ‘every skool boy kno,’ being personal in that way is inviting the boot. See what crawls out from under the stone with the freedom of a blog. ‘Garden Monkey’ offers us this – “I shudder to use the word manifesto as that puts me in mind of all the Pseuds at thinkinGardens, in general, and Doris Bonkers in Wales in particular”. (no, I didn’t write our manifesto.) James Alexander-Sinclair describes me rather more elegantly but patronisingly as ‘cross’ and himself approvingly as ‘ranting’. A more sophisticated version is being told that I can’t admit to being sensitive and write gardens reviews as well. Masculine logic apparently says ‘you can’t dish it out if you can’t take it.’ Whoever said that criticism doesn’t hurt? Or that we might want to discuss the issues raised and that that is not ‘anger’?

Discussing this with women I am struck by how many of us recognise the issue when it’s raised but have actually reverted to the old pre 1960s ‘working round it’ – finding our ways to earn respect in our own right in spite of the problems and to deal with the dissing as gracefully as possible. But no-one I have spoken to has yet suggested that the garden world is not sexist.

Yet it is a world which is strangely dominated by a notion of ‘what women want’. The ‘light and lovely’ that I referred to above is everywhere and presumably directed at us, such gentle souls who do like pretty gardens and love ‘nature’. The publishers and advertisers at the back of our reading material have a very particular view of who we are.* And have we objected? Maybe not – but I know from my contacts with women gardeners, writers and designers that a great many of us are bored with that, feel alienated from it and even bewildered by it. But I don’t think we have recognised how dominated it is by a view of women that we could all do without.

It is empowering to recognise, once again, that we are not alone with these daily struggles, irritations and frustrations; with the predominance of men and their take on the garden world – indeed, their take of the garden world. This is not a call to victimhood: the world sees too much of that. It is a call to raise our consciousness once more and act where we can to redress the balance. To recognise some of the nature of the problem and not individualise it. And perhaps discover a female perspective on gardens and garden design that rises above the current stereotypes and moves us from ‘lovely’ and ‘light’ to exciting.

*A good many women are editors and subeditors in the garden world, but the constraints imposed by their publishers and advertisers are enormous and their work shouldn’t be taken as their ‘voice’.

(see also

Anne Wareham

Veddw House Garden website

Comment from Jo Eliot

VERY little of substance has changed since the mid 70s equal opportunities legislation; we have more women doctors but very few more women consultants, more women academics but very few more women professors, more women in management but very few more at CEO level.

As to the issue of language….

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Comment from Andrew Wilson

A fascinating subject indeed.

This is one that came up in discussion on one of my courses at Merrist Wood along the lines of “if there are so many women involved in garden design, gardening etc, how is it that most successful designers, teachers, writers etc are men!”

The answer of course is not straightforward and treads the minefield of equality and chauvinism.

Firstly, the agonising truth is that many women are far too self effacing or modest, ….

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Comment from Amanda Patton

I recently attended a meeting between designers and members of the Association of Professional Landscapers.  During the meeting, I commented to the group that I was surprised to find that all the designers were women and all the landscapers men, and in answer one of the designers said, “well you know why that is, don’t you?  Designers don’t earn enough to be able to support themselves.”

I have to confess I was shocked by the comment….

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Comment from Jane Stevens

Excellent reasoned responses so far and I cannot argue directly with anything that has been said.  But I would like to add a sideways look.

It seems to me that the domination of men in the garden design world has created its own aesthetic, heavy on the landscaped spaces, quick big trees and built environment.  This, coupled with the greater earning power of these kinds of works, has defined what is good….

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