Women of the Woods: Lizabeth Moniz

Here at Green Aspirations, we're all really committed to making sure that people - whoever they are - have access to nature. A massive part of that is encouraging women to explore wood-based activities as something for them, as a hobby and as a career choice. So, we thought we should share some stories with you about women who have done just that. Our first profile is all about Lizabeth Moniz, a timber framer based in Vermont. Here's what she had to say.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I live in central Vermont, USA and am a self-employed carpenter, landscape designer and a carpentry/ woodworking/ permaculture/ tiny house design/build/ box-making/ timber framing instructor at a design/build school along with other educational institutions. My partner Skip and I bought land twenty some years ago, built a small cabin and lived in that while we started building our house. We built our own timber frame house and created a homestead with a vegetable garden that is much too big for 2 people, berry bushes, a small orchard, and many perennial beds. As well as our own home, I've built small out buildings, tiny homes, regular homes, and everything in between. Each building is a custom build according to what the client wants.

Have you always wanted to work as a timber framer?

I knew from a young age, around 9 years old, that I wanted to build my own house. I was always doing crafty things as a kid, working with my hands. In high school, I had my sights set on taking a wood shop class. When I went to sign up, I was told girls couldn't take shop, so I approached the principal of the school, told her that it was unfair, and I got to take the shop class that I had been waiting so long for.

A few years after high school, I was accepted into a carpentry apprenticeship and learned from a wonderful gentleman the basics of building. All of us apprentices were then given jobs with local contractors in the community. The contractor that I worked for didn't end up working out for me, and I ended up going to university to study woodworking and furniture design. At the time, I was also working in cabinet shops and a custom furniture shop, learning finer woodworking and furniture making techniques. I did take some jobs doing carpentry here and there, but my past experience with the previous contractor made me quite skittish.

After finishing university with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, I travelled a bit and then joined the Peace Corps and headed to Lesotho and southern Africa for 3 years, where I taught in a women's vocational school, travelled a lot, and really broadened my horizons in so many ways.

I moved back to the States, this time to the state of Vermont, and soon found work on a carpentry crew. The guys that I worked with here were much more similar in ways of thinking to me than the guys that I had worked with doing carpentry before. And amazingly, we also hired another woman to work with our crew. All the while, Skip and I were saving as much money as possible to buy land so that we could build our home.

What motivated you to become a timber framer?

My first job at 12 years old was bartering for horseback riding lessons by cleaning stalls. During that time, I started to notice more old barns and also my family moved to an old farmhouse with a timber framed barn. I spent a lot of time in that barn and without knowing why, really loved the structure. It felt like home. I think that's when it started. Then a few years later, I tore a picture out of a magazine of a timber framed barn that had been converted into a house. I loved the mass of the structure, the light that was streaming into the space, the beauty of the craft, and just the feel of home. I put that picture into my school dictionary and still have it to this day. Like I mentioned, I had always wanted to build my own house, and this style felt right to me. I've also always been intrigued by traditional crafts and being able to create what I need with hand tools, good skills, and maybe even horses to help. I've always wanted to live close to the land and be as self-sufficient as possible.

Timber framing has seen a huge resurgence in the States, especially in the northeast, so you are seeing a lot more timber frames being built. When I first started doing carpentry, learning timber framing wasn't really an option as I was living just outside of Washington DC in a pretty urban location. There were some places in rural areas that had either kept the craft alive or were seeing more of a call for timber framing.

What challenges have you faced as a women working in framing?

Wow, where do I start? When I first became a carpenter's helper at 21, you just didn't see women on the job site. I put up with a lot of sexist comments. I was watched a lot to see if I knew what I was doing. There were also times that it was clear that I was just not welcome. So most of the time, I just really focused on my work, did a good job, and showed all those who were watching me, either blatantly or slyly, that yes indeed, women can also work in the trades and hold their own. I did end up getting so annoyed at my first boss because of some demeaning, sexist comment, that I threw my hammer at him. It didn't hit him, and he thought it was funny. Needless to say, I didn't work with him much longer!

After that, I felt that the job site was not the place for me and I went to university to study woodworking and furniture design. I worked in cabinet shops in the evenings and weekends when not in class. I had a really kind and patient teacher that owned one of the custom furniture shops that took me on as an apprentice and I learned so much from him. And there were a couple of building jobs that I did with a couple of guys that I knew and had worked with, so I eased back onto the job site.

Now, my friend Patti and I usually work together on a build. We have worked and taught together for about 20 years, know each others' rhythm and strengths, and aren't afraid to ask each other for help. It makes it easy and comfortable. We still work with crews with guys on the job, however it's really funny when they first show up to see 2 women running the job, or have a lumber delivery when the driver is obviously looking for the man in charge.

Still to this day, when I am working around men that I haven't worked around, I am watched to see if I know what I am doing. It's rather amusing now, whereas it really used to be a pain. I guess my perspective has changed, folks are more used to women on the jobsite, or both. I love seeing more women on job sites.

Do you think being a woman gives you a different perspective at work?

I do. I think that I look at things a bit differently than men; what makes a house a home, what detailing will look like, what the inside and outside space will feel like, your experience of moving through the space, etc. I know that lots of men think about these things too, however, men and women are socialized differently and I feel that reflects in the thought process and the eventual product.

Knowing that I am not as strong as most men, I have learned to work smarter and think things through a bit more instead of trying to go into things using brute force. Also, I am not afraid to ask for help moving something, cutting something, etc. Working with women, there is a more cooperative feel and space. Of course some men are extremely aware and cooperative. However, generally speaking, I find it easier to work with women as there isn't the dynamic present that occurs between men and women. Don't get me wrong, I like working with men and have had and still have great experiences doing so.

I also feel that I consider clients feelings a bit more. I really try and dig deep before designing to get at the heart of what they want, and what they want the space to provide for them. Time with this process of really figuring all of that out, I feel has paid off and really makes for a better design overall.

What is the best thing about your job?

The best thing is having the skills to build pretty much any wooden building or piece of furniture that I can envision. I also like having a physical job where I use my body and keep it strong. I like working outside, and where I live, it's very rural, so I get to spend a lot of time surrounded by nature.

Another great thing, is when I teach carpentry or woodworking, watching the students gain confidence over the week or so of class, and them realizing that they have helped create a building, or have built themselves a beautiful piece of furniture. They leave the class with new-found skills knowing that they don't need to ask someone else to do something for them. They now have the skills to do it themselves. I taught carpentry in a woman's prison for a couple of years, and to see women that couldn't even look you in the eye and their body language all closed down, go from that to see them smile, laugh, look at me in the eye, and believe in themselves was one of the most powerful transitions that I've ever watched. They just needed someone to believe in them so that they could believe in themselves.

What advice would you give to other women who might be thinking about working in timber framing?

Most importantly, find a good and respectful person or crew that you can work with and learn from. There needs to be patience in the teaching of the craft and good, clear explanations. Ultimately, you need to feel comfortable in a shop or on a job site. Don't compromise yourself or your safety, physically or spiritually. Try to find another women's crew if that would be most comfortable. Don't take ANY shit! I learned the hard way and not everyone needs to experience that. Follow your heart. There will be some challenging times. However, you have just as much right to follow your dreams as anyone else.

If you're interested in honing your skills, check out our Axe Maidens volunteer group. We'll (hopefully) be starting a new project soon. You can find out more about Lizabeth and her classes online here: https://yestermorrow.org/about/people/lizabeth-moniz. Her landscape design business is http://flyingmammoths.com/.

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