The women came first - the first fruits of Dominic's preaching in Fanjeaux. This first monastery at Prouilhe, small distance north of Fanjeaux, was essentially a work of mercy on the part of Dominic. It was a practical response to an urgent pastoral need. He had converted a small group of Cathar women of Fanjeaux. These women had been given over to the Cathar as girls because their families were impoverished. The Cathar freely educated them and took care of them. Dominic founded what we today would call a safe house and these young women eventually formed a monastic congregation, with the help of donations of land and goods and willing lay helpers. In providing for these women, Dominic had no idea that he was playing into God's hands. God seems to enjoy working from small beginnings in mysterious ways!
The community at Prouilhe, begun in 1206, flourished and in 1219 was able to send eight sisters to help Dominic's second female community at San Sisto, Rome. The men came on the scene in 1215 when Dominic and six followers established a house in Toulouse, France. So, we see from the start, the Dominican order included both women and men. Dominic intended every one of his followers, be they men or women, to be for the holy preaching. Those not actually involved in public proclamation of the Gospel - the lay brothers and the women - embodied the material and spiritual foundations for the preaching endeavor. After spending days on the road, Dominic and his friars sat at the feet of the women, who then shared the fruits of their contemplation. Thus the first Dominican women preachers!