Ecofeminism is a term that links feminism with ecology. Its advocates say that paternalistic/capitalistic society has led to a harmful split between nature and culture. Early ecofeminists propagated that the split can only be healed by the feminine instinct for nurture and holistic knowledge of nature's processes. Modern ecofeminism, or feminist eco-criticism, eschews such essentialism and instead focuses more on intersectional questions, such as how the nature-culture split enables the oppression of female and nonhuman bodies. It is also an activist and academic movement that sees critical connections between the exploitation of nature and the domination over women both caused by men.
Ecofeminism describes movements and philosophies that link feminism with ecology. This movement seeks to eradicate all forms of social injustice, not just injustice against women and the environment. The term is believed to have been coined by the French writer Françoise d'Eaubonne in her book Le Féminisme ou la Mort (1974). From arguments that there are particular and significant connections between women and nature, ecofeminism relates the oppression and domination of all subordinate groups (women, people of color, children, the poor) to the oppression and domination of nature (animals, land, water, air, etc.). All of these subordinate groups have been subject to oppression, domination, exploitation, and colonization from the Western patriarchal society that emphasizes and values men. Ecofeminists believe that these connections are illustrated through traditionally "feminine" values such as reciprocity, nurturing and cooperation, which are present both among women and in nature.
Several feminists make the distinction that it is not because women are female or "feminine" that they relate to nature, but because of their similar states of oppression by the same male-dominant forces. The marginalization is evident in the gendered language used to describe nature and the animalized language used to describe women. Some discourses link women specifically to the environment because of their traditional social role as a nurturer and caregiver.
As there are several different types of feminism and different beliefs held by feminists, there are different versions of ecofeminism. Charlene Spretnak has argued that there are three main 'paths' to ecofeminism, and that they draw in a diverse group of people, which strengthens any movement, such as: 1) through the study of political theory as well as history; 2) through the belief and study of nature-based religions; 3) through environmentalism.
In the 1993 essay entitled "Ecofeminism: Toward Global Justice and Planetary Health" authors Greta Gaard and Lori Gruen outline what they call the "ecofeminist framework". The essay provides a wealth of data and statistics in addition to laying out the theoretical aspects of the ecofeminist critique. The framework described is intended to establish ways of viewing and understanding our current global situations so that we are better able to understand how we arrived at this point and what may be done to ameliorate the ills. The four sides of the frame are: the mechanistic materialist model of the universe that resulted from the scientific revolution and the subsequent reduction of all things into mere resources to be optimized, dead inert matter to be used; the rise of patriarchal religions and their establishment of gender hierarchies along with their denial of immanent divinity; self and other dualisms and the inherent power and domination ethic it entails; and capitalism and its intrinsic need for the exploitation, destruction and instrumentalization of animals, earth and people for the sole purpose of creating wealth. They hold that these four factors have brought us to what ecofeminists see as a "separation between nature and culture" that is the root source of our planetary ills.
Vandana Shiva says that women have a special connection to the environment through their daily interactions and this connection has been ignored. She says that women in subsistence economies who produce "wealth in partnership with nature, have been experts in their own right of holistic and ecological knowledge of nature's processes". She makes the point that "these alternative modes of knowing, which are oriented to the social benefits and sustenance needs are not recognized by the capitalistreductionist paradigm, because it fails to perceive the interconnectedness of nature, or the connection of women's lives, work and knowledge with the creation of wealth (23)". Shiva blames this failure on the West's patriarchy, and the patriarchal idea of what development is. According to Shiva, patriarchy has labeled women, nature, and other groups not growing the economy as "unproductive".
Ecofeminism was coined as a term in the 1970s. Women participated in the environmental movements, specifically preservation and conservation, much earlier, beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing into the early twentieth century, than this. Beginning in the late 20th century, women worked in efforts to protect wildlife, food, air and water. These efforts depended largely on new developments in the environmental movement from influential writers, such as Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and Rachel Carson. Fundamental examples of women's efforts in the 20th century are the books Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams. These works truly opened American's eyes to the environmental harm they were perpetuating, and created a platform for change.
Ecofeminist author Karren Warren lists Aldo Leopold's essay "Land Ethic" (1949) as a fundamental work to the ecofeminist conception, as Leopold was the first to pen an ethic for the land which understands all non-human parts of that community (animals, plants, land, air, water) as equal to and in a relationship with humans. This inclusive understanding of the environment launched the modern preservation movement and illustrated how issues can be viewed through a framework of caring.
Susan A. Mann an eco-feminist and professor of sociological and feminist theory considers the roles women played in these activisms to be the starter for ecofeminism in later centuries. Mann associates the beginning of ecofeminism not with feminists but with women of different race and class backgrounds who made connections among gender, race, class and environmental issues. This ideal is upheld through the notion that in activist and theory circles marginalized groups must be included in the discussion. In early environmental and women's movements, issues of varying races and classes were often separated.
Movements of the 1970s
In northern India in 1973, women took part in the Chipko movement to protect forests from deforestation. They clung to the trees in an act of peaceful protest so that loggers could not cut them down. These women demonstrated the importance of the environment to them, and were leaders as well as activists.
In Kenya in 1977, the Green Belt Movement was initiated by Professor Wangari Maathai, environmental and political activist, and is ongoing today. It is rural tree planting program led by women, which Maathai designed to help prevent desertification in the area. The program created a 'green belt' of at least 1,000 trees around villages, and gives participants the ability to take charge in their communities. In later years, the Green Belt Movement was an advocate for informing and empowering citizens through seminars for civic and environmental education, as well as holding national leaders accountable for their actions and instilling agency in citizens.
In 1978 in New York, mother and environmentalist Lois Gibbs led her community in protest after discovering that their entire neighborhood, Love Canal, was built on top of a toxic dump site. The toxins in the ground were causing illness among children and reproductive issues among women, as well as birth defects in babies born to pregnant women exposed to the toxins. The Love Canal movement eventually led to the evacuation and relocation of nearly 800 families by the federal government.
1980s and 1990s
After the beginning of the environmental movement in the early 1970s intersections among feminists and other social justice movements emerged. The feminists that took interests in these movements explored how oppressions were linked through gender, race, class and ecology, as well as species and ideas of nationhood. They took cues from Green Party politics, peace movements, and direct action movements. These feminists developed texts, such as Women and Nature (Susan Griffin 1978), The Death of Nature (Carolyn Merchant 1980) and Gyn/Ecology (Mary Daly 1978). These texts helped to propel the association between domination by man on women and the domination of culture on nature. From these texts feminist activism of the 1980s linked ideas of ecology and the environment. For example, conferences for women devoted to living on the earth and protests against nuclear testing and other militarism that oppresses femininity.
In 1980 and 1981, members of such a conference organized a peaceful protest at the pentagon. Women stood, hand in hand, demanding equal rights (including social, economic, and reproductive rights) as well as an end to militaristic actions taken by the government and exploitation of the community (people and the environment). This movement is known as the Women's Pentagon Actions.
In 1985, the Akwesasne Mother's Milk Project was launched by Katsi Cook. This study was funded by the government, and investigated how the higher level of contaminants in water near the Mohawk reservation impacted babies. It revealed that through breast milk, Mohawk children were being exposed to 200% more toxins than children not on the reservation. Toxins contaminate water all over the world, but to due environmental racism, certain subversive groups are exposed to a much higher amount.
The Greening of Harlem Coalition is another example of an ecofeminist movement. In 1989, Bernadette Cozart founded the coalition, which is responsible for many urban gardens around Harlem. Cozart's goal is to turn vacant lots into community gardens. This is economically beneficial, and also provides a way for very urban communities to be in touch with nature and each other. The majority of people interested in this project (as noted in 1990) were women. Through these gardens, they were able to participate in and become leaders of their communities. Urban greening exists in other places as well. Beginning in 1994, a group of African-American women in Detroit have developed city gardens, and call themselves the Gardening Angels. Similar garden movements have been occurring globally.
The development of vegetarian ecofeminism can be traced to the mid-80s and 90s, where it first appeared in writing. However, the roots of a vegetarian ecofeminist view can be traced back further by looking at sympathy for non-humans and counterculture movements of the 1960s and 1970s. At the culmination of the decade ecofeminism had spread to both coasts and articulated an intersectional analysis of women and the environment. Eventually, challenging ideas of environmental classism and racism, resisting toxic dumping and other threats to the impoverished.
In the 1980s and 1990s some began to see the advancing theories in ecofeminism as essentialist. Through analysis done by post structural and third wave feminists it was argued that ecofeminism equated women with nature. This dichotomy is dangerous because it groups all women into one category and enforces the very societal norms that feminism is trying to break. Out of this critique rose the anti-essentialist argument. Ecofeminist and author Noel Sturgeon says in an interview that what anti-essentialists are critiquing is a strategy used to mobilize large and diverse groups of both theorists and activists.
Coming out of the 90s, ecofeminism met a lot of criticism from anti-essentialist feminism, which heavily critiqued what they viewed as essentialism. The essentialist view saw ecofeminism as reinforcing and growing patriarchal dominance and norms. Feminist thoughts surrounding ecofeminism grew in some areas as it was criticized; vegetarian ecofeminism contributed intersectional analysis; and ecofeminisms that analyzed animal rights, labor rights and activisms as they could draw lines among oppressed groups. To some, the inclusion of non-human animals also became to be viewed as essentialist. According to ecofeminist and author Charlene Spretnak, modern ecofeminism is concerned about a variety of issues, including reproductive technology, equal pay and equal rights, toxic poisoning, Third World development, and more.
Ecofeminism as it propelled into the 21st century became aware of the criticisms, and in response ecofeminists with a materialist lens began doing research and renaming the topic, i.e. queer ecologies, global feminist environmental justice, and gender and the environment.
The major criticism of ecofeminism is that it is essentialist. The ascribed essentialism appears in two main areas:
- Adherence to strict dichotomy between men and women: Some eco-feminist critiques are that the dichotomy between women and men and nature and culture creates a dualism that is too stringent and focused in the difference of women and men. That eco-feminism too strongly correlates the social status of women with the social status of nature, rather than the non-essentialist view that women along with nature both have masculine and feminine qualities, and that just like feminine qualities have often been seen as less worthy, nature is also seen as having lesser value than culture, or the qualities involved in these concepts.
- Divergent view regarding participation in oppressive structures: As opposed to radical and liberation-based feminist movements, mainstream feminism which is most tightly bound with hegemonic social status strives to promote equality within the existing social and political structure, such as making it possible for women to occupy positions of power in business, industry and politics, using direct involvement as the main tactic for achieving pay equity and influence. In contrast, many ecofeminists oppose active engagement in these areas, as these are the very structures that the movement intends to dismantle.
Social ecologist and feminist Janet Biehl has criticized ecofeminism for focusing too much on a mystical connection between women and nature and not enough on the actual conditions of women. She has also stated that rather than being a forward-moving theory, ecofeminism is an anti-progressive movement for women.
Rosemary Radford Ruether also critiques this focus on mysticism over work that focuses on helping women, but argues that spirituality and activism can be combined effectively in ecofeminism.
A.E. Kings has criticized ecofeminism for limiting itself to focusing only on gender and the environment, and neglecting to take an intersectional approach. Kings says that ecofeminists claim to be intersectional, however have fallen short on their commitment until recently.
In Ecofeminism (1993) authors Vandana Shiva, Maria Mies and Evan Bondi ponder modern science and its acceptance as a universal and value-free system. Instead, they view the dominant stream of modern science as a projection of Western men's values. The privilege of determining what is considered scientific knowledge has been controlled by men, and for the most part of history restricted to men. Bondi and Miles list examples including the medicalization of childbirth and the industrialization of plant reproduction.
Bondi argues that the medicalization of childbirth has marginalized midwife knowledge and changed the natural process of childbirth into a procedure dependent on specialized technologies and appropriated expertise. A common claim within ecofeminist literature is that patriarchal structures justify their dominance through binary opposition, these include but are not limited to: heaven/earth, mind/body, male/female, human/animal, spirit/matter, culture/nature and white/non-white. Oppression is reinforced by assuming truth in these binaries and instilling them as 'marvelous to behold' through religious and scientific constructs.
The application of ecofeminism to animal rights has established vegetarian ecofeminism, which asserts that "omitting the oppression of animals from feminist and ecofeminist analyses […] is inconsistent with the activist and philosophical foundations of both feminism (as a "movement to end all forms of oppression") and ecofeminism." It puts into practice "the personal is political" for it believes that "meat-eating is a form of patriarchal domination…that suggests a link between male violence and a meat-based diet." Vegetarian ecofeminism combines sympathy with the analysis of culture and politics to refine a system of ethics and action.
Ecofeminism as materialist is another common theme in ecofeminism. A materialist view connects some institutions such as labor, power and property as the source of domination over women and nature. There are connections made between these subjects because similarly there are varying values in production and reproduction.
Spiritual ecofeminism is another branch of ecofeminism, and is popular among ecofeminist authors such as Starhawk, Riane Eisler, Carol J. Adams, and more. Starhawk calls this an earth-based spirituality, which recognizes that the Earth is alive, that we are interconnected, as well as a community. Spiritual ecofeminism is not linked to one specific religion, but is centered around values of caring, compassion, and non-violence. Often, ecofeminists refer to more ancient traditions, such as the worship of Gaia, the Goddess of nature and spirituality (also known as Mother Earth).
- Judi Bari – Bari was a member of the Earth First! movement and says she was targeted due to her womanhood.
- Françoise d'Eaubonne – Called upon women to lead an ecological revolution in order to save the planet. This entailed revolutionizing gender relations and human relations with the natural world.
- Greta Gaard – Greta Gaard is an American ecofeminist scholar and activist. Her major contributions to the field connect ideas of queer theory, vegetarianism, and animal liberation. Her major theories include ecocriticism which works to include literary criticism and composition to inform ecofeminism and other feminist theories to address wider range of social issues within ecofeminism. She is an ecological activist and leader in the U.S. Green Party, and the Green Movement.
- Sallie McFague – A prominent ecofeminist theologian, McFague uses the metaphor of God's body to represent the universe at large. This metaphor values inclusive, mutualistic and interdependent relations amongst all things.
- Carolyn Merchant – Historian of science who taught at Berkeley for many years. Her book The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution is a classic ecofeminist text.
- Mary Mellor – UK sociologist who moved to ecofeminist ideas from an interest in cooperatives. Her books - Breaking the Boundaries and Feminism and Ecology are grounded in a materialist analysis.
- Maria Mies – Mies is a Germansocial critic who has been involved in feminist work throughout Europe and India. She works particularly on the intersections of patriarchy, poverty, and the environment on a local and global scale.
- Val Plumwood – Val Plumwood, formerly Val Routley, was an Australian ecofeminist intellectual and activist, who was prominent in the development of radical ecosophy from the early 1970s through the remainder of the 20th century. In her works "Feminism and the Mastery of Nature" she describes the relationship of mankind and the environment relating to an eco-feminist ideology.
- Rosemary Radford Ruether – Has written 36 books and over 600 articles exploring the intersections of feminism, theology, and creation care.
- Ariel Salleh – Australian ecofeminist with a global perspective; a founding editor of the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism; author of two books and some 200 articles examining links with deep and social ecology, green politics and eco-socialism.
- Vandana Shiva – Shiva is a physicist, author, activist, feminist and philosopher from India. She was a participant in the Chipko movement of the 1970s, which used non-violent activism to protest and prevent deforestation in the GarhwalHimalayas of Uttarakhand, India then in Uttar Pradesh.
- Charlene Spretnak – Spretnak is an American writer largely known for her writing on ecology, politics and spirituality. Through these writings Spretnak has become a prominent ecofeminist. She has written many books which discuss ecological issues in terms of effects with social criticisms, including feminism. Spretnak works had a major influence in the development of the Green Party. She has also won awards based on her visions on ecology and social issues as well as feminist thinking.
- Starhawk – An American writer and activist Starhawk is known for her work in spiritualism and ecofeminism. She advocates for social justice in issues surrounding nature and spirit. These social justice issues fall under the scope of feminism and ecofeminism. She believes in fighting oppression through intersectionality and the importance of spirituality, eco consciousness and sexual and gender liberation.
- Douglas Vakoch – An American ecocritic whose edited volumes include Ecofeminism and Rhetoric: Critical Perspectives on Sex, Technology, and Discourse (2011),Feminist Ecocriticism: Environment, Women, and Literature (2012), and (with Sam Mickey) Ecofeminism in Dialogue (2018),Literature and Ecofeminism: Intersectional and International Voices (2018), and Women and Nature?: Beyond Dualism in Gender, Body, and Environment (2018).
- Karen Warren – received her B.A. in philosophy from the University of Minnesota (1970) and her Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 1978. Before her long tenure at Macalester College, which began in 1985, Warren was Professor of Philosophy at St. Olaf College in the early 1980s. Warren was the Ecofeminist-Scholar-in-Residence at Murdoch University in Australia. In 2003, she served as an Oxford University Round Table Scholar and as Women's Chair in Humanistic Studies at Marquette University in 2004. She has spoken widely on environmental issues, feminism, critical thinking skills and peace studies in many international locations including Buenos Aires, Gothenburg, Helsinki, Oslo, Manitoba, Melbourne, Moscow, Perth, the U.N. Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (1992), and San Jose.
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