As the effects of climate change threaten the earth, it is increasingly clear that women are disproportionately affected when compared with men worldwide.
From the scholarly corners of the world, ecofeminism, which places a feminist lens onto environmental issues has reemerged. With a name that is merely a combination of ecology and feminism, on the surface it appears to be a movement for women concerned about the environment. But it is a bit more complicated than that.
Renowned ecofeminist, Vandana Shiva, once said that “ecofeminism is a good term for distinguishing a feminism that is ecological from the kind of feminisms that have become extremely technocratic.”
Then she added, “I would even call them very patriarchal.”
Wait. Patriarchal feminism? How is that even possible?
And what exactly is ecofeminism?
To learn more about ecofeminism, I spoke with two prominent ecofeminist activists and scholars.
What is Ecofeminism?
Simply put, ecofeminism is a feminist movement that focuses on the parallels between the oppression of nature and animals and the oppression of women.
It is the belief that capitalism and industrial development are a reflection of patriarchal values, that the same power structures that restrict the autonomy of women and other marginalized people are also responsible for issues like factory farming and, ultimately, climate change.
Ecofeminists believe there is a direct relationship between the serious environmental damage done to the earth and the repression of women. It is through the analysis of this relationship that ecofeminism creates a unique focus on matters of environmental justice, for instance, how climate change disproportionately affects women more than men around the world.
“Your evolution as a feminist is to realize that feminism isn’t just talking about men and women,” Carol J. Adams, an ecofeminist activist and author, told Public Goods. “It’s talking about gendered relationships wherever they are found.”
Greta Gaard, ecofeminist scholar and documentary filmmaker, explained that “ecofeminism is the understanding that women’s liberation is entangled with the liberation of all racial, gendered, sexual and ecological ‘others’ because, in heteropatriarchal cultures, the oppressed are feminized — which means being seen as less rational and less fully human.”
She believes our society has created a separation between nature and culture, which has caused “an endless amount of planetary ills.”
Ecofeminism seeks to close the gap.
The Origin Story of Ecofeminism
According to Gaard, “when ecofeminism was initially articulated is anyone’s guess.” If we look at women’s activism over the last 200 years, there’s a wealth of writing, gardening, nature explorations, environmental justice work, species defense and advocacy that all express what has become known as ecofeminism.
In their book, “Ecofeminism,” Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies explain ecofeminism as “a new term for an ancient wisdom.” As a movement, ecofeminism emerged as the natural culmination between the various social movements of the late 70s and early 80s: the feminist, peace, and ecology movements.
The first ecofeminism conference was held in the U.S. in 1980. “Women and Life on Earth: A Conference on Eco-Feminism in the 80s” was organized following the accident at Three Mile Island, a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. Six hundred women were in attendance.
Activist Ynestra King, one of the conference organizers, wrote about her belief that the “devastation of the earth” by corporations and the “threat of nuclear annihilation” by various militaries were a result of the “same masculinist mentality” that denies women the right to their own bodies and their own sexuality.
Through this language, ecofeminists began to cohesively connect all of the gears of the patriarchy.
Long before ecofeminism became an organized movement, concern for environmental matters by women is noted as far back as the beginning of the 19th century. Rachel Carson’s well-known book, “Silent Spring,” launched the environmental movement. According to Gaard, however, Carson’s personal and professional feminism is “almost unmentioned, overshadowed by the more visible and self-identified feminists of the 1960s.”
The term, ecofeminism, was first coined by French feminist Françoise d’Eaubonne in 1974 in her book, “Le Féminisme ou la Mort,” where she argued that Western patriarchal oppression, domination, exploitation and colonialization had caused irreversible environmental damage.
Following this text came a number of essential ecofeminist texts, including Susan Griffin’s “Women and Nature,” Mary Daly’s “Gyn/Ecology” (both in 1978) and Carolyn Merchant’s “The Death of Nature” in 1980.
Joining with the antinuclear protests and the peace movement, ecofeminism linked militarism, corporatism and unsustainable energy production as patriarchal structures used to oppress women and other marginalized people.
When Bernadette Cozart formed the Greening of Harlem Coalition in 1989, she advocated for gardens and public schools and believed in the power of turning vacant lots and rooftops into gardens and parks in Harlem’s neighborhoods. Around this same time, throughout the world, other feminists began to explore the notions of patriarchal effects on plants and animals.
Gaard recalled, “I began developing, writing, and teaching ecofeminist theory when I found nothing existed in feminism, in political science, in environmental studies that expressed the views I held. All branches of feminism were very human-centered; environmentalism was not only sexist and racist, but also colonialist and speciesist.”
In the 1980s, when she presented her views to other feminists, which she said, “seemed to me to be the unfolding and fulfillment of feminism in viewing more-than-human relations with plants, animals, and other diverse humans as interconnected — those feminist colleagues shut me down.”
It wasn’t until the 1989 National Women’s Studies Conference that she was able to meet other women who felt the same way. At the same time, the first anthologies of ecofeminism were slowly appearing.
“Ecofeminism is a movement,” Gaard said in support of these anthologies. “It’s about a global community of feminists offering a more ecological way of seeing, thinking, interacting. It isn’t a show of scholarly stars.”
The idea that humans’ need to control the environment is reflective of men’s need to control women or the elites’ need to control the poor was the concise explanation of oppression that people were looking for. Ecofeminism at that time seemed to be the answer.
“Many believed ecofeminism would become feminism’s third wave: building on and transforming the anthropocentric critiques of first- and second- wave feminisms with an ecological perspective,” Gaard wrote in her article, “Ecofeminism Revisited.” Then she added, “but what happened was something entirely different.”
By the end of the 1990s, “ecofeminism was critiqued as essentialist and effectively discarded.”
Branches of Ecofeminism and The Essentialist Backlash
From ecofeminism, came several branches of thought:
- Liberal/radical ecofeminism – This term was used for ecofeminism with a focus on environmentalism and seeking change through legislation and improved regulations.
- Socialist/materialist ecofeminism – Through the study of political theory and history, socialist or materialist ecofeminism examines how the patriarchal structure of capitalism turns both women and nature into commodities.
- Spiritual/cultural ecofeminism – This branch included the study of nature-based spirituality and focused on the values of caring, compassion and nonviolence. In her book, “Earthcare: Women and the Environment,” Carolyn Merchant explained that “cultural ecofeminism celebrates the relationship between women and nature through the revival of ancient rituals centered on goddess worship, the moon, animals, and the female reproductive system.”
It was this focus on a mystical connection between women and nature by cultural ecofeminists that would lead to critics accusing all ecofeminists as being anti-progressive for women.
It’s impossible to talk about ecofeminism without exploring the major criticism that nearly ended the movement. That is, that “ecofeminism is essentialist.”
Essentialism refers to the view that certain categories of people (for example, women and people of the same race) have an unchanging ‘essence’ or true nature. Essentialists believe that feminine and masculine traits are the result of either biology or brains, and reject the concept of non-binary gender.
In a gender essentialist’s view, men are less emotional and women are less rational. It is this belief in deep-rooted, unalterable traits and abilities that has created fixed mindsets, close-mindedness, and posed the greatest barrier for progress for women and other marginalized people throughout history.
To be accused of essentialism proved nearly fatal for ecofeminism.
“By 2010, it was nearly impossible to find a single essay, much less a section, devoted to issues of feminism and ecology (and certainly not ecofeminism), species, or nature in most introductory anthologies used in women’s studies, gender studies, and queer studies,” Gaard wrote.
Anti-essentialist criticism claimed ecofeminism reinforced patriarchal concepts by equating women with nature. Using terms like “Mother Earth” and other gendered language for nature forced all women into the same “feminine” category, one of nurturers and caregivers, and reinforced the exact societal norms that feminists were trying so hard to break.
These charges of gender essentialism, though “accurately leveled at cultural feminism,” were not true of the entire movement. This is an old oppressor’s tactic: latching onto an action or belief of a group or movement and then lumping every aspect of it together to discount it wholesale.
You can see it used today by people who refer to Black Lives Matter protestors as “rioters,” summarily dismissing an entire movement. For these types of critics, it never matters how much evidence there is to the contrary or to the validity of their arguments.
Gaard wrote that “the charges against ecofeminists as essentialist, ethnocentric, anti-intellectual goddess-worshippers who mistakenly portray the earth as female or issue totalizing and ahistorical mandates for worldwide veganism…have been disproven again and again.”
She argued that critics were mistaken. Ecofeminism does not see a connection between women and nature because both are female or “feminine,” but rather because both women and nature experience similar oppression. As women are seen as lesser to men, so nature is to culture.
“We have feminized nature through terms like ‘Mother Earth,’ ‘love your mother,’ and ‘rape of the earth,” she explained.
Our world has feminized nature in such a way that it exists opposite to and differentiated from humanity.
“Humans, on the other hand,” she told me, “have been defined via Western philosophical traditions as the autonomous person who is really in man’s image — a white, upper-middle-class, property-owning, man.”
Ecofeminism and Non-Humans
One criticism of mainstream feminism by ecofeminists is that it is human-centered (anthropocentric). Although practicing veganism or vegetarianism is fairly common today, concern for animals (non-humans) is a relatively new concept in our culture, with sympathy for animals first arising in the counterculture movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
“Few scholars point out the feminist resistance to acknowledging that feminists can still be oppressors to other women (via race and class privilege) and of other female animals,” Gaard wrote.
Factory farming, for instance, relies on the exploitation of the female animals, whether that be through the production of cow’s milk or the egg-laying of hens.
“Ecofeminism is very activist-oriented,” Adams said. “It’s recognizing all the ways that the patriarchal attitude toward everything that’s non-human needs to be changed, and that requires activism.”
Her book, “The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory,” is an example of that activism, in which she showed the importance of viewing animal agriculture through a feminist perspective. Once you do that, according to her, you will be able to recognize the way patriarchal attitudes are functioning there.
Adams has been invited onto many college campuses to share her “Sexual Politics of Meat” slide show. Through the images she has curated over the years, she shows how animals who are being consumed are frequently depicted as female and sexualized in our culture.
Adams explained that manhood is constructed in our culture in part by control of other bodies, whether it’s women or animals, and that there is an image of male dominance through every meal of dead animals or the consumption of milk and eggs.
“It’s a part of our cultural tapestry without us even realizing it,” Adams told me. For her, meat-eating has become a patriarchal act.
But this connection between the treatment of women and animals can be seen in places other than meat-eating and factory farming. Tracking a connection between domestic violence and animal cruelty, Adams analyzed a relationship between the two in her article “Woman Battering and Harm to Animals.” According to her, both are a form of control and the pets of battered women were often abused and/or used to emotionally manipulate the women. Another small study of women escaping domestic violence situations found that in 71% of the cases, their partner had threatened, hurt or even killed one or more of their pets.
In the early 90s, many women’s shelters would not take animals, so Adams began fostering the pets of domestic violence victims. Since that time, more people have recognized the link between domestic violence and animal cruelty, and today 32 states (as well as D.C. and Puerto Rico) have enacted laws that include pets in domestic violence protection orders. Adams describes this progress as “a huge move forward.”
Ecofeminism and Climate Change
Gaard describes climate change as “white industrial-capitalist hetero male supremacy on steroids.”
Ecofeminists believe that climate change and first-world overconsumption are both fueled by a masculinist ideology with inherent connections between the domination of nature and exploitation of women.
In 2012, the United Nations Inter-Agency Task Force on Rural Women estimated that 60 percent of chronically hungry people worldwide were women and girls while less than 20 percent of the world’s landholders were women.
Inequities are produced through gendered social roles, discrimination and poverty making women more vulnerable to the effects of climate change and natural disasters. And even though women are more likely to be severely affected, women worldwide are still prevented from participating in decision making in regards to climate change.
These gender inequalities mean women and children are 14 times more likely to die in ecological disasters than men. In her article, “Ecofeminism and Climate Change,” Gaard provides several examples of this inequality. For instance, in the 1991 cyclone and flood in Bangladesh, a shocking 90% of the victims were women. The reasons for this include a lack of information sent to homes and the literal weight of caregiving responsibilities as women tried to escape while caring for their children and elderly family members. Similarly, in the 2004 tsunami in Aceh, Sumatra, more than 75% of the deaths were women.
In short, climate change exacerbates pressures on marginalized people.
The Bottom Line
Ecofeminism poses the question, “Is your feminism intersectional enough?”
Mainstream feminism in the new millennium has thankfully moved from a focus on “white women’s issues” to include the intersectionality of race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age and ability. However, focusing primarily on human categories with little concern for the environment creates a type of feminism that is decidedly humanist.
Ecofeminism, on the other hand, allows us to better recognize the common cause of oppression across the boundaries of race, class, gender, sexuality, species, age, ability and nation.
According to Gaard, there is a need to shift from “women as individuals” to “gender as a system structuring power relations.” When we do that, we will begin to see the interconnectedness of these issues and why they matter to all of us:
- global gender justice
- climate justice
- sustainable agriculture
- healthy and affordable housing
- food security
- indigenous rights
- and more
“I think the thing about ecofeminism is that it’s a sort of dual consciousness,” Adams explained. “You’re interrogating or thinking about things from both an environmental and a feminist perspective. It’s going to take you to a different place – in terms of understanding oppression.”
Ecofeminism: Next Steps
Ecofeminism is a contextual theory, which means we have to look at the context in which we’re living.
“Ecofeminism will vary from person to person, and from year to year, “Adams said. “Deeply implicated in ecofeminism is that everyone’s context matters, so there is no blanket ‘do this’ or ‘read that.’”
With those guidelines in mind, the following are suggestions of actions you can take.
Ecofeminist Actions You Can Take
- Read some of the books/articles referenced in this article.
- Support global feminist organizations such as the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) that advocates for human rights, gender equality and climate justice; the Women’s Earth Alliance that catalyzes women-led grassroots solutions for the environment; Women’s Voices for the Earth that amplifies women’s voices
to eliminate chemicals harmful to women’s health.
- Support national women’s groups, such as Silent Spring Institute and Breast Cancer Action, that bring a feminist environmental perspective to all aspects of breast cancer research and prevention, from corporate profits to environmental contaminates to “pink washing.”
- Try adopting a plant-based diet. “If you’re in the United States, work toward becoming a vegan,” Adams suggested. “By doing so “you’re immediately lowering your ‘hoof print’ on the earth, and that’s important.”
- Shop sustainably and research whether the companies you support are helping or hurting the environment or animals.
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