There is no single definition of ecofeminism, and ecofeminists may well disagree with at least some of explanations I give in this section, but there are core principles. Ecofeminists agree that the domination of women and the domination of nature are fundamentally connected and that environmental efforts are therefore integral with work to overcome the oppression of women.
The primary aims of ecofeminism are not the same as those typically associated with liberal feminism. Ecofeminists do not seek equality with men as such, but aim for a liberation of women as women. Central to this liberation is a recognition of the value of the activities traditionally associated with women; childbirth, nurturing and the whole domestic arena. Some feminists have criticized ecofeminism for reinforcing oppressive stereotypes and for its tendency toward essentialism.
Women and nature
In Western society women are treated as inferior to men, ‘nature’ is treated as inferior to ‘culture’, and humans are understood as being separate from, and often superior to, the natural environment.
Throughout our history nature is portrayed as feminine and women are often thought of as closer to nature than men. Women’s physiological connection with birth and child care have partly led to this close association with nature. The menstrual cycle, which is linked to Lunar cycles, is also seen as evidence of women’s closeness to the body and natural rhythms. Our cultural image of the ‘premenstrual woman’ as irrational and overemotional typifies this association between women, the body, nature and the irrational.
Ecofeminists focus on these connections, and analyses how they devalue and oppress both ‘women’ and ‘nature’.
Ecofeminism believes that Patriarchal society is built on four interlocking pillars; sexism, racism, class exploitation and environmental destruction. Ecofeminist analysis reveals that it’s not only women who are portrayed as being ‘closer to nature’; oppressed races and social classes have also been closely associated with nature.
The author of ‘What is Ecofeminism?’ writes:
“Gender, class, race and nature all must be theorized together if we are to finally move beyond these oppressions…By being aware of how oppression focuses on embodiment we can also theorize other related oppressions such as those against the aged, the disabled and against alternative sexualities. The potential then for ecofeminism to be a radically inclusive liberation theory are considerable.”
Ecofeminism has made a particularly useful analysis of power relations, and rejects any form of hierarchy. The emphasis is on shared power, finding our own ‘power-from-within’ rather than needing to impose the manipulation and control of ‘power-over’. For more on power relations see Starhawk .
Most forms of ecofeminism rely on a historical analysis of ideology. According to this analysis, the oppression of nature and women emerged with a Western ideology called patriarchy which arose roughly 5,000 years ago.
Western patriarchal thinking is based on ‘dualism’, a world view that orders the world by dividing it into opposed pairs of concepts: Mind is split from body, spirit from matter, male from female, culture from nature. One concept in each pair is deemed superior to the other.
This ‘other’ is sometimes demonized and always discriminated against. Concepts on both sides are bound into complex relationships which become mutually reinforcing. Groups that are oppressed in our society are often associated with the body rather than than the mind and may be portrayed as intuitive but overemotional.
The classic form of this paradigm creates a hierarchy of value as follows:
This hierarchy clearly shows the common prejudices of sexism and speciesism. Many aspects of racism, classism and imperialism operate through this same hierarchy.
The patriarchal belief system valorizes ‘male’ qualities of reason and analysis and characterizes intuitive, emotional ‘female’ qualities as passive, weak and irrational and therefore inferior. Qualities such as passivity, weakness and irrationality are not in themselves bad, but they are within the ideology of Patriarchal dualism. It can be educational to note our own feelings about such qualities.
Some theorists have suggested that this degrading of the ‘other’ is driven by fear of nature and mortality, and because of their biological connection with birth women are a constant reminder of death.
According to Rosemary Radford Reuther it was the invention of the concepts of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ that allowed man to degraded the former.
“It defines nature as a reality below and separated from ‘man’, rather than one nexus in which humanity itself is inseparably embedded”.
Ecofeminism demands a radical critique of the categories of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ together with an affirmation of the degraded partner in all the patriarchal dualities. ‘Female’ qualities such as co-operation, nurturing, being supportive, nonviolent and sensual are especially appropriate for creating an environmentally aware society.
Some ecofeminists believe that traditional ‘male’ qualities like competitiveness, individuality, assertiveness, leadership, and intellectuality, are valuable in appropriate contexts and should be integrated with ‘female’ qualities in a balance person.
The feminist critique of patriarchy is not just an intellectual attack on men. Most feminists, though not all, do not see men as ‘the enemy’. Patriarchy is a particular way of thinking which can used by any gender and ecofeminism can be a common ground for both sexes.
“In Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, Val Plumwood identified a pattern of dualistic thinking that permeates some cultures and is implicated in their destructive attitudes toward nature. Dualistic thinking involves setting up two.
Plumwood characterized dualistic thinking is “an alienated form of differentiation, in which power construes and constructs difference in terms of an inferior and alien realm” (42). Subsequent Plumwood blames dualistic thinking for creating “logics of colonization.” Ecofeminist Karen Warren gives dualistic thinking a similarly central role in supporting “oppressive conceptual frameworks.” [ “Power and Promise.” Warren, Karen. “The Power and Promise of Ecological Feminism.” Environmental ethics 12 (summer 1990): 125-146]. [Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. London: Routledge, 1993]”.
The Self and the ‘other’
A closely related critique focuses on the disconnected ‘sense of self’ which typifies modern consciousness. Ecofeminists argue that men tend to view the world in terms of a self-contained self and a separate ‘other’ that is the world. The world is analyzed into discrete units with the self ‘in here’ & everything else ‘out there’.
“We are separate, unconnected, & the boundaries are set by that Sacred Cow of the West, the big ‘I am ‘, the ego…Each of us occupies a little box, & most of us remain shut up inside our heads for our entire lives.”
Adrian Harris, ‘Sacred Ecology’.(Also see Eco-Spirituality)
This analytic mind-set encourages the notion that the natural world is simply a mechanical system that humans can exploit. Because women are also viewed as ‘other’, they are also manipulated and control.
Ecofeminism emphasizes the interdependence of all life, humanity’s role as part of the earth’s ecosystem, and the non-hierarchical nature of a system in which all parts affect each other are emphasized to counteract relationships dominated by values of control and oppression.
The question of Essentialism
Ecofeminists disagree about whether these ‘male’ and ‘female’ qualities are innate to the sexes or are simply human character traits common to us all.
Most feminists believe that soft ‘female’ qualities are socially imposed as part of a patriarchal strategy of oppression, but ecofeminists seek a positive re-evaluation of them:
“Women’s values, centered around life giving, must be revalued… We know how to feel for others because we have been socialized that way.”
Judith Plant, ‘Women and Nature’
Plant believes that men have been alienated from the domestic world which “nurtures all who participate” (ibid.), and need to embrace that dimension of life.
Katherine Davies and other ecofeminists argue that though there is a deep connection between women and nature, it is socially created. Revaluing this bond is important, but it is also vital to change relationships between men and women and between men and nature.
Most ecofeminists believe that men have as much potential as women to adopt a deeper environmental awareness, but they will need to work harder to fully embrace those values.
“I find it more useful to think of the whole range of human possibilites – aggression, nurture, compassion, cruelty, creativity, passivity, etc – as available to us all, not divided by gender, neither inner nor outer”
Starhawk, ‘The Spiral Dance’, (revised edition) p.215
But ‘Cultural’ (‘Radical’) feminists, some of whom embrace ecofeminism, disagree. Cultural feminism believes that women are in essence more nurturing, peaceful, co-operative and closer to nature than men. Mary Daly encourages women only areas, and believes that if women align themselves with ‘feminine nature’ they will be able to create spaces that are free of patriarchal influence. (See Mary Daly, ‘Gyn/Ecology’).
Many ecofeminists believe that there was a time before written history, some 250,000 years ago, when cooperation, not competition, was valued. During this period female deities were widely worshipped and societies were more women-centered.
Ecofeminist believe we can learn from these pre-patriarchal societies.
Although most ecofeminist see patriarchy as the root cause of dysfunctional human behavior, theorists like Chellis Glendinning believe that that our separation from nature goes back some 20,000 years ago to the time when humans shifted from being a gatherer/hunter culture to domesticating plants and animals.
Other ecofeminists focus on the ideological shift that occurred during the 18th Century European Enlightenment. Carolyn Merchant (see’The Death of Nature’) describes how the organic cosmology that had helped protect nature for centuries was overturned by the scientific and cultural revolutions of the Enlightenment. She focuses on the emergence over last two hundred years of a scientific, technological and capitalist ideology obsessed with ‘progress’.
Judith Plant believes that pre-industrial Western society used organic metaphors to explain self, society and nature. These metaphors served as ‘cultural constraints’ because the earth was understood as alive. (See ‘Women and Nature’). The scientific revolution of the Enlightenment replaced these organic metaphors with mechanical ones. The Universe was no longer understood as a living organism, but as a machine, and nature became perceived purely as a resource for human use. (For a deep analysis of the concept of nature as a resource see Heidegger.)
Given the ecofeminist respect for non-linear, non-rational, emotional understanding, it’s not surprising that spirituality is a core element. Most religions are considered to be patriarchal and often exemplify the way humankind aims to transcend nature through the realm of culture. Mainstream religions portray God as a transcendent being, somehow beyond this world.
Goddess spirituality (see Neo-Paganism), which typically believes in an immanent Deity, has influenced some branches of ecofeminism. For more on Goddess spirituality see Starhawk.
Bioregionalism is advocated by some ecofeminists as a practical way forward. Ecofeminists thought has had significant interactions with Deep Ecology.
Ecofeminism proposes three core premises:
- The oppression of women and the domination of nature are fundamentally connected.
- This is because patriarchal dualism places women and the concept ‘Nature’ in the same classification, which is deemed to be of less worth than the ‘Culture/Masculine’ classification.
- Therefore any process that makes humanity more ecologically aware must also overcome the oppression of women.
Branches of Ecofeminism hold several subsidiary premises to be true.
In each subsection I’ll ask a question relevant to a specific topic or premise.
- Is patriarchal dualism at the root of ecological destruction and women’s oppression?
- Is ecofeminist dualism itself oppressive?
- Are women closer to nature than men?
- Are men more alienated from nature?
- Is ecofeminism sexist?
- Does ecofeminism conflict with feminism?
- Is there a feminine essence?
- Are feminist definitions valid?
- Did pre-patriachal culture ever exist?
- Would a pre-patriachal culture be better than patriarchy?
Is patriarchal dualism at the root of ecological destruction and women’s oppression?
What ecofeminists call ‘patriarchal dualism’ is very ancient and very widespread. It is certainly not restricted to the Western civilizations which cause so much environmental destruction. Significantly, most indigenous tribal societies, many of whom are held to be exemplary in their ecological awareness, hold very similar notions about masculine and feminine.
Anthropological research shows that there is no correlation between patriarchal dualism and the social status of women. David Maybury-Lewis writes:
“…a very sexist cosmology can flourish where sex roles are not hierarchical, but egalitarian and competitive”.
‘Millennium’, page 133.
So it’s arguable that some societies are ecological, Earth-honouringand don’t oppress women, but do have sexist cosmologies similar to Western patriarchal dualism.
But it seems that dualism itself is not the problem. It is at the heart of Chinese Taoist philosophy which Peter Marshall claims as “the first and most impressive expression of libertarian ecology” (page 22, ‘Natures Web’.)
The key may lie in understanding that there are different ways of ordering ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ dualities: The Bara people of Madagascar associate the male principle with enduring order, represented by the human skeleton, and the female principle with flesh which represents growth, vitality and change. “The male principle is associated, for a change with death and the female one with life” (page 132, ‘Millennium’, David Maybury-Lewis.)
There are many Goddesses who possess ‘masculine’ qualities. A good example is Morrighan, the bloodthirsty and lustful Irish war Goddess.
Is ecofeminist dualism itself oppressive?
Ecofeminism appears to have no problem with the classification of humans into two distinct groups with definite qualities. It is the way that patriarchy uses dualism that is at issue. Ecofeminist seems to propose an alternative dualism that values both ‘Natural’ and ‘Cultural’ aspects.
But is this ecofeminist dualism too analytical and reductionist? Is is legitimate to classify all the diversity of human life into two distinct groups?
Some feminists and ecofeminists use the persecution of Medieval witches as an example of patriarchal oppression:
“The reaction against the disorder of nature symbolized by women was directed…at lower class witches.”
Carolyn Merchant, ‘The Death of Nature’
But at least 20% of those witches were men, and it seems as likely that their persecution was because they were a marginal group who did not fit into the cultural duality of the time. If this is so, then an ecofeminist dualism could have been equally oppressive.
Queer theory probably offers the strongest critique of ecofeminist dualism, and may paradoxically offer enormous insights to progress the broader project of social transformation.
Are women closer to nature than men?
If ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ are social constructions in what sense do feminine qualities belong to women?
Similarly, if ‘Nature’ and ‘Culture’ are social constructions in what sense are women are closer to nature?
The non-essentialist strands of ecofeminism would agree that women have both masculine and feminine qualities, but patriarchy encourages their femininity and categorizes them within an ideologically loaded system.
Similarly, the natural world in itself, is neither masculine nor feminine, but both. Aspects of nature exhibit competitiveness, aggression and hierarchy, all ‘masculine’ qualities.
The most non-essentialist ecofeminism can claim is that within patriarchal dualism;
- the concept ‘Nature’, ‘feminine’ qualities and women are classified together, while the concept ‘Culture’, ‘masculine’ qualities and men are classified together;
- those qualities categorized with ‘Nature’ are deemed as of less worth than those qualities categorized with ‘Culture’.
The belief that ‘women are closer to nature’ is valid only if we adopt the first principle of patriarchal dualism.
Are men more alienated from nature?
Many ecofeminists believe that patriarchy has alienated men from nature. But perhaps there are particularly masculine ways of connecting to our broader environment. Some Deep Ecologists advocate hunting, traditionally a very male practice, as a means of being more in touch with nature. Such notions are controversial, but worth discussion in this context.
Male hunting groups are common amongst the indigenous Tribal societies which many think hold profound ecological wisdom. It is also worth noting that some ecofeminists believe that that our separation from nature began with our shift from being a gatherer/hunter culture to an agricultural society.
I think a detached look at Western society shows that women are just as alienated from nature as men. Women are as consumerist as men, and just as beguiled by the prevailing ideology whether we call it patriarchy, capitalism or simply ‘terminal gray culture’.
Is ecofeminism sexist?
Ecofeminism is not sexist in its core principles, but some of the beliefs held by some ecofeminist do see men as suffering from an “innately inferior capacity in areas of performance deemed significant”. (From the definition of sexism in ‘The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought’. Harper Collins, 1999.)
Does ecofeminism conflict with feminism?
Ecofeminism seems to be in conflict with traditional feminism in several ways. Ecofeminism valorizes what have been seen as oppressive stereotypes and has a tendency toward essentialism.
One aim of Liberal feminism is to get more women into positions of power and wealth. Some ecofeminists question the whole concept of institutional power and wealth, and aim to topple the established institutions of power such as government and big business which mainstream feminists aspire to join.
Is there a feminine essence?
Some Ecofeminist theorists rely on the essentialist notion that women are by nature more nurturing, caring and life affirming than men.
The word ‘essentialism’ is used in different ways in different contexts. For this discussion, I’m focusing on the ‘Cultural’ (‘Radical’) feminists notion that women are in essence more nurturing, peaceful, co-operative and closer to nature than men.
In this form, essentialism defines biology as destiny; men will always be the destroyers of the environment, and women will always be Earth’s saviors.
Clearly, if men are innately greedy, aggressive or competitive, there is no hope for a politics designed to change them.
See The question of Essentialism
Are feminist definitions valid?
Some feminist seem to use the words ‘woman’, ‘female’ or ‘feminine’ and ‘man’, ‘male’ or ‘masculine’ as if they were equivalent. But these terms are not interchangeable. ‘Masculine’ and ‘feminine’ refer to gender, whereas ‘male’/’man’ or ‘woman’/’female’ refer to sex.
To my knowledge (which is not comprehensive), ecofeminism has not taken sexual orientation or Queer Theory into account.
“Queer theory is a set of ideas based around the idea that identities are not fixed and do not determine who we are. It suggests that it is meaningless to talk in general about ‘women’ or any other group, as identities consist of so many elements that to assume that people can be seen collectively on the basis of one shared characteristic is wrong.”
If ecofeminism is to incorporate Queer theory it would have to abandon much of what make it distinct. Where would ecofeminism be without a stable concept of ‘woman’?
Did pre-patriachal culture ever exist?
The Ecofeminist Visions Emerging site says that their use of the notion of an ideal pre-patriachal culture “is not to legitimate or sentimentalize some past paradise, but rather to allow ancient memory to fuel our imaginations as we uncover more life-affirming ways of living on this planet.”
Where does this ‘ancient memory’ come from? Do we have a ‘Race Memory’ of such a time? At this stage of human awareness it is far too easy to confuse an imagined ideal with an ‘ancient memory’.
Is there hard evidence of such a time? Not much. There is archaeological evidence for Goddess and fertility cults in early Mesopotamia that supports this possibility, but it is far from conclusive. Most anthropologists believe that the widespread myths of a time when women ruled the world are without any historical basis.
In ‘The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory’ Cynthia Eller argues that the notion of a pre-patriachal culture is without foundation and that it this myth is actually harmful to feminist project.
Given that any pre-patriachal culture existed before written history, how can we ever know what it was really like? We can imagine, and the thought experiment is a common philosophical tool, but we must take care not to confuse imagination or literary fictions with historical reality.
Would a pre-patriachal culture be better than patriarchy?
Matilda Joslyn Gage, a women’s rights activist from the 19th century, cites evidence from around the world that lineal descent was once through the mother.
“The earliest phase of family life was entirely dependent upon woman; she was the principal factor in it, man having no place whatsoever except as son or dependent.”
‘The Matriarchate; or, Woman in the Past.’
Some oppose those who idealize pre-patriarchal societies in which women have more power: “Ecofeminism is 100 percent opposed to power-over relationships,” wrote the McGuire sisters. “That includes the flip side of the coin in which women would dominate men.”