Ecofeminism Critique on the green fuse

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Ecofeminism Critique

Ecofeminism proposes three core premises:

  1. The oppression of women and the domination of nature are fundamentally connected.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

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-honouring and 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.

Back to the questions

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 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.

Back to the questions

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;

  1. the concept 'Nature', 'feminine' qualities and women are classified together, while the concept 'Culture', 'masculine' qualities and men are classified together;
  2. 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.

Back to the questions

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'.

Back to the questions

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.

Back to the questions

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

Back to the questions

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'?

Back to the questions

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.

Back to the questions

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."

Back to the questions

related links:

Ecofeminism , Eco-Spirituality , Bioregionalism , Deep Ecology ,recommended books

WomensNet - 'Uprooting The Patriarchy' 
Ecofeminist Visions Emerging

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