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Women and Nature

By Judith Plant

This extract is taken from 'Green Line' magazine (Oxford). Not dated, but late 1980's. It was reprinted in 'The Green Reader'.

Women have long been associated with nature - metaphorically, as in 'mother Earth', for instance. Our language says it all: a 'virgin' forest is one awaiting exploitation, as yet untouched by man. In society too, women have been associated with physical side of life. Our role has always been 'closer to nature', our natural work centred around human physical requirements: eating, sex, cleaning, the care of children and sick people. We have taken care of day-to-day life so that men have been able to go 'out into the world', to creates and enact methods of exploiting nature, including other human beings. Then to return to a home-life which waits in readiness. (A man's home is his castle.)

Historically, women have had no real power in the outside world, no place in decision-making. Intellectual life, the work of the mind, has traditionally not been accessible to women - due in part to society's either/or mentality, coupled with a valuing of the spiritual over the natural. Women have been generally passive, as has been nature. Today however, ecology speaks for the earth, for the 'other' in human/environmental relationships; and Ecofeminism, by speaking for the original others, seeks to understand the interconnected roots of all domination, and ways to resist and change...

Before the world was mechanised an industrialised, the metaphor that explained self, society and the cosmos was the image of the organism. This is not surprising since most people were connected with the earth in their daily lives, being peasants and living a subsistence existence. The earth was seen as female. And with two faces: one, the passive, nurturing mother; the other, wild and uncontrollable. Thus the earth, giver and supporter of life, was symbolised by woman, as was the image of nature as disorder, with her storms, droughts, and other natural disasters.

These images served as cultural restraints. The earth was seen to be alive, sensitive; it was considered unethical to do violence towards her. Who could conceive of killing a mother, or of digging into her body for gold, or mutilating her? In relation to mining, people believed that minerals and metals ripened in the uterus of the earth; they compared mines to Mother Earth's vagina, and metallurgy itself was an abortion of the metal's natural growth cycle. So rituals were carried out by miners; offerings to the gods of the soil and the subterranean world, ceremonial sacrifices, sexual abstinence and fasting were conducted and observed before violating what was considered to be the sacred earth...

The organic metaphor that once explained everything was replaced by mechanical images...

The new images were of controlling and dominating: having power over nature. Where the nurturing image had once been a cultural constraint, the new images of mastery allowed the clearing of forests and the damning of rivers. Nature as unlimited resource is epitomised today by scarred hillsides, uranium mine tailings poisoning river systems, toxic waste, and human junk floating in space.

One theory bases this propensity for domination over nature on the human fear that nature is more powerful than human beings. By subduing and controlling nature, society thus can assume power over life. Women, with their biological connections with life-giving are constant reminder of the reality of human mortality. Thus patriarchal society, based on a view that that subjugated nature to the spirit of man (sic), also subjugated women...

Once we understand the historical connections between women and nature and their subsequent oppression, we cannot help but take a stand on the war against nature. By participating in environmental stand-offs against those who are assuming the right to control the natural world, we are helping to create an awareness of domination at all levels. From this perspective, consensus decisions making and non-hierarchical organization become accepted facts of life.

Ecofeminism gives women and men common ground. While women may have been associated with nature, this does not mean that somehow they have been socialised in a different world from men. Women have learned to think in the same dualities as men, and we feel just as alienated as do our brothers. The social system isn't good for either - or both - of us. Yet, we are the social system. We need some common ground from which to be critically self-conscious, to enable us to recognise and affect the deep structure of our relations, with each other and with our environment.

In addition to participating in forms of resistance, such as non-violent civil disobedience, we can also encourage, support and develop within our communities a cultural life which celebrates the many differences in nature, and which encourage reflection on the consequences of our actions, in all our relations...

Women's values, centred around life-giving, must be re-valued, and elevated from their once-subordinate role. What women know from experience needs recognition and respect. We have had generations of experience in conciliation, dealing with interpersonal conflicts daily in domestic life. We know how to feel for others because we have been socialised that way.

At the same time, our work - tending to human physical requirements - has been undervalued. As discussed earlier, what has been considered material and physical has been thought to be 'less than' the intellectual, the 'outside' (of home) world. Women have been very much affected by this devaluation and this is reflected in our images of ourselves and our attitudes towards our work. Men too have been alienated from child-care and all the rest of daily domestic life which very much nurtures all who participate. Our society has devalued the source of its humanness. Home is the theatre of our human ecology, and it is here that we can effectively think feelingly. Bioregionalism, essentially, is attempting to rebuild human and natural community. We know that it is non-adaptive to repeat the social organisation which left women and children alone, at home, and men out in the world doing 'important' work. The real work is at home. As part of this process, women and nature, indeed humans and nature need a new image of ourselves as we mend our relations with each other and with the earth. Such an image will surely reflect what we are learning through the study of ecology, what we are coming to understand through feminism, and that we are experiencing by participating in the bioregional project. Much depends on us, on our determination to make things different and to take a stand.

© Judith Plant

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