Ecofeminism on the green fuse

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keywords: Ecofeminism, Ecofeminism critique, Feminism, Eco-spirituality, Vandana Shiva , Starhawk, Neo-Paganism, Goddess spirituality


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 .

Patriarchal dualism

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:

  1. God
  2. Man
  3. Woman
  4. Children
  5. Animals
  6. Nature

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 'masculine' qualities of reason and analysis and characterizes intuitive, emotional 'feminine' 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 dominant men 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. 'Feminine' qualities such as co-operation, nurturing, being supportive, nonviolent and sensual are especially appropriate for creating an environmentally aware society.

Val Plumwood blames dualistic thinking for creating "logics of colonization" (1993). Karen Warren gives dualistic thinking a similarly central role in supporting "oppressive conceptual frameworks" (1990).

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.

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 possibilities - 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').

Re-examining History

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.

Other Influences

Bioregionalism is advocated by some ecofeminists as a practical way forward. Ecofeminists thought has had significant interactions with Deep Ecology.

related links:

Ecofeminism critique , Eco-Spirituality , Bioregionalism , Deep Ecology , Neo-Paganism, recommended books

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