by Donna Ladkin
The term ‘eco-feminism’ was first coined in 1975 by Rosemary Reuther (Reuther 1975). In putting this movement within its contemporary context, Val Plumwood (Plumwood 1993) asserts:
“Ecological feminism is essentially a response to a set of key problems thrown up by the two great social currents of the later part of (the last) century—feminism and the environmental movement.”
(the woman in the picture is the late Val Plumwood, with a wombat friend)
Although it is recognised as a particular approach to engagement with environmental issues, ecological feminism embraces a diverse range of perspectives. This piece sets out to explore some of the main features of eco-feminism, and also to present a number of the ways in which eco-feminist positions differ. It locates the idea of eco-feminism within its historical context, particularly in terms of its placement within the larger movement of feminism. Additionally, this approach to environmental engagement is contrasted with that of Deep Ecology in order that its distinctive contribution might be more readily appreciated by such a comparison. Additional resources which might be helpful for those wishing to explore more in this area are noted at the end of the piece.
Eco-feminism: The Basic Argument
The one shared premise to which all eco-feminists would ascribe is the idea that there is a link between the oppression of women and the oppression of nature. It is a worldview in which domination is seen to be a key axis of organisation, the enactment of which is explicitly embodied within the organising principles of Western culture.
The basic argument which underpins the ecological feminist approach is that the ecological crisis cannot be attended to without reference to the underpinning assumption in which differences between entities, such as that between men and women, mind and body, humans and the rest of nature, are related to one another in an hierarchical fashion. This hierarchy requires that one element of the pairing is given a superior position. The downside of the pairing is identified by its lack in regard to the up side. For instance, women are said to be ‘less rational’ than men, rather than men being seen to be ‘less emotional’ than women. This is then exacerbated through a hyper-separation (Plumwood, 1993) between the entities, in which qualities which they might share are ignored or minimised and qualities which differentiate them are exaggerated and over-emphasised.
To make the distinction between entities of the pairing even more extreme, any contribution which the ‘underside’ of the relationship makes is dismissed or ‘backgrounded’ (Plumwood, 1993) as being unimportant and irrelevant. In this way, the support a ‘house’wife provides her husband in enabling him to carry out work outside the home with ease is ignored, and likewise, the fact of human dependence on the earth for our very sustenance is disregarded. Rather than being seen to contribute essential aspects of living, both women and nature are regarded as mere ‘resources’, background to the more ‘worthy’ furthering of human ‘culture’ and ‘civilisation’.
In the construction of such dualisms, women have been historically associated with the downside of each emergent pairing. Thus, women are likened to be more akin to nature than culture, to body rather than to mind, to the primitive rather than to the civilised. From their ‘superior’ position, men can appropriate and use nature, animals, and women, to their own means, without regard for the others’ agency or autonomy.
Although this dualistic split which is at the heart of Western power relations is most often attributed to Descartes and thinking that was prevalent during the time of the Enlightenment, Plumwood (1993) traces its roots back as far as Plato and Aristotle. She reads within Plato’s philosophy the vilification of both the body and of nature. This split, she argues is characterised by the following steps in thinking:
The construction of a normative human identity as ‘mind’ or ‘reason’, seeing all other aspects of being human, particularly aspects of embodiment, the emotional, the relational, as ‘inferior’ to rationality.
The construction of mind/reason as exclusive of or in opposition to nature.
These two positions, she argues were then enlarged by a third step put forward by Descartes, in which nature is constructed as being mindless, without agency, and completely neutral in terms of its own projects or consciousness. The emphasis which Descartes placed on ‘consciousness’, even to the exclusion of ‘reason’ made a further move in removing any inkling of ‘soul’ from animals or the rest of nature, a quality which Aristotle, for instance had still seen inherent within animals and even some forms of vegetative growth (See Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics).
In the history of Western philosophy then, can be seen a pervasive move towards an ever exalted position for the role of reason and consciousness, coupled with an increasing location of those powers within male, constructed culture. Removing ‘soul’ from nature enabled men to regard it as a resource, an entity devoid of autonomy or agency, open to man’s plundering. It might be added that the Christian religion with its emphasis on the afterlife and mythology about humans as being cast away from their ‘true’ home in the Garden of Eden, inevitably could be seen to add its weight to this underlying informing myth.
If this is the underlying argument which tells a story of ‘how we got here’, what are the feminist and eco-feminist responses which might indicate a way out?
A Short History of Feminist Approaches
Differing responses to this dualism can be charted more or less historically within the European and American feminist movements. In ‘First Wave Feminism’, the response to the male-female dualism is to leave as unquestioned the basic superiority of those ‘male attributes’ which are so highly prized as being what constitutes ‘being human’, and to suggest that women have just as much access to such qualities as do men. I suppose that to the extent that Plato thought such a choice was possible, and desirable, Plato could be considered to have been a first-wave feminist! In this reading, women should deny any ‘female’ characteristics and be more male-like. This view is illustrated by the following quote by Mary Wollstonecraft:
In what does man’s pre-eminence over the brute creation consist? The answer is as clear as that a half is less than a whole, in Reason. For what purpose ere the passions implanted? That man by struggling with the might attain a degree of knowledge denied to brutes. Consequently the perfection of our nature and capability of happiness must be estimated by the degree of reason, virtue and humanity that distinguish the individual and that from the exercise of reason, knowledge and virtue naturally flow.
This does not address the inferior/superior stratification, and, as eco-feminists would point out, leaves nature in a subordinate, inferior position.
Second-wave feminism moves away from the stance that women are capable of being ‘just like men’, and argues instead that there do exist actual, more than socially constructed, differences between the two genders. However, the dualism inherent in patriarchy is adhered to as this form of feminism contends that women should assume the dominant role, with maleness in the inferior position. Pursuants of this approach claim that it is time for female ways of being, which include emotionality, a greater connection with nature, qualities of nurturance and caring should assume the dominant position culturally. Slogans such as ‘The Future is Female’ depict this kind of view. Again, this stance does not address the basic problem, which is of dualism and the hierarchical relationship between entities.
Plumwood suggests that neither stance is helpful in taking generative steps to a more effective way of living with and respecting difference.
Additionally, neither of these approaches takes into account the link formulated between women and nature, and the further dualism between human beings and nature. The paper now turns to an exploration of various eco-feminist theories concerning the possible ‘link’ between women and nature.
The Link Between Women and Nature,
As explored above, traditionally, in the West, women have been symbolically and mythologically linked with ‘nature’ (Griffen 1984). Although eco-feminists hold differing views about both the conceptualisation of such a link and appropriate ways of responding to it, the one point to which they would all agree is that representing either women or nature as inferior to men or ‘culture’ is wrong.
There can be seen to be essentially three stances as to whether or not the link exists in the first place. Writers such as Biehl (1991) argue that such a connection between women and nature is wholly socially constructed, and that men have just as much access to ‘nature’ as women do. Others, such as (Prentice 1988) take an opposing view, and suggest that indeed, women and men’s gender behaviours are completely biologically determined, and women are indeed, closer to nature as a result of their reproductive capabilities, something to which men can never approach. Writers such as Plumwood (1993) Warren (1987) and Ynestra King (1989) take a mid-lying position, suggesting that women’s reproductive capacity does indeed influence the position from which they experience their world, but that this is further historically and culturally determined. Furthermore, they would purport that both men and women are part of both nature and of culture.
The essential problem, according to Plumwood, is not about whether or not such a connection exists, but lies within the nature of dualism itself, which constructs relationships between men and women, and humans and nature as hierarchical. Moving beyond this construction is the first step towards a healing process between humans and the natural world which eco-feminism seeks. As Plumwood writes
“Overcoming the dualistic dynamic requires recognition of both continuity and difference; this means acknowledging the other as neither alien to and discontinuous from self nor assimilated to or an extension of the self” (Plumwood, 1993, p 6)
In pursuit of such an end Warren (2001) suggests some of the key components of an eco-feminist approach as one characterised by the following:
• Context is important in defining relationships
• There is a shift from granting moral considerability to non-humans exclusively because of their similarities to humans, and instead a highly contextualised account is given.
• It is pluralistic and attempts to maintain distinctive voices, including the voices of the individual aspects of nature or natural entities.
• Theory is developed through the process, meaning emerges in patterns.
• Inclusivity, what counts as ecology, and what counts as appropriate conduct is a matter of context.
• There is no objective viewpoint
• There is a central place for values of care, love, trust, and appropriate reciprocity.
• The idea of what it means to be human includes relational aspects.
Eco-feminism and Deep Ecology
One of the key fault-lines which can be discerned in the ‘environmental’ literature is that between eco-feminists and deep ecologists. Whereas it might be supposed that these two approaches to environmental engagement would have much in common, there is a lively debate which suggests key differences between the two approaches. A brief discussion of the disagreements between the two might further elucidate eco-feminist claims and its mission.
The main difficulty which exists between the two, from the eco-feminist viewpoint, is about the extent to which deep ecology can be interpreted as a‘totalising’ narrative. It presents a view of the relationship between humans and nature in which the essential differences between the two are not recognised and honoured. Deep Ecology, in short, claims that at a deep level, all entities in existence on the planet are connected and inter-dependent to the extent that harming a part of the eco-system is in fact, causing harm to ourselves (Naess, 1986). Although this might be true in some sense, what Plumwood takes issue with is that in negating the differences between myself and, say, an oak tree, I don’t have to regard it as an ‘other’ to whom I should give care and respect. If everything is all connected, without adequate boundaries, the uniqueness of the other is negated, and furthermore, it is easier to appropriate the other.
It actually takes more time, attention, imagination, to deal with the other as a distinctive and unique entity, with cares, projects of its own. Deep Ecology seems to negate the necessity of having to dialogue across our very real and important differences. Furthermore, this kind of identification, Plumwood argues, prevents particular attachments, those particular relations we have with specific places, animals, trees, or family members. Such attachments are important, she agues.
Marilyn Frye echoes such a view when she speaks of the importance in cultivating a ‘loving eye’ from an eco-feminist perspective. I’ll end the paper with a quote from Frye, in which she elaborates on her understanding of this capacity. It seems, to me, to be a fitting summary of the mission of eco-feminism, to cultivate such an eye which sees the other, particularly in nature, as distinct, acting with agency and autonomy, and entities with whom we are in constant participation.
The loving eye is contrary to the arrogant eye.
The loving eye knows the independence of the other. It is the eye of a seer who knows that nature is indifferent. It is the eye of one who knows that to know the seen, one must consult something other than one’s own will and interests and fears and imagination. One must look at the thing. One must look and listen and check and question.
The loving eye is one that pays a certain sort of attention. This attention can require a discipline but not a self-denial. The discipline is one of self-knowledge, knowledge of the scope and boundary of the self…In particular, it is a matter of being able to tell one’s own interests from those of others and of knowing where one’s self leaves off and another begins…
The loving eye does not make the object of perception into something edible, does not try to assimilate it, does not reduce it to the size of the seer’s desire, fear, and imagination, and hence does not have to simplify. It knows the complexity of the other as something which will forever present new things to be known. The science of the loving eye would favour The Complexity Theory of Truth (in contrast to the Simplicity Theory of Truth) and pre suppose The Endless Interestingness of the Universe. (Frye, 1983 pp 75-76)
She suggests that those who read Plato’s philosophy as sympathetic to feminism might note that his over-riding concern was to the support of the militaristic machine which was at heart of Greek productivity and economic survival. Women who could act as warriors, who could take on the countenance and behaviours of men, especially in military efforts, were to be regarded on similar footing as men, but not women in general.
For Further Information
There are a multitude of resources available to those interested in investigating Eco-feminism in more depth. A google-search will reveal a number of websites, many of which include lists of key books. On that note, three note-worthy Eco-feminist writers have published new books recently , these are:
Marilyn Frye, Willful Virgin: Essays in Feminism, 1976-1992 (Crossing Press, 1993).
Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (Routledge, 2002)
Anna Primavisi, Gaia’s Gift: Earth, Ourselves and God after Copernicus (Routeledge, 2003)
See Also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eco-feminism
Biehl, Janet, Rethinking Ecofeminist Politics (South End Press, 1991)
Frye, Marilyn, In and Out of Harm’s Way: Arrogance and Love, in The Politics of Reality
(The Crossing Press, 1983), pp. 66-72.
Griffin, Susan, Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (The Women’s Press, 1984).
King, Ynestra, “The Ecology of Feminism and the Feminism of Ecology” in Judith Plant (ed.)
Healing the Wounds (New Society Publishers, 1989), pp.18-28
Plumwood, Val, Nature, Self, and Gender: Feminism, Environmental Philosophy, and the Critique of Rationalism,Hypatia VI (Spring, 1991) pp. 3-27.
Plumwood, Val, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (Routledge, 1993).
Prentice, Susan, What’s Wrong with Ecofeminism? in Women and Environments 3:9-10.
Ruether, Rosemary Radford, New Woman New Earth, (Seabury Press, 1975).
Warren, Karen, The Power and the Promise of Ecological Feminism, in Environmental Philosophy:
From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology, 3rd Edition, Zimmerman, Michael, Callicott, J.Baird,
Sessions, George, Warren, Karen J, and Clark, John, eds (Prentice Hall, 2001), pp.322-342.
Wollstonecraft, Mary, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (Dent,1982)
Further reading could include Val Plumwood’s powerful essay ‘Being Prey,’ in which she recounts the amazing story of her personal–and near-fatal–encounter with a crocodile