Ecofeminist Economics: Women, Work and the Environment

by Mary Mellor

Ecofeminism has a major contribution to make to our understanding of the current destructive relationship between humanity and nonhuman nature.
Ecofeminism as its name implies brings together the insights of feminism and ecology.
FEMINISM is concerned with the way in which women in general have been subordinated to men in general.
ECOLOGY is concerned that human activity is destroying the viability of the global ecosystem.
ECOFEMINISM argues that the two are linked.
Women have been seen as inferior to men in most human societies – I would even go so far as to say all. The natural world has not suffered the same almost universal devaluing within human societies. Through much of human history it has been valued, even worshipped. However, the natural world is not just ecology, the ecosystem, it is also biology. It is through their biology that women have been devalued, even seen as unclean. Women have historically been associated with the life and needs of the human body – that is, domestic work. Their own bodies have also been seen as weak, even dangerous.
Women have been persecuted as witches, disproportionately subject to infanticide and suffered domestic violence in most cultures. Males on the other hand are valued, as strong, resourceful with automatic rights of social dominance. Successful women often have to portray themselves as ‘honorary’ men without the attributes or dependencies of womanhood – particularly the needs of children.
However not all women are subordinate to all men and many men are oppressed through class, caste, ‘race’ or ethnic discrimination. Women also dominate each other. The key issue for ecological economics, therefore is not sex-gender difference but the gendering of human societies.
For ecofeminists the most important aspect of the present global economy is that it represents a value system that subordinates both women and nature. It also sees itself as superior to traditional economies based on rural subsistence production for direct use and local exchange. The modern economic system is based on a dualistic hierarchy of values:

Men /Women
Employment /Domestic work
Market /Subsistence
Marketable resources /Eco-systems
Personal wealth /Social reciprocity
Science/technology /Traditional Knowledge
Reason /Emotion
Mind and Intellect/ Body
Able-bodied Adults /Children,Elderly,People with disabilities

Valuing within economic systems is mainly expressed through money/profit but also as prestige. External to these values are the unvalued or undervalued, the resilience of the eco-system, the unpaid and unrecognised domestic work of women, the social reciprocity in communal societies as represented in non-market economies. While the modern global economy may displace traditional subsistence production, societies still need the stability of social reciprocity – what Adam Smith referred to as moral sentiments.
The valued economy rests on these unacknowledged and unvalued support structures. In doing so it avoids meeting the costs of that economy:

( money, profit, prestige) (based on men’s experience)
marketable resources
well paid work

(undervalued, unacknowledged) (based on women’s experience)
resilience of ecosystem
unpaid domestic work
social reciprocity

The link between women’s subordination and the degradation of the natural world lies in women’s centrality to the support economies of unpaid domestic work and social reciprocity i.e. the home and the community. It is the world of women, of women’s experience – a WE-economy. The valued economy on the other hand is male dominated, representing men’s experience -a ME-economy.
Ecofeminist political economy offers an explanation of how destructive economic systems are constructed and see the WE-economy as the basis of an alternative non-exploiting, sustainable economy.
Central to the present globalised ME-economy is the insistence that we all jump to the same tune – the iron law of so-called free market economics. As in the fairy story, like the children of Hamelin we are compelled to follow the economic piper to our doom. However, if we remember the story, there was one child with disabilities who couldn’t keep up and avoided the fate of the rest. For ecofeminists this is the position of women. They have largely been left behind as the mad economic dance goes by. In the lives and experience of women there lies the possibility of an alternative path.
The roots of our current ills go much deeper than the present globalised capitalist market economy. It is a reflection of the way human activities are valued in all societies that devalue women. And it is not just a case of values, it reflects real material relations. What my studies and those of other feminists have revealed is that women do the majority of work in human societies and are devalued on account of it. The stories of man the hunter are a myth and man-the -breadwinner is a very contemporary and socially limited phenomenon. Throughout history, women have formed the backbone of economic and social systems, although their work has been largely unacknowledged – hidden from history.
Compared with women’s work, men’s valued activities can be seen as an extension of play – often dangerous and difficult – complex and competitive – building monuments, exploring, trading, fighting, hunting, politicking, professing, preaching. Behind they leave the evidence of their passing, the great defensive walls, the tombs and palaces, the gladiatorial arenas, cathedrals, missile silos, Trump tower, the Getty museum.

Women have always worked. In modern economies they are particularly exploited as low wage labourers. In the early industrial economies it was women and children who filled the first factories. Women have lower pay than men and less job security, pension, perks and all the other benefits of being at the head of the economic dance. Globalisation is mercilessly exploiting the labour of women as cheap and expendable workers.
However, I am not basing my argument on the unfairness of women’s lives within economic systems but their position at the boundaries of economic systems.
Women have two lives one within the valued economy as workers, consumers, professionals and one without, the world of women’s work. It is generally accepted that women workers with families have two shifts, the first at paid work and the second at home with domestic work, unless their social position enables them to employ other women to do it.
It is important to make a distinction between the work of women and women’s work. The work of women is what they have done through history (including being Prime Minister of Britain). Women’s work is a particular type of work that would be demeaning for a man to do on a regular basis unless he was already demeaned by his low social status on the basis of class, caste, ‘race’ or ethnicity. If a man is not to lose status, women’s work is reclassified from cook to chef, dressmaker to tailor.
Women do far more domestic work than men even when they have full time paid work. The UN Human Development Report of 1995 surveyed 31 countries and showed that combining paid and unpaid work women on average worked much longer hours than men. Men spent from 55 – 79% of their time in paid work. Women spent from 42% – 81% of their time in unpaid work. If women’s unpaid work was valued it would be equivalent to 40% of GDP – even based on the low pay rates for women.
Studies show women doing up to 80% of subsistence agricultural labour in rural communities. There are women in Mozambique spending 2 hours a day collecting water. Women in Peru spending three hours a day gathering fuel wood.
Marilyn Waring reports that among the Nomadic people of the Iranian Zagros mountains while the men look after the animals the women do virtually everything else:
Preparing meals, looking after children, fetching water, collecting fuel wood (which can take up to half a day and large distances), milk and shear the animals, collect edible plants, churn butter, make cheese and yoghurt, spin wool to make clothes, tent cloth and carpets.

Women’s work is the basic work that makes other forms of activity possible. It secures the human body and the community. It is work done for others. While a good deal of this has passed to the market in modern economies a lot remains.
– CARING – child care, sick care, aged care, animal care, community care (volunteering, relationship building), family care (listening, cuddling, sexual nurturing, esteem building)
– ROUTINE AND REPETITIVE – cooking, cleaning, fetching and carrying, weeding,
– WATCHING AND WAITING – being there, available, dependable, on call
(if women go out men are often asked to ‘baby sit’ their own children as if doing a favour)
– EMBODIED It is the work of the human body and its basic needs. Maintenance and sustenance through the cycle of the day and the cycle of life (birth to death). in sickness and in health.
-EMBEDDED WORK It is of necessity local, communal close to home. In subsistence economies it is embedded in the local ecosystem.
When women’s work is taken into the valued economy its pay rates and conditions of work are poor (nursing, catering and cleaning).
The interesting question about women’s work is why is it not valued? Why are there no historical monuments to the woman weeder, grinder, spinner, water carrier?
What is even more interesting is the way women’s economic activities have been lost to history. The modern economy has its ideal as man-the-breadwinner. The true history is woman-the-breadmaker after she has planted, harvested and ground the grain.
Studies of women’s activities in gatherer-hunter and early agricultural
societies show that women’s work was much more important than that of men in the provision of calories. Women were the gatherers, gardeners, small scale trappers and hunters. Men’s activities were much more intermittent, ritual and leisure-based. Through history women (and children) worked the fields and on the looms. They were in the mines (in the UK they formed the first miner’s union).
If this is the case how have men come to dominate valued economic systems? The answer lies in the process by which economic systems are constructed. Economic systems do not relate to human labour directly, what could be described as the real economy, they relate to valued labour. It is the process of valuing and male-ness that are connected. Men do not obtain value because they work, they work because they obtain value. Where there is no value in preference they do not work. The more work is valued, the more male-dominated it becomes. The more necessary and unremitting it is, the more female-dominated work becomes.

Valued economic systems are created through a distinction within human activities. Some activities are counted in, others are not. At the same time social time and space is accumulated. The more time an activity takes and the more limited it is spatially the more likely it is to be excluded from economic value. From my reading of the history of gender relations it seems that men have claimed social space and time while women have been engaged in the routine and necessary labours of life close to home and domestic responsibilties.
We have an old socialist saying in Britain:WHEN ADAM DELVED (was digging) AND EVE SPAN (was spinning) WHO WAS THEN THE GENTLEMAN?
My version would read:
Women’s work in the unvalued economy is based on boundaries of space and time
LIMITED SPACE: women’s work is close to home. Her duties mean that she cannot move far from her responsibilities. She often cannot take higher paid jobs because of her limited mobility
UNLIMITED TIME: Women’s work never ends. Its routine nature means that it endlessly recycles and it must be done when needed – by day or night. The sick must be nursed when they are ill, the children when they wake.
UNREWARDED/ALTRUISTIC: Women do not get any tangible benefit from this work although they may find it intrinsically rewarding. They usually put their own needs last in the family.
The valued economy is quite the opposite:
UNLIMITED SPACE: Mobility is all, goods fly around the world regardless of seasons and local availability. Companies make a fetish of moving their senior staff every few years if not months or days.
LIMITED TIME: The working day has a beginning and end. There is a distinction between paid and unpaid time (leisure). In fact, many women take paid work to get time for themselves even if the work is low paid.
REWARDED: Work is rewarded by pay and prestige

Why do women do women’s work? Why through history have they not refused? Partly it is the nature of the work. It is necessary, remorseless work. If it is not done suffering will ensue quite quickly. We can see the problem of street children in societies where women no longer have the resources to cope.
Women in this sense have been altruistic. They have worked through history for little recognition. However this is an imposed altruism. Most women feel they have little choice but to do this work, although it might be experienced as an expression of love and duty. For many women it is fear of violence and/or lack of any other economic options.
Men have justified women’s imposed altruism by claiming that women are naturally suited to women’s work. They are naturally caring and nurturing. Many ecofeminists have sympathy with this view and speak of an ethics of care that can be extended to the natural world. However, I would argue that this ethic is related to women’s work rather than to women themselves.
In prosperous economies women are increasingly refusing to undertake women’s work. Marriage and birth rates are falling dramatically where women have clear economic choices. Italy’s birth rate is 1.3% well below replacement level and women give as their reason for not having children that men do not help domestically. The gender differential in overall working hours is higher in Italy than elsewhere in Europe (nearly two hours a day). In Japan many women are refusing to marry, particularly if a man displays traditional values.
Men’s assumption that they have a natural right to socio-economic domination is also being challenged by women. Where professional positions depend on academic qualifications, women are competing very actively with men.
However, for ecofeminists the future does not lie with women playing
the male game even if that does have the side effect of reducing population rates. A country with a small or negative population growth and a high level of consumption is much more problematic ecologically than a country with a high population growth and low consumption. If women join men in the high production-consumption stakes they will compound the ecological problems we face.

The case for linking women’s work with the ecosystem is that they are both externalised by male-dominated economic value systems. Women’s work is not valued because it is body-work, the work associated with the most basic needs of human existence. The natural environment is also the basis for human existence. Why, then are these both externalised? The answer lies in the nature of the ME-economy. The ME-economy is disembodied from the daily cycle, the life cycle and women’s work. It is disembedded from the ecological framework:
DAILY CYCLE – The ideal ME-economy worker comes to work fed, cleaned nurtured and emotionally supported.
LIFE CYCLE – The ideal ME-economy worker is not too young or old, fit, healthy
NO WOMEN’S WORK – The ideal ME-economy worker has no routine responsibility for others and is personally mobile.
SEASONS: The ME-economy is not limited by local growing seasons
LOCAL ECOLOGICAL LIMITS: The ME-economy draws on the resources of countries around the world – The ecological footprint of London alone requires the equivalent of the land area of Britain
RESOURCE DEPLETION: This will affect future generations, poorer communities or other species not the privileged members of the ME-economy.
TOXICITY/POLLUTION: The ME-economy locates its polluting industries and toxic dumps in poorer communities.
In the ME-economy there is no space for the young, the old, the sick, the tired, the unhappy except as consumers of the (private) old folks home or therapist. They are seen as a burden on the welfare state, which itself is also seen as a burden on the so-called wealth-creating sector. Mostly they disappear into the world of women, the home and community.
The ME-economy is not concerned with the loss of resources for future generations, loss of habitat for other species, loss of biodiversity, the loss of peace, quiet and amenity – unless it can be sold.
The ME-economy is a DIS-EMBEDDED system. It bears no responsibility for the life-cycle of its environment. It is disengaged from ECOLOGICAL TIME – that is the time it takes to restore the effects of human activity – the life-cycle of renewal and replenishment within the eco-system. If there is any possibility of renewal.
The valued economy can be seen as disengaged from BIOLOGICAL TIME – the time of replenishment and renewal for the human body in its daily cycle and life-cycle.
It is not therefore to be unexpected that such an economic system should disrupt biological and ecological systems. Destructiveness is central to its fundamental structure.
How did such a disembodied and disembedded system emerge?

Ecofeminists see women’s work as the ‘bridge’ between unsustainable economic systems and the embedded nature of human existence.
The gendered nature of human society means that women in most societies throughout history have done the routine work of the body whether as food growers or domestic workers. Dominant men have distanced themselves from these roles and taken more statusful roles whether as ritual leaders, traders or war-makers.
In most societies there is some version of the ‘men’s house’, a separate place or set of activities which are barred to women. Within this space men concoct the elaborate socio-political ‘games’ that maintain their dominance. In modern societies women have stormed these men’s houses: the law, business, medicine, politics, the military but only on male terms. As Audre Lorde and other feminists have argued you cannot use men’s tools to break down the men’s house.
Men have generally been seen as doing the important things in human history. It has been claimed that men have constructed civilisation. Have they? Are the monuments they have left more important than the sustenance of human existence? Women’s digging stick has rotted back into the earth unlike the stone monuments of men. Why should the digging stick be less valued than the sword?
My basic argument is that male-dominated socio-economic systems have not accepted the embodied and embedded nature of human existence. Instead this has been rejected and despised as women’s work. Valued systems have therefore been erected on a false base. The modern economy does meet many of our basic needs but that is not its primary purpose. The value base is profitable financial exchange or prestige occupations not sustainable provisioning on an equitable basis. The command economy of the Soviet Unionwas little better. It did try to meet basic needs but valued male militarism and monumentalism equally highly. Women carried the double burden of work and the ecological consequences were appalling.
We cannot however, look to women or to Nature for the answer. If women step in and sort out the ME-economy’s mess they are again doing women’s work and no wisdom will have been gained.
It is the responsibility of dominant men and the few women who have joined them, to have the vision to understand the false base upon which historic systems have rested. This understanding will be triggered by the instability and unsustainablity of the ME-economy. Falsely grounded economic systems have built-in contradictions as Marx has pointed out.
Men and women can then jointly construct new socio-economic structures that are egalitarian and sustainable. Where to begin? A number of greens suggest returning to a subsistence economy. I am not sure this is practicable for urbanised and industrialised societies. We should certainly support existing subsistence economies to retain their skills and resource base. However, I would envisage most people living in an economic system based on a division of labour and mutually achieved sufficiency, rather than peasant-style self-sufficiency.

The central feature of the modern ME-economy is the fact that it is beyond the control even of those who benefit from it. In a very real sense it is always THERE somewhere else (national, trans-national, global) and never HERE where we live in our lives. Although most of us take the THERE economy for granted very little of it is HERE within our control. This is fundamentally undemocratic and makes us behave in unsustainable ways to secure our livelihood.
What would an ecofeminist economy look like?
1. There would be a shift of focus from disembedded and disembodied structures to patterns of work and consumption that are sensitive to the human life cycle and to ecological sustainability.
2. Local production would be oriented to local need using sustainable local resources with minimal waste.
3. Basic food provisioning would be local and seasonal. Food would be grown locally where possible, but direct purchasing arrangements could also be agreed with local farmers. Farmers markets would be encouraged where they do not already exist.
4. Provisioning of necessary goods and services would be the main focus of economic systems not money making. It should be possible for people to live and work entirely within a provisioning system.
5. The emphasis would be on useful work rather than employment. That is, people would not need to do harmful work in order to have a livelihood. Any additional profit-based economic activity would be subject to stringent resource/pollution and labour exploitation rules.
6. Work and life would be integrated. Workplace and living base would be interactive. People of all ages would share activities. Living base households would vary from single person to multi-person.
7. Necessary work would be fulfilling and shared. Work and leisure would interact. Productive work would be regularly punctuated by festivals and other celebratory activities
8. Inter-regional and international trade would be seen as a cultural as much as an economic exchange. Travel would also be seen as education and communication rather than consumption.
9. Personal security would rest in the social reciprocity of a provisioning WE-economy rather than in money accumulation systems, particularly in old age.