Critical and Constructive Contributions of Ecofeminism


by Charlene Spretnak

(From Charlene Spretnak, “Critical and Constructive Contributions of Ecofeminism,” Pp. 181- 189 in Peter Tucker and Evelyn Grim (Eds.),Worldviews and Ecology, Philadelphia: Bucknell Press, 1993.)

The earth-body and the womb-body run on cosmological time. Just as the flow of earth’s life-giving waters follows lunar rhythms, so too follow the tides of a woman’s womb. No culture has failed to notice these connections or the related feats of elemental power: that the female can grow both sexes from her very flesh and transform food into milk for them, and that the earth cyclically produces vast bounty and intricate dynamics of the biosphere that allow life. Cultural responses to the physical connections between nature and the female range from respect and honor to fear, resentment, and denigration. Whatever the response, it is elaborately constructed over time and plays a primal, informing role in the evolution of society’s worldview.

The central insight of ecofeminism is that a historical, symbolic, and political relationship exists between the denigration of nature and the female in Western cultures. The field has grown immensely since the term (as eco-feminisme) was coined in 1972 by Fran├žoise d’Eaubonne in La feminisme ou la mort. Women have come into ecofeminism in the United States from several directions, including the environmental movement, various types of alternative politics, and the feminist spirituality movement. (l) In recent years, a number of ecofeminist anthologies, as well as hundreds of articles, have been published. (2) This introductory article will present three main aspects of ecofeminism: philosophy, political activism, and spirituality.

Historical Background

With regard to European cultures, considerable archaeological evidence indicates that both the earth and the female were held in high regard in the Neolithic settlements prior to the Bronze Age. (3)Ritual figurines of a stylized sacred female with incised patterns of water or with the head of a bird, for instance, reflect perceptions of inherent interconnectedness with nature and seemingly “obvious” honoring of the elemental power of the female. After 4500 B.C. the archaeological record reveals a radical shift. Graves were no longer roughly egalitarian between the sexes (with women having somewhat more burial items than men) but suddenly followed the barrow model of burial, wherein a chieftain is surrounded by the bodies of men, women, children, animals and objects that he owned or controlled. The westward migrations of nomadic Indo-European tribes from the Eurasian steppes imposed in old Europe a warrior cult, the addition of fortifications around settlements, a patriarchal social system, and the transferral of the sense of the sacred from nature and the female to a distant sky-god, although not all societies followed this pattern, of course. (4)

From the Bronze Age onward, the denigration of nature and the female in European societies fluctuated but never disappeared. The Pythagoreans codified their influential table of opposites in which the female is linked with the negative attributes of formlessness, the indeterminate, the irregular, the unlimited–that is, dumb matter, as opposed to the (male) principles of fixed form and distinct boundaries. Aristotle considered females to be passive deformities. The intellectual prowess of the male, he felt could reveal and categorize all forms and functions of organisms in nature. Later, the medieval cosmology ranked men above women, animals, and the rest of nature, all of which were considered to be entangled with matter in ways that the male spirit and intellect were not. The advent of modernity created by the succession of Renaissance humanism, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment shattered the holism (but not the hierarchical assumptions) of the medieval synthesis by framing the story of the human apart from the larger unfolding story of the earth community. (5) The “new mechanical philosophy” of the Scientific Revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries perceived the natural world as a clockwork that could be fully apprehended and mastered by (male) human intellect. The practitioners of empirical science used metaphors that express heady delight in assaulting nature in order to learn “her” secrets. “Ecofeminists and others have noted that similar metaphors and attitudes were used in the “trials” (legalistic rituals of patriarchal hysteria) that preceded witch burnings and other torture during the era of the new rationalism. (6)

Dualistic Thinking in Western Philosophy and Culture

The dualistic thinking that has shaped so much of the Eurocentric worldview is perhaps the central concern of ecofeminist philosophical and political analysis. Countless ramifications follow from the Eurocentric notion of “the masculine” being associated with rationality, spirit, culture, autonomy, assertiveness, and the public sphere, while “the feminine” is associated with emotion, body, nature, connectedness, receptivity, and the private sphere. The reductionism of this orientation is accompanied by several assumptions that are essential to patriarchy: that the cluster of attributes associated with the masculine is superior to that associated with the feminine; that the latter exists in service tithe former; that the relationship between the two is inherently agonistic; and that a logic of domination over nature and the female should prevail among (male) humans in the “superior” configuration. The Eurocentric construction of masculinity hence is a reactive and unstable posturing to appear “not-nature” and “not-female.” The patriarchal core of the Eurocentric worldview is the culturally imposed fear that nature and the elemental power of the female are potentially chaotic and engulfing unless contained by the will of the cultural fathers.

Ecofeminists feel that the above analysis is relevant to identifying problematic assumptions in philosophical and political situations that have evolved within the Eurocentric orientation. In the area of ecofeminist philosophy, two topics that have received good deal of attention are the critique of “mainstream” (7)environmental ethics and the dialogue between ecofeminism and deep ecology.

Ecofeminist Critiques of Environmental Philosophy

With regard to the field of environmental ethics, ecofeminists maintain that many of its leading philosophers are largely blind toothier patriarchal assumptions and hence can only replicate the logic of domination, albeit embedded in various versions of an ecological worldview. Ecofeminist philosophers reject the assumption that clinging to the rationalist concept of the self and the instrumental view of nature that dominates Western philosophy is a viable way to frame a post patriarchal environmental ethics. The Kantian-rationalist framework is based on appositionally construed reason: intellectual facility that is sharply distinct from the “corrupting” influences of the emotional, the personal, the particular. (8) Because the self disbelieved to be discontinuous from other humans and the rest of the natural world, moral progress is possible via a progression away from personal feelings to abstract, universalized reason. This approach results in strong opposition between care and concern for particular others (the “feminine,” private realm) and generalized moral concern (the “masculine,” public realm). Ecofeminists have identified this false opposition as a major cause of Western maltreatment of nature, noting that concern for nature should not be viewed as the completion of a process of (masculine) universalization, moral abstraction and disconnection, discarding the self, emotions, and special ties(“Nature,” passim).

Ecofeminists also challenge the Eurocentric concept of rights as a basis for philosophical frameworks of environmental ethics. “Ethical humanists” and “animal liberationists” attempt to establish the relative values of various parts of nature via such criteria as sentience, consciousness, rationality, self-determination, and interests. A being possessing one of these characteristics is said to have “intrinsic value” and hence the right to “moral consideration.”(9) Ecofeminists generally regard this approach as static, arbitrary, and lacking a holistic apprehension of the natural world (including humans). Another objection to the use of rights theory is that it requires strong separation of individual rights-holders and is set in a framework of human community and legality. Its extension to the rest of the natural world often draws upon Mill’s notion that if a being has a right to something not only should he or she (or it) have that something but others are obligated to intervene and secure it. Such reasoning gives humans almost limitless obligations to intervene massively in all sorts of far-reaching and conflicting ways in natural, balanced cycles to secure rights of a bewildering variety of beings (“Nature,” 8). Ecofeminists feel that a more promising approach for an ethics of nature would be to remove the concept frights from the central position it currently holds and focus instead on less dualistic moral concepts such as respect, sympathy, care, concern, compassion, gratitude, friendship, and responsibility(“Nature,” 9). (10)

The Ecofeminist Dialogue with Deep Ecology

The response of ecofeminist philosophers to the body of thought known as deep ecology has drawn attention to its gender-blind assumptions in condemning anthropocentrism without taking seriously the formative dynamics of androcentrism, or male dominance. Most ecofeminists acknowledge common ground with deep ecology’s rejection of rationalist value theories and an environmental ethic grounded in abstract principles and universal rules believed to be discoverable through reason alone. (11) Most ecofeminists also appreciate deep ecology’s rejection of the Eurocentric sense of discontinuity between humans and nature. However, ecofeminists are wary of assumptions that may lie embedded in the concept of the “ecological self,” which was formulated by the founder of deep ecology, Arne Naess, and which refers to the aspect of one’s being that is continuous with the large Self (that is, the unitive dimension of being) rather than the individual self. It is sometimes described by Naess’s colleagues in ways that could be interpreted to result in the obliterating of all particularity, a worrisome notion to the sex that has been socialized in patriarchal culture to sacrifice their own self-definition to the needs of husbands and children. Other ecofeminist concerns include issues of differentiation (embedded in relationship), biocentric egalitarianism (the recognition that all species have worth), and concepts of caring. (12)

Political Analysis and Activism

In this area, ecofeminists have astutely critiqued the masculinist bias in the daily functioning of the environmental movement; (13)played an important role in the growing challenge to the modern model of “development” for the Third and Fourth Worlds; (14) and been a leading force in campaigns for animal rights (15.) and opposition to several aspects of reproductive technologies. (16) Most ecofeminist activists are engaged with grassroots political work, whether or not they identify themselves with any particular party, movement, or ideology. Many ecofeminists work in the Green politics movement, often within Green parties, because the democratic, community-based, and the ecological Green political vision includes ecofeminist concerns and aspirations. (17.) Its ideal of community-based economics, in which wealth and ownership are spread as broadly as possible, stands in stark contrast to the increasing centralization of power and control in the hands of huge corporations.

The experience of most feminists who have entered the environmental movement either in institutionalized organizations or alternative groups has been painfully disillusioning. The historical link noted by ecofeminist theory between patriarchal attitudes and the logic of domination over nature, women, and people of color has yet to be acknowledged in practice by most male activists. In the Green politics movement this situation is often somewhat better than in environmentalist organizations because feminist values are among the core values, at least in principle. Hence Greens are ideologically committed to eliminating patriarchal behavior. When that fails to occur, women leave the Greens, as they have demonstrated in several countries. Sometimes they return when conditions improve.

An example of the political issues addressed by ecofeminists is their vocal opposition to policies that reduce women of the Third(“developing”) and Fourth (indigenous) Worlds to “resources” in the emerging global economy. A leading ecofeminist critic, Vandana Shiva, who is an Indian physicist, maintains that “maldevelopment” is a new project of Western patriarchy, one that results in the death of the “feminine principle.” She asserts that the modern model of development being imposed by the West is inherently patriarchal because it is fragmented, “anti-life,” opposed to diversity, dominating, and delights in “progress” based on nature’s destruction and women’s subjugation. (18) Ecofeminists insist that Third and Fourth World women themselves must have control over decisions about whether to opt for local self-reliance or integrate into the global economy. Unfortunately, enormously powerful banks and transnational corporations in the “developed” world are furthering “maldevelopment” via centralized, large-scale projects that are usually capital-intensive, energy-intensive, and disruptive of local self-reliance and ecological integrity.

Spiritual Dimension

In addition to the philosophical and political aspects, ecofeminism contains a spiritual dimension. The ecofeminist alternative to the Western patriarchal worldview of fragmentation, alienation, agonistic dualisms, and exploitative dynamics is a radical reconceptualization that honors holistic integration: interrelatedness, transformation, embodiment, caring, and love. Such an orientation is simpatico with the teachings of several Eastern and indigenous spiritual traditions on nonduality and the relative nature of seemingly sharp divisions and separations. To refer to the ultimate mystery of creativity in the cosmos–its self-organizing, self-regulating dynamics– spiritual traditions draw on metaphor and symbol. Those may be female, male, or nonanthropomorphic, such as the Taoist perception of The Way. Ecofeminists are situated in all the major religious traditions, and most see good reason for women to use female imagery in references to “the divine,” or ultimate mystery in the cosmos. Particularly, in patriarchal societies, the choice of female metaphors is a healthy antidote to the cultural denigration of women. Those ecofeminists drawn to Goddess spirituality appreciate the nature-based sense of the sacred as immanent in the earth, our bodies, and the entire cosmic community–rather than being located in some distant father-god far removed from “entanglement” with matter. The transcendent nature of creativity in the cosmos, or the divine, lies not above us but in the infinite complexity of the sacred whole that continues to unfold. Goddess spirituality is not the sole tradition that contains these understandings, and even religions that are somewhat hostile to them are being persistently challenged by their own ecofeminist members.


In summary, ecofeminism is a movement that focuses attention on the historical linkage between denigration of nature and the female. It seeks to shed light on why Eurocentric societies, as well as those in their global sphere of influence, are now enmeshed in environmental crises and economic systems that require continuing the ecocide and the dynamics of exploitation. Ecofeminism continues the progression within traditional feminism from attention to sexism to attention to all systems of human oppression (such as racism, classism, ageism, and heterosexism) to recognition that “naturism”(the exploitation of nature) is also a result of the logic of domination. (19) Ecofeminism challenges environmental philosophy to abandon postures upholding supposedly gender-free abstract individualism and “rights” fixations and to realize that human relationships (between self and the rest of the world) are constitutive, not peripheral. Hence care for relationships and contextual embeddedness provides grounds for ethical behavior and moral theory. Politically, ecofeminists work in a broad range of efforts to halt destructive policies and practices and to create alternatives rooted in community-based legitimacy that honors the self-determination of women as well as men and that locates the well-being of human societies within the well-being of the entire earth community. Spiritually, ecofeminists are drawn to practices and orientations that nurture experiences of nonduality and loving reverence for the sacred whole that is the cosmos.

Ecofeminism is a global phenomenon that is bringing attention to the linked domination of women and nature in order that both aspects can be adequately understood. Ecofeminists seek to transform the social and political orders that promote human oppression embedded in ecocidal practices. The work consists of resistance, creativity, and hope.




1. See Charlene Spretnak, “Ecofeminism: Our Roots and Flowering,” in Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism, ed. Irene Diamond and Gloria Feman Orenstein (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990).

2. The anthologies include the one in the previous citation plus Healing the Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism, ed. Judith Plant (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1989); Ecofeminism. Women, Animals, and Nature, ed. Greta Gaard (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993); Ecofeminism and the Sacred, ed. Carol J. Adams (New York: Crossroads Press, 1993); Ecofeminist Philosophy, ed. Karen J. Warren (New York: Routledge); and Ecological Feminism, ed. Karen J. Warren(Bloomington: Indiana University Press).

3. See Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess: Unearthing the Hidden Symbols of Western Civilization and The Civilization of the Goddess: Neolithic Europe before the Patriarchy (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1989 and 1991respectively). Gimbutas cites the work of numerous European archaeologists in addition to the discoveries from her own excavations.

4. For an account of other, living options, see Peggy Reeves, Female Power and Male Dominance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

5. See Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988).

6. See Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper & Row,1980). Also see Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature: The Roaring inside Her (New York: Harper & Row, 1978).

7. The term “manstream” is used by Janis Birkeland to refer to the male-dominant manstream of Eurocentric societies. See ‘ Ecofeminism: Linking Theory and Practice,” in Gaard, ed., Ecofeminism.

8. See Val Plumwood, ”Nature, Self, and Gender: Feminism, Environmental Philosophy, and the Critique of Rationalism, “Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 6, no. 1 (Spring1991): 1-7; hereafter, “Nature,” with page references cited in the text.

9. See Marti Kheel, “The Liberation of Nature: A Circular Affair.” Environmental Ethics 7, no. 2 (Summer 1985): 139.

10. This list is common in feminist models for ethics, but Plumwood is citing here from a book on Buddhism, Francis Cook’s Hue-Yen Buddhism The Jewel Net of Indra (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977). Plumwood’s citation of an admirable approach to moral theory from a book on Buddhism reflects the common ground between many of the concerns of ecofeminism and those spiritual traditions that emphasize nonduality, wisdom, and compassion.

11. Marti Kheel, “Ecofeminism and Deep Ecology: Reflections on Identity and Difference,” Covenant for a New Creation: Ethics, Religion, and Public Policy, ed. Carol S. Robb and Carl J. Casebolt (Mary Knoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991), 142-45.

12. For a summary of the dialogue between ecofeminism and deep ecology as of spring 1987, see Michael E. Zimmerman, “Deep Ecology and Ecofeminism: The Emerging Dialogue,” in Diamond and Orenstein, eds., Reweaving the World. Also see the articles by Kheel and Plumwood cited in nn 8, 9, and 11, above. Also see Charlene Spretnak, ‘Radical Nonduality in Ecofeminist Philosophy,” in Warren, ed., Ecological Feminism.

13. See Pam Simmons, ‘The Challenge of Feminism,” The Ecologist 22, no. 1 (January/ February 1992): 2-3.

14. See Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development (London Zed Books, 1988). Also see Pam Simmons, “‘Women in Development’: A Threat to Liberation,” The Ecologist22, no. I (January/February 1992): 16-21.

15. See Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics Meat (New York: Continuum, 1990). Also see Andree Collard and Joyce Contrucci, Rape of the Wild: Men’s Violence against Animals and the Earth(London: The Women’s Press, 1988). Also see several articles in Gaard, ed., Ecofeminism. Also see the article by Kheel cited in n. 9. above.

16. See Irene Diamond, “Babies, Heroic Experts, and a Poisoned Earth,” Reweaving the World, 201-10. Also see Vandana Shiva,” The Seed and the Earth: Women, Ecology, and Biotechnology,” The Ecologist 22, no. I (January/February 1992): 4-7.

17. The “Ten Key Values” of’ the Green politics movement in the U.S. are ecological wisdom, nonviolence, grassroots democracy, social justice and personal responsibility, community-based economics, decentralization, feminism, respect for diversity, global responsibility, and sustainable future focus. See Charlene Spretnak and Fritjof Capra, Green Politics: The Global Promise (New York: Dutton, 1984)

18. See Shiva, Staying Alive.

19. See Karen J. Warren, “The Power and Promise of Ecological Feminism,” Environmental Ethics 12, no. 2 (Summer 1990):132-46. Note that the first footnote in this article is a bibliographic listing that cites numerous ecofeminist books and articles.