By Rebecca Now
As we begin to celebrate the reemergence of the verdant earth after its Winter dormancy, it seems a good time to explore the history and evolution of the concept of Ecofeminism. I admit only recently being introduced to this term, and to help understand it, I have called on Webster University professor of English and Chair of the University’s Sustainability Committee, Karla Armbruster, Ph.D. She has written and presented on the subject of ecofeminism, and I met with her recently.
RN: What is ecofeminism and how did this term first come to be?
KA: French feminist Françoise D'Eaubonne is credited with coining the word ecofeminism in 1974. She came up with it as part of a quest to describe the epic violence inflicted on women and nature as a result of male domination. She did not have much influence other than that, but a number of disciplines and movements have contributed to the diverse ideas and practices that make up ecofeminism.
RN: Tell me about those ideas.
KA: Sometimes ecofeminism is viewed simplistically as meaning that women are closer to nature because of their bodily functions (menstruation, childbirth, nursing), while man’s physiology frees him to take up projects of culture; woman’s body seems to doom her to mere reproduction, while man is free to take up activities such as traveling, hunting, warfare, public affairs. However, most ecofeminist thinkers hold more complex views.
RN: And what are those views?
KA: Ecofeminism has evolved from diverse sources, including not only environmentalism and feminism, but also socialism, philosophy, and women's spirituality. There is also a more activist aspect of ecofeminism that comes out of movements against toxics, against nuclear weapons, and for animal rights. Because of these multiple origins and influences, there are many different facets to ecofeminism. However, most, if not all, ecofeminist thought and practice starts with the phenomenon that women and nature have often been culturally linked and that this link has been used to dominate both. In The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters, for example, Annette Kolodny discusses early American culture to show how the feminization of nature has primarily functioned to justify and even naturalize the domination and exploitation of nature. (The association of women with nature has similarly functioned to justify and naturalize their domination by men.) Understanding and working against domination is perhaps the most central concern of ecofeminism. However, ecofeminists do more than critique instances of the woman-nature connection (in fact, some celebrate it). So what do they all have in common? Ecofeminists like to use metaphors of webs and weaving, so I will borrow that metaphor and say that the common thread running through all ecofeminist thought and action is a belief that the oppression of women and destruction and misuse of nature are connected and a commitment to challenging the forces that work against both.
RN: It seems to me that ecofeminists are working toward holistic thinking on a range of topics, is that the case?
KA: Yes. For many ecofeminists, the first step is recognizing the dualisms that structure our thinking about not just gender and nature but also race, and all sorts of other categories, such as: • man/woman • human/nonhuman • culture/nature • mind/matter • soul/body • rationality/emotion • white/of color It’s fairly obvious that those categories on the left have typically been valued over those on the right in Western cultures, so these are hierarchical dualisms. What ecofeminists emphasize, though, is that the devaluation of each category on the right does not occur in isolation, that these devaluations, which legitimize domination, are interconnected. The most powerful approaches to ecofeminism reject the entire mindset of dualism and hierarchy.
RN: I find it interesting to note that women did not gain equal voting rights with men until the Industrial Revolution, with New Zealand in 1893, the United States in 1920, and France in 1944. So it seems to me that moving from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy was a major factor in advancing women’s rights.
KA: I would say that women were disadvantaged in social standing when they were living closer to nature, but some of them still found ways to speak up for themselves, other animals, and the natural world.
RN: What kind of activism is happening today under the model of Ecofeminism?
In 1974, a group of about thirty women in the Himalayas of Northern India united to save more than 10,000 square miles of forest watershed. Deforestation in the Himalayan forests had caused landslides, flooding and major soil erosion and had forced women villagers to hike further and further up the mountains to gather fuel. Now known as the Chipko Movement, Hindi for "to cling," the name reflects the protesters' practice of throwing their arms around the trunks of trees marked for chopping and refusing to move. This practice and term later became popular in other areas of the world and was popularly called "tree-hugging."
RN: Thank you Professor Armbruster, for sharing this with Women’s Journal readers. As we celebrate this time of rejoicing in Earth Day and revitalizing ecological awareness and activism, I encourage readers to check out the excellent documentary on Rachel Carson on PBS. www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/ films/RachelCarsonsSilentSpring/ Rachel was a giant in ecofeminism before the term was even coined. She changed the conversation in the United States, with the publication of Silent Spring in 1962 and it rippled worldwide. This reserved, some would say shy, scientist changed our thinking about the environment and led to the regulation of pesticides. Let’s Celebrate Our History!