Ecological feminism (ecofeminism) emerged in the 1970s predominantly in North America, although the term was coined by Françoise d'Eaubonne in Le Féminisme ou la Mort (1974). In 1975 feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether suggested that there can be no liberation for women and no solution to the ecological crisis within a society whose fundamental model of relationships is one of domination (race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.). Ruether describes ecofeminism as the symbolic and social connection between the oppression of women and the domination of nature, grounded in a union between the radical ecology movement and feminism. Specifically she suggests that the women's movement must unite with the ecological movement to envision a radical reshaping of the basic socioeconomic relations and the underlying values of society.
The foundational perception is that connections exist between the oppression and domination of women and the oppression and domination of the Earth—or nature. In particular the mistrust or hatred of women (misogyny) and a fear of dependency on the natural world are the interlocking forces that ecofeminism is exposing and challenging. Ecofeminism expanded rapidly between the 1970s and the 1990s from numerous origins such as social and ecological activists and academics and from such diverse fields as feminism, social ecology, antiracism, and ecology. Ecofeminism is a convergence of the ecological and feminist analyses and movements. Like ecology and feminism, it is heterogeneous and has distinguishable components and orientations.
As Euro-Western societies developed, the combined influences of the rise of science, the dualisms of the Christian worldview, the philosophy of modernity, and the industrialization of the economy became the cultural forces that entrenched the feminizing of nature, the naturalizing of women, and their mutual entanglements in theoretical, historical, and cultural webs. The influence of what are called hierarchical dualisms is central to the development of the Western worldview and to ecofeminist critiques. Examples of such dualisms are men/women; heaven/earth; spirit/matter; mind/body; thought/emotion; culture/nature; order/chaos; rational/irrational; light/dark; and divine/demonic. These are hierarchical because the first receives a priority value over the second. They are dualistic because they are understood as opposites. However, there are also connections among the corresponding halves of the dualisms, such as among women, earth, matter, body, emotion, nature, chaos, irrational, dark, and demonic. Carolyn Merchant's study of the development of Western ideas and beliefs about the world has shown that these dualisms were, and continue to be, foundational to Western thought, values, and attitudes. They remain most often unconscious, yet they are fundamental to the Western world-view and belief systems, and they operate in every discipline and course of action. Ecofeminism challenges this hierarchical and dualistic worldview and holds that the domination of the Earth is enmeshed with the oppression of women. Ecofeminists claim that all oppressions, such as those based on class, race, gender, orientation, ableism, and the natural world, are interconnected within a logic of domination.
Ecofeminism is a third wave of feminism, meaning a convergence of ecology and feminism into a new social theory and political movement that addresses gender relations, social and economic systems, the use of science, the formation of cultural values, and human self-understanding in relation to the natural world. As feminism evolves into different branches, ecofeminism has embraced distinct feminist positions. Feminist theorists originating from liberal, cultural, social, socialist, radical, and postmodern critiques reflect distinctively on the relationship between women and the natural world and between misogyny and the ecological crisis. In addition, ecofeminist positions embrace distinct ecological paradigms, including resource-based environmentalism, social ecology, deep ecology, and/or cosmology. Many ecofeminists, such as Vandana Shiva, place a priority on action rather than theory. As ecofeminist philosopher Karen Warren remarks, the varieties of ecofeminism reflect not only the differences in the analysis of the woman/nature connection, but also differences on such fundamental matters as the nature of and the solutions to women's oppression, the theory of human nature, and the conceptions of freedom, equality, and epistemology on which various feminist theories depend.
What makes ecological feminism feminist is the commitment to the recognition and elimination of male-gender bias and the development of practices, policies, and theories that do not reflect this bias. What makes it ecological is an understanding of and commitment to the valuing and preserving of ecosystems, broadly understood. Far from being reductionist or simplistic, ecofeminism is a textured field of theoretical and experiential insights encompassing different forms of knowledge and embodied in the concrete. It is an interdisciplinary discourse within academia, a critique and a vision, spawning myriad books, articles, workshops, conferences, retreats, rituals, art, activism, and politics. There are publications covering ecofeminist philosophy, spirituality and religion, science, psychology, sociology, political thought and activism, economics and animal rights. Some specific problems addressed have included the history of the ideologies of women and nature, ecological degradation, ecological stress and human health, biodiversity, population, militarism, globalization, and exposing the players in ecological disasters. Ecofeminism is international in scope and connects women from around the world. It is analysis, critique, vision, and action.
Ecofeminism and Religion
Ecofeminist perspectives have had an impact on all aspects of religious understanding. The accumulation of work bringing ecofeminist analyses to bear on religious histories, systematic theologies, scriptural interpretations, spiritualities, and ethics is creating both unique viewpoints and substantial challenges. Religions are very influential in the formation of world-views, and some promote positions that are anti-women, antinature, or both. This may be evident in the teachings or is a consequence of how religions have engaged with cultures.
The ecofeminist challenge to religion is profound and permeates all layers of religious reflection and praxis. Ecofeminist religious perspectives are developing within classical religions such as Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, within new movements such as Wicca, Goddess, or New Age, and in some indigenous traditions. Some ecofeminists are examining their religions for insights, redeeming what could be helpful and negating detrimental aspects. Others are reclaiming ancient or obscured traditions or creating new ones. The issues are different in each case. The extent of the ecofeminist challenge to and confrontation with classical religions is in the initial states of articulation, most evident in the works of Rosemary Radford Ruether, an American Christian ecofeminist theologian.
As Ruether points out, the cultural-symbolic level of the relationship between sexism and ecological exploitation is the ideological superstructure that reflects and sanctions the social, economic, political, and religious order. Ecofeminist religious perspectives hold in tension the relationships between religion and culture, ethics of nature and history, and theory and praxis. One goal is to become conscious of the cultural effects of religious traditions and systems.
Current work involves the reinterpretation, expansion, or creation of particular doctrines, symbols, and metaphors that include and honor women and the natural world. Challenging foundational presuppositions and reshaping the infrastructure of religion remain the substantive and more difficult work. Although there are both continuities and discontinuities with classical religions, there are cherished notions in some traditions that need to be rejected, such as the inferiority of or the need to control women. Religious ecofeminists are also claiming that the Earth is sacred, and this is neither explicit nor accepted in some traditions. Yet a sense of the sacredness of the Earth and of all life has been central to spiritual awareness from time immemorial.
Given that ecofeminism embodies diversity and is evolving continuously, the implications of any ecofeminist theory or praxis are impossible to delineate. There are lively debates within ecofeminism concerning essentialism, romantic or utopic dreams of a harmonious past or future, apolitical spiritualities, and the relationship between theory and social transformation. Yet ecofeminists desire to heal the wounds caused by the splits between nature and culture, mind and body, women and men, reason and emotion, spirit and matter, theory and action, and ultimately between humans and the Earth.
See alsoDeep Ecology; Feminist Spirituality; Feminist Theology; Gender Roles; Masculine Spirituality; Matriarchal Core; Matriarchy; Nature Religion; Ordinationof Women; Patriarchy; Priestess; Womanist Theology; Women's Studies.
Adams, Carol, ed. Ecofeminism and the Sacred. 1993.
Diamond, Irene, and Gloria Orenstein, eds. Reweavingthe World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism. 1990.
Gaard, Greta. Ecological Politics: Feminism and theGreens. 1998.
Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. 1980.
Plant, Judith, ed. Healing the Wounds: The Promise ofEcofeminism. 1989.
Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. 1993.
Primavesi, Anne. From Apocalypse to Genesis: Ecology,Feminism and Christianity. 1991.
Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing. 1993.
Salleh, Ariel. Ecofeminism as Politics. 1997.
Shiva, Vandana, and Marie Mies. Ecofeminism. 1993.
Sturgeon, Noel. Ecofeminist Natures: Race, Gender, Feminist Theory, and Political Action. 1997.
Warren, Karen, ed. Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature. 1997.
Coined in 1974 by the French feminist Francoise d'Eaubonne, ecofeminism, or ecological feminism, is a recent movement that asserts that the environment is a feminist issue and that feminism is an environmental issue. The term ecofeminism has come to describe two related movements operating at somewhat different levels: (1) the grassroots, women-initiated activism aimed at eliminating the oppression of women and nature ; and (2) a newly emerging branch of philosophy that takes as its subject matter the foundational questions of meaning and justification in feminism and environmental ethics . The latter, more properly termed eco-feminist philosophy, stands in relation to the former as theory stands to practice. Though closely related, there nevertheless remain important methodological and conceptual distinctions between action- and theory-oriented ecofeminism.
The ecofeminist movement developed from diverse beginnings, nurtured by the ideas and writings of a number of feminist thinkers, including Susan Griffin, Carolyn Merchant, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Ynestra King, Ariel Salleh, and Vandana Shiva. The many varieties of feminism (liberal, marxist, radical, socialist, etc.) have spawned as many varieties of ecofeminism, but they share a common ground. As described by Karren Warren, a leading ecofeminist philosopher, ecofeminists believe that there are important con
nections—historical, experiential, symbolic, and theoretical—between the domination of women and the domination of nature. In the broadest sense, then, ecofeminism is a distinct social movement that blends theory and practice to reveal and eliminate the causes of the dominations of women and of nature.
While ecofeminism seeks to end all forms of oppression, including racism, classism, and the abuse of nature, its focus is on gender bias, which ecofeminists claim has dominated western culture and led to a patriarchal, masculine value-oriented hierarchy. This framework is a socially constructed mindset that shapes our beliefs, attitudes, values, and assumptions about ourselves and the natural world.
Central to this patriarchal framework is a pattern of thinking that generates normative dualisms. These are created when paired complementary concepts such as male/female, mind/body, culture/nature, and reason/emotion are seen as mutually exclusive and oppositional. As a result of socially-entrenched gender bias, the more "masculine" member of each dualistic pair is identified as the superior one. Thus, a value hierarchy is constructed which ranks the masculine characteristics above the feminine (e.g., culture above nature, man above woman, reason above emotion). When paired with what Warren calls a "logic of domination," this value hierarchy enables people to justify the subordination of certain groups on the grounds that they lack the "superior" or more "valuable" characteristics of the dominant groups. Thus, men dominate women, humans dominate nature, and reason is superior to emotion. Within this patriarchal conceptual framework, subordination is legitimized as the necessary oppression of the inferior. Until we reconceptualize ourselves and our relation to nature in non-patriarchal ways, ecofeminists maintain, the continued dual denigration of women and nature is assured.
Val Plumwood, an Australian ecofeminist philosopher, has traced the roots of the development of the oppression of women and the exploitation of nature to three points, the first two points sharing historical origins, the third having its genesis in human psychology. In the first of these historical women-nature connections, dualism has identified higher and lower "halves." The lower halves, seen as possessing less or no intrinsic value relative to their polar opposites, are instrumentalized and subjugated to serve the needs of the members of the "higher" groups. Thus, due to their historical association and supposedly shared traits, women and nature have been systematically devalued and exploited to serve the needs of men and culture.
The second of these historical women-nature connections is said to have originated with the rise of mechanistic science before and during the Enlightenment period. According to some ecofeminists, dualism was not necessarily negative or hierarchical; however, the rise of modern science and technology, reflecting the transition from an organic to a mechanical view of nature, gave credence to a new logic of domination. Rationality and scientific method became the only socially sanctioned path to true knowledge, and individual needs gained primacy over community. On this fertile soil were sown the seeds for an ethic of exploitation.
A third representation of the connections between women and nature has its roots in human psychology. According to this account, the features of masculine consciousness which allow men to objectify and dominate are the result of sexually-differentiated personality development. As a result of women's roles in both creating and maintaining/nurturing life, women develop "softer" ego boundaries than do men, and thus they generally maintain their connectedness to other humans and to nature, a connection which is reaffirmed and recreated generationally. Men, on the other hand, psychologically separate both from their human mothers and from Mother Earth, a process which results in their desire to subdue both women and nature in a quest for individual potency and transcendence. Thus, sex differences in the development of self/other identity in childhood are said to account for women's connectedness with, and men's alienation from, both humanity and nature.
Ecofeminism has attracted criticism on a number of points. One is the implicit assumption in certain ecofeminist writings that there is some connection between women and nature that men either do not possess or cannot experience. And, why female activities such as birth and childcare should be construed as more "natural" than some traditional male activities remains to be demonstrated. This assumption, though, has left some ecofeminists open to charges of having constructed a new value hierarchy to replace the old, rather than having abandoned hierarchical conceptual frameworks altogether. Hints of hierarchical thinking can be found in such ecofeminist practices as goddess worship and in the writings of some radical ecofeminists who advocate the abandonment of reason altogether in the search for an appropriate human-nature relationship. Rather than having destroyed gender bias, some ecofeminists are accused of merely attempting to reverse its polarity, possibly creating new, subtle forms of women's oppression. Additionally, some would argue that ecofeminism runs the risk of oversimplification in suggesting that all struggles between dominator and oppressed are one and the same and thus can be won through unity.
A lively debate is currently underway concerning the compatibility of ecofeminism with other major theories or schools of thought in environmental philosophy. For instance, discussions of the similarities and differences between ecofeminism and deep ecology occupy a large portion of the recent theoretical literature on ecofeminism. While deep ecologists are primarily concerned with anthropocentrism as the primary cause of our destruction of nature, ecofeminists point instead to androcentrism as the key problem in this regard. Nevertheless, both groups aim for the expansion of the concept of "self" to include the natural world, for the establishment of a biocentric egalitarianism, and for the creation of connection, wholeness, and empathy with nature.
Given the newness of ecofeminism as a theoretical discipline, it is no surprise that the nature of ecofeminist ethics is still emerging. A number of different feminist-inspired positions are gaining prominence, including feminist animal rights , feminist environmental ethics based on caregiving, feminist social ecology , and feminist bioregionalism . Despite the apparent lack of a unified and overarching environmental philosophy, all forms of ecofeminism do share a commitment to developing ethics which do not sanction or encourage either the domination of any group of humans or the abuse of nature. Already, ecofeminism has shown us that issues in environmental ethics and philosophy cannot be meaningfully or adequately discussed apart from considerations of social domination and control. If ecofeminists are correct, then a fundamental reconstruction of the value and structural relations of our society, as well as a reexamination of the underlying assumptions and attitudes, is necessary.
[Ann S. Causey ]
Des Jardins, J. Environmental Ethics: An Introduction to Environmental Philosophy. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1993.
Griffin, S. Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.
Adams, C., and K. Warren. "Feminism and the Environment: A Selected Bibliography." APA Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy (Fall 1991).
Vance, Linda. "Remapping the Terrain: Books on Ecofeminism." Choice 30 (June 1993): 1585-93.
Ecofeminism is a cultural, political, and scholarly movement that synthesizes the principles of environmentalism and feminism. Although the term ecofeminism suggests an alliance with feminist scholarship, the relationship of ecofeminism with feminism is problematic and complex. Feminists often have been wary of associating women with nonhuman nature. That reluctance stems from a set of traditional, culturally constructed binary oppositions: culture/nature and male/female. In this pair of binaries, men generally are allied with culture and women usually are associated with nature. The connection between women and nature historically has been used as a justification for excluding women from the realms of reason and culture. Feminists have objected to these hierarchies and often critique the idea that women are inherently closer to nature than to culture. Feminists have disassociated women from nonhuman nature entirely in order to critique these hierarchies.
THE NATURE AND GOALS OF ECOFEMINISM
Ecofeminism, in contrast, focuses on the relationship between women and nature and integrates environmentalism and feminism. Although the views of ecofeminists vary, the central premise of ecofeminism is that the domination of women and that of nonhuman nature are inextricably linked. Ecofeminists argue that nonhuman nature frequently is coded as feminine (the term Mother Earth for example) and that the patriarchal culture that sanctions the subjection of women also supports the domination and destruction of the "feminine" natural world. Ecofeminists are united by similar environmental philosophies as well. Most are at least somewhat critical of anthropocentrism (the belief that humans are of central importance in the universe), and many emphasize the importance of biological and cultural diversity and favor symbiotic relationships over hierarchical ones.
The goals of ecofeminism inside and outside academia are influenced strongly by the desire for concrete change. Ecofeminists work toward a more balanced relationship between human and nonhuman nature, between male and female. Whether activists, scholars, or both, ecofeminists question and critique traditional hierarchies and propose new ways to envision the world without dependence on the domination of women or nonhuman nature. Some ecofeminists approach this task by investigating the historical and cultural roots of the association between women and nonhuman nature, and others explore the implications and potentialities of an intimate relationship between women and nonhuman nature. Still others dispute the alleged link between gender and nonhuman nature altogether. On a more practical level, ecofeminist activists attempt to influence environmental policies and laws nationally and locally.
Ecofeminism should not be thought of as a single, fully coherent movement. Rather, it is diverse and polyvalent. Carolyn Merchant (1990) provides a useful breakdown of three main branches of ecofeminism: liberal, radical, and socialist. Liberal ecofeminists work for change within existing systems of power. Radical ecofeminists believe that the connection between women and nature is empowering and that the existing system must be overturned for genuine change to occur. Socialist ecofeminists add a critique of the capitalist system to the critique of patriarchy (Merchant 1990). These categorizations are broad, but they provide a helpful tool for thinking about the variety of approaches within ecofeminism.
Ecofeminism began as and remains an interdisciplinary movement that is tied to radical or cultural feminism, earth-based religions, and the ecological movement known as deep ecology. Ecofeminism uses the insights of radical feminism to suggest ways in which gender hierarchies can be overthrown. The study of earth-based religion in turn provides inspiration for ecofeminists who want to explore the potentially empowering relationship between women and nonhuman nature. Much of the environmental philosophy of ecofeminists stems from the work of deep ecologists, particularly the critique of Western culture and anthropocentrism. The French writer Françoise d'Eaubonne first used the term ecofeminisme in 1974; in the same year the first academic conference that specifically addressed the topic of women and nonhuman nature was held at University of California-Berkeley. By the end of the twentieth century ecofeminism had entered mainstream academia and spread from women's studies and philosophy departments to disciplines such as literature, social sciences, geography, and biology. In the 1990s feminist and environmental journals such as ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Frontiers, and Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy published special issues dedicated to the exploration of ecofeminism.
DISPUTES WITHIN AND CRITIQUES OF ECOFEMINISM
Disputes between ecofeminists arise from different interpretations of the central premise of ecofeminism that gender and the environment are related to each other. Some accept the idea that women have a "closer" relationship with nature than men do and try to valorize that connection. These ecofeminists assert that the alignment of women with nature enables women to respond to environmental crises more thoughtfully and productively than men who are invested in dominating nature. According to this group of ecofeminists, women provide a much-needed alternative vision of nonhuman nature that moves away from environmental destruction. Furthermore, they claim that the connection between women and nature can be empowering because it aligns women with the primordial strength of "Mother Nature." Others reject that hypothesis and argue that ecofeminists should focus their attention on critiquing the idea that women are intimately connected to nonhuman nature. They argue that ecofeminists who accept and celebrate the relationship between women and nonhuman nature are inadvertently reinforcing the traditional gender hierarchies that ecofeminists should be dismantling. These ecofeminists point out that focusing only on the positive relationship between women and nonhuman nature does not consider the idea that women also can be involved in the destruction of the nonhuman natural world or take into account the significant differences between women and nonhuman nature.
Critics of ecofeminism often focus on ecofeminists of the first variety. As a result, ecofeminism has been dismissed as a philosophy of essentialism because it seems to propose that women are inherently and biologically more closely linked to nonhuman nature than are men. Furthermore, critics note that ecofeminists neglect the importance of race and class, favoring the perspectives of white middle-class women. Although these critiques are necessary for the growth and development of ecofeminism, they ignore the multiple perspectives within ecofeminism that address these concerns. The strength of ecofeminism derives from its diversity of origins, practitioners, and philosophical approaches. Ecofeminists come to the movement from various perspectives, but they are united by a dedication to the investigation of the interconnections between gender and the environment and a commitment to providing concrete, positive change.
see also Feminism: IV. Western.
Alaimo, Stacy. 2000. Undomesticated Ground: Recasting Nature as a Feminist Space. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Kolodny, Annette. 1975. The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Merchant, Carolyn. 1980. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Plumwood, Val. 1993. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. London and New York: Routledge.
Warren, Karen. 2000. Ecofeminist Philosophy: A Western Perspective on What It Is and Why It Matters. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
The term ecofeminism was first used by French radical feminist Françoise d'Eaubonne (b. 1920) in 1974 to synthesize two movements previously thought of as separate: ecology and feminism. D'Eaubonne saw clear interconnections between the domination of women and that of nature, and she hoped, by making these interconnections explicit, to rescue the planet from the destructive effects of "the male system" and restore it for the benefit of humanity's future.
Ecofeminism offers a range of theoretical positions in which the prefix eco signifies the whole household of life. These positions include stringent critiques of reductionist ecological science because of its destructive effects on the whole. Ecofeminism is defined, however, by politically and socially multivalent feminist analyses that seek a positive understanding of the dialectic between nature and humanity in order to move beyond masculine domination of both women and nature.
The relationship between nature and human culture remains problematic for ecofeminists because the feminization of nature has contributed conceptually to downgrading women's cultural role and status. Ecofeminists reject a male elite model of human culture that inferiorizes and excludes groups of people, as well as nature. Within industrially developed societies, ecofeminists debate the issue of gender difference within cultures in dialogue with movements such as deep ecology, antimilitarism, animal liberation, antiracism, and environmental justice. Globally, ecofeminists consistently critique the environmental effects of gendered science and resource management, together with economic development models that have a disproportionate and often disastrous impact on women.
Ecofeminism also offers a potentially transformative philosophy of the self and of society. Influenced by process thought and Gaia science, every entity is seen as internally related to all aspects of its environment, with that relationship as part of what the entity is in itself. This awareness of ecological interdependence calls for an essentially nonviolent ethic of care within societies. It includes care for the fundamental elements of life in recognition of their limits, as well as attention to their present and future ecological and social costs.
Worldwide, ecofeminism focuses on relationships between global economic policies and global ecological crises, arguing that addressing the first in the form of a radical transformation of capitalist production, from an overwhelmingly competitive system to a cooperative one, benefits the global environment. Therefore ecofeminists unite with social justice organizations in order to reach out and care for those statistically most at risk from, but powerless to avert, environmental degradation: the poor, women, children, and indigenous peoples.
Ecofeminism encourages, indeed, requires a reshaping of the image of God from a hierarchical God above and beyond Earth to one continuously involved with, while not confined by, the evolutionary history of life on Earth. Therefore, ecofeminism fosters a sense of our belonging within, rather than being in control of, the community of life. The insights of process theology, feminist theology, non-traditional spiritualities, and the spiritualities of indigenous communities with a strong matriarchal tradition are used to highlight ecological interdependence and the value of biodiversity in all its forms. Many of these insights demonstrate a diversity of response to what is called sacred or divine.
See also Animal Rights; Deep Ecology; Ecology; Ecology, Ethics of; Ecology, Religious and Philosophical Aspects; Ecology, Science of; Ecotheology; Feminisms and Science; Feminist Cosmology; Feminist Theology; Gaia Hypothesis; Womanist Theology
d'eaubonne, françoise. "the time for ecofeminism," trans. ruth hottell. in ecology: key concepts in critical theory, eds. carolyn merchant and roger s. gottlieb. atlantic highlands, n.j.: humanities press international, 1994.
merchant, carolyn. earthcare: women and the environment. london and new york: routledge, 1996.
mies, maria, and shiva, vandana. ecofeminism. london and atlantic highlands, n.j.: zed books, 1993.
plumwood, val. feminism and the mastery of nature. london and new york: routledge, 1993.
primavesi, anne. sacred gaia: holistic theology and earth system science. london and new york: routledge, 2000.
sturgeon, noël. ecofeminist natures: race, gender, feminist theory, and political action. london and new york: routledge, 1997.
warren, karen, ed. ecological feminism. london and new york: routledge, 1994.