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September 8, 2008 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Mother Earth?

An overview of ecofeminism and its claims that women and nature are not only inextricably linked, but routinely exploited by men because of this connection.

While it’s difficult to isolate a universally agreed upon definition of ecofeminism, ecofeminist theory broadly involves an analysis of the patriarchal domination of women and the corresponding exploitation of the environment. Ecofeminists argue that Western thought erects hierarchical schemes defined by dualisms (man/woman, nature/man), that woman is associated with nature on spiritual and physical grounds, and that these connections are significant because they are an excuse for women’s and nature’s oppression by the patriarchy. Nature-woman connections can, however, also be used to empower women to act as agents for social change, and, as these connections embrace all women, can unify and inspire women across the world in a way that other feminist strands cannot.

The women-nature connection: reawakening the Goddess

The most fundamental connection between nature and women is also the most simple. The earth itself, the firmament from which all life springs, was from ancient times seen as female. The earth is metaphorically equated with our motherhood (Mother Nature, Mother Earth). The logic behind this connection is evident in physical terms: it is from the earth and the environment that we draw our oxygen, our food, our water and all the raw materials we need to survive, as it is inside our mother that we grow, and from her that we are born and nurtured. Women, earth and nature are connected in their capacity to give life.

Women and nature are connected on more than a physical level. Respected ecofeminist Vandana Shiva argues that, as women in various reformist movements began to rediscover the “connectedness” of everything in life, they also rediscovered female spirituality (spirituality being the realisation of this connectedness). The importance of the witch hunts in the beginning of the early modern era began to dawn on feminists, as patriarchal science and technology (which triumphs man’s independence and domination over nature) only developed after these women had been murdered, and, as a result, “their knowledge, wisdom and close relationship with nature had been destroyed.” Ecofeminists argue that women and nature are connected through this lost spirituality, a spirituality that needs to be rediscovered and recreated: the Goddess must be reawakened.

How is this idea of the female spirituality principle related to woman-nature connections? The goddess is not seen as set apart from the material world in the way the Christian God or Christ is; rather, she is the life-force, the connecting principle, in every woman. Ecofeminists are critical of patriarchal religions, especially Christianity, which seek spiritual answers from a force located outside our world and human chronology. The ecological significance of the goddess can be found in the rediscovery of the sacredness of life and in a reawakened understanding of our relationship with nature: we, man and woman alike, should all recognise ourselves as embodied by, and embedded, in our natural environment. Many ecofeminists view spirituality as the force which links women to each other, to other living things and to nature. Life on earth can only be preserved if people begin to perceive all life forms as sacred and respect them as such. This reverence for life is not to be found in other-worldly transcendence, but in everything that surrounds us as we live our lives now. The ecofeminist reclamation and celebration of the sacred goddess is a celebration of our dependence on, and symbioses with, earth and nature.

A further connection between woman and nature (probably as a result of the maternal, life-bearing capacities of both) is that which has been forged by the patriarchal system under which the world operates. Modern civilisation (which ecofeminists see as capitalist patriarchy) is founded on what Shiva calls a “cosmology and anthropology that structurally dichotomizes I lift a song to the mother of all things, firm-rooted Gaea, mother and nurse of whatever is born into life on the earth. Beasts of the shining land, fishes that swim in the waters, flying birds of the air – all feed at your bountiful breast. From you, O mistress of life, all fruit and increase arises; mortals too must concur if you give them life or deny it. reality and hierarchy opposes the two parts to each other: the one always considered superior, always thriving, and progressing at the expense of another.” Examples of these hierarchical dichotomies include the subordination of woman to man, the local to the global, and nature to man. Feminists have long criticised this dualistic method of classification and subordination, “particularly the structural division of man and nature, which is seen as analogous to that of man and woman.”

Ecofeminists also point to the fact that modern science and society see self-interest as the impulse of all activity. Darwin discovered this principle in nature, with the result that symbioses, the very connectedness that cradles and feeds life, is ignored in favour of the competitive, supposedly natural instinct for survival of the fittest that all living creatures are taken to innately possess.

Shiva says that a global perspective of this sort “militates against an appreciation of the enriching potential of the diversity of life and cultures.”

Are we really closer to nature than men?

It’s time to turn a sceptic’s eye to ecofeminist claims that women and nature go handin- hand. Are women closer to nature than men? Do we share a physical and spiritual connection with the earth that our be-penised counterparts don’t?

Catherine Roach is critical of the ecofeminist association of woman and nature through the concept of motherhood. She says that “the earth is not our mother.” Although she recognises the similarities between women and ‘mother nature’ in their mothering functions, she feels that the metaphorical associations of earth or nature with mother becomes problematic and harmful to both women and the environment. She bases her argument on the environmental “Love Your Mother” slogan. We “do not unambiguously love our mothers.” Mother’s work is often unrecognised, she is too often abandoned and left to raise her child without a father. She is the target of deeply ambivalent feelings: she is both an object of love as the primary caretaker and an object of hate as the malevolent discipliner. Furthermore, Roach argues that we never really see our mothers as fully human. Her logic suggests that equating motherhood with loving the earth as our mother might produce difficulties for both women and the earth.

Roach also argues that the biological association which proffers women as being more attuned to the environment is unconvincing. She feels that although men do not breastfeed or bear children, they have in common with women other biological processes (such as eating, sleeping, breathing), and in addition “in their ejaculation of semen they have experience of a tangible stuff of the reproduction of life.” And what of those women who do not have children? If it is the biological process of motherhood that connects nature and women, are those women who cannot or choose not to reproduce less in sync with nature? Roach also approaches the issue of the goddess spirituality, and argues that an overemphasis on the goddess as procreating mother in turn overemphasizes the place of motherhood in women’s lives and “obscures the presence of lesbians, of single women.”

…and why does the women-nature connection even matter?

Assuming that ecofeminists’ ‘women and nature’ claims are valid, the next step is to understand why they are significant. Ecofeminists argue that the connection is important because of the results it produces.

The role of patriarchy in identifying women with nature, and arguably using this connection for exploitative purposes has already been discussed. How is this significant in the context of women and their relation to nature? Competitiveness produces stratification. The dominant will rise, the weaker will fall. Men are (allegedly) closer to culture, and women to nature: therefore the dominant male will rise and the subjugated female will continue to be oppressed. This is a ‘natural’ consequence of the patriarchal perspective. An ecofeminist perspective, however, asserts the need for a new cosmology and a new anthropology, which recognises that life in nature is maintained by means of cooperation, mutual care and love. Only in this way, ecofeminists stress, can we respect diversity in all its forms. We must forge a holistic, all-embracing lifestyle, and in doing so we must reject the modern concept of freedom used since the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment notion of freedom, according to ecofeminists, depends on a continuing progress of emancipation from nature; independence from and dominance over nature by the powers of logic and rationality. Carolyn Merchant documents how, during the the scientific revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a new ethic developed which endorsed greater control and domination over both nature and women. Modern Western thought has defined itself in opposition to nature. But, says the ecofeminist, as more people reflect on why the application of modern science and technology (supposedly man’s greatest liberators) has succeeded in producing only increased ecological degradation, the more aware they are of the contradiction between Enlightenment logic of emancipation and the eco-logic of maintaining and caring for natural cycles of regeneration. Under our patriarchal, capitalist world system, women and nature are the victims of man’s ‘freedom’ from nature. The prevailing view of nature has changed, influenced by scientific thought, from being an organic model of the cosmos to a mechanical physical system. Therefore, as long we perceive women as closer to nature within a patriarchal model which perceives nature to be mechanical and legitimately exploitable, both nature and women will suffer.

The woman-nature connection is also significant in that women can achieve social change by embracing their connection with nature. Ecofeminists argue that women are more likely than men to care about nature, and are better equipped to do so. The woman-nature association empowers women to act as their own agents on the path to reformation. The woman-nature connection is used as a tool of oppression by the patriarchy, but can also be one of women’s’ greatest assets.

In the autumn of 1981, a growing network of women in Britain protested the escalation of the nuclear arms race, in particular the sighting of US nuclear cruise missiles at Greenham Common. Greenham was an example of ecofeminist practice; the women who lived in the commune that was established there protested militarism, ecological destruction committed by the military, and the connection between personal violence and violence on a global and planetary level. Greenham women gathered to “recognise the fundamental connection between militarism … sexism … and environmental devastation,” embracing their connection with nature in an attempt to remind the rest of the world that nature’s destruction was women’s destruction.

Finally, woman-nature connections are arguably significant because they have the potential to embrace and inspire all women. Women the world over are oppressed by what ecofeminists describe as a patriarchal, capitalist world order, and women the world over are raising their voices in condemnation and protestation at man’s continued exploitation. On the night of 2-3 December 1984, 40 tonnes of toxic gas were released from a Union Carbide pesticides plant in Bhopal, India. Three thousand people died during the disaster. Of the 400,000 others who were exposed, many have since died. Women have been those most severely affected, but also the most relentless in their demands for justice. The Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986 motivated an unprompted expression of women’s outrage at nuclear war technology. New developments in biotechnology and reproductive technology have made women the world over aware of patriarchal sciences’ anti-nature aims to dispossess women of their generative capacity, as science does the productive capacities of nature. The Feminist International Network of Resistance to Genetic and Reproductive Engineering (fiNRRAGE) was founded in 1984 in response to these developments, reaching beyond the narrow scope of other areas of feminism to embrace all women, from trade unions to churches to rural women to urban women to workers to housewives – all of whom stood up together to mobilise against these technologies. The woman-nature connection is applicable to women all over the world, as these examples show. It is unifying, whereas other areas of feminism can be divisive. It promotes networking and connection between women on a global scale, and encourages all women to be part of a larger struggle for the preservation of life on this planet.

The women are speaking. Those who were identified as having nothing to say, as sweet silence or monkey chatterers,those who were identified with Nature, which listens, asagainst Man who speaks, those people are speaking.

They speak for themselves and for the other people, the others who have been silent, or silenced, or unheard, the animals, the trees, the rivers, the rocks.

And what they say is: We are Sacred.

Ursula Le Guinn “Women/Wildness”


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  1. derekguy says:

    I really liked reading this article, it was… imaginative. Perhaps it could be because I am a man but I disagree with the idea that humans (male or female) are connected in any special way to the Earth. I find the idea that we are parasitic far more compelling. Our extensive resource gathering and consumption force us to recognise the face that we are not connected (spiritually or otherwise) to our planet. We consume our fill and give nothing back to the planet the way a naatural member of the food chain would.

    The idea that women are connected to nature more so than men confuses me. I can see how we metaphorically link the two (givers of life, sustainers) but the idea that men oppress nature and as a result women simply doesn’t follow. There are plenty of exceptions; in my experience women not being oppressed or subjugated is the rule with very few exceptions.

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