Ecofeminist Perspectives

In Kenya, women of the Green Belt movement band together to plant millions of trees in degraded lands. In India, they join the chipko (tree-hugging) movement to preserve precious fuel resources for their communities. In Sweden, feminists prepare jam from berries sprayed with herbicides to offer a taste to members of parliament- they refuse. In the United States, housewives organize local support to clean up hazardous waste sites. All these actions are examples of a worldwide movement known by many as "ecofeminism," dedicated to the continuation of life on earth.

Ecofeminism emerged in the 1970s at a time when consciousness of the connection between women and nature increased. The term "ecofeminisme" was coined in 1977 by French writer Françoise d'Eaubonne, who called upon women to lead an ecological revolution to save the planet. During the 1980s cultural feminists in the United States injected new life into ecofeminism by arguing that both women and nature could be liberated together. Liberal, cultural, social and socialist feminism have all been concerned with improving the relationship between humans and nature, and each has contributed to an ecofeminist perspective in different ways.

Multiple Facets

Liberal feminism is consistent with the objectives of reform environmentalism; to alter human relations through the passage of new laws and regulations. Cultural ecofeminism analyzes environmental problems within its critique of patriarchy and offers alternatives that could liberate both women and nature. Social and socialist ecofeminists ground their analyses in issues of reproduction, the domination of women by men and how capitalist relations of production reveal the domination of nature by men.

Generally speaking, ecofeminists address contradictions between production and reproduction, while attempting to make problems more visible and propose solutions. For example, when radioactivity, toxic chemicals and hazardous wastes threaten the biological reproduction of the human species, ecofeminists view these threats as assaults on women's bodies and on those of their children and act to halt them. Household products, industrial pollutants, plastics and packaging wastes are viewed as invaders to the homes of women, endangering their lives. Likewise, direct access to food, fuel and clean water is imperiled by cash cropping on traditional homelands and by pesticides used in agribusiness. Such chemicals threaten women's lives by polluting their water and food systems, leading to disease and birth defects. Chemicals, some argue, promote the growth of export crops which draw women into a spiral of dependency, inevitably (and ironically) leading to soil nutrient depletion. Rather than addressing short-sighted, single ended production, the ecofeminist agenda demands attention to the cyclical processes that connect and sustain all living beings.

Women can combat such hazards by altering family consumption habits, recycling household wastes and protesting waste production and disposal methods. They act to protect traditional ways of life and reverse ecological damage from irresponsible multinational corporations and extractive industries. Through envisioning and enacting alternative gender roles, employment options and political practices, ecofeminists challenge the ways mainstream society reproduces itself.

Cultural ecofeminists hold that women are closer to nature than men because of their physiology and social roles. Women bring forth life from their bodies, and undergo the pleasures and pains of menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and nursing. In a social sense, childrearing and domestic caretaking have kept women close to the hearth and thus closer to nature. Some cultural ecofeminists celebrate the relationship between women and nature by reviving ancient rituals centered on goddess worship, the moon and the female reproductive system. An ecofeminist vision by which nature is held in esteem as mother and goddess is a source of inspiration and empowerment to women. Cultural ecofeminism embraces intuition, an ethic of caring and connective human relationships.

In contrast to cultural ecofeminism, the social and socialist strands of ecofeminism treat nature and human nature as socially constructed and subject to analysis in terms of race, class and gender. Some critics of cultural ecofeminism think it fails to adequately analyze the role of capitalism in humans' attempts to dominate nature. Some critics dispute the assumption that women's essential nature transcends socialization, which implies that what men do to the planet is bad and what women do is good. The belief that women have a special relationship to nature, claim critics, makes it difficult to accept that men too can possess or develop a genuine ethic of caring for nature.

Examining Ethics

Many ecofeminists advocate some form of a nurturing, caring environmental ethic to confront the oppression of women and nature by men. Such an ethic recognizes and embraces the multiple voices of women differentiated by race, class, age and ethnicity. An ecofeminist ethical perspective grounded in care and nurturing is pluralist, inclusive and contextual and thus constrains traditional ethics that are based on rules and utilitarian gender roles.

An alternative ecofeminist perspective is a partnership ethic that treats women and men as collaborators with nature. Just as human partners must give each other space, time and care, regardless of sex, race and class, allowing each other to grow and develop within a supportive relationships, so should humans give nature the space, time and care it needs to reproduce, evolve and respond to human actions. By constructing nature as a partner, it is more possible for individuals to have a personal, compassionate relationship with nature as well as with people who are sexually, racially or culturally different. The partnership ethic avoids casting nature as a nurturing goddess, and transcends the notion that humans are but one part of a vast ecological web and, thus, morally equal to a bacterium or mosquito.

In Closing

The ecofeminist perspective is not singularly defined. It is comprised of a multitude of stances which continually cross check and critique each other. It is a dynamic and evolving perspective which, like women, ought not be held to any single definition. The many strands of the ecofeminist movement are woven together by the concept of reproduction and the continence of life on earth. In this sense there is more unity than diversity in ecofeminist's common goal of restoring the quality of the natural environment and for people and other living and non-living inhabitants of the planet. Merchant, Carolyn. 1992. Radical Ecology. New York, NY. Routledge. pp 183-209.