As we begin to celebrate the reemergence of the verdant earth after its Winter dormancy, it seems propitious 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 Ambruster. As she has written and presented on this subject, 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: Stereotypically, the term first posited 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.
RN: And what about ecofeminism today?
KA: This view has evolved from a diverse background, including not only ecology and feminism, but also socialism, philosophy, women’s spirituality, and grassroots political activism. It includes the Anti-toxics movement, Socialism, Anti-nuclear/ peace movement, Environmentalism, Feminism, Animal rights, Women’s spirituality, and Philosophy.
The phenomenon that most, if not all, ecofeminist thought and practice starts with is the relationship between women and nature — the simple fact that they are often linked.
What comes out in Annette Kolodny’s work (Lay of the Land) is the issue of domination — the way 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 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: Common thread running through all ecofeminist thought and action: oppression of women and destruction and misuse of nature are connected. 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: 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:
It’s fairly obvious that those on the left are valued over those on the right.
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.
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 closer to nature.
What kind of activism is happening today under the concept 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 up the mountains to gather fuel. Now known as the Chipko Movement, Hindi for “to cling,” the name reflected 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 Ambruster, 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.
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 shy scientist changed our thinking about the environment and led to the regulation of pesticides.
Let’s Celebrate Our History!