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Feminism and Ecology:
A Matter of Survival
by Helen Forsey

Graphic Lorelyn Medina, Shutterstock
The poster publicizing David Suzuki's television series A Planet for the Taking stated: “We have long thought of ourselves as masters of the natural world, but now that drive to dominate and control is having dangerous consequences. Can we change the way we see our relationship with the other life forms on earth?”

“Right on”, most of us would say. But wait a minute. Does that description really apply so broadly, even in our modern Western societies? Don't most women find it hard to imagine ourselves as “masters” of anything?

I am not quibbling over the choice of words. The “drive to dominate and control” has typically been seen as a mark of manhood, and the threat it poses is far from new. For women, children, and other living things, it has always been dangerous.

The view of the universe described in the poster is certainly the one that predominates in our culture, but it is a view of reality as men tend to experience it. If we accept it as gender-neutral we are making a grave mistake.

Historians tell us that mechanistic science, which gave rise to modern industrial society, was very much a masculine enterprise right from the start, filled with explicit images of the all-powerful male mind conquering a female Nature. Women pacifists, suffragists and abolitionists have long pointed out the linkages between war, male dominance, and other oppressions. Today, ecofeminists extend those understandings to the environmental crisis, recognizing a common thread in the oppression of women, of nature, and of all those somehow defined by the dominant culture as “other”.

We don't necessarily have to use the terms “patriarchy” or “eco-feminism”, but we do have to acknowledge the reality and the connections. To deny them is to neglect a key set of contributing factors in the ecological crisis.

Images like “Mother Nature”, or “the rape of the Earth” reflect a view of Nature as female. In male-dominated cultures, this linkage can be harmful to both women and Nature: just as women are viewed as being there to serve men's needs, Nature is seen as existing for “man” to exploit at will. Within this patriarchal mentality, powerful men all too often use and abuse women and children, peasant and tribal peoples, and Nature itself, for their own short-term gain. This has led to the devastation of the natural environment and the further oppression of those who live most closely with it.

“Ecology speaks for the Earth, for the 'other' in human/ environmental relationships; feminism speaks for the `other' in female/male relations. Ecofeminism, by speaking for both the original 'others', seeks to understand the interconnected roots of all domination, as well as ways to resist and change."

In the environmental movement itself, sexism, like other forms of oppression, seriously undermines our work. Sexist behavior at the personal level ranges from the use of sexist language or “jokes”, to discounting or trivializing women's input, to patronizing, objectifying, or ignoring us, There are even cases of threats or outright exploitation of the trust built in a common cause. And it's hard to challenge a “brother” who is fighting in the trenches beside us against those nasty corporate and government enemies, especially if others pretend not to have seen or heard.

Taken together, environmental groups are notable for their impressive corps of women in high-profile positions, and many operate in non-hierarchical and collective ways based on feminist insights. But institutional sexism is still alive and well in the environmental movement, and the “higher up” you go, the more pronounced it tends to get. Quite a few environmental organizations still operate as hierarchies, with women working in most of the volunteer or low-paid jobs and male “leaders” at the top.

At the levels of both theory and action, the need for women's “different voice”, women's ways of thinking and approaching problems, is as urgent as our demands for internal equality and respect. The two aspects cannot be separated. A key element in the failure of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) to achieve much in the way of change, was the fact that it was organized and followed up within a patriarchal framework by mainly male technocrats and statesmen. In contrast, the coming together in Miami the year before of 1500 women from 83 countries in a “World Women's Congress for a Healthy Planet” was an example of grass-roots networking from the local to the international scale, work which continues to fuel our movements with the irrepressible energy and inspiration of millions of women.

The fact is that without the tremendous body of theoretical and practical work done over the years by ecofeminists and other female ecologists, there would scarcely be an environmental movement today. The on-going courageous and ground-breaking work of women like Vandana Shiva, Marilyn Waring, Winona LaDuke, Rachel Bagby, Thais Corral, Elizabeth Dodson Gray, Wangari Maathai, and Rosalie Bertell, is still too little known, and the significance of their gender too little recognized. Add to these the thousands of women in every part of the world, whose names we don't even know, who are out there every day on the front lines waging the struggle for the survival of the ecosphere and humanity's place within it.

Everything is connected, as any ecologist, or any feminist, will confirm. Sexism, even in its most minimal forms, cuts all of us, women, men and children, off from the possibility of a fuller understanding of the challenges and the potential of living on this green-blue planet of ours. Sexism hurts people in many ways, and its ramifications are threatening the very Earth itself. Those who ignore it are its accomplices.

The refusal by some to deal with the painful truths that women are exposing about patriarchy is in fact a refusal to go to the roots of the violence and exploitation that is threatening life on Earth. Such a refusal leaves us with only very partial truths, a very inadequate diagnosis of our ills and their causes. Without an accurate diagnosis, we can deal only with symptoms, and only superficially at that. When the patient is dying, we can't afford that any more.

The current global dialogue on our planetary emergency has the potential to either repeat the mistakes of the patriarchal past or, alternatively, to shape a radically different and hopeful future.

Book publisher Judith Plant sums it up beautifully: “Ecology speaks for the Earth, for the 'other' in human/environmental relationships; feminism speaks for the 'other' in female/male relations. Ecofeminism, by speaking for both the original 'others', seeks to understand the interconnected roots of all domination, as well as ways to resist and change. The ecofeminist's task is one of developing the ability to take the place of the 'other' when considering the consequences of possible actions, and ensuring that we do not forget that we are all part of one another.”

Helen Forsey is a writer and activist in the feminist, environmental and Native solidarity movements. An agriculture graduate who formerly worked in international “development”, she now lives communally in the Ottawa Valley.


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