The Growing importance of Eco-Feminism

The central tenet of Eco – Feminism is that social and environmental issues are not separate and it is therefore best to view them collectively. Jessica Schmonsky writes about Eco-feminism – which she believes is a new term for ancient wisdom.

There are countless ways of viewing the environment. In modern societies, it is important to consider the ways in which we connect with nature as industrial practices move us away from the earth and as biodiversity is lost. Pollution is on the rise, and people all over the world are suffering the consequences of projects constructed in the name of progress.

Ecofeminism offers a way of thinking and organizing ourselves by encouraging interconnectedness with our environment and addressing the subjugation of women and marginalized peoples. As a result of this kind of thinking and organizing, new human and environmental connections can be made with a broader perspective, involving less overt social recognitions.

Categorizing women and subjugated peoples with the environment allows for the recognition of social and environmental injustices from a unique and often forgotten perspective, which in turn allows for solidarity and solace.

The central tenet of ecofeminism is that social and environmental issues are not separate, that the causes for the mistreatment of women, people of color and the environment stem from the same place. Therefore, from an ecofeminist perspective, it is best to view all of these issues collectively.

Ecofeminism puts forth the idea that life in nature is maintained through cooperation, mutual care and love.  It is an activist and academic movement, and its primary aim is to address and eliminate all forms of domination while recognizing and embracing the interdependence and connection humans have with the earth.

The Roots and Flowering of the Ecofeminist Movement

Ecofeminism, “a new term for ancient wisdom,” developed out of various social movements: the feminist, peace and ecology movements in the late 1970s and early 1980s. According to many adherents to ecofeminist philosophy, French writer Francoise d’Eaubonne coined the term ecofeminism in 1974  to  demonstrate the potential for women to make significant contributions to an ecological revolution. The term was popularized through its use in protests against environmental destruction. According to Charlene Spretnak:

Ecofeminism grew out of radical or cultural feminism, which holds that identifying the dynamics behind the dominance of male over female is the key to comprehending every expression of patriarchal culture with its hierarchical, militaristic, mechanistic and industrialist forms.

Radical or cultural feminism is sometimes referred to as big picture feminism because it examines assumptions, values and fears in an effort to holistically understand patriarchal culture. Ecofeminists began as feminists who sought to create a fundamental shift in consciousness with respect to the domination of women and nature, rather than simply accepting women’s participation in the public sphere.

Women sitting on the steps

Early feminist and environmentalist efforts have allowed women to become more visible and accepted in a typically male-dominated public sphere, and though early ecofeminist thinkers sought to reinvigorate ideas surrounding feminism and the environment by drawing forth a conceptual framework as opposed to a political or bureaucratic approach, these ideas brought environmentalism to public attention through activism and political maneuvering.

The idea was to change the way people think at their core instead of only changing laws, policies or institutions, which can often have superficial results, as they do not address fundamental attitudes and assumptions that underlie ideology.

Two important conceptual themes often discussed amongst ecofeminists include the recognition of the vital link between social dominance, oppression, and feminism, and the notion of human and nature interconnectedness. First, for ecofeminists, evaluating oppressive power structures is the first step toward a new standard for a human/nature relationship. They assert that powerlessness and inequality – perpetuated by a modern, male-dominated social structure – are the root causes of environmental degradation and the pressures it puts on humans, such as famine and a lack of access to clean water.

The second major theme, interconnectedness, proposes that every organism on earth, as well as inorganic matter and entire environments, serve a larger purpose, as all forms of matter are connected by complex webs belonging to a reciprocal system:

Eco feminists understand human beings as not being separate from or above nature. They are one small part of a whole, rather than the pinnacle of nature. In separating nature from persons, humanity creates a concept of nature which is made up of dead, unintelligent matter.

Why Ecofeminism? Why Now? Examples of Ecofeminist Perspectives

Given that the subjugation of women and nature is a social construct, not a biological determinant, these relationships have the potential to change. Ecofeminism provides a forum for this change. With burgeoning environmental destruction and historically oppressive power structures, it is important to examine closely alternative solutions to the woes of our communities, land and the earth itself.

While ecofeminists have made many connections between women and nature, the three ties that most strongly bind them are empirical, the conceptual and epistemological.

Conceptually, women are associated either culturally or symbolically with the earth.

The claim is that dualistic conceptual structures identify women with femininity, the body, Earth, sexuality and flesh: and men with masculinity, spirit, mind and power. Dualisms such as reason/emotion, mind/body, culture/nature, heaven/Earth, and man/woman converge. This implies that men have innate power over both women and nature. This dualistic structure was championed in the Greek world, perpetuated by Christianity, and reinforced later during the scientific revolution.

Finally, the epistemological connection results from the theoretical connections between women and nature; this approach suggests that because women are most adversely affected by environmental problems and generally associated with nature, they are in an epistemological privileged place. This means women are in a position to facilitate the creation of practical and intellectual ecological paradigms.

The Conceptual: The Past and Future of the Gaia Tradition 

We have been taught, directly or indirectly, that human civilization is built upon a rugged and intense desire to dominate and oppress, that once “man” figured out how to domesticate plants and animals, slavery and warfare were quick to follow. However, new archaeological evidence points to something contrary: “If we look closely at the new data we now have about the first agrarian or Neolithic societies, we actually see that all the basic technologies on which civilization is based were developed in societies that were not male dominated and warlike.”

Furthermore, anthropologists today commonly agree that the domestication of plants was developed by women. The ancient civilizations that humanity is built upon were not founded by war mongering and oppression, and evidence suggests that women and nature were highly regarded in many cultures. Many ancient civilizations were peaceful, and both men and women lived in harmony with one another and nature. Most notably, “the life-giving powers incarnated in women’s bodies were given the highest social value,”  thus faith in the goddess and in nature was heavily prevalent in ancient civilizations, reaffirming the principle of associating women with nature. This was known as the Gaia Tradition, wherein practitioners view the earth (Gaia) as a living system designed to nurture and maintain life, and it has been part of the human faith for millennia, though these belief systems are now largely extinct.

The Epistemological: Healing a “Lobotomy”

In his essay “How to heal a lobotomy,” Brian Swimme postulates that the patriarchal mindset of modern, Western culture is comparable to a frontal lobotomy, in that by only seeing the world through a male-dominated lens, we lose touch with our surroundings and parts of our brains are rendered useless (virtually removed) from lack of use. He is a scientist attempting to change the way his field works, confessing that science – with its insistence on analysis, computation and categorization – can blind people to the whole reality.

Swimme suggests that scientific data be interpreted in a more holistic way, encompassing categorically “masculine” traits, such as logic and reason, with typically “feminine traits,” such as intuition and creativity. Swimme states:

To get knowledge of the parts, we [scientists] had to become partial. But the one-eyed vision of partial minds is exactly what is killing us. To understand  the scientific facts we need the wisdom of the whole, the wisdom germane to the consciousness celebrated by ecofeminism.”

That is to say,  science as we know it should not be eradicated, but people with an all-encompassing attitude toward the earth (ecofeminists, in particular) should also help interpret data and contribute to the field of science.

Who are Today’s Ecofeminists? What are they doing? How to Get Involved?

Currently, ecofeminism has had only budding effects on the sciences or in the realm of conservation; largely, ecofeminism is most easily detected through academia and more theoretical frameworks.  It is still in the development stage. However, there have been significant contributions on behalf of ecofeminist thinkers and writers who have paved the way for grassroots activism and helped spread the word about this young discipline. Popular ecofeminist influences such as Gloria Orenstein, an author and professor of topics relating to ecofeminism; Vandana Shiva, a popular ecofeminist, philosopher, author and environmental activist; Maria Mies, a retired sociology professor and author; Starhawk a writer and activist; Charlene Spetnak, another author and activist; Karen Warren, a philosophy professor; and Carol Adams, a prominent author, continue to shape the emergence of ecofeminism through scholarship, community organizing and international outreach.

As climate change continues to affect all corners of the world, it is becoming more and more important that our views of the environment and our relationship to the planet begin to evolve into something more holistic. Ecofeminsm provides an additional alternative to ecological thought and social organizing, while promising solidarity among women and those who suffer from oppression, as well as sympathizers.

Jessica Schmonsky


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