Exploring Ecofeminism

Image Credit: CC BY-SA 2.0

Image Credit: Peter Trimming, CC BY-SA 2.0

Long story short, when I was in the final year of my Masters I wrote an essay on ecofeminism. My social science teacher said that we should turn it into a piece for their working journal, and we did. But if you’ve ever opened a sociology paper before as a non social scientist, you’ll know that those things can be DENSE.

So over the next few months what I’m going to do is bit by bit release a condensed version of the paper (entitled Women in Marine Science: The Efficacy of Ecofeminist Theory in the Wake of its Historical Critique, you can read the full thing at this link). It’ll explore what ecofeminism is, why it’s useful and look at some of the problems that have dogged it since its infancy.

Note: For those of you who are rightly concerned about a straight cis-guy writing about ecofeminist philosophy, I apologise. I’ve attempted to stay as impartial as possible here and approach these articles as I approached writing the initial paper.

What is Ecofeminism?

Francois d’Eaubonne was a radical French feminist, who wrote the book Feminism or Death (yes, it’s intense) in 1974. In it, she used the term ecofeminism to describe similarities between man’s oppression of women and man’s degradation of the environment. Ecofeminism became a vaguely defined version of what the portmanteau suggests – a combination of ecology and feminism.

Linguistically, it’s easy to see the parallels between the two systems of oppression that d’Eaubonne mentioned. Early ecofeminists often pointed to the gendered language we use in describing the environment. From terms like “Mother Nature” to the ‘rape’ of lands, the characterisation of ecosystems as female is part of our language. It’s nothing new – early philosophers John Locke and Georg Hegel characterized woman as inferior by paralleling them to the chaos of the natural world, in opposition to the ordered rationality brought about by man. Parallels between the feminine and the natural have abounded since.

Yet to an ecologist, this can all seem a bit abstract. So why is it worth learning a bit about ecofeminism? And why is it relevant today more than ever?

Why is it Relevant Now?

If we move beyond linguistics, it’s easy to see why ecofeminism is so relevant now.  Many environmental problems that the world faces today are likely to affect women far more severely. Catastrophic weather events are a prominent example. During Hurricane Katrina, black women were worst affected by the crisis, yet they were defined by their race and not their gender¹. In sub-Saharan Africa, the effects of a warming climate means that women in more poverty-stricken areas are likely to be much more vulnerable. They’ll likely need to work harder to fetch water, be left alone as men venture to cities to find work, and be the first to go without food in times of famine or drought².

More generally, ecology is now starting to lean more heavily towards the social sciences. We’ve grasped the notion that if you want to better understand the relationship between humans and the environment, you need to understand the humans. An understanding of local perspectives is now becoming more relevant to ecological studies. Including feminist theory when developing any sort of local understanding adds an extra dimension to that local understanding.

2DU_Kenya_86_(5367322642)

Increasing temperatures in already warm regions of the world like sub-Saharan Africa will likely have a more severe affect on women, especially in less developed areas (Image Credit: 2DU Kenya 86, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Lastly, the discipline itself is far from perfect with regards to gender equality. Whilst many academics see environmental sciences as being more progressive than other branches of academia, recent events have shown that not to be the case. I strongly advise reading our previous interviews with Marlene Zuk and Amy Austin below, as well as checking out our previous Towards Gender Equity in Ecology commentaries.

Amy Austin: Closing the Gender Gap in Ecology

Marlene Zuk: Gender in Science

Towards Gender Equity in Ecology: Part One and Part Two

What’s Next?

I mentioned earlier that I’d be getting into some of the problems that ecofeminism has encountered over the years. Conflict within ecofeminism has been as rife as within feminism itself, with many of the same conflicts played out on different scales. Over the next few weeks I’ll go into some of these in more detail, including the trouble early ecofeminists had creating a concrete definition for ecofeminist philosophy, and its issues with inclusion of other non-male minorities.

To read the original paper, click here.

For anyone looking an a more thorough introduction to ecofeminist philosophy, I highly recommend Karen Warren’s 2000 book Ecofeminist Philosophy: A western perspective on what it is and why it matters.

¹ Belkhir, J. A. & Charlemaine, C. (2007) Race, Gender and Class Lessons from Hurricane Katrina. Race, Gender & Class. 14(1/2) pp. 120-152

² Gaard, G. C. (2015) Ecofeminism and Climate Change. Women’s Studies International Forum. 49 pp. 20-33

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