Ecofeminism: The Difficulty of a Definition

Image Credit: Christoph Strässler, CC BY-SA 2.0

Over the next month or so I’ll be summarising a sociology paper that I wrote back in 2017 on ecofeminism. You can read the introductory piece here. This is part two. Image Credit: Christoph Strässler, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped.

One of the earliest difficulties that ecofeminism faced was that nobody seemed to understand exactly what is was. In the first piece of this series, I listed it as “a vaguely defined version of… a combination of ecology and feminism.” You can probably see this issue already – a combination of ecological and feminist thought sounds nice, but if it doesn’t have any clear message or meaning then is there really a point?

Most authors simply define ecofeminism as the sum of its parts and move on. There is one particularly striking definition in Feminism and Ecology which has four consecutive sentences which essentially reiterate this four times over. Three quarters of the attendees at the pre-conference meeting of the National Women’s Studies Association Ecofeminist Task Force reportedly said they were attending simply to figure out what ecofeminism was. As former social ecologist and prominent critic of ecofeminism Janet Biehl wrote in Rethinking Ecofeminist Policies, seventeen years after D’Eaubonne first used the term, “no sustained book-length account of ecofeminist theory has yet appeared.”

Why the Confusion?

A lot of the issues here stem from ecofeminism’s roots. Ecofeminism did not arise from one strain of feminism, and so it was subject to the many conflicts rife within feminism itself. To many, feminism is a unified movement in the pursuit of gender equality. But if you go any deeper than that you run into myriad conflicts about the role of race, class, economy, sexuality. Look at the reaction by some to Emma Watson’s UN speech in 2014 or Germaine Greer’s comments about transgender women. Ecofeminism is no more unified.

The social movements that ecofeminism rose as a result of were also diverse. Greta Gaard’s first words in Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature surmise ecofeminism as having risen from ‘peace movements, labour movements, women’s health care, and the anti-nuclear, environmental, and animal liberation movements’. Whilst the groups that drove these movements might not have been mutually exclusive, they were certainly diverse. So it makes sense that each would have had different interpretations of the term.

Yet whilst this may have caused some initial confusion in those trying to ascertain what ecofeminism was about, I don’t think that its diversity should be considered a weakness. Proponents like Linda Vance and Chris Cuomo highlighted its diversity as a strength of ecofeminism, likening it to the diversity of all women or even of that within an ecosystem. It may have even helped ecofeminism remain inclusive (though more on that in the next piece). Yet there were also critics who saw this diversity in a different light, with Janet Biehl referring to ecofeminism a “so blatantly self-contradictory as to be incoherent”.

Is Ecofeminism Redundant?

The second point of contention was whether or not ecofeminism was even necessary. Many argued that feminism should be seen as including ecological concerns already, that ecology was already a distinct part of feminism. Chaone Mallory’s useful perspective on the field posits the ‘feminism’ part of the term as that concerned with the power relations at play in society, and the ‘eco’ prefix as a reminder that these power relations extend to the natural world as well. Whilst this is a handy definition of ecofeminism, it’s easy to see why some may find it redundant.

Anne Cameron had an even more critical take on ecofeminism. She saw its redundancy as insulting “to the women who put themselves on the line, risked public disapproval, risked even violence, and jail”. To some, the accusation that ecology wasn’t already a part of feminism was slander. There were accusations that ecofeminism was catering to mean who saw feminism as too confrontational, to whom ecofeminism was a more palatable alternative.

Perhaps ecofeminism does lack cohesion. But I doubt it lacks it anymore so than feminism does, and I also doubt that this is a weakness. It keeps a branch of thought diverse and inclusive, with room for dialogue and flexibility. In the next piece, I’ll explore Karen Warren’s interpretation of ecofeminism as a flexible philosophy, rather than an immovable theory, and what is meant for the inclusiveness of the term.

As a final word, to revisit Mallory’s perspective, I don’t think a reminder of the problems that afflict the natural world today is unwarranted.

Other entries in this series:

Exploring Ecofeminism

Ecofeminism: Struggles with Intersectionality

Ecofeminism: The Essentialism Issue

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.


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