Ecofeminism: Struggles With Intersectionality

In this series we’re looking at the discipline of ecofeminism and the difficulties it has faced over the last half a century. You can read the introductory piece here, and part two on the difficulties it had defining itself here. Image Credit: C Watts, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped.

The ecofeminism movement gained steam in the mid-1970s, at least in the Global North. Naturally, it borrowed a great deal from the environmental movements and versions of feminism that were most prevalent at the time. Here I’ll look at how those origins may have initially constrained the inclusiveness of the philosophy, and how it has moved on since.

Second-wave feminism was very prominent in the mid 70s. It shifted feminism away from suffrage and focussed more on dismantling workplace inequality and increasing female political representation. Yet one of the main criticisms it came to face was that it only thought of women as white and middle-class, and disregarded the experiences of other classes, sexualities, gender groups and ethnicities. Ecofeminism came to the fore while the second wave was at its height, which meant that it faced many of the same criticisms.

But there were other reasons ecofeminism was criticised for its perceived lack of intersectionality. As I touched on in last week’s article, it arose as part of a large array of environmental movements, including reactionary activism to Three Mile Island and the animal liberation movements, both of which were primarily Western-centric. As a result, much ecofeminist discourse initially centred around Western issues. This led to critics claiming that ecofeminists posited the non-male population as a homogenous whole, ignoring the diversity within that population.

But as the criticisms came, they were noted. Many ecofeminists in the Global North started to incorporate the need for local and more diverse perspectives into their work. New strains of the philosophy, such as theological ecofeminism and ecowomanism arrived to expand ecofeminism’s reach. Certain strains also began to incorporate postcolonial, decolonial and queer theories into ecofeminism. Not all have been met with positivity; some ecofeminists see certain strains as having produced poor or weak theory, in some cases contradictory to what feminism itself stands for.

Yet all of this was underlined by another message. That regardless of the diversity within maligned groups and ecosystems, they all suffer from the same basic framework of oppression. That the same basic group were perpetrating the degradation of nature and the oppression of minorities for the same basic reasons. Janis Birkeland wrote that ecofeminism’s lack of intersectionality were simply a misconception, a poor understanding of ecofeminism’s positioning of patriarchal dominance over nature and ‘woman’. Birkeland argued that ‘woman’ did not represent a homogenous whole, that it was instead simply a blanket term for this groups who had suffered from that framework of oppression. This, I believe, is a great way to consider ecofeminist theory. Feminist theory applied to ecological problems, ensuring that diverse local perspectives are being taken into account.

This approach to ecofeminism makes it extremely useful. As I mentioned in the introductory piece, more and more ecologists and conservationists are starting to look towards the social sciences for answers. Looking at the role of non-male populations is communities worldwide and reaching out to them has already yielded some great results, as listed below.

So whilst the initial criticisms of ecofeminism may have been fair, I think they were well-noted by the majority of the ecofeminist movement. I’m not suggesting that Western ecofeminism is a thing of the past – a key tenet of Karen Warren’s work rests on her admitting she can only write from the perspective of a white female. But as its reach has expanded, ecofeminism has become a more inclusive movement.

Yet even with this renewed consideration of intersectionality in ecofeminism, it still suffered from one major criticism, which came int he form of its perceived essentialism. I’ll touch more on that next time, and how it severely tarnished ecofeminism for many social scientists.

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