Ecofeminism: The Essentialism Issue

This is the last entry in a series that looks at ecofeminism and the critiques it has faced over the last 50 years. You can read the introductory piece here. The other chapters are linked below. (Image Credit: Patrick Kavanagh, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)

We’ve looked at a couple of issues so far that ecofeminism has faced along the way, but in my opinion this is the big one. Whilst ecofeminism’s issues with dualism and definitions frustrated many of its proponents in its infancy, ties to essentialism caused many feminists to distance themselves from the discipline itself. So what is essentialism, and why did it almost bring the movement to a grinding halt?

Essentialism encapsulates the notion that certain characteristics or experiences are necessary to categorise an individual. Essentialism in ecofeminism goes beyond the shared oppression of the nature and woman by man to suggest that it is woman’s affinity with nature, their shared role as mother and carer of the earth’s population, that qualifies them more directly to speak on nature’s behalf. It suggested that an affinity with nature was tied to the concept of ‘woman’. I mentioned in the introduction to this series that man had been characterised as ordered culture, with women being tied to the chaos of the natural world. The notion of essentialism in ecofeminism inverts this somewhat, presenting woman as a spokesperson for the earth. Certain strains of ecofeminism have stronger ties to essentialism than others. Spiritual and cultural ecofeminism sometimes portrayed women as mystical beings intertwined with the natural world.

So why is this an issue? It certainly became one in the mid 1990s, when several prominent feminists presented problems on different fronts. Janet Biehl wrote that ecofeminism “situates women outside of nature altogether, associated with a mystified notion of ‘nature’”, and is “a force for irrationalism”. Chris Cuomo posited that the concept of women as having consistent features across all manner of diversity plays into the hands of the patriarchy, in positing women as inherently unequal to man. Melissa Leach criticised ecofeminism as popularising the figure of woman as a ‘natural environment carer’ throughout the period, and even accused ecofeminism’s influence on world policy with helping to appropriate women’s labour in environmental conservation projects. Leach’s text “Earth Mother Myths and Other Ecofeminist Fables: How a Strategic Notion Rose and Fell” is an engaging read (as is Niamh Moore’s response to it, both linked at the end of the article), and I’ve attached a paragraph below.

Project ‘success’ has often been secured at women’s expense, by appropriating women’s labour, unremunerated, in activities which prove not to meet their needs or whose benefits they do not control. New environment chores have sometimes been added to women’s already long list of caring roles. At the same time, the focus on women’s groups — as if all women had homogeneous interests — has often marginalized the interests and concerns of certain women not well represented in such organizations. Fundamentally, it came to be argued, the assumption of women’s natural link with the environment obscured any issues concerning property and power. This meant that programmes ran the risk of giving women responsibility for ‘saving the environment’ without addressing whether they actually had the resources and capacity to do so.

The rebuttals came quickly. Many argued that while criticism of essentialism was fair, throwing the entire premise of ecofeminism out because of its ties to essentialism was an overreaction. Chris Cuomo pointed out that criticism of drawing automatic links between women and environmental carers was essentialist in itself, as they presumed that “woman” equalled “mother”.

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

I used this image earlier in the series, and with good reason. Whilst images like this became popular with ecofeminists in the 80s, positing women as carers for the earth, they drew criticism as essentialist in the 90s, with some critics of ecofeminism even suggesting that they helped appropriate cheap labour from women (Image Credit: 2DU Kenya 86, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Yet my favourite argument against this strain of critique came again from Karen Warren (seriously, read her book on Ecofeminist Philosophy), in that the nature of the connection between woman and the environment was being misconstrued. Whilst essentialism posits that woman and nature share certain characteristics, many ecofeminists argue that these weren’t inherent, rather a product of the same framework of oppression being applied to woman and the environment. If women and other oppressed minorities shared values with nature, it was because our culture made it so. 

Final Thoughts

If I had to draw a parallel between it and a strain of ecology, I’d use community ecology. Everyone knows it’s useful in some way, but what the hell is it exactly? Is it really a discipline by itself if it can be applied to such a wide range of problems? But to me, the most obvious parallel between the two is how the critiques it has faced have forced its proponents to more explicitly define how to use it.

Adding a tl;dr tag to this whole series would be easy. It’d simply be “try feminist perspectives in ecology”. Because while I’ve now gone on at length about early definitions, at the heart of it that’s what makes ecofeminism useful – it forces us to address environmental issues, and the structures which the discipline of ecology is built on, through a new light.

I’ll finish up here, but if you want an example of looking at academic ecology through an ecofeminist lens, skip to section 4 of the paper this series is based on, linked here. I’ve also attached an excerpt.

From the outset it is worth noting that all of the respondents but one had experienced gender discrimination and sexual harassment directly in some form, and to differing degrees. Nancy (36, UK national, Post-doc) noted that in Martinique and Colombia, unwanted attention from males was common, whilst Alice (37, Canadian, Post-doc) had been sexually propositioned by the head of a department she worked in. Hailey (25, UK, Master’s student) was told she had been employed on a project as “something to look at”, whilst Aisha (41, Canada, Post-doc) was advised that she may not be “cut out” for field work in palaeontology as the work was not ‘romantic’. Carolina (31, Colombia, Master´s student) was given the distinct impression she had to act and dress differently to be taken seriously as a woman, and Vanessa (28, Germany, PhD candidate) and Natasha (26, UK, Master’s student) were both treated with a lack of respect and disregard for their opinions because they were women on multiple occasions by male colleagues during group meetings and discussions.

Earlier entries in this series:

Exploring Ecofeminism

Ecofeminism: The Difficulty of a Definition

Ecofeminism: Struggles with Intersectionality

More Suggested Reading

Earth Mother Myths and Other Ecofeminist Fables: How a Strategic Notion Rose and Fell

The Rise and Rise of Ecofeminism and a Developmental Fable

Thanks for following along through this series of articles. If you have any more questions or would like reading suggestions (I’ve got loads), please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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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