In the first chapter of her book Ecofeminist Natures: Race, Gender, Feminist Theory and Political Action (which I highly recommend to any noder who is interested in this subject), Noel Sturgeon lays out the origins of ecofeminism and the problems it has encountered. The term itself was created as a conflation of ‘ecology’ and ‘feminism’, and this joining and melding of separate terms mirrors the work that ecofeminism is supposed to do. Ecofeminism is “a politics that attempt[s] to combine feminism, environmentalism, antiracism, animal liberation, anticolonialism, antimilitarism, and nontraditional spiritualities.” (Sturgeon 27) It should seem fairly obvious that no two ways of amalgamating such a diverse set of concerns are going to produce identical results. Depending on the background and vested interests of the theorist, certain problems are going to receive more emphasis than others. This fact has the potential to make ecofeminism a very powerful movement, in which multiple sets of needs would get addressed; but for this to be the case, followers of ecofeminism would need to be tolerant of each others’ views and not demand a homogeneity of opinion. So far, what has appeared to have happened instead is a large amount of infighting and a lot of disgust on the part of those who feel their concerns are marginalized (many of these disgusted individuals being ecofeminists of color who believe that antiracism is being forced to take too much of a back seat to environmentalism).
The ecofeminist movement started, as far as the U.S. is concerned, in the mid-1970s, as an offshoot of the antinuclear/antimiltarist movement. It did not really pick up steam until 1980, when Ynestra King, Anna Gyorgy, Grace Paley, and others organized a conference called "Women and Life on Earth: Ecofeminism in the 1980s". Eighty workshops dealing with such topics as alternative technology, feminist theory, art, health, militarism, racism, urban ecology, and political theatre inspired over 650 attendees, and several other conferences were planned and organizations founded as a result of this event. Direct political action was soon taken up with renewed vigor by those who had attended this conference and those they convinced to join their cause; the Women’s Pentagon Actions of 1980 and 1981 were probably the most highly publicized of these actions. Again, the chief concern appeared to be antimilitarism, but the activists involved made it clear in later statements that they were not working for “antimilitarism alone, but… a particular kind of feminist, radically democratic antimilitarism that made connections to other political issues.” This emphasis on connections was made explicit in the title of the famous 1987 conference “Ecofeminist Perspectives: Culture, Nature, Theory”. The proper way in which to make connections between Culture and Nature, as well as between the diverse political concerns that arise within Culture, appears to be through Theory—simple enough, right? Well, finding a theory that actually makes connections that stand up to rigorous intellectual analysis has proven to be a not-so-simple task. And it just so happens that the two concerns that have proven most difficult to connect have been the ones from which ecofeminism takes its name, ‘ecology’ and ‘feminism’.
According to Sturgeon, ecofeminist theories can be grouped into five chief categories. Two of these positions work together well, but appear to contradict the third and fourth (with an especially strong contradiction between the second and third); fortunately, all three seem to agree with the fifth.
- Position 1: Patriarchy equates Woman and Nature, treating them both as resources to be exploited.
- Position 2: “In a culture that is in many ways antinature, which constructs meaning using a hierarchical binarism dependent on assumptions of culture’s superiority to nature, understanding women as more ‘natural’ or closer to nature dooms them to an inferior position. Furthermore, in a political economy dependent on the freedom to exploit the environment, a moral and ethical relation to nature is suspect.” (Sturgeon 28)
- Position 3: Women are biologically closer to nature than men, due to reproductive characteristics (menstrual cycles, lactation, birth) that keep them in touch with natural rhythms (the idea of the season, cycles, the ‘circle of life’ ideal).
- Position 4: is frequently (though not always) adopted by ecofeminists who pride themselves on incorporating their feminism into their spirituality, and is based upon studies of nature-based religions such as paganism, witchcraft, goddess worship, and Amerindian traditions.
- Position 5: uses “a historical, cross-cultural, and materialist analysis of women’s work” to come to the conclusion that women have a special relationship to nature due to their “predominant role in agricultural production and the managing of household economies… cooking, cleaning, food production, and purchasing of household goods, health care, and child care… environmental problems are more quickly noticed by women and impact women’s work more seriously.” (Sturgeon 29)
I have laid out these positions in a different order from that which Sturgeon gives in “Movements of Ecofeminism” in order to place emphasis on Position 5, because it is the position that I personally consider to be the most useful for the work that ecofeminists hope to accomplish in the near future. In my opinion, Position 1’s statement that ‘under patriarchy women = nature’ seems to me to be a bit too simple of an analysis; the implication is that if radical feminists somehow manage to do away with patriarchy, then environmental problems will disappear—and that sounds to me to be a bit too much like the stereotyped Marxist belief that if we do away with the class hierarchy, sexism will disappear, which has proven manifestly untrue in most of the large-scale socialist/communist societies that developed in the twentieth century. I do agree with Position 2, but I can also recognize that hierarchical binarism is very strongly entrenched in the Western consciousness and that it is something that activists are going to be chipping away at for decades, if not centuries. I think this position should be kept in the back of one’s mind and allowed to come into play in certain contexts, but to argue on behalf of it constantly is not likely, at this time, to produce real results in the fight against environmental degradation or the fight against sexism. When I look at Position 3, all I can think of is “essentialism”, and even after reading Elizabeth Carlassare’s excellent chapter on “Essentialism in Ecofeminist Discourse” in Ecology: Key Concepts in Critical Theory, I (an avid constructionist) find myself growing wary; after all, how can we conclude that women have a special connection to nature before we know, truly, both what a ‘woman’ is and what ‘nature’ is? And how can we know these things until after we have learned how to look past social constructions (which I think very few people who have seriously studied these matters would say we have learned how to do)? For now, I am going to maintain skepticism in this matter. And as for position 4—while the religion that I practice does draw upon Neopaganism, I will be the first to recognize that it is not for everyone.
It is therefore my considered opinion that at this stage of Western social development, employing a historical, cross-cultural and materialist analysis of women’s work is the key to creating a theory capable of unifying the various political concerns that ecofeminists so desperately wish to unify. I think it’s very important that this technique not become enshrined, that my fellow ecofeminists be willing to discard it when it is no longer necessary. Unfortunately, that will not be for quite some time. Until then*, it is also absolutely vital for ecofeminists to work on developing their ability to tolerate a broad spectrum of views and understand that we are all working towards the same goal—a society that has a healing touch instead of a tainting one.
* = because when that day comes, I think that tolerance and having an open mind will be the norm.