Joy Pincus

Uprooting the Patriarchy

By Joy Pincus, originally published in Women’s International Net (WIN) Magazine, 2001 (for WLOE courtesy of the author).

Some 23 years ago, a French feminist wrote Ecologie-feminism: Revolution ou Mutation? (Eco-feminism: Revolution or Mutation?) (A.T.P, 1978) in which she suggested that the oppression of women and the planet are inherently connected.

Francoise D’Eaubonne was the first to coin the term "ecofeminism," a movement combining feminism and environmentalism. Subsequently developed by academics and activists in several different countries, ecofeminism now has thousands of supporters worldwide -- including many men, which has led to some contention -- and a rich literature. The Internet discussion list, ECOFEM, boasts about 500 participants, while the ecofeminist web-ring hosts 40 sites.

But some view ecofeminism as esoteric or even flaky. Ecofeminism also runs counter to the traditional feminist emphasis on promoting women in the established institutions of power such as government, big business and the military. Ecofeminism seeks to topple these very institutions.

So what is ecofeminism and why have so many embraced it? Most simply, ecofeminism asserts that there is an innate connection between violence against women and violence against nature, and that any endeavor to save the planet must be joined to that of freeing women from such oppression. Supporters of ecofeminism manifest this belief through activism and personal spirituality. They become vegetarians, engage in New Age rituals, take public transportation instead of private cars and demonstrate against nuclear weapons.

Grassroots efforts done in the name of ecofeminism include: the ten-year fight by the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp in England to remove nuclear missiles; Lois Gibbs’ exposure of Love Canal, a housing site in New York, as a toxic waste site; the attempt by Judi Bari to save old-growth redwood forests in northern California that led to her being permanently disabled in an unsolved car-bomb attack; Bernadette Cozart’s transformation of vacant, needle-strewn lots in a New York ghetto into gardens; and Kenyan Wangari Maathai’s founding of Green Belt Movement, a grassroots organization of women and children who planted more than ten million trees and produced income for 50,000 people as a result.

"Ecofeminists say ‘no more waiting,’" proclaims Lynn Wenzel in her essay Genesis II-An Ecofeminist Reclamation Project. (CHOICES Women's Medical Center, Inc., 1998). "We are in a state of emergency and must do something about it now...around the world, economies, cultures and natural resources are plundered, so that 20 percent of the world's population (privileged North Americans and Europeans) can continue to consume 80 percent of its resources in the name of progress." 

Ecofeminism advocates a return to ancient paradigms in which women played a more powerful role in their societies.

"In one way or another, its essence has almost always existed in the collective consciousness," write Cathleen and Colleen McGuire, twin sisters who founded the website, Ecofeminist Visions Emerging (EVE) <>. "Ecofeminism's unique contribution at this point in history is in coalescing and popularizing ancient and modern wisdom." 

Matilda Joslyn Gage, a women's rights activist from the 19th century and an ecofeminist before the term was even invented, cites evidence from around the world where lineal descent was through the mother -- tribes in Africa and the Americas, the ancient Lycians and Egyptians.

"The earliest phase of family life was entirely dependent upon woman; she was the principal factor in it, man having no place whatsoever except as son or dependent," Gage writes in her essay The Matriarchate; or, Woman in the Past. "The mother was one through whom blood relationship ran...the tribe was united through her. Social, political, and religious life was all in harmony with the idea of woman as the primal power. The matriarchate existed long before the patriarchate; the mother was ruler in family and tribe, in State and Church, through long centuries where the father was unknown."

But then, according to ecofeminism, man dominated women and nature. Rosemary Radford Reuther, who wrote one of the first books on ecofeminism, New Woman, New Earth (Seabury Press,1975), explains that during pre-Hebraic times women’s duties -- such as childcare and food gathering -- were identified with nature and so considered by men of lesser importance. Men’s work -- killing animals, waging war and clearing the fields -- was viewed as more prestigious and also allowed them more time for leisure.

"This is the primary social base for the male monopolization of culture, by which men re-enforced their privileges of leisure, the superior prestige of their activities and the inferiority of the activities associated with women," Reuther writes in an essay, "Ecofeminism," reprinted extensively on the Internet.

By coming up with concept of nature, in contrast to culture, man also degraded the force of this power. "It defines nature as a reality below and separated from 'man', rather than one nexus in which humanity itself is inseparably embedded," Reuther adds.

A critical historical development was the creation of plow agriculture in which men yoked animals and forced them to work. Man’s next related step was to wage war, killing the men and taking the women and children as slaves.  Subsequent civilizations further developed this entrenchment of both nature and women not as autonomous living entities, but as things to be "conquered, owned and eventually destroyed."  The result has been the burning of women at the stake as witches, imperialism, population explosion, pollution and the depletion of natural resources. The solution, Reuther writes, is to reassert the superiority of nature.

"We need to discover our actual reality as latecomers to the planet," she writes. "The world of nature, plants and animals existed billions of years before we came on the scene. Nature does not need us to rule over it, but runs itself very well and better without humans. . . . .We need to recognize our utter dependence on the great life-producing matrix of the planet in order to learn to reintegrate our human systems of production, consumption and waste into the ecological patterns by which nature sustains life."  

Adopting ecofeminism also means looking at God, not as something modeled "after alienated male consciousness," but as the "imminent source of life that sustains the whole planetary community….God is the font, from which the variety of plants and animals well up in each new generation, the matrix that sustains their life-giving interdependency with each other," Reuther writes. 

Expanding on Reuther’s themes is Vandana Shiva from India, a physicist, environmental activist and author. Shiva, among the best-known ecofeminists today, is often in the headlines for her outspoken views on such diverse topics as the expansion of fast food chains into India, patents and the threat to decency by patients on life support. She has been involved with the Chipko movement in which Indian women in the Himalayas successfully interposed their bodies between trees and the axes of loggers, and so prevented forests from being destroyed. This past January, Shiva was reportedly beaten by police while representing Indian nongovernmental organizations at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland.

Staying Alive (Zed Books,1988), the first of Shiva’s 13 books, is a cornerstone of ecofeminist philosophy. She charges the "Western patriarchy" with destroying soil, rivers and vegetation and removing the care for natural resources from women. Women, said Shiva, have been the natural preservers of biodiversity, the enormous variety of species that exist on the plant which are being threatened by industrialization, for centuries. 

Shiva calls for the importance of preserving a life, what she calls a more feminine notion, to be championed above the masculine need to develop and conquer.  In a recent essay, North South Conflicts in Intellectual Property Rights (Peace Review, 2000), Shiva talks of biopiracy, whereby "plants, animals, micro-organisms and humans become ‘inventions’ when their knowledge is discovered by Western science or Western commercial interests, even if this knowledge has existed for centuries in indigenous cultures, and even though life forms are not human inventions." Shiva is committed to fighting against what she calls this theft of the intelligence and creativity of either nature or other cultures.

Another ecofeminist who has taken up the issue of biodiversity is Chris King, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. King is notable as one of the men who have declared themselves ecofeminists along with U.S. philosophers Jim Cheney and John Clark. King's studies of chaos theory, combined with a growing consciousness during the Cold War of the possibility for nuclear holocaust, led to his ecofeminist awakening.

Chris and fellow ecofeminist from California, Jane King (no relation) conducted a world tour to promote their notions of ecofeminism. They started in Bolivia where they said that companies wishing to plant crops have burned rainforests, and destroyed thousands of species. Within a matter of a few years what was once a thriving ecosystem has been reduced to a wasteland, they said.  

Time is running out to make reparation for the damage done by man, said King.

"The future generations are counting on us to make the right decisions now...I see that there is a great potential," King told WIN. "If woman and man can enter a reunion and man can apologize...that will in a fundamental way heal our relationship with nature…. I think we need to treat one another as sacred, and nature as sacred, that's a first step."

Not all ecofeminists like having men so outspoken in the movement. "..[I]n a time when women's experiences are still only just beginning to be heard, it is risky for a man to ‘speak for women,’ for this is what controlling patriarchal men have always done, leaving women voiceless," said Ariel Salleh, an Associate Professor in Social Ecology at the University of Western Sydney, Hawkesbury and author of Ecofeminism as Politics: Nature, Marx and the Postmodern (Zed Books, 1997).

Indeed the roles of men and women are a contentious issue among ecofeminists. Some oppose those who idealize pre-patriarchal societies in which women have more power: "Ecofeminism is 100 percent opposed to power-over relationships," wrote the McGuire sisters in a recently revised version of an essay they published about ecofeminism in which they admitted the opposite conclusion could have been reached. "That includes the flip side of the coin in which women would dominate men."

Others disagree about the issue of essentialism, the notion that certain qualities are inherent to men or women. Essentialists believe that women are by nature more nurturing, caring and life affirming -- qualities needed to rectify the damage men have brought.

"...there are a number of ecofeminists who focus on the powers of the ancient goddesses and the spiritual and mystical powers of women -- which they regard as innate in women's physiological and psychological make-up," said Stephanie S. Rixecker, moderator of the EcoFem Internet discussion group. "In this sense, such authors see no problem with ‘essentialising’ women."

But there are authors who believe that the very aspects we consider to be "feminine" are caused by societal conditioning and are so part of the patriarchy’s attempt to diminish women as softer and lesser. "Most women ecofeminists will avoid words like ‘ woman/man’ which suggest that gender types are fixed essences," said Salleh. "Similarly ecofeminists generally prefer to write about ‘masculine’ rather than ‘male’ attributes, since gender differences are socially learned, not rooted in biology. After all, if men's often violent behaviours were innate, there would be no hope for a politics designed to change them."

Reuther agrees that a change of perceived gender roles is needed:  

"In terms of male-female relations this means, not simply allowing women more access to public culture, but converting males to an equal share in the tasks of child-nurture and household maintenance," she writes. "A revolution in female roles into the male work world, without a corresponding revolution in male roles, leaves the basic pattern of patriarchal exploitation of women untouched...There must be a conversion of men to the work of women, along with the conversion of male consciousness to the earth."  

Whatever their differences or interest, ecofeminists agree that it is time to act to change things. What can each person do? On the most basic level, Wenzel suggests eating less meat -- so freeing up space, water and vegetation -- joining grassroots organizations and pressing politicians to make ecologically friendly decisions. 

But Wenzel also stresses the importance of thought as well as action. "We must remember we were all stars once. All the elements that make up our present physical bodies have been circulated billions of times throughout the 4.5 billion-year history of the earth. Each of us was once a spider, once a hemlock, once a fox, once a rock. Perhaps if we remembered our ecological connection with the cosmos, we might rediscover what Reuther calls ‘a profound our consciousness.’"

Changing the world into an ecofeminist one is a long-term process that will take the participation of many.

"Fuller exploration of ecofeminism probably goes beyond the expertise of one person," Reuther writes. " It needs a cooperation of a team that brings together historians of culture, natural scientists, and social economists who would all share a concern for the interconnection of domination of women and exploitation of nature. It needs visionaries to imagine how to construct a new socio-economic system and a new cultural consciousness that would support relations of mutuality, rather than competitive power. For this one needs poets, artists and liturgists, as well as revolutionary organizers, to incarnate more life-giving relationships in our cultural consciousness and social system."