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What is Ecofeminism Anyway?

The essay below was originally written in the early 1990s, a time when ecofeminism was gaining currency with activists and academics. The views expressed here still present an accurate overview of ecofeminism, yet in retrospect we feel the essay has a shortcoming.

It assumes patriarchy is the root cause of all our problems. While the patriarchal mindset is certainly accountable for much of humankind's dysfunctionality, patriarchy is only 5,000 years old.

Emerging theories from thinkers like Chellis Glendinning contend that our dislocation from nature (and hence from ourselves) goes back at least 20,000 years ago when humans moved from the gatherer/hunter stage to that of domesticating plants and animals. As such, we have come to believe that anthropocentrism and speciesism—the impulse to conquer and control nature—are conceivably a more accurate source of today’s problems than is patriarchy per se.

Furthermore, patriarchy is not solely a Western phenomena. We focus on Western patriarchy, however, because its unparalleled and unrivaled hegemony adversely impacts even the world’s most remote inhabitants and ecosystems.

NOTE: The 2003 revision of this essay was published Spring 2004 in a university text book called American Political Thought, co-edited by Kenneth Dolbeare and Michael S. Cummings, Congressional Quarterly Press, 5th edition.

Ecofeminist Visions

By Cathleen McGuire and Colleen McGuire Written 1991, revised 1993 & 2003

We must remember the chemical connections between ourselves and the stars, between the beginning and now. We must remember and reactivate the primal consciousness of oneness between all living things. Barbara Mor, Co-author, The Great Cosmic Mother

Do you remember the first time you heard the word "ecofeminism"? Despite its novelty, it probably resonated a familiarity since "ecology" and "feminism" are common words. Who put these two concepts together and why? Does the combination of "eco" and "feminism" make sense? Is there a need for this new term?

As a practice, ecofeminism is as ancient as our species. Many ecofeminists believe that the nature of our species is more in line with how we lived prior to the debut of written history. This period, extending back as far as 250,000 years ago, was a time when cooperation—not competition—was valued and necessary for species survival. New archeological discoveries of early civilizations in Mesopotamia yield a vast array of evidence that an egalitarian lifestyle and a unity with nature were prevalent among ancient peoples of those regions. Theories supporting territoriality, survival of the fittest, or man the great hunter are appearing to be inadequate, if not false.

It is important to keep in mind that, for the most part, indigenous cultures worldwide have held on more steadfastly to an earth-based worldview and communal way of being than Eurocentric cultures and their “wannabe” imitators. Because Western powers indisputably dominate the globe today economically and militarily and as a result are the ultimate root of much of the world’s pressing problems, this essay is preoccupied with Western history and thought.

As a theory, ecofeminism is fairly new and still finding its voice. Hence, there is no single definition of ecofeminism. French feminist Françoise D'Eaubonne is credited with coining the word ecofeminism in 1974. She sought to describe the epic violence inflicted on women and nature as a result of male domination. Her early analysis has since been expanded upon and refined, based in part on new conceptions of the history and character of our species.

Ecofeminism sprouted in the early 1970s as Western women became disillusioned with the ideologies of the day. The environmental movement lacked a feminist analysis. Feminism had little concern for nature. The Left paid almost no attention to women, animals, or ecology. Political organizations rarely included a spiritual component, and few spiritual groups cultivated a progressive political consciousness.

Ecofeminists are often perceived as environmentally-oriented women who are feminist, or alternatively, as feminists who focus on the environment. Yet ecofeminism is not simply a subset of feminism or ecology. It is in many respects a meta-feminism, if you will, offering a distinct and more broadened methodology for understanding the world.

While feminism is a primary entry point, women and men also come to ecofeminism through environmentalism, alternative spirituality, animal rights, and other progressive affiliations. The kaleidoscopic lens of ecofeminism includes a prepatriarchal historical analysis, an embracement of spirituality, and a commitment to challenging racism, classism, imperialism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, anthropocentrism (i.e., human supremacism), speciesism and other forms of oppression.

Women's spirituality, such as goddess spirituality, has likewise left a distinct imprint on ecofeminism. Alienated by male-centered hierarchical religions, Westerners—especially women—are increasingly turning to spiritualities which validate female divineness and equality. Many people are also (re)embracing shamanism, the ancient, nature-based spirituality that was originally practiced by all humans everywhere, and preceded female-centric spirituality.

The synthesis of the political and the spiritual is one of ecofeminism's most appealing features. Contributions from these divergent sectors have influenced ecofeminist theory and action and have given ecofeminism its refreshing and unique interdisciplinary approach.

Although there is no one "correct" ecofeminism, most ecofeminists would agree with the core precept that the domination of women and the domination of nature are fundamentally connected. In other words, violence against Mother Earth came to be intertwined with an emerging urge to subdue and control women. These twin oppressions were created and are perpetuated by an ideology called patriarchy. Pinpointing the origins of patriarchal thought and practice is as elusive as trying to identify who invented the wheel. Suffice it to say, Western patriarchy arose roughly 5,000 years ago and has discombobulated our planet ever since.

The Western patriarchal way of thinking is based on "dualism." Dualism is a world view that splits mind from body, spirit from matter, male from female, humans from nature. It thereby creates imbalanced power relationships by artificially dividing entities in half, according one side of the equation greater worth over the other. These dichotomies give rise to an "other" which is then demonized and discriminated against. The Western patriarchal mindset is often referred to by academics as the "dominant/subordinant duality paradigm," and in its classic form delineates the following hierarchy of value:







The modern version of the paradigm includes racism (white people valued over people of color, sexism (men prioritized over women), speciesism (human animals deemed superior to other animals), and classism and imperialism (haves pitted against have-nots).

The Western patriarchal belief system also places higher value on linear, mechanistic, analytical, and rational qualities. The intuitive, emotional, anarchic, and earthy are negatively perceived as passive, weak, irrational—and female. Nature is paradoxically considered inert, dead mass and a wild, chaotic force. By either reckoning, nature is to be dominated and harnessed for human ends. By extension, the patriarchal mind objectifies, controls, and devalues all that is labeled "female."

Both women and men are socialized to accept these man-made values. Although men, too, are harmed by patriarchal practices, they nonetheless benefit from them at the expense of women. For example, men own 99% of the world's property while women perform two-thirds of the world's labor. Another example: men rarely shoulder the physical, social, political, or psychological consequences of the experience of rape (unless sexually abused as children or as prison inmates). It is women of all ages who are burdened with the psychic fear induced by a climate in which the threat of sexual violation looms like a distant rain cloud: sometimes miles away, other times hovering right over us.

Although ecofeminism is not a movement in the traditional sense, patterns exist among those who think and act with an ecofeminist consciousness. Ecofeminists affirm qualities traditionally considered "female" such as being cooperative, nurturing, supportive, nonviolent and sensual. Ecofeminists further strive for a balanced synthesis with qualities traditionally deemed "male" that in appropriate contexts are valuable, such as competitiveness, individuality, assertiveness, leadership, and intellectuality.

The concept of "female" and "male," however, are social constructions and not innate qualities. Both men and women share in the pool of human character traits, some of which came to be categorized as "female" and "male."

In an effort to be "equal," many mainstream feminists downplay biological female capabilities such as birthing, lactation, and menstruation. Ecofeminists are proud of women's unique physiology, and feel that equality with men should not come at the expense of disavowing or understating our physical differences. This does not imply that ecofeminists necessarily perceive women as closer to nature. As with other animals, humans are intrinsically part of nature. Ecofeminists are simply at the forefront in developing a deeper analysis of the human/nature dynamic.

At the heart of that analysis is an understanding that for the past 5,000 years, the “male” has dominated the “female.” Many ecofeminists believe the planet at this point needs massive infusions of female energy to regain balance. Although ecofeminists are immersed in social and political struggles for reform on a variety of fronts to achieve this balance, there remains a certain sympathy for Ynestra King’s classic declaration, "We don’t want a piece of their rotten, carcinogenic pie."

A few inspiring examples of ecofeminist activism (from the early 1990s) intended to right the balance include:

  • Wangari Maathai's formation of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya in which rural women planted trees as part of a soil conservation effort to avert desertification of their land;

  • The women of Greenham Common Peace Camp in England whose over ten-year presence was instrumental in the removal of nuclear missiles there;

  • Mohawk women along the St. Lawrence River who established the Akwesasne Mother's Milk Project to monitor PCB toxicity while continuing to promote breastfeeding as a primary option for women and their babies;

  • Judi Bari's bringing together labor and environmental groups in Northern California to save the remaining five percent of old growth redwood forests from corporate logging;

  • Artist Helene Aylon's Sister Rivers performance ritual in which Japanese women placed rice, seeds, and soil from Hiroshima and Nagasaki in pillowcases and then floated the artwork down the Kama River;

  • Bernadette Cozart, a gardener and founder of the Greening of Harlem, who organizes diverse community groups in Harlem to transform vacant garbage-strewn lots into food and flower gardens;

  • Lois Gibbs' exposure of Love Canal as a toxic waste site, and her founding of the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste to share tactical skills with local environmental groups.

  • Finding Your Ecofeminist Self

    There is a burgeoning library of ecofeminist literature available. The following random mélange of ecofeminist concepts have been culled from a variety of sources and give the reader a sense and flavor of the broad continuum of ideas embraced by ecofeminists. These sound bites, so to speak, encompass some—but by no means all—of the various dimensions of ecofeminism. v To give shape to your personal interests and beliefs, check off those concepts that especially speak to you. Review your choices. Do you see your own ecofeminist visions emerging?

  • Politics and spirituality go hand in hand, as do theory and action.

  • Experiential knowing is as useful and important as "objective" scientific knowledge.

  • Fear of death is a constructed anxiety. Ecofeminists respect death, for it is an integral part of the natural cycles of life.

  • Sexual repression and control of women's reproductive powers are key mechanisms used to maintain patriarchal hegemony.

  • Biogenetic engineering is dangerous for many reasons, one of which is because it is predicated on the elimination of women as the primary force in the creation of life.

  • Early in the evolution of the human species, it has been postulated that females had an estrus cycle, akin to animals in heat. Women's revolutionary contribution to the emergence of Homo sapiens was the development of the menstrual cycle. This enabled human animals to have sex at any time and for reasons other than procreation, such as for companionship, fun, spiritual bonding, and physical release.

  • Sexuality was enhanced by the development in women's bodies of the clitoris, the only organ existing exclusively for sexual pleasure.

  • Menstruation was once a powerful and celebratory act when bleeding women bonded with each other in concert with the primordial rhythms of the moon.

  • Women were pivotal architects in the formation of civilization. Growing evidence indicates that women may well have been the first farmers, weavers, doctors/healers, astronomers, potters, and mathematicians. Some say women also developed language.

  • In the context of 250,000 years of human history, women's sexuality has only recently been bought and sold as a commodity. Claims that prostitution is the "oldest profession on earth" are simply insulting.

  • All spirituality was originally earth-based or pagan and centered on a oneness with nature. Organized religion based on a single, authoritarian, male, hierarchical godhead figure (i.e., monotheism) is a relatively new concept arising a mere 2,000 or so years ago.

  • People, particularly Westerners, can restore deep meaning to their lives by rediscovering and nurturing their own prepatriarchal spiritual and cultural roots—instead of appropriating wholesale from the practices of indigenous peoples.

  • Just as diversity thrives in nature, multiculturalism likewise is an asset to society.

  • Nature does not need humans to survive. Contrary to techno-capitalist propaganda, it is counterintuitive and suicidal to manipulate, control, and attempt to transcend nature.

  • It is doubtful whether our species is innately greedy, aggressive or competitive. Darwinian theories are not the final word on the nature of human behavior.

  • Attacking patriarchy is not the same as male-bashing. The masculine sex is not "the enemy." Rather, patriarchy is a particular way of thinking whose practitioners can be of any gender.

  • Just as white people need to root out internalized racism and not rely on people of color to educate them, so too, men must take initiative to expunge male privilege and not wait for women to petition the cause.

  • The nuclear family grew out of the practice of woman as man’s private property. Alternative family arrangements deserve recognition and legal support.

  • Femicide today has reached epidemic proportions. Worldwide statistics show that up to 100 million women are "missing" because of a preference for male children. Infant females are disproportionately aborted, killed at birth, or die through neglect.

  • The Burning Times was a misogynist holocaust in European history when tens of thousands of people, mostly women, were tortured and murdered. Persecuted as witches, the political agenda of the Church and State all but obliterated the accumulated wisdom of ancient wise-women's ways.

  • For thousands of centuries, earth-based medicine worked. The Western medical establishment imperiously devalues the healing power of the body, the psyche, herbs, and nutrition.

  • Eating factory-farmed animals and dairy products devastates the environment, exacerbates world hunger, and is a major cause of death in meat-eating societies. The extreme suffering nonhuman animals endure solely to satisfy the carnivore palate is unnecessary and unconscionable.

  • Overpopulation is inevitable when the control of reproduction is wrested away from women, and educational and contraceptive resources are not broadly disseminated.

  • In ancient times, women exercised exclusive self-determination over their bodies. Our foresisters had extensive holistic knowledge about birth control, abortion, birthing, and other gynecological concerns.

  • Massive infusions of greenery in urban areas would benefit the residents of inner cities who lack the resources of privileged people to purchase nature retreats.

  • Bioregionalism—sustaining the ecology within one’s habitat—is imperative for the welfare of our planet, as is sustainability—the idea that we must not diminish natural systems beyond their capacity to replenish at comparable levels.

  • Daily usage of private cars, subsidized by innumerable tax breaks, is destructive to the planet and accounts for wars over access to oil. Commuters who use mass transport or nonmotorized forms of transportation like bicycles merit gargantuan tax breaks for their earth-friendly efforts.

  • Television programs chronic viewers for rampant consumerism, political inertia, and spiritual alienation.

    What Is To Be Un-Done?

    The Western linear calendar declares the approach of the second millennium, obscuring the fact that our species is thousands of centuries old. Male-dominated history has occupied less than two percent of the time period Homo sapiens have existed on earth. Yet, in a mere 5,000 years, the patriarchal mindset has managed to steer us all to the brink of extinction. Many ecofeminists believe this 5,000 year-old path is an aberration, a cancer gone haywire.

    We as a species are in an arrested state of adolescence as insecure egos (mostly male) compete for unrestrained power and attention. Playing god, they manipulate life by splicing genes in a frenzy of womb envy. As profit-driven warmongers, they traffic in death. Defiling our habitat, the patriarchs seem to be recklessly inventing new ways to junk Earth like some inner city ghetto and venture off in sterile techno-womb machines for ever more vainglorious conquests on the cosmic plane.

    In opposition to such a frightening mindset, ecofeminism offers radical alternatives for reconstituting life on Earth. We seek to conjure new postpatriarchal ways of being based in part on prepatriarchal values that resurrect and restore our original profound oneness with nature. By reactivating the ancient spiritual power of the feminine principle and balancing it with the male principle, men and women together can abandon dualistic thinking, "grow up," and live as sensitive, mature human beings in harmony with other animals and nature.

    As visionary activists, ecofeminists of all colors and classes are midwifing earth’s denizens toward a new version of an ancient consciousness. Millennia of gynocentric wisdom exists with which to inform our collective and individual reality. Truths lay dormant in your own genetic memory. Reach deep within. Let us spiral outward from the past, in consciousness with the present, and onward to the future for a sustainable oneness with Mother Earth!

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