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This research paper summarizes the history of ecofeminism and its various strands of activism and intellectual inquiry. Through critiques made of ecofeminism, both from those allying themselves with the movement, and from those who wish to disassociate themselves from it, the argument is made that ecofeminism, particularly in its social constructivist form, has been influential in international policy making. As a parallel development alongside feminist political ecology and other environmental feminisms it has developed analytically, infused by renewed interest by a new generation of academics and activists, as well as a new generation of environmental concerns, dominated by climate change.
- A Brief History of Ecofeminism
- Social Construction
- Impacts of Ecofeminism
- Ecofeminism in Other Environmentalisms
- The Gender Justice in Environmental Justice?
- Feminist Political Ecology
- The Future for Ecofeminism?
- Ecofeminist Citizenship
- Climate Change
Ecofeminism, like the social movements it has emerged from, is both political activism and intellectual critique. Bringing together feminism and environmentalism, ecofeminism argues that the domination of women and the degradation of the environment are consequences of patriarchy and capitalism. Any strategy to address one must take into account its impact on the other so that women’s equality should not be achieved at the expense of worsening the environment, and neither should environmental improvements be gained at the expense of women. Indeed, ecofeminism proposes that only by reversing current values, thereby privileging care and cooperation over more aggressive and dominating behaviors, can both society and environment benefit.
The notion that women’s and environmental domination are linked has been developed in a number of ways. A perspective in which women are accredited with closer links with nature was celebrated in early ecofeminist writings, by, for example, Carolyn Merchant in the United States and Val Plumwood in Australia. These advocated ‘the feminine principle’ as an antidote to environmental destruction, through attributes, which nurture nature. This ‘essentialist’ perspective, often adopting an ideal of woman as earth mother/goddess, has, however, also discredited ecofeminism and led to disaffection among some early protagonists (see, for example, Janet Biehl). In addition to being critiqued for its essentialism, this view of ecofeminism has also been charged with elitism through its provenance in a white, middle-class, Western, milieu. However, Vandana Shiva’s consistent and persuasive ‘majority world’ voice has been a counterpoint to this, and arguably, gender and environment have been articulated together more powerfully, and been more influential, in majority world settings (see, for example, Wangari Maathai in Kenya), although how this has been done has been questioned by writers such as Cecile Jackson and Melisssa Leach.
The late 1980s and early 1990s was a fertile time for ecofeminist writing, both from this essentialist perspective, but also through more social economic critiques, which explained the link between women’s inequality and environmental degradation in terms of women’s role in social reproduction (see, for example, Mary Mellor in the UK and Marilyn Waring in New Zealand).
The first major practical impact of ecofeminist thinking was felt in the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), which women’s environmental organizations had lobbied for women’s and environmental rights to be considered in tandem. This, and the 1995 4th Women’s Conference in Beijing, agreed for the first time that women’s rights and environmental rights could not be disentangled.
By the late 1990s, however, the output on ecofeminism had dropped significantly and there was a sense of it having run out of steam, despite its arguable influence revealed through UN initiatives. However, in the new millennium, a new generation of writers, researchers, and activists has reinvigorated ecofeminist debates, through considerations of ecofeminist citizenship (Sherilyn MacGregor), challenges to some earlier critiques (Niamh Moore), and insertion of feminist concerns into environmental justice (Susan Buckingham and Rakibe Kulcur, and Giovanna di Chiro) and political ecology (Wendy Harcourt, Dianne Rocheleau).
This research paper considers the heritage of ecofeminism as a multiply braided political praxis and an intellectual position. It examines key critiques of earlier perspectives, before exploring its more recent developments. It considers its relationship with, and potential to enhance other feminist and environmental approaches, particularly those concerned with feminist political ecology and environmental justice. The research paper concludes with a consideration of how ecofeminism is enjoying a resurgence through a new generation of academics seeking to develop and nuance ecofeminism from a sympathetic position, the emergence of climate change as a major global issue, and the development of social movements in areas not previously associated with feminist environmental action, notably in the Middle East.
A Brief History of Ecofeminism
Ecofeminism is not a singular position, and protagonists have emerged from different intellectual and political traditions. It is generally agreed that the first reference to ‘ecofeminism’ was by the radical French feminist, Francoise d’Eaubonne, yet, despite her influence, particularly in North America and Australia, “Le feminisme ou la mort,” (1974) and “Ecologie, feminisme: revolution ou mutation?” (1978) have not been translated into English. It is also ironic, given that many of the Anglo-American/Anglo-Australian ecofeminists initially eschewed d’Eaubonne’s Marxist–feminist analysis to focus on an essentialist/cultural approach.
This approach sought to reverse the Enlightenment/Cartesian hierarchy privileging a ‘masculine’ abstract rationality, which was seen to justify the exploitation of anything weaker than itself (colonial subjects, men without property, children, as well as women and the natural world). Thus, early ecofeminists elevated the ‘feminine’ principles of care and cooperation, not only to parity with the ‘masculine,’ but above it, on the basis that all human and nonhuman life would better thrive, guided by these principles (for example, Diamond and Orenstein, Merchant, and Plumwood). The most celebratory advocates of this approach (such as Mary Daly, Andree Collard, and Charlene Spretnak) argued that female biology tied women more closely to nature, primarily as they menstruated, and carried, gave birth to, and breastfed children. This, the cultural ecofeminists argued, enables women to make more sensitive decisions regarding humans’ relationship with nature. The care needed to bear and nurture children and the households in which they develop provided the basis of an ‘ethic of care’ seen as necessary for the prevention of widespread environment destruction. This approach has been criticized on a number of grounds, as will emerge through this research paper, but one of the most persuasive is that for centuries, women have been relegated to the caring and domestic spheres precisely because of their essentialized biologies. It is not surprising, therefore, that many feminists argued that biology is insufficient grounds on which to determine justice, rights, and opportunities in any sphere.
More consistent with d’Eubonne’s first articulation of ecofeminism has been the reasoning that women’s typical work, socialized through generations, places them in more direct contact with nature. Whoever deals immediately with the social reproductive acts of provisioning, cooking, watering, clothing, cleaning and so on comes into daily contact with nature. This is most obvious in rural areas of the majority world where it is mostly women who walk to collect water, and biomass for cooking and heating water. Reliance on biomass for cooking on open stoves also makes women more vulnerable to respiratory diseases caused by indoor air pollution. It is also women who tend to be the subsistence farmers, and who therefore are most immediately impacted when structural adjustment policies require subsistence farmers to switch to cash crops, or where rights to harvest common land for wood, seeds, and other subsistence needs are suspended as the forest comes under national protection. It is these rural women’s tasks, and their expertise as seed collectors, which Vandana Shiva has powerfully used in her ecofeminist analyses and campaigns against environmentally degrading practices, particularly in India. Likewise, Wangari Maathai, ecofeminist campaigner, academic and politician, drew on women’s environmental knowledge and practices to develop the Green Belt tree planting movement in Kenya.
But the household division of labor is strikingly similar worldwide. Noted ecofeminist, and first woman and Green Party MP in New Zealand, Marilyn Waring, in her capacity as chair of the New Zealand Public Expenditure Select (Public Accounts and Budget) Committee, made a point of visiting women to inquire about their working day wherever she traveled. She was repeatedly struck by the ubiquitousness of women undertaking housework, caring for children and other dependents, and their relative lack of leisure time compared to men. A memorable vignette from a film made of her travels involved women in Tanzania giving a detailed account of their day, which started at sunrise to collect firewood and water, and ended with preparations for the next day’s breakfast well after sunset. When Waring turned to a man standing at the edge of the group to ask him how he spent his day, his response that he ‘supervised the women’ drew much mirth. The persistent gendered vertical job segregation, wage inequalities, and distribution of caring responsibilities in the minority world, has stimulated a number of analyses, which link the exploitation of women with the exploitation of nature, through patriarchy and capitalism (see Mary Mellor, who, in her book ‘Breaking Boundaries,’ aspired to a ‘feminist green socialism’).
The ecofeminist literature produced in the 1980s and early 1990s has been challenged on multiple fronts. Reference has already been made to the critique against essentialism. Both Gillian Rose (1993) and Val Plumwood (in her later work, 1993) questioned the wisdom of using what Plumwood terms an ‘uncritical reversal’ through which feminine virtues are elevated above masculine. Since the male/female duality is itself a product of ‘masculinist’ thinking, which has constructed the idea of the feminine it makes little sense to employ a product of such hegemonic construction. More recently, MacGregor questions the degree to which the feminine attributes invoked by ecofeminism are intrinsic, for “we simply do not know what ‘feminine morality’ would be under conditions of equity and freedom and we should not confuse actions shaped under socially oppressive conditions for ‘natural’ ones” (2004: p. 63).
Some ecofeminist writers have attempted to think beyond dualisms, particularly in their later work, and they do so by trying to rework the ethic of care into a concept which is beyond gender, and beyond duality. An example of this is Merchant’s (1996) partnership ethic between men and women and Warren’s (1994) prioritization of interpersonal relationships of mutuality. MacGregor would go further and jettison the concept of care as a foundation of ecofeminism in favor of a rights- and justice-based ethic of citizenship (I develop MacGregor’s argument below). That she does so within the framework of ecofeminism is interesting, and contrasts with a position taken by Janet Biehl 13 years earlier. Writing from a social ecology position (to which she no longer adheres), in her 1991 book ‘Rethinking Ecofeminist Politics,’ Biehl publicly renounced her ecofeminist past, arguing that, by denying aspects of Western culture, ecofeminism therefore “ignores or rejects legacies of democracy, of reason, and … the project of scientifically understanding much of the natural world as part of a radical liberatory movement” (1991: pp. 1, 2). These charges are leveled against an essentialist perspective and its internal contradictions and Biehl is clearly discomforted by what she sees as incoherence in a social movement, which needs to be “sorted out” (1991: p. 3). Her initial identification with ecofeminism stemmed from an attempt to show how women’s concerns could be integrated into social ecology, which argues that the domination of nature is tied to hierarchies and class structures in human society. Dismantling these structures, she suggests, will “enable women to fulfill themselves completely, not only as gendered beings but as human beings” (1991: p. 5). While Biehl’s frustration with the apparent incoherence of essentialist ecofeminism is understandable, her expectation that all self-proclaimed ecofeminists should be constructing a coherent argument, or battling out their differences in public could also be construed as trying to impose a rationality that ecofeminism itself challenges.
Iris Marion Young proposes that “essentialism is a dilemma for feminism” in that “if ‘women’ is not the name of a specific social collective, then there seems to be no basis for a specifically feminist politics. On the other hand, any attempt to define women as a group with common attributes either is absurdly reductionist or normalizes some of those meant to be included in the definition while marginalizing or excluding others” (1997: pp. 5, 6). While not written within the context of ecofeminism, this quote from a leading feminist philosopher emphasizes the difficulties related to essentialism, which cannot so easily be resolved by abandoning essentialism entirely as a form of analysis/praxis.
Since women’s environmental roles have been recognized as a basis for policy by international organizations and development banks, partly as a result of ecofeminist writings, ecofeminism has drawn a sustained critique by a number of minority world academics working in the Global South, notably Cecile Jackson and Melissa Leach. In a reflection on her own work challenging ecofeminism, Leach castigates ecofeminism with failing to recognize the differences between women, and the risks to women of assigning them the “responsibility for ‘saving the environment’ without addressing whether they actually had the resources and capacity to do so” (2007: p. 72). This reading of ecofeminism: that it focused too much on women (rather than on gender relations), that it was overly simplistic, and that this had influenced a generation of development and environmental policies, has in turn been challenged (see Moore, 2008).
Leach had also argued that alternative lenses to viewing gender relations and their intersection with the environment, such as feminist environmentalism (as developed by Bina Agarwal) feminist political ecology (as articulated by Dianne Rocheleau) or gender, environment, and development (as propounded by Cecile Jackson) are superior to, and distinct from ecofeminism. However, these can also be seen as developments of a continuation of ecofeminist thinking, which is not fossilized in its 1980s form.
Since the 2000s there has been a more generous treatment of ecofeminism, which recognizes that it is not limited to the conceptualizations by its critics, and offers a starting point for further work. In 2007, Leach had herself noted that the critiques she and her colleagues had made may have contributed to a decline in women and gender relations being included in environment and development discourse.
Impacts of Ecofeminism
The inclusion of a chapter in Agenda 21 on the significance of women is an indication of the influence of ecofeminism in the early 1990s. This particular achievement was largely the result of successful lobbying of the UNCED (UNCED, 1992) by a coalition of women’s groups brought together by Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO). Through the World Women’s Congress for a Healthy Planet held in Miami in 1991, prominent groups and individuals, including some already well known for their ecofeminist perspectives, Wangari Maathai and Vandana Shiva, from both the Global North and Global South, developed a blueprint for women’s involvement in environmental decision-making in 1991: Women’s Action Agenda 21. This laid the foundation for considering women’s rights at a number of international conferences in the 1990s. The 4th UN conference on women held in Beijing in 1995 also linked gender and environmental issues through its ‘Action K,’ which insisted on the integration of gender concerns into environmental decision-making, policies, and programs for sustainable development and assessments of development and environmental policies. Out of this emerged a UN (and EU) commitment to ‘gender mainstreaming,’ which requires all government policies and practices to take into account their gender impacts. How far these commitments have been enacted into national policies and practices, and whether they have made a difference to decision-making, is debatable. UN Women’s assessment of how women’s situation has changed as a result of the Millennium Development Goals reveals some positive, but very slow, change, as well as indications that women’s involvement in decision-making influences the decisions taken. For example, UN Women reports that in female-led councils in India, the number of drinking water projects was 62% higher than in male-led councils. Climate change policy and decision-making has been resistant to reflecting gender concerns. Nevertheless, in 2012, the annual meeting of the conference of the parties (COP18 in Doha) recognized the importance of gender balance in formal and informal decision-making to enact more effective climate change policy, and agreed to set targets to achieve this. This follows a number of initiatives set up by European governments to achieve minimum quotas of women on corporate boards, post-2000, although sectors most implicated in environmental problems (such as transport, waste, energy, water) have some of the lowest proportions of women on their boards.
Arguably, then, ecofeminism, alongside broader feminist campaigns, has been influential in environmentally related policy, at least internationally. In terms of its influence in other environmental movements, ecofeminism has failed to make significant impacts, although there are indications of its capacity to do so in more recent work by proponents who stress their ecofeminist heritage.
Ecofeminism in Other Environmentalisms
In many ways the environmental movement remains resolutely masculine, white, and middle class. This had been observed in the United States by Joni Seager in the 1990s when she reported on the lack of women (not to mention women of color) in the mainstream North American environmental movement. There is public acknowledgment that company boards in the UK and scientific research are hampered by a dominant masculinity and that more evenly mixed gender composition will generate more diverse and effective decision-making by incorporating a variety of male and female perspectives (European Commission, 2012; UK Government, 2011). However, this has not percolated through to the environmental movement, which is still characterized by a culture of long hours, inflexible working practices, and a masculinist culture, well revealed by Rakibe Kulcur in the UK and Turkey. As will be discussed later, Iris Marion Young calls into question existing decision-making structures and argues for these to be transformed into bodies in which men and women can communicate effectively with each other in nondiscriminatory ways.
The Gender Justice in Environmental Justice?
The environmental justice movement has run parallel to the ecofeminist movement since the 1980s and also involves advocacy and an intellectual analysis of how disadvantaged populations are disproportionately exposed to environmental problems. This has been revealed at a global scale, through ways in which the global north ‘dumps’ on the global south, but has been particularly powerful in exposing the environmental racism against African-American and Hispanic communities in the United States. However, with notably few exceptions, gender is given no room in these analyses. Those case studies, which do focus on women’s experiences of environmental injustice draw, both implicitly and explicitly, on ecofeminism, particularly through women’s roles in the household and community. Lois Gibbs’ through her celebrated campaign against governments failing to recognize the evidence she collected regarding the industrial pollution of a local school and increased rates of cancer and other diseases of her family and neighbors has become a ‘poster child’ of the environmental justice movement. However, a gender analysis of other environmental injustices is rare (but see Hilda Kurtz and Judy Sze for exceptions). Judy Sze has related how African- American lone mothers in New York’s Harlem were castigated by City Hall as being poor mothers and housewives when they made complaints about the polluted streets they suspected of causing increased rates of asthma among their children (Sze, 2004). Both Gibbs and Kurtz report women’s concerns being dismissed by city officials as those of ‘hysterical housewives.’ The environmental justice movement, then, like the environmental movement more generally, is not sufficiently sensitive to gender.
Interestingly, academics such as David Schlosberg and Gordon Walker have drawn on the writings of feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young (1990) in developing a theoretical analysis of environmental justice, which goes beyond the distributional, to include representative and participative justice. However, her deeper critique, which analyses gender relations through the concepts of domination and oppression, rather than the concept of distribution, finds little expression in environmental justice. While environmental justice is not a term Young uses, she writes extensively on women’s health and reproductive rights, which Giovanna di Chiro argues constitute a legitimate concern for environmental justice activity, in a broad sense. Di Chiro detects a masculinism in mainstream environment movements, which generates silos in which ‘environment’ is constructed as something other than the human and the social, thereby excluding a lot of ‘environmental’ concerns and activism of women involved in, for example, the reproductive rights movement (Di Chiro, 2008: p. 279).
Feminist Political Ecology
Melissa Leach, in dismissing ecofeminism, suggests that feminist political ecology was framed as an alternative perspective to ecofeminism. In their 1996 book Feminist Political Ecology, Dianne Rocheleau, Barbara Thomas-Slayter, and Esther Wangari are less dismissive, setting out their aim as “an explicit effort to join feminist and political ecology scholarship from the ground up, based on case studies compiled from collaborative field research or direct participation in the events recounted” (1996: p. xvi). The authors identify ecofeminism as one of five “major schools of feminist scholarship and activism on the environment,” on which they seek to draw to explicate a “new conceptual framework, which we call feminist political ecology” (p. 3). However, the divisions between the five (the other four of which are feminist environmentalism, socialist feminism, feminist poststructuralism, and environmentalism) are not clear. Even in the early 1990s, writers such as Mary Mellor and Ariel Salleh, writing in Capital, Class and Nature, were crossing these boundaries. This feminist political ecology ‘manifesto’ can be seen as calling for the contextualizing of ways in which different women, and groups of women, experienced the ‘environment,’ which writers identifying as ecofeminists are now doing (see, for example, MacGregor, below).
Feminist political ecologist, Wendy Harcourt, pays particular attention to the body as “the place closest in” (2009: p. 22) and argues that the women she has worked with in social movements are “keenly aware of the conditions of their embodiment, including health, sexuality, security, the right to pleasure and rest, and the need to care for community and environment.”. As women mobilize for change around the body, home, local environs, and community, Arturo Escobar and Wendy Harcourt argued they were creating a form of politics, they called ‘place based,’ with the body as the first “place” (p. 23). While not expressly referring to ecofeminism, this position is a strong echo of it, and has much to offer it.
The Future for Ecofeminism?
Following a period of high profile activism in the late 1980s and early/mid-1990s, during which ecofeminism appeared to have influence on the international development and environmental agenda, it fell out of favor. Unfairly, perhaps, accused of the essentialism, which characterized some, but by no means all, of its early expression, the number of ecofeminist publications dropped, and ecofeminists seemed unable to respond effectively to challenges. More recently, however, younger writers have declared a sympathy with the approach and, while not uncritical of earlier ecofeminist writing, have chosen to see this as a starting point for a sustained feminist critique of environmental problems.
Sherilyn MacGregor (2004) has argued that ecofeminism’s emphasis on ‘caring’ relegates this to the private and ‘nonpolitical’ realm. A failure to engage in the politics of social reproduction maintains the fundamental divisions of labor, and reifies women’s work, and therefore gender inequality. While recognizing the achievement of ecofeminism in inserting care work, conducted in the private sphere of the home, and the intermediate community sphere, into ecopolitical discourses, which had hitherto ignored it, MacGregor pushes ecofeminism to relate to broader theories of justice (see also Catriona Sandilands). MacGregor argues, after Joan Tronto, and also implicitly following Carolyn Merchant, for care “to be seen as integral to any notion of a good society” (MacGregor, 2004: 75) and therefore part of everyone’s remit. Women’s relationship to caring and domestic work is further complicated by class and income and it is important to note that the ‘equity and freedom’ of some women to enter the paid/market economy is predicated on being able to employ other women to undertake the care work, often on the margins of a livable wage, previously undertaken unpaid (Gregson and Lowe, 1994).
Notwithstanding MacGregor, care work has been politicized, with writer-campaigner Selma James’ ‘International Wages for Housework’ campaign launched in 1972 to demand recognition that housework is a foundation for paid work in the market economy. Arguably, the most intimate of exchange, sex, can also be a political commodity, withheld to achieve political ends. In one of a long line of such campaigns, dating back to ancient Greece, women in Barbacoas in Colombia have been reported in the Washington Post as using sex as a public bargaining strategy: in this case, refusing sex with their partners until repairs have been made to a road frequently impassable, particularly in bad weather.
Increasing attention to climate change through the 2000s has also generated interest in its governing structures and it can be noted that gender forms an extremely small and marginalized part of the debate, compared to that on sustainable development in the 1990s. However, WEDO was a partner in a campaign, GenderCC, to ensure that gender is taken into account in climate change decision-making, mitigation, and adaptation. A recent milestone was achieved at the 18th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP18) in Doha, which adopted a decision on “promoting gender balance and improving the participation of women in UNFCCC negotiations and in the representation of Parties in bodies established pursuant to the Convention or the Kyoto Protocol” (UNFCCC, 2012).
Joni Seager, writing in a special issue of Women, Gender and Research (a Danish journal published in English) in 2009 ahead of the Copenhagen climate change summit, castigates the political and scientific communities for “[o]ne of the core illusions of the 2 target” suggesting that “humans can ‘master’ climate change, allowing the global temperature to rise to an arbitrary line and then stopping it” (2009: p. 14). Citing earlier ecofeminists such as Merchant, Plumwood and Warren, Seager invokes their ‘trenchant analyses’ of attitudes such as this. Ecofeminism has also been cited as an explicit organizing concept in environmental and climate change law articles and books (Morrow, 2012), suggesting a widening of ecofeminism’s influence a decade into the twenty-first century.
Prodemocracy movements that defined the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011/2012 have included a number of campaigns which Green Prophet (a Website claiming to be the ‘sustainable news for the Middle East’) have branded as ‘ecofeminism.’ These range from the more conventionally environmentalist solar power projects, in which Bedouin women in Jordan are installing solar panels in desert communities, to those ‘crossover’ projects described by di Chiro as integrating social and environmental issues, often ignored by the environmental mainstream, including a ‘harass map’ to enable women cyclists in Cairo to report abuse while cycling, through SMS.
Meanwhile, women in Colombia, Nigeria, and the United States have protested against decisions to exploit communities and the environment, using their bodies (threatening to strip naked, disrobing, or withholding sex from their partners) and language that would be familiar to earlier ecofeminists.
It is possible to argue that ecofeminism has survived and evolved from its inception in the 1970s and 1980s. Activists and a new generation of academics cite ecofeminism as an inspiration, and seek to clarify and strengthen its arguments through more empirical and case study work, and multidisciplinary analysis. Some critiques of ecofeminism in the midand late-1990s into the 2000s could be accused of being antifeminist in their apparent ungenerous and undermining attempts to challenge masculinist hegemonic thinking. However, those seeking to distance themselves from ecofeminism have, in turn, stimulated debate and development, including a defense of ecofeminism and a willingness to critique it in more constructive and inclusive ways. While ecofeminist organizations and alliances have gained some influence in international policy, it is also clear that gender inequality and environmental degradation continue and in some cases have worsened, revealing the continued need for an ecofeminist analysis.
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