Nature = Woman? The Ecofeminist Thang

By Samantha J. Callender

What is it about the idea of woman having some intimate connection with nature that is so appealing to people? This is something that my classmates and I have been chewing on for quite some time in our writing class. The topic so intrigued me that I wrote a short paper about it and from that paper, and the many class discussions which followed it, comes this article.

For centuries men have had the notion that women somehow have a special connection with nature. According to many of them some deep rooted instinctive connection exists between woman and that which is nature. A short survey of some of the poetry we read in my writing class proves my point. S.T. Coleridge said of nature, "she is the preserver, the treasure of our joys." e.e. cummings, in his poem "O sweet spontaneous," portrays nature as a sweet young innocent hounded by the dirty old men of philosophy, science, and religion. In his poem "To Autumn," John Keats compares spring and summer to a fair maiden who flitters about the fields and takes naps on the granary floor.

Today many female nature writers and feminists lay claim to a connection or oneness with nature. In her poem "Wild", Mary Donahoe becomes a creature of the wild, roaming the woods and "communing" with nature. In an excerpt from Woman and Nature Susan Griffin, a noted feminist and nature writer, plainly states this idea that women have some level of communion with nature that men can not attain. "He says that woman speaks with nature...He says he is not part of this world, that he was set on this world as a stranger. He sets himself apart from woman and nature...We are women and nature. And he says he can not hear us speak."

While sitting in class absorbing all of this wonderful knowledge I wondered, "What is it about nature and woman that compels us to liken the one to the other? What characteristics found in each are said to be the trademark of the other? Why are some women so eager to maintain the notion that they are somehow at one with nature? And why are some women completely opposed to this idea?" Since ESF is a school which is dedicated to the study of nature in its various forms and considering that Earth Day is fast upon us, and the references to "mother nature" are popping up left and right, I thought now would be a good time to share my musings with the rest of the campus.

According to the feminist writer Janet Biehl ecofeminists lay claim to this connection with nature as part of being woman. There are quite a few feminists who see the association of woman with nature as totally detrimental to their cause. In her book Rethinking Ecofeminist Politics, Biehl quotes Simone de Beauvoir who states, "Equating ecology [or nature] with feminism is something that irritates me. They are not automatically one and the same thing at all." Apparently there is some dissension among the ranks of the feminist factions.

Many feminists are down right hostile to the idea of ecofeminism and are quick to point out its flaws. They point to the fact that while some ecofeminists argued that "women would not be free until the connections between women and the natural world were severed" others, such as Susan Griffin, clearly hold to the idea that, "We are woman and nature." Some ecofeminists argue that this woman-nature connection is biological, others that it is spiritual, others simply regard it as a metaphore, and then there are the social constructionists.

Janis Birkeland writes, in the book Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature (which is basically a defense of ecofeminist theory), that the perceived difference between men and women's relationships to nature is based on the historical socialization and oppression of women. In other words, men made it up. According to Biehl ecofeminists "assert that the woman--nature association is a social construction, an ideology that is the product of men." She then goes on to point out why some social constructionist ecofeminists believe that men made up the connection between woman and nature. "For Susan Griffin, men in our 'split culture' construct women and nature as 'other' because they 'fear' the fact that they 'are Nature.' Similarly, for Ynestra King, the 'woman = nature' connection is a result of men's fear of 'the fact that they are born of women and are dependent upon non-human nature.' For King, 'woman = nature' is 'socially constructed,' and 'the idea that women are closer to nature is an ideology.

It's not true.

It was made up by men as a way to sentimentalize and devalue both....It's a masculine definition.'" In other words, men associate women with nature because they're afraid of us both.

Now I know why people are so leery of ecofeminism. There appears to be very little uniformity in the beliefs of its proponents. Some ecofeminists argue that, "...since all life is interconnected, one group of persons cannot be closer to nature." Yet many other self professed ecofeminist writers continue to refer to nature as a feminine entity, as do the rest of us. Anne Primavesi, an ecofeminist writer, states that the association of women with nature is done so as to make both inferior to man. Despite this observation she continues to refer to nature as her. If the woman--nature connection was made up by men only to subjugate women, as so many ecofeminists claim, why hold onto it so tenaciously and why perpetuate it?

One line which really caught my attention in Biehl's book was, "...dare I suggest that ecofeminism is simply incoherent, contradictory, and sharply at odds with itself?" While I may not agree with her exact words I feel we share a similar sentiment towards ecofeminism. The more I learn about ecofeminism the more amorphous and undefinable it seems. You never seem to get the same answer twice when you ask "what is ecofeminism."

After reading through many books on feminism and ecofeminism, and kicking about this topic many times in class, I have come to the conclusion that most of this stuff is just talk and theory written down in books. The basic idea I had in my head at the be ginning of this whole shebang is still there, to assign certain characteristics, roles, or relationships based solely on whether a person's genotype is XX or XY is totally ridiculous. I believe that human beings, man and woman alike, are at this point incapable of defining nature. Woman can not be said to have a closer connection to nature until you can define nature and, for that matter, until you can define womanhood. Granted both women and our natural environment have been, and still are, abused. I just don't think it's something to base a whole movement or your belief system on.

Ecofeminist Perspectives

In Kenya, women of the Green Belt movement band together to plant millions of trees in degraded lands. In India, they join the chipko (tree-hugging) movement to preserve precious fuel resources for their communities. In Sweden, feminists prepare jam from berries sprayed with herbicides to offer a taste to members of parliament- they refuse. In the United States, housewives organize local support to clean up hazardous waste sites. All these actions are examples of a worldwide movement known by many as "ecofeminism," dedicated to the continuation of life on earth.

Ecofeminism emerged in the 1970s at a time when consciousness of the connection between women and nature increased. The term "ecofeminisme" was coined in 1977 by French writer Françoise d'Eaubonne, who called upon women to lead an ecological revolution to save the planet. During the 1980s cultural feminists in the United States injected new life into ecofeminism by arguing that both women and nature could be liberated together. Liberal, cultural, social and socialist feminism have all been concerned with improving the relationship between humans and nature, and each has contributed to an ecofeminist perspective in different ways.

Multiple Facets:

Liberal feminism is consistent with the objectives of reform environmentalism; to alter human relations through the passage of new laws and regulations. Cultural ecofeminism analyzes environmental problems within its critique of patriarchy and offers alternatives that could liberate both women and nature. Social and socialist ecofeminists ground their analyses in issues of reproduction, the domination of women by men and how capitalist relations of production reveal the domination of nature by men.

Generally speaking, ecofeminists address contradictions between production and reproduction, while attempting to make problems more visible and propose solutions. For example, when radioactivity, toxic chemicals and hazardous wastes threaten the biological reproduction of the human species, ecofeminists view these threats as assaults on women's bodies and on those of their children and act to halt them. Household products, industrial pollutants, plastics and packaging wastes are viewed as invaders to the homes of women, endangering their lives. Likewise, direct access to food, fuel and clean water is imperiled by cash cropping on traditional homelands and by pesticides used in agribusiness. Such chemicals threaten women's lives by polluting their water and food systems, leading to disease and birth defects.

Chemicals, some argue, promote the growth of export crops which draw women into a spiral of dependency, inevitably (and ironically) leading to soil nutrient depletion. Rather than addressing short-sighted, single ended production, the ecofeminist agenda demands attention to the cyclical processes that connect and sustain all living beings.

Women can combat such hazards by altering family consumption habits, recycling household wastes and protesting waste production and disposal methods. They act to protect traditional ways of life and reverse ecological damage from irresponsible multinational corporations and extractive industries. Through envisioning and enacting alternative gender roles, employment options and political practices, ecofeminists challenge the ways mainstream society reproduces itself.

Cultural ecofeminists hold that women are closer to nature than men because of their physiology and social roles. Women bring forth life from their bodies, and undergo the pleasures and pains of menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and nursing. In a social sense, childrearing and domestic caretaking have kept women close to the hearth and thus closer to nature. Some cultural ecofeminists celebrate the relationship between women and nature by reviving ancient rituals centered on goddess worship, the moon and the female reproductive system. An ecofeminist vision by which nature is held in esteem as mother and goddess is a source of inspiration and empowerment to women. Cultural ecofeminism embraces intuition, an ethic of caring and connective human relationships.

In contrast to cultural ecofeminism, the social and socialist strands of ecofeminism treat nature and human nature as socially constructed and subject to analysis in terms of race, class and gender. Some critics of cultural ecofeminism think it fails to adequately analyze the role of capitalism in humans' attempts to dominate nature. Some critics dispute the assumption that women's essential nature transcends socialization, which implies that what men do to the planet is bad and what women do is good. The belief that women have a special relationship to nature, claim critics, makes it difficult to accept that men too can possess or develop a genuine ethic of caring for nature.

Examining Ethics:

Many ecofeminists advocate some form of a nurturing, caring environmental ethic to confront the oppression of women and nature by men. Such an ethic recognizes and embraces the multiple voices of women differentiated by race, class, age and ethnicity. An ecofeminist ethical perspective grounded in care and nurturing is pluralist, inclusive and contextual and thus constrains traditional ethics that are based on rules and utilitarian gender roles.

An alternative ecofeminist perspective is a partnership ethic that treats women and men as collaborators with nature. Just as human partners must give each other space, time and care, regardless of sex, race and class, allowing each other to grow and develop within a supportive relationships, so should humans give nature the space, time and care it needs to reproduce, evolve and respond to human actions. By constructing nature as a partner, it is more possible for individuals to have a personal, compassionate relationship with nature as well as with people who are sexually, racially or culturally different. The partnership ethic avoids casting nature as a nurturing goddess, and transcends the notion that humans are but one part of a vast ecological web and, thus, morally equal to a bacterium or mosquito.

In Closing:

The ecofeminist perspective is not singularly defined. It is comprised of a multitude of stances which continually cross check and critique each other. It is a dynamic and evolving perspective which, like women, ought not be held to any single definition. The many strands of the ecofeminist movement are woven together by the concept of reproduction and the continence of life on earth. In this sense there is more unity than diversity in ecofeminist's common goal of restoring the quality of the natural environment and for people and other living and non-living inhabitants of the planet.


Merchant, Carolyn. 1992. Radical Ecology. New York, NY. Routledge. pp 183-209.

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