A Brief Guide to Eco-Feminism

Is there any connection between women and the environment? If you’ve seen or studied religious artwork or iconography, particularly of animistic traditions, you might remember the depiction of women; sometimes as Goddesses in the natural world, sometimes having their attributes accorded to different living beings or vice versa. Historically, practices of forging physical or spiritual connections between women and the Earth have been quite common, the most famous of which, arguably, are the depictions of Gaia, the mother goddess or soul of the Earth, in Greek mythology.

Yet, is this the extent to which this link, between women and nature, has been established? No, the connection between women and the Earth is not restricted only to ancient religious traditions, depictions or practices. Instead, this relationship forms the core foundation of one of the most fascinating branches of feminism: eco- feminism. Since eco-feminism consists of decades-long arguments and perspectives, take this article as a guide to eco-feminism: it briefly covers several aspects of its philosophy, including its different dimensions, arguments, perspectives and relevance today.

What is Eco-Feminism?

When French author and feminist Françoise d'Eaubonne published her famous Le Féminisme ou la mort (Feminism or Death) in 1974, her coinage of the term ‘eco- féminisme’ or eco-feminism broke new academic and cultural ground. The activist connected the subjugation and exploitation of women, especially of marginalised races, classes and social groups, with that of the environment. Drawing a link between women and nature, d’Eaubonne and several other successive eco-feminists describe capitalism and colonialism as inherently patriarchal, reducing both women and nature to commodities. Over the decades, several branches of eco-feminism have sprung forth, with varying degrees of support and criticism.

Deconstructing Eco-Feminism

Eco-feminism has several fascinating dimensions to it, most of which have inspired intense debates and reactions among feminists. The connection between women and the Earth has manifested itself in broadly two ways. Cultural eco-feminists, drawing from nature-based religions and goddess worship, believe that women and nature possess a deeply intimate relationship because of the biological features (pregnancy, lactation) of the former, which enables women to always be in touch with natural cycles and processes.

On the other hand, radical eco-feminists connect women and nature by a different thread- the common thread of exploitation and commodification by the hands of patriarchy and capitalism. In doing so, radical eco-feminists link the two based on shared oppression and reject what they consider the perpetuation of increasingly- obsolete gender roles by cultural feminists.

The Spiritual and the Material

Like all other political/social/environmental concepts, eco-feminism today is interpreted by different political traditions in their own way, a practice which has led to the emergence of liberal eco-feminism, Marxist or socialist eco-feminism, spiritual eco-feminism, and several other conceptions.

Socialist eco-feminists perceive eco-feminism in a materialist dimension and believe that women (and nature) can only be truly liberated with the tearing down of socio- economic hierarchies, and by putting an end to a system which views both from the market perspective, as means to an end rather than the end itself. Meanwhile, spiritual eco-feminists call for faith-based activism, faith here signifying the values of compassion rather the rigid values of organised religion. Ancient and decentralised traditions such as Paganism and Wicca have been very influential for eco-feminists, with feminist Neopaganism theorist Starhawk’s (born Miriam Simos) book, The Spiral Dance becoming a bestseller and acclaimed source on the Goddess movement and eco-feminism.

Eco-feminists across the world have attributed the current status of women and nature to the emergence of patriarchal religions, to capitalism and to the system of binary opposition, which sees truth and reality in the form of binaries like mind/body, male/female, human/animal, spirit/matter and culture/nature. This rather crude form of division not only ignores the wide spectrum of realities that exist today, but also enables the enforcement of hierarchies and ignores the complexities of matters of intersectionality.

Of Popular Movements and Art

Globally, women have led and participated in movements for environmental justice much prior to the coinage and modern conceptualisation of eco-feminism. Eco- feminists consider these to be the earliest eco-feminists, or contributors to eco- feminism. The Indian Chipko movement in Uttarakhand is considered a prime example of eco- feminist movements due to the mass participation of women, whose livelihood and way of life were to be affected the most by deforestation and environmental degradation. The movement wisely linked environmental issues with the socio- economic problems faced by the marginalised classes, drawing a link between the two.

The Green Belt Movement of Kenya, an organisation that is indigenous in character and employs a grassroots approach to advocate for conservation, afforestation, and community development, positions women at its forefront. Since its beginning in 1977, 51 million trees have been planted across Kenya, and thousands of women have received training in forestry and other skills in order to supplement their income. Similar movements have begun and sustained across the world, including the Love Canal movement of New York in 1978 and the Greening of Harlem Coalition in 1989. Eco-feminist movements have been credited not only for challenging industrial and capitalist notions of development, but also for re-defining the role of women in politics in particular, and in the public domain in general.

Eco-feminist art is another crucial aspect of its philosophy. Artists across the world have been inspired by eco-feminist writings and created artwork, sculptures, public installations and projects in response to the growing environmental crisis. American eco-feminist artist Helène Aylon installed a seed-filled ambulance known as the Earth Ambulance, attempting to rescue the world from the fallouts of a nuclear war during the Cold War era. Artist Betsy Damon started out as a performance artist navigating the relationship between women and nature, creating dramatic pieces addressing feminist and ecological issues. Eco-feminist art interprets the connection between nature and women in different ways, drawing on ancient religious traditions as well as by subverting popular tropes.

Assimilating Perspectives

Eco-feminism has often been criticised by second wave and third wave feminists for what they consider is its emphasis on gender essentialism, i.e. prescribing certain attributes to men and women and establishing that the two are fundamentally different from each other. These ideas can be seen in the works of cultural eco- feminists, who see the man/woman dichotomy as a parallel to the culture/nature difference. Their emphasis on women’s ‘natural tendency’ to nurture and care has also been criticised for being anti-progressive. In response, radical eco-feminists developed the view that women and the Earth are connected because of their shared oppression, not so much by women’s biological features or ‘natural proclivities’.

Vegetarian eco-feminism, another activist sub-movement within eco-feminism advocates for the rights of non-human animals, and the eradication of speciesism as a form of oppression. Its proponents believe that if the control of women’s bodies by patriarchy is to be eradicated completely, one must address the subjugation and consumption of animals by human beings. This strand of eco-feminism has not only been criticised for placing a disproportionate amount of burden on women by feminists, but also for neglecting intersectional issues. The linkage of feminism to vegetarianism or veganism, critics point out, fails to take into account issues of labour rights, indigenous rights, geopolitics and, food security. Eco-feminism has addressed these criticisms by incorporating intersectional analysis and broadening its approach.

So, is eco-feminism relevant today, and if so, in what capacity? Well, eco-feminism has over the years, served two crucial roles. One has been as a resolute critic of unregulated capitalism, bringing to light not only its excesses, but the disproportionate costs borne by women on its account. Its second role has been as a contributor to popular movements, re-establishing women’s spaces in public and politics, and amplifying the voices of indigenous and marginalised communities. The power of ideas is immense, and today, at a time when the momentum of climate change continues to accelerate, we need to take these ideas into account while discussing or formulating public policy.