Neo-Paganism is a nature religion which, like other nature religions, perceives nature as both sacred and interconnected. From this perspective, humans in the developed world have become tragically disconnected from nature, which has been desacralized in both thought and deed. Healing this rift is possible only through a profound shift in our collective consciousness. This constellation of ideas can be called “Deep Ecology”. This is the fourth in a 6-part series about some of “branches” of Deep Ecology. This essay was originally published in parts at Neo-Paganism.com.
“He says that woman speaks with nature. That she hears voices from under the earth. That wind blows in her ears and trees whisper to her. That the dead sing through her mouth and the cries of infants are clear to her. But for him this dialogue is over. 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.”
— Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her
The term “Ecofeminism” is believed to have been coined by the French writer Françoise d’Eaubonne in her 1974 book, Le Féminisme ou la Mort. Ecofeminism emerged in the 1970s and 1980s as the feminist and environmental movements intersected. The nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island prompted large numbers of women to come together in 1980 for the first ecofeminist conference at Amherst College, titled “Women and Life on Earth: Eco-feminism in the Eighties”. Ynestra King, one of the organizers of the event, declared in the opening address:
We here are part of a growing movement of women for life on earth, we come from the feminist movement, the anti-nuclear movement, the disarmament movement, the holistic health movement. We have come because life on earth and the earth itself is in terrible danger. … We’re here to say the word ecology and to announce that for us as feminists it’s a political word–that it stands against the economics of the destroyers and the pathology of racist hatred. It’s a way of being which understands there are connections between all living things and indeed we women are the fact and flesh of connectedness. … feminism and ecology are where politics come face to face with biology, and where the spiritual and the political come together. … the crisis of this civilisation which has led us to the brink of nuclear annihilation, is spiritual as much as it is economic. … Both (the feminist and the ecology movement) are deeply cultural and even spiritual movements, whose principles explode the categories of the political to include the biological on the one hand and the spiritual on the other.
Ecofeminism has been described as a third wave of feminism, a branch of deep ecology, an environmental critique of feminism, and a feminist critique of environmentalism.
To understand ecofeminism, indeed to understand feminism, it is necessary to understand what patriarchy is. Patriarchy refers to a system of social relations which are not only male-dominated, but also male-centered.
In a male-dominated society, men hold most of the positions of authority — political, economic, religious, military, and domestic. In a patriarchal society, there is a power imbalance between men and women in all aspects of life. While any individual man may be more or less powerful, all men benefit in some way from this imbalance.
But a patriarchal society is also one which is male-centered. This means that men’s experience is treated as the norm, and women’s experience is treated as the exception. Men’s experience is treated as representative of all human experience. In patriarchal societies, women are often romanticized, or put on a pedestal, but this does not translate into real power, much less equality. Women in patriarchal societies attain power only to the extent that they embrace patriarchal values.
Patriarchy is created by men and women. Both men and women have to be socialized to support patriarchal values and institutions. Men and women perpetuate patriarchy by simply following the cultural path of least resistance.
Patriarchy harms both men and women. Patriarchy is a not only a system by which men rule over women, but also one in which a few men rule over other men. Patriarchy harms men by how it defines masculinity narrowly in terms of control: control of self, control of women, control of one’s environment. Patriarchy teaches men to idealize autonomy and to avoid connection, with other people and with their own selves. Patriarchy teaches men to treat women, the earth, and their own bodies as objects to be acted upon, to be used. As a result, men under patriarchy lead impoverished inner lives.
The movement toward equal rights for the women, while laudable, should not be confused with challenging patriarchal institutions. As Allan Johnson writes:
“It is easier to allow women to assimilate into patriarchal society than to question society itself. It is easier to allow a few women to occupy positions of authority and dominance than to question whether social life should be organized around principles of hierarchy, control, and dominance at all, to allow a few women to reach the heights of the corporate hierarchy rather than question whether people’s needs should depend on an economic system based on dominance, control, and competition. It is easier to allow women to practice law than to question adversarial conflict as a model for resolving disputes and achieving justice. It has even been easier to admit women to military combat roles than to question the acceptability of warfare and its attendant images of patriarchal masculine power and heroism as instruments of national policy. And it has been easier to elevate and applaud a few women than to confront the cultural misogyny that is never far off, waiting in the wings and available for anyone who wants to use it to bring women down and put them in their place.”
Patriarchy perpetuates itself by reinforcing a paradigm built of interrelated hierarchical dualisms:
Each of these dualisms is hierarchical; the first element is valued, privileged, and sacralized, while the second is devalued, unprivileged, and desecrated. These dualisms are also interrelated: male is equated with heaven, mind, human etc., while female is equated with earth, body, animal, etc. These dualisms are used to reinforce social and psychological structures which perpetuate the dominion of men over women and of humankind over nature. They also divide us against ourselves.
Ecofeminists attack these dualisms by turning them on their head, reclaiming and valorizing the disfavored element in each dualism, or by dismantling the dualisms altogether, replacing them with new metaphors of relationship, connectedness, interdependence, mutuality, and wholeness. Ecofeminists seek to replace the worldview constructed of these hierarchical dualisms with one which values radical diversity, modeled on both the biodiversity of the environment and the feminist value of the strength of difference.
What ecofeminism adds to the broader deep ecology discussion is the idea that the oppression of women and the abuse of the environment are related phenomena, both arising from patriarchal power structures of hierarchy and domination. Ecofeminists also explore the intersection of sexism and environmental desecration with racism and class exploitation. Ecofeminists argue that certain races and social classes have also been oppressed through their association with nature. Early leaders in the ecofeminist movement included Rosemary Radford Ruether — New Woman/New Earth (1975), Mary Daly — Gyn/Ecology (1978), and Susan Griffin — Woman and Nature (1978), Carolyn Merchant — The Death of Nature (1980), as well as Sallie McFague, Monica Sjoo, Starhawk, Charlene Spretnak and others. These writers argued that male dominance of women and nature are variations on a theme and must therefore be addressed together. Ecofeminists call for a change, not only of social and political structures, but of consciousness.
Sherry Ortner has argued that the identification of women with nature and men with culture dates to the earliest historical times. This likely arose, at least in part, from the analogy of women as child bearers and nurses to the earth as the place from which the plant life arises which sustains human life. This correspondence allowed men to believe that they were exempt from the category of nature, and they could escape from the cycle of birth and death through mastery of nature and everything associated with nature, including women. With the development of agriculture and animal husbandry, women came to be defined as property that could be owned in the same way that land and animals could be owned.
The denigration of both women and matter was later compounded by Hellenism and later by Christianity, especially after its absorption of Neoplatonic philosophy, which radically dissociated the realm of ideas from the world of the senses. The masculine ego, which had become disassociated from the realm of matter, was now, in the Abrahamic religions, projected onto a single God, who was depicted as a titanic patriarch standing apart from a corrupt and changing material creation which was controlled from without. This projection reinforced the dominion of man over woman and nature, because, as Mary Daly wrote, “when God is male, then the male is God.”
While the Enlightenment did initiate social changes that would bring greater equality and freedom to women, in other ways it perpetuated and deepened the masculine/feminine dualism discussed above. Grounded in the Cartesian separation of the knowing subject and the known object, the Scientific Revolution extended the patriarchal ego’s domination of the material world, seeming to legitimate dualistic thinking. Susan Bordo describes the Scientific Revolution as a “flight from the feminine”, specifically a flight from the organic “female” universe of the Middle Ages, a universe which humans were integrally a part of. In the words of Owen Barfield, a person in the Middle Ages experienced themselves “less like an island, rather more like an embryo”. But the Scientific Revolution changed all this. Descartes idealized detachment and sought to turn men into mental islands — “islands” which had to be defended against anything that reminded men of their finitude and their connection to living nature. As Morris Berman describes, the new man of science sought to “solve it all, destroy any vestige of wild, disorganized [feminine] Other entirely, so that the [masculine] Self now reigns supreme in a pure, dead, and totally predictable world.” Michael Zimmerman explains how the dissociated ego cut itself off from nature:
“The patriarchal ego divinizes reason, because it seems eternal in comparison with the mortal flesh. In recoiling from death, the ego must also shrink back from life. Egoic disassociation represses the entire human organism. Ecstasy is rejected in favor of control; sensuality becomes reduced to genital sexuality. Women, the body, emotions, and nature are all constant reminders of what has been disassociated. They represent the unruly, unpredictable, boundary-less Other, which always threatens to invade the patriarchal ego’s well-defenses psychic space.”
In her 1980 book, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution, Carolyn Merchant examines the root metaphors used to describe both women and nature and how they mutually reinforce each other. According to Merchant, from ancient times until the 16th century, nature was described in “feminine” terms, either as a nurturing mother (Madonna) or as a wild and chaotic woman (whore). But with the Scientific Revolution, organic metaphors for nature were replaced by mechanical metaphors. While the feminization of nature was itself problematic, at least “the image of the earth as a living organism and nurturing mother had served as a cultural constrain restricting the actions of human beings.” “By reconceptualizing reality as a machine rather than as a living organism”, Merchant argues that science “sanctioned the domination of both nature and women.”
Exemplary of this paradigm shift was Francis Bacon, the father of modern science. Merchant writes, “Much of the imagery Bacon used in delineating his new scientific objectives derives from the courtroom, and, because it treats nature as a female to be tortured through mechanical interventions, strongly suggests the interrogations of the witch trials and the mechanical devices used to torture witches.” This language persists today when we speak of “hard” scientific facts and the “penetration” of nature by the (masculine) scientific mind. Words have power, and this language has reflexively reinforced the subjugation of women. Just as nature went from being, in Merchants words, “an active teacher and parent” to “a mindless submissive body”, so women went from being subjects to objects, from persons that act to things which are acted upon, i.e., controlled by men.
Ecofeminists have been accused of gender essentialism, to the extent that they perpetuate the equation of women with nature. However, it is one thing to say that women lives are inherently closer to nature by virtue of their biology (i.e., menstruation, birth, lactation), and another to say that, while all people — including men — are a part of nature, men have been socialized to set themselves apart from and above both nature and women. Thus, it is not women’s biology which gives them greater insight into our interconnectedness, but the social construction of that biology.
Ecofeminism invites us to question what we have gained and what we have lost with the “masculinization of thought” which began in the Enlightenment. “For what shall it profit a man,” we might ask, “if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Ecofeminism calls us to reunite “masculine” and “feminine” ways of knowing and thereby heal ourselves, our society, and the world.
“Is Male to Female as Nature Is to Culture?” by Sherry Ortner
“The Cartesian Masculinization of Thought” by Susan Bordo