issue 171 - May 1987
Both women and Nature are degraded by the male rush
for growth and profit. But women are starting to fight back.
Caroline Merchant believes that women's defence of a healthy
home environment can be an important source of strength for
Green politics - and help it challenge runaway capitalism.
Women of the Green Belt movement in Kenya band together to plant millions of trees in arid degraded environments. In India's Chipko (treehugging) movement, women work together to preserve precious fuel resources for their local communities. Women in Sweden prepare jam from berries sprayed with herbicides and offer a taste to members of parliament (they refuse the offer). In Canada, women take to the streets with a petition opposing uranium mining in sites near their home towns. In the United States, women organize the clean-up of rivers and hazardous waste sites. All these actions are examples of a world-wide movement, increasingly known as 'ecofeminism', dedicated to restoring the natural environment.
The term Eco-feminism was coined by French writer Francoise d'Eaubonne in 1974 to represent women's potential for bringing about an ecological revolution. Eco-feminism is a response to the perception that both women and Nature have been devalued in Western culture and that both can be elevated and liberated through direct political action. The earth is being dominated by male-controlled industrialization, technology and science. Women are being dominated by the complex of social patterns called capitalist patriarchy - in which men labour in the marketplace and women labour in the home.
The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century changed the metaphor that represented Nature. From being a goddess or a nurturing mother it was transformed into a machine to be controlled and repaired by men. The rise of capitalism was legitimated by the idea that the earth and Nature were to be used for human progress and could be dominated through human technology - an idea that was central to the rise of capitalism. Simultaneously, social and economic changes eroded the subsistence-based farm and city workshop in which men and women were economic partners. An increasingly industrialized society was dominated by men with domestic life the preserve of women. Women's labour in the home was (and still is) unpaid and perceived to be subordinate to men's labour in the market place. Both women and Nature were subordinated to male-defined purposes. The vision of Nature held in esteem as mother and goddess remains as a source of inspiration and empowerment for many feminists.
A second connection between women and Nature centres on their role in biological reproduction. Women are perceived to be closer to Nature because of their capacity for bearing children. Menstruation, pregnancy, nursing and nurturing of infants and young children are viewed as tying them to the home, decreasing their mobility and inhibiting their ability to remain in the workforce. Feminists argue that reducing women to their 'biological destiny' as mothers as in the idea of the 'earth-mother' degrades them because Nature is so devalued in Western culture.
But the connection between women and biological reproduction is very much the source of women's ecological activism in defense of a healthy home and family life. Women protest radioactivity from nuclear wastes, power-plants and bombs as a potential cause of birth defects and cancers. They argue that hazardous waste sites near schools and homes permeate soil and drinking water, producing statistically higher cases of leukemia, miscarriages and birth defects among local families. They object to pesticides and herbicides being sprayed on crops and forests as potentially affecting child-bearing women living near them. Women frequently spearhead local actions against spraying and power plant siting and organize citizens to demand toxic cleanups. When coupled with an environmental ethic that values rather than degrades Nature, such actions can raise women's consciousness of their own oppression and its connection to the polluting effects of male-dominated industrialization. For example, many lower-middle class women became politicized through protests over toxic chemical wastes at Love Canal.
In September 1986, biologist Wangari Maathai received an award from the Better World Society for starting Kenya's Green Belt Movement that has planted over two million trees since 1977. There is a firewood shortage in Kenya and women must spend much of each day gathering wood and carrying water. The campaign showed a good grasp of sound ecological principles. It encouraged the planting of trees to protect croplands and the use of animal manures instead of expensive imported fertilizers. In the Chipko (tree hugging) movement in Himalayan villages in India, women have banded together to protect precious fuel and fodder resources from lumberjacks - and even from their own husbands and sons who seek to sell lumber.
Women at Greenham Common in England helped set off a wave of protest over the installation of cruise missiles by the United States. Similar protests were held in Holland, Sicily, West Germany, and Switzerland. Women protesters argue that there is a parallel between men's colonization of space and women's bodies and the American colonization of European soil with nuclear weapons. Their alternative to men's rape of the earth through their missile-civilization is an ecological way of life that threatens neither the earth nor one another.
Greens have a better record than most when it comes to dealing with the concerns of feminists. Sweden's Environmental Party is modelled on the West German Green party. The party is a grassroots organization and has captured many seats at the county level, but has not as yet achieved representation in parliament. Like the German Greens, the Environmental party gives more power to women members than other Swedish parties and shows a sensitivity to women's issues. But women are represented more strongly on committees dealing with traditional women's concerns - peace, housing, schools, child-care, and agriculture - while men are attracted in greater numbers to committees dealing with energy, economics, science, and international issues.
But Eco-feminism has its critics. They point to the problem that men are glorified in their role as public creators of culture whereas women are degraded in their private 'natural' role as mothers in the home. Male-identified culture degrades both Nature and women in their purely natural' role. If 'female is to male as Nature is to culture' as anthropologist Sherry Ortner argues, then women's hopes for liberation are set back by association with Nature. Any analysis that makes women's essence and qualities special, ties them to a biological and 'natural' destiny that thwarts the possibility of liberation. Similarly socialist feminists criticize a politics grounded solely in women's culture, experience and values as reactionary. Such critics argue instead for an economic and social revolution that will liberate both women and men in ways that will also sustain life on the planet Some see Green politics as the social movement that best fulfills this vision while others opt for a more orthodox class-based political revolution. But more and more ecologically concerned women are turning to ecofeminism as the most inspiring way to empower themselves while restoring ecological balance to the earth.
Caroline Merchant is the author of The Death of Nature.