It’s Not Nice to Mess With Mother Nature: Ecofeminism 101 (Jan/Feb 1989)

“In an ecofeminist society, no one would have power over anyone else, because there would be an understanding that we’re all part of the interconnected web of life.”

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From the January/February 1989 issue of Ms.:

I remember when the ecology movement first surfaced in the early ’70s. I was already active in the women’s wovement, and I wasn’t exactly comfortable with all the rhetoric about the plight of Mother Earth—as if the entire planet were a damsel in distress. Nor did I want to be anybody’s earth mother. In fact, a major focus of my life was to avoid drowning in full time motherhood. A guy from the ecology movement picked that moment to tell me I was Part of the Problem because I used disposable diapers. I would have cheerfully deposited the contents of same on his head.                       

Most of the ecology movement seemed to me to be a bunch of hetero white boys who didn’t have the Vietnam War to kick around anymore and were casting about for an issue. And on the scale of available issues, it was pretty puny. What were a few extra nondeposit bottles compared to, say, rape?

That was before Three Mile Island, Love Canal, Star Wars, the unraveling ozone layer and hospital syringes washing up on the beach. I now feel very differently—and so do a lot of other women. But it isn’t just that the environment is turning into more of a hopeless sewer. One of the most interesting (and least reported on) developments of the last few years has been the integration of feminist and ecological concerns.  


(Stuart Franklin)

Mainstream peace and ecology groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club now have feminists in leadership positions, and there’s less of a sense that “their” issues are competing with “ours.” According to Vickey Monrean, who is both development director for Greenpeace and a member of the national board of NOW:

“Part of the consciousness that has to develop is an understanding [that] if you have a world that’s falling apart and you achieve equality for women, what good is it? On the other hand, if you make the world safe and free of pollution and you don’t have equality, then you really haven’t created a world that’s safe for everybody.”

There’s also a relatively small but growing movement of women who are working for ecological concerns specifically as feminists. They organize demonstrations at missile bases and nuclear power plants, but what sets them apart is their theoretical work, collectively known as “ecofeminism,” a philosophy that takes on not just the domination of the earth by polluters, but domination itself, in all its forms—whites over people of color, men over women, adults over children, rich nations over the Third World, humans over animals and nature. Ecofeminists want an entirely new ethic.

In an ecofeminist society, no one would have power over anyone else, because there would be an understanding that we’re all part of the interconnected web of life. Such a worldview requires some radical changes in perspective (not to mention behavior), since the whole world becomes part of one’s self—not something Other to win, conquer, exploit, or get ahead of in the hierarchy.

Ecofeminists believe that the domination of women and of nature comes from the same impulse.

“The oppression of women began with the separation of spirit and matter,” said Susan Griffin, the author of Woman and Nature. “Once you have matter lacking spirit, it’s a lowly substance, of its nature requiring domination and control.”

Women with all their messy childbearing faculties are associated with being more material and hence less valuable, according to Griffin. But the solution isn’t to promote women to the exalted male realm. “The split itself needs to be healed.”

Out of this desire to remerge matter and spirit comes much of the impetus for a new spirituality—one that understands that we need to clean up rivers not just because it’s safer, but because we and the rivers are part of the same fabric; poisoning them is as crazy as cutting off one of your own fingers.

Vegetarians and semi-vegetarians form a visible contingent within ecofeminism. Some eat less meat because of limited global resources—it takes the same amount of grain to feed 100 cattle or 2,000 people. Many ecofeminists avoid leather, recycle paper, ride bikes instead of cars whenever possible, and otherwise put theory into everyday action—although the actions vary with individuals. Living a purely ecofeminist life in this culture is admittedly difficult. Some ecofeminists are expanding the feminist examination of power relations to include other species.

“There’s a principle involved,” said Ingrid Newkirk, national director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “If you’re against violence, domination, slavery, and the abuse of the vulnerable, then you’re for women’s rights, and you’re not a racist, and you’re for animal rights. If you only believe that women should be treated with respect and not as chattel because you’re a woman, and you draw the line there, then you have a very narrow and selfish perspective, that has nothing to do with the fundamental principle.”

The term “ecofeminism” was first coined by the French writer Françoise d’Eaubonne in 1974, but it wasn’t until 1980—partly in response to Three Mile Island—that Ynestra King, peace activist writer Grace Paley, and others organized “Women and Life on Earth: A Conference on Ecofeminism in the ‘80s” at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The following year, the first West Coast Ecofeminist Conference was held at Sonoma State University, organized largely by people who weren’t at first aware of the Amherst meeting. Women from both coasts, including King and Starhawk, later formed Woman Earth Institute, the first national ecofeminist organization.

Los Angeles therapist Deena Metzger, who had a mastectomy several years ago, believes an ecofeminist consciousness could transform medicine. Radiation and chemotherapy, she points out, are natural responses from a society that thinks in terms of chemical warfare and nuclear power; perhaps a mindset less attuned to “conquering” cancer would have invented a different and better treatment. AIDS might be approached differently by a society that wasn’t hysterical at the realization that its own defense system is becoming counterproductive.

Hazel Henderson, a Florida-based economic analyst, said an ecofeminist analysis of the economy would realistically recognize that most of the “productivity” calculated in indexes like the Gross National Product is in fact only part of the work of the world.

“I look at the economy not as a pie but as an upside-down layer cake,” said Henderson. “The top two layers are the ones that economists notice: the private sector, and the public sector that it rests on—schools, roads, airports, and in our country, the military. But my cake has lower layers. First comes what I call the Love Economy—all the cooperative, selfless work we do for each other in communities and families, where no cash is exchanged. In Third World countries, this layer would include subsistence agriculture as well. The bottom layer is Mother Nature, which the whole thing rests on and which no one acknowledges.”

Henderson believes that economists should junk the GNP as the sole indicator of reality, and instead augment it with measurements like “how well is the average person housed? What’s the access to clean air? What about education and safe streets and political participation? We have to put money into trying to reverse the damage that’s been done to the layers that no one was concerned with before. All the social and environmental bills are coming due, from drugs and crime to the hole in the ozone layer.”

Ynestra King thinks that an ecofeminist consciousness will help women come to terms with their physical appearance.

“Most of us will do anything to our bodies to appear closer to norms of physical beauty which come naturally to about 2 percent of the female population,” said King. “The rest of us struggle to be skinny, hairless and lately muscular; we lie in the sun to get tan even when we know we’re courting melanoma; we submit ourselves to extremely dangerous surgery. We primp, prune, douche, deodorize and diet as if our natural bodies were our mortal enemies—and to the extent to which we make our own flesh an enemy, we are participating in the domination of nature.”

But the real message for the future, King added, is that anyone who still thinks that ecofeminists are nice, harmless, ethereal earth mothers is crazy: “When you see what the roots of the ecological crisis are, you realize that you can’t save the planet without radically transforming the economy and creating social liberation at every level. Feminism is absolutely central to that, since it’s made the most advanced critique of social domination. The only solutions at this point ultimately are radical.” 

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Lindsy Van Gelder is a former staff writer for Ms. magazine and chief writer for Allure. She has contributed to numerous other magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Town & Country, New York, the New York University Alumni Magazine, the Columbia Journalism Review, Rolling Stone and the Nation. She also co-authored two prize-winning queer-themed books, Are You Two … Together? and The Girls Next Door.