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FEATURE | spring 2002


It's Not Nice to Mess With Mother Nature - Ecofeminism 101 (1989)

Ms. Spring 2002

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I remember when the ecology movement first surfaced in the early seventies. I was already active in the Women's Movement, 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 fulltime 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.

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.

But this new perspective is actually one that women have been edging toward for a long time. Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan's ground-breaking work has amply demonstrated that as the traditional care-takers, women in this culture easily affiliate and identify with others, value people's feelings, and tend to base moral codes on the good of the entire group. Women do this, according to Gilligan, even though the culture at large doesn't recognize or respect those values. Ecofeminism in essence is saying that traditionally female values are our best shot at changing consciousness-and saving the world.

Feminists (like me, in my days as a Pampers ecocriminal) have historically resisted the equation of women and nature-and with good reason. Writers from Simone de Beauvoir to Ellen Willis have argued that the nurturing, more-naturally-peaceful stereotype is a fast ticket to keeping us barefoot and pregnant. But while it might have been crucial 20 years ago to say that no one is "naturally" anything, hasn't Margaret Thatcher now proved the point for us? Isn't it time to stop pushing our way into the boys' clubhouse-especially if it's about to fall off a cliff?

"We have to start saying that the problem isn't women's proximity to nature, but men's nonproximity-and the assigning by the culture of what it means to be perceived as closer to nature," explains women's studies professor Ynestra King.

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," says 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.

The ecofeminist movement has room for both atheists (like King) and nuns (one of the foremothers of the movement is the medieval abbess Hildegard of Bingen). But the most visible thread of spirituality, especially on the West Coast, is a resurgence of earth-based paganism, including Yoruba, Wicca, Native American religions, and Goddess-worship.

When Starhawk was a little girl growing up in Los Angeles in the sixties, her name was Miriam, and she wanted to be a rabbi. "If I had grown up ten years later, maybe I would have become a rabbi," she says now, "but it wasn't a career option then for women. So I became a witch."

Starhawk's journey to becoming a serious practitioner of the craft of Wicca took many years, but her initial attrac-tion was based on the then-radical notion that gods could be goddesses. Today the fuzzy-haired writer (her latest book, Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority and Mystery), and women's studies teacher is one of the most visible figures in ecofeminism. Her claim to fame is her ability to conduct spiritual rituals at demonstrations-like her "Political Despair Ritual" four years ago when Reagan was re-elected, in which participants danced around a caldron, going up to the fiery pot in turn to light a candle and make a pledge for the future.

Spirituality has been something of a controversy in the worldwide ecology movement (some West Germans in the Green political party, for instance, have charged that it smacks of the back-to-nature call of the Nazis). But Starhawk's goal is to heal. "Rituals can be embarrassing to a lot of people, and I try to be sensitive to that," she explains, sitting in the San Francisco house she shares with a half dozen other pagans. "Instead of invoking specific goddesses, I talk about the air, the water, the earth-things that everyone can relate to."

"If people are happy without ritual in their lives," Starhawk adds, "I don't think there's any need for them to change. But a lot of people do have a hunger for experiences that connect people. Rituals can empower, and they're a great healer of the burnout we so often feel. As a movement, we shouldn't ignore that." The right wing, she adds, figured out the same thing a long time ago.

Along with pagans, 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," explains 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.

When I began researching this article, I was a member of Greenpeace and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but I hadn't been exposed to ecofeminist theory. After the first "click," what struck me the most was the realization that it's a philosophy that could change everything-including oneself. For instance, when I first tried to wrap my brain around the idea of transcending the old he-who-dominates-wins ethic, I had some pleasurable fantasies about assorted gay-bashers, dolphin-killers, Republican yuppie realtors, and the rest of my personal hit list being deprived of their right to dominate. Then it dawned on me that I really was rooting for them to eat shit and die. Those who've been at it for longer say a more life-affirming consciousness comes with practice. "I think you have to phrase this very delicately," explains Susan Griffin, "because I wouldn't want to slop over into saying that Central Americans should be working to forgive Ronald Reagan. But I do think I've become less confrontational."

Los Angeles therapist Deena Metzger, who had a mastectomy several years ago, believes that an ecofeminist consciousness could transform medicine. Radiation and chemotherapy, she points out, are natural responses from a society that thinks in terms of chemical war-fare and nuclear power; perhaps a mind-set 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, says that 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," says 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 two percent of the female population," says 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 adds, 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 with out radically transforming the econo-my 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."