What has gender got to do with the environment? Unsaid and Trybe have teamed up to create a series of blog posts around this question. We’re covering topics such as the gendered effects of climate change, how gender norms influence involvement in environmental activism, and how climate change policies portray women. Last week, we published a post based on data gathered by TryBe on Environmental Behaviour
The relationship between gender and the environment is no novelty. A trend in academic thought and social activism, ecofeminism, has been pointing to these connections for decades. The term was coined by French feminist Françoise D’Eaubonne in 1974, but its roots are much older. Ecofeminism emphasises the ways in which the oppression of women and the exploitation of the environment in patriarchal societies are connected. It examines the ways in which dominant social norms subjugate both women and the environment. The philosophy does not just critique the way things are; it also proposes an alternative worldview. It advocates for a world where there are no false hierarchies between culture and nature, men and women, and where a diversity of forms of life is respected. It pursues a more collaborative, community-oriented way of life, criticising the ways in which the patriarchal structures prioritising competitiveness and individualism have led to the destruction of the natural environment.
Women and Nature: a common source of oppression
Academic conferences in the late 1970s and early 1980s regrouped ecofeminists in the Global North, whose main goal was to show the ways in which patriarchal structures are at the source of both the oppression of women and the domination of nature. One way in which these structures were justified was through the ways in which both women and nature were spoken about in ways that made them seem inferior to men and their civilisation. For example, stereotypically women are seen as chaotic (“never try to find anything in a women’s handbag”), intuitive, emotional, irrational, as opposed to men, who are supposedly ordered, rational, logical, etc., which makes them superior to women. The oppositions drawn between (male-dominated) civilisation and nature are strikingly similar. Nature is wild, irrational, driven by instinct, and men are there to tame, order, domesticate it.
The English language is one example of how this association between women and nature is ingrained in our ways of thinking. Let’s think about the ways in which animal terms are used to refer to women (usually pejoratively):
Women are referred to as dogs, cats, catty, pussycats, pussies, pets, bunnies, dumb bunnies, cows, sows, foxes, chicks, bitches, beavers, old bats, old hens, old crows, queen bees, cheetahs, vixen, serpents, bird-brains, hare-brains, elephants, and whales. Women cackle, go to hen parties, henpeck their husbands, become old bides (old hens no longer sexually attractive or able to reproduce). (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy)
One might argue that associations of this kind are relatively harmless- “okay so what if a woman is occasionally called a bitch”? The point is that this type of language is a symptom of a deeper, more dangerous issue, the objectification and mistreatment of women. Let me bring up a recent example, Robin Thicke’s infamous “Blurred Lines”. In a video where naked women carry around goats and pout to the camera, Thicke sings:
Okay, now he was close
Tried to domesticate you
But you’re an animal
Baby, it’s in your nature (meow- said by woman)
The animalization of women provides a justification for treating them as inferior, as something that needs to be “domesticated” by men.
Women and Nature: a common struggle
While in the Global North ecofeminism emerged from academia, later inspiring many social movements, in the Global South ecofeminism originated in activism. It was a new term to describe the struggle of women’s movements for protecting the environment. A famous example is the Chipko movement which arose in the 1970s, in the Indian Himalayas, where the logging of forests for large-scale industry was damaging the environment and creating danger for its inhabitants through leading to ravaging monsoons. Women’s and peasant’s movements protested by going to the forests and hugging the trees, refusing to let them be cut down.
Vandana Shiva, who at that time was pursuing a doctorate in theoretical physics in Canada, became involved in the Chipko movement, and ended up reporting about it. She made it known to the Western world as an ecofeminist movement. In this video, she talks about the movement, their success in achieving a logging ban, and she defines ecofeminism.
She talks about how ecofeminist approaches challenge the patriarchal way of seeing the world by pointing out its false divisions and hierarchies, such as the superiority of men over women, and of culture over nature. Those dichotomies are not only harmful, but also distort the true shape of the world, placing it in constraining and mechanistic categories.
Ecofeminism as politics
Ecofeminism is not just an academic trend or theory; it grew out of, and influenced many social movements, and therefore is a type of politics in action. There are many different branches of ecofeminism, but what unites them is the attention given to how the global environmental crisis and the oppression of women are interconnected. Some branches of ecofeminism did not go far enough in showing the connections to other types of oppression, the struggles of people of colour, formerly colonised people, etc., but these issues are a central to the work of some writers such as Vandana Shiva and Marta Mies (their book Ecofeminism is definitely worth a read).
Ariel Salleh captures the spirit of ecofeminism as an active form of politics when she talks about it in this video:
Her discussion answers the question that got us started on this series: how gender and the environmental crisis are interconnected.
“All around the world at the moment there is a great revival of interest in ecofeminism, probably because of the climate change thing… ecological feminism is an organic politics which grows wherever women find conditions of life threatened, with its toxic spills, nuclear radiation (…) deforestation- Chipko women hugging the trees in North India to prevent the forest being destroyed, and so on. These are occurring all around the world. At the same time we need a consciousness shift in masculinity to take seriously the political struggles of women. At the same time, there is a decolonisation process going on around the world, in every country.”
Discussing traditional masculinity is therefore crucial to change our approach to the environment, as these are connected. As Salleh notes, it is not an easy process:
“There’s beginning to be an understanding of the interconnections. Very slow. The last one to fall will be masculine entitlement. This is the hardest. Even in the environmental movement.”
Cultural change is a long process, but it is fundamental to striving for a more sustainable world. And this change is already on its way, pursued by ecofeminist movements across the world. In Uganda, women are leading a local movement to protect the forest and its crucial ecological resources. We can take inspiration from them to pursue change in our own communities.