The Goddess revived: the rise of ecofeminism

(An article by Kitty Mattes in The Amicus Journal, fall 1990 issue. Ms. Mattes writes on environmental issues from Ithaca, NY.)

"Arachnophobia", a movie in which a community battles evil spiders with heroic tides of pesticides, was a major hit at theaters this summer; in the end, chemical-welding man wins out over web-weaving insect. While reinforcing people's fears of the natural world, the movie glorifies the technological fix, and crudely illustrates the mentality environmentalists are up against. Humans increasingly control and stand apart from other forms of life. Among environmentalists, the deepening global crises is leading to new modes of thought. Recent movements such as Green philosophy, bioregionalism, and deep ecology all seek to rearrange and reharmonize humankind's relationship to nature.

ECOFEMINISM, an intriguing manifestation of this quest, is rooted equally in environmentalism and women's liberation--two powerful movements that flowered in the 1970s. Combining the feminist and ecological perspectives, ecofeminism makes the woman/nature connection: the domination, exploitation, and fear of both women and nature are characteristic of patriarchal thinking. In other words, pollution of the planet and oppression of women are caused by the same set of attitudes.

"Nature-hating and woman-hating are particularly related and associated", says Ynestra King, "and are mutually reinforcing." King has become the major spokesperson for ecofeminism through her activism, writing and teaching over the last 15 years. Currently, she teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York; her forthcoming book is titled, WOMEN AND THE REENCHANTMENT OF THE WORLD. Ecofeminism links human liberation and respect for nonhuman nature, explains King. Ecology is incomplete without feminism, she says, because it does not recognize the necessity of ending the oppression of women; and feminism is disembodied without the ecological perspective, which "asserts the interdependence of living things."

"Ecofeminism is a holistic way of thinking" says King, "a way of continuously connecting issues like violence against women, military violence, degradation of the planet. You can take any issue and see how these relationships work together." Everything on the feminist agenda--equal rights, quality of work, child care, reproductive choice, and domestic violence-- is interconnected, just as the feminist agenda is connected to the environmental agenda.

Charlene Spretnak, whose books include THE LOST GODDESSES OF EARLY GREECE and THE POLITICS OF SPIRITUALITY, sees ecofeminism as one of the "new ecologies" that include Green politics, deep ecology, bioregionalism, "creation-oriented spirituality," and animal rights. While mid-1970s feminist studies of domination are seminal to ecofeminism, Spretnak particularly emphasizes the impetus and inspiration of recent work on ancient goddess cultures.

Archaeologists studying graves and temples in Eastern Europe and the Middle East ("Old Europe"), have uncovered flourishing, unstratified farming societies where females and males had equal power, according to Marija Gimbutas, professor of archeology at the University of California. Religion centered on goddess figures; the female principle was conceived as creative and eterna, the male as spontaneous and ephemeral. This culture reigned until about 3500 BC, Gimbutas claims, when incursions by nomads gradually succeeded in destroying it.

Nomad society was based on the grazing of large herds and on small patrilinear units, with the hero as horseman and warrior. "In contrast to the sacred myths of pre-Indo-European peoples, which centered around the moon, water, and the female," Gimbutas has written, the religion of Indo=European peoples was "oriented toward the rotating sky, the sun, starts, planets, and other sky phenomena, such as thunder and lightening." Eventually the holistic, earth-oriented goddess cultures were displaced by the hierarchy and domination of patriarchy. Some ecofeminists even date the beginning of our cultural history from 8000 BC, the midpoint of the period when agriculture was first developed.

The ecofeminists view also claims some notable male voices. In his book, THE DREAM OF THE EARTH, environmental philosopher Thomas Berry shows how the values and attitudes that emerged after the historical shift to patriarchy underpin our four, central modern institutions: empire, church, nation, and corporation, all of which are hierarchical and male-dominated. Kirkpatrick Sales, a prominent spokesperson for Green values, whose latest book is THE CONQUEST PARADISE, hails ecofeminism, especially as he sees it establishing a direct political link between men and women that is lacking in the traditional feminist movement.

But among ecofeminism's most obvious allies, there is also serious criticism of the movement. The ecofeminist stance on international population control programs-- that they are tainted by racist and coercive overtones-- puts them at odds with those environmentalists who consider curbing world population an urgent priority. Greens claim that ecofeminism does not exist as a separate philosophy at all, because their own philosophy incorporates the goals of ecofeminism. The "Ten Key Values" that form the basis of Green politics include "postpatriarchal values" which some see as an accurate description of the ecofeminist view.

Traditional feminists decry the woman/nature connection at the very core of ecofeminism, calling it a throwback to biological determinism. The identification of women with nature reinforces the Earth Mother stereotype, say feminists, and revives the "essentialism" and romanticization of women they have fought so hard to discredit. From nurturer on a pedestal to tramp in the gutter, the patriarchal woman is defined by her relationship with males, and feminists have always condemned such stereotypes. In this light, ecofeminists risk perpetuating women's marginality and "otherness."

Reromanticizing women does carry risks, including the potential for images of "the good feminist" (Earth Mother) and "the bad feminist" (militant), says Ynestra King. But she argues that all feminists-- and indeed *everyone* -- should question the "ideal of human freedom and liberation over and against the natural and biological." Biology as destiny is not just a threat to women, it is an excuse for all forms of oppression, she points out. But in deflating the concept of biological determinism, biology's role may be made irrelevant altogether. Instead, King says, "everyone needs to recover some awareness of the earthiness, the fleshiness of human life."

Irene Diamond, professor of political science at the University of Oregon, views the reshaping of the women/nature connection as part of a more general shift among feminists to "difference feminism" (also called cultural feminism), which spring from studies revaluing motherhood and women's culture in the early eighties. Diamond's recent book is REWEAVING THE WORLD: THE EMERGENCE OF ECOFEMINISM, coedited with Gloria Orenstein. Diamond believes that an identification with the biological has been assigned to women by western culture; men have chosen to dissociate themselves from nature and to associate women with it.

The ecofeminist viewpoint has informed a valuable critique of some of the directions taken by mainstream feminists, Diamond says. Women are now looking beyond the goal of integrating themselves into the work force, for example, and questioning the nature of work and the structure of the workplace itself. Day-care is no longer the more appealing alternative to mothering, as women and men are revaluing child care, and questioning the role the state plays in it.

Ecofeminism simultaneously celebrates interconnectedness and diversity. Life is a web, not a hierarchy; within it diversity is essential for both healthy ecosystems and healthy societies. We are all different, but no one's difference is more important than another's. Since our very differences are valuable, all forms of domination are unhealthy. On a political level this stand can be linked to the recognition of the intrinsic worth of nonhuman life (hence animal rights), of indigenous peoples (cultural survival), and of the integrity of minority cultures (as opposed to assimilation).

The celebration of differences may explain why more women of color are to be found in the ranks of the ecofeminists than among the traditional feminists. Rachel Bagby, associate director of the Martin Luther King Papers project at Stanford University, praises the racial parity at ecofeminist gatherings. As she has put it, "None of us are tokens at someone else's party."

Third World women, most of whom find themselves within status in their cultures, also gain empowerment in ecofeminism. Their health and livelihoods are directly linked with environmental quality. Vandana Shiva, a physicist and ecofeminist in Delhi, India, maintains that "maldevelopment" -- a model of progress based on the colonizing, modern West -- means destruction for women, nature, and subjugated cultures. She calls for reinstatement of precolonial standards of productivity as the basis for a development based on conservation and ecology.

In Brazil, ecofeminism began to take shape in 1984 as people protested against the testing of experimental contraceptive drugs on poor women. Thais Corral, a journalist for Interpress Service in Rio de Janeiro, told The Amicus Journal that women quickly made the connections between this incident and other forms of ecological manipulation that also affect women and children, such as bio-technology and the use of chemicals in agriculture. "Women living in the country knew how to control their fertility", says Corral. When they had to move to the city, "they lost that knowledge." Now, the right wing want to control poor woman's childbearing choices instead of dealing with the wider reasons for environmental collapse, such as destructive development, she believes. An ecofeminist group has emerged Brazil, called the Network of Defense of the Human Species; the group plans an international conference next year in Salvador, Brazil.

Corral's concern --that the costs of a deteriorating environment fall hardest on those who can least afford it -- is shared by all ecofeminists. "You can't just put the responsibility [for the crises] on women" says Ynestra King. The population issue must be looked at in the context of other issues, she believes. The U.S., with 5% of the world's population, produced 25% of global warming gases, for example. "Let's face it" says King, "it's the rich, white people who pollute." Studies have repeatedly documented the relationship between rising economic and social opportunities for women and declining birthrates, so given the power, King maintains, women "will do it themselves."

Feminist and Green philosophers meet in ecofeminism, especially in its focus on "the value and integrity of not only women, but all creatures with whom we share the earth," says Irene Diamond. The ecofeminist celebration of diversity and sense of place is shared by Greens and is basic to bioregionalism. Calling ecofeminism "a new term for an ancient wisdom" Diamond believes, that "ecofeminism is the philosophy and Green is the politics." In Germany, ecofeminists such as well-known leader Petra Kelly consider themselves Greens, Diamond points out, and as Greens, they hold political power.

Right now, it is a bit too soon to speak for true environmental politics in the United States. A tiny fraction of the American people has made meaningful life-style changes, but the national agenda consists mainly of approaching environmental problems through the legal system. The gap between philosophy and action keeps American environmentalism tenuous and peripheral. Western European countries are taking far more significant steps -- in farm policy, recycling, pollution reduction, and family planning -- due to cohesive political pressure. The danger in all "isms" is that they can be reduced to academic bombast or pop-press prattle. Ecofeminism may well inform a future solution to the planetary crises-- and may even play a significant role. But at this time and in this place, it is still only a good idea.

Go Back to Shy David's Feminism Page.