No Green Goddesses
The idea that women have a special bond with the planet, are more green and have a lower carbon footprint has been around 40 years now, and is once again being used to send them back to domesticity
For almost as long as the modern environmental movement has been around, some women who describe themselves as feminists have proposed that women are “greener” than men, and have a special connection with nature or a privileged outlook on ecological issues.
As far back as 1968, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb argued that human overpopulation was ruining the planet, and that people should decline to reproduce. In 1974 the French radical feminist Françoise d’Eaubonne said half the global population lacked the power to make that choice, since women didn’t control their own reproduction. What she called the “male system” wanted them barefoot, pregnant and proliferating. But, she wrote, they could and should fight back by demanding reproductive freedom, easy access to abortion and contraception. That would emancipate women and save the planet. “The first relationship between ecology and the liberation of women,” she wrote, “is the reclamation by women of population growth, defining the re-appropriation of the body.” In her 1974 book Le feminisme ou la mort, she called this “ecofeminism.”
US environmentalists picked up her word, but gave it a different meaning, recalling that the author of Silent Spring, the 1963 book (1) that had inspired environmentalism, was Rachel Carson. Women were leading protests against nuclear power plants (such as Lois Gibbs at Love Canal) and against chemical poisoning of places. One author of the influential 1972 report The Limits to Growth (2) was Donella Meadows. One of the high-profile German Greens was Petra Kelly. In the UK, a group called Women for Life on Earth formed a peace camp at Greenham Common air base, to protest against Nato’s deployment of cruise missiles.
Many Greenham women called themselves ecofeminists, but theirs wasn’t a struggle for reproductive freedom. It was about the special bond between women and nature, present in the language itself – nature and earth are feminine; forests are “virgin”; nature is our “mother who knows best”.
Ruination of the planet
The forces trying to “tame nature” and “rape the land” were science, technology and reason: masculine projects. Aristotle defined rationality as male; he believed women less able to reason and hence less human. Thereafter European culture saw women as intellectually deficient – and following the patriarchal precedent of Genesis in the Bible sought dominion over the earth. According to popular New Age (and ecofeminism) tropes (3), the Enlightenment was another masculine project and had found new ways to ravage nature, through science and technology and factories. Its perpetrators were male; they reduced nature to resources that they could exploit and transform into commodities, and the Enlightenment project to glorify reason and dominate nature was the ruination of the planet.
The 1970s ecofeminists said women had clean hands, and what the world needed was less destructive rationality; women were an antidote, more intuitive and emotional than men. They had a sense of connectedness to the rhythms of nature, and understood intuitively the interconnectedness of people and nature. The solution to ecological destruction was that special bond. The identification of women with nature became a positive programme, with women as custodians of the environmental message. The psychologist Carol Gilligan proposed that women’s specific moral development made them responsible for an “ethic of care”. Some, like Mary Daly, proposed that nature was a goddess, immanent in all living things, in whose essence individual women specially partook.
Feminists struggling to advance civil rights and economic empowerment were horrified, since ecofeminism dealt in patriarchal stereotypes, taking an ancient insult and re-presenting it as a compliment. Such stereotypes had been used to justify the 19th-century separate spheres ideology, which had restricted women’s life choices to domesticity, and gilded their cage with paeans to their moral superiority. However “greened”, it had no place in the feminist struggle, allowing a new iteration of the feminine mystique. Besides, many 1970s environmentalists were men: David Brower, Lester Brown, Barry Commoner, E F Schumacher, Denis Hayes, Murray Bookchin, Ralph Nader, Amory Lovins, David Susuki, Paul Watson.
Western ecofeminists looked to the third world where World Bank-financed development projects were under way. Engineers dammed rivers to generate hydropower, and wrecked communities. Agribusiness transformed lands long sustainably farmed into monocultures, raising single crops for export to the world market. Forests that had long provided villagers with fruit, fuel and craft materials, and protected groundwater and animals, were being clear-cut. This “maldevelopment” – rampant, exploitative international capitalism – was destroying not only forests, rivers and lands, but communities and ecologically sustainable ways of life. Indigenous peoples struggled; in northern India, when a corporation planned commercial logging, the local village women resisted by hugging the trees to prevent them being cut down. Over the next decade their movement, Chipko, spread to the rest of the subcontinent.
The Chipko movement fired the imagination of western ecofeminists, adding real social facts to the woman-earth mystique. Vandana Shiva and others argued that in rural Africa, Asia and Latin America, women are the gardeners and horticulturalists, with expert knowledge of nature’s processes. Masculine maldevelopment values resources only as potential commodities for the market economy, but indigenous women understand that these resources must be respected, to ensure that availability to future generations. Women therefore give greater priority to protecting the natural environment.
Ecofeminism’s fascination with the Chipko movement was almost a romanticisation of subsistence farming, and ignored women who had aspirations to education, professional lives and full political citizenship. Ecofeminists preferred that third world women should stay in their old role, but at least they did spotlight specific ways in which environmental destruction affects women. When agriculturally productive land is converted to monoculture, female subsistence farmers are relocated to hillsides where farming is less productive, resulting in deforestation and soil erosion, and poverty (4).
Vulnerable to disasters
Women’s unequal social status and different roles leave them more vulnerable to global warming’s severe storms, fires, floods, droughts, heat waves, diseases and impaired food production. Each year, according to a report by the UK-based Women’s Environmental Network (WEN), more than 10,000 women die from climate change-related disasters, compared to 4,500 men. Women are 80% of climate refugees; out of 26 million people who have lost their homes and livelihoods due to climate change, 20 million are women (5).
In Bangladesh in 1991, when a cyclone drove people from their homes, five times as many young women died as men. Their clothing hampered their mobility; they stayed at home too long waiting “for a male relative to accompany them”. Men out in public spaces warned each another of danger and left, sometimes without warning the women at home. In places where women have more equal social status with men, poorer women are more vulnerable to rising food prices, heat waves, and diseases, caused by environmental destruction.
Since the 2008 global financial meltdown, the woman-nature romanticisation has been reborn in the US. “Women lean toward relationships and long-term strategies that prioritise future generations,” says Shannon Hayes, author of The Radical Homemaker (6). This new earth mother renounces the economic advantages of her education and professional career and chooses to stay at home to raise her family, feeding her children healthful, tasty food cultivated in her backyard. She nurtures relationships, values simplicity and authenticity. Her home is self-sustaining, a safety net during economic disaster. And her carbon footprint is very small. She seems to have personal fulfilment and a meaningful life.
Social scientists have repeatedly studied men’s and women’s attitudes to environmental issues and looked for differences. Since the 1980s, most researchers have concluded that in industrialised countries, women are indeed more concerned about environmental destruction than men. According to a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), women are more likely than men to make “green” lifestyle choices. Others have found that women have a smaller carbon footprint than men. According to a Swedish report (7), men contribute disproportionately more to global warming because they drive longer distances: Swedish men account for 75% of car travel. “The fact that women travel less than men... means that women cause considerably fewer carbon dioxide emissions than men, and thus considerably less climate change.”
At the national level of political organisation about green issues, according to the IWPR, women’s participation and leadership are lower than men’s; the leadership of large, national environmental organisations is mostly male. At the local level, in groups to combat a specific environmental threat to a community’s health or safety, women participate more than men, both as leaders and as members. Almost half of all citizen groups formed in response to local disasters (like harmful factory emissions and nuclear incidents) are led by women or have predominantly female membership.
But to consider these findings evidence of an essential difference between men and women is regressive. If men dominate national environmental leadership, then that dominance should be contested, not accepted with radical homemaker renunciation. If women have a smaller carbon footprint, then men should reduce theirs. If women care more about connection, then men need to cultivate that, or we are back to separate spheres. Even for radical homemakers, domesticity loses its joy, as Peggy Orenstein has pointed out, when male partners aren’t equally involved. “If you don’t go into this as a genuinely egalitarian relationship,” she warns, women can experience “loss of self-esteem, loss of soul and an inability to return to the world” (8). When men make most of the money and women do most of the caring, the result is a power imbalance within families that harms women and children. Is it possible to lower imbalance to effect real change, social as well as ecological?