Feminism on ecology


Do women have special relationship with the environment? Do they relate to the nature differently than men do? These are the kind of questions that strongly emerged in the debates on feminism and the environment in the 1980s and 1990s. Some of the scholar-activists known as eco-feminists argued that women had a close and special relationship with nature by virtue of their biology (as actual or potential child bearer) and their role often as primary carer. Their role in domestic provision and their dependence on the environment especially for the subsistence economy qualified them to speak on behalf of nature. A powerful argument emerged that the domination over women is related to the way in which Western society is seeking to control and manage nature. In the eco-feminist argument, this two-dimensional domination was often traced to the canonical Western philosophy that upholds the importance of reason as hallmark of being human and advocates that reason makes humans superior to animals and nature. A whole set of beliefs, values, assumptions, attitudes, concepts developed around this dual domination that was believed to be central to western philosophy. It was also argued that the western philosophy was rooted in various forms of dualism, for instance, the separation between mind and body, reason and emotion, culture and nature, subjectivity and objectivity that was considered responsible for the violence against women and nature. One of the prominent eco-feminist thinkers Maria Mies argues that “[women] conceived of their own bodies as being productive and creative in the same way as they conceived of external nature as being productive and creative... They co-operate with their bodies and with the earth in order to let grow and make grow.” The critique of the western philosophy is often turned into a search for a different projection of women and nature in the pre-colonial and eastern philosophies. As another prominent scholar-activist Vandana Shiva puts it, “all pre-colonial [eastern] societies were based on an ontology of the feminine as the living principle”. Basically, eco-feminists argue that women and nature have been subjected to shared history of oppression by patriarchal (masculine) institutions and dominant (imperialist and masculine) western culture.

This early thought on women and the environment, especially eco-feminism, emerged in the 1980s, at the time when the environmental crisis had become a topic much debated in media. Various ecological topics – humanitarian crisis brought about by the famines and droughts in Africa, the large scale human and ecological impact of desertification, deforestation and land and soil degradation – were also widely debated. The eco-feminist thinking made women from being victims of environmental degradation to victors - they became efficient environmental managers and care-takers. These debates also resulted into several policy changes. The World Bank especially created policy changes to what is called “mainstreaming gender” – gender perspective became mandatory for all its projects. Several NGOs and international INGOs made women as custodian of environment. "Women-environment" connection was the main message to the Rio conference in 1992. The early eco-feminist literature canonized environmental movements as Chipko in Himalayan in India or Love Canal in the New York state as ecological movements led by women. A series of publications and documents of donor agencies, including scholars writing in popular presses, put forward the view that women were the primary users and managers of the environment.

In the last two decades, however, a number of nuanced critiques have emerged that have challenged the notion that women have a priori, that also natural and unchanging, timeless, relationship with the environment and that domesticity and the environment are quintessentially women’s domain. They have challenged that women are naturally and primarily the care-takers and nurturers and problem fixers. Several critiques, now recognized as feminist political ecology, challenged the “essentialized” categories of women and the environment. Several studies showed that these early constructions of women and nature portrayed women as homogeneous group operating in a parallel world separate from men. In fact any connection that men had with the environment was made invisible in some of the militant eco-feminist proclamations. In some documented instances so-called gender injustice was exacerbated at the cost of other forms of injustice. The powerful critique emerged that the relationship between women and the environment needed not to be assumed but explained and related to the context of dynamic and changing social relations. This body of work has now unpacked the category of “women” to an extent that the category of “gender” is destabilized as central analytical category. Instead, the emphasis is given to the development of “multidimensional subjectivities” where female gender is not given but it is constituted and constantly re-constituted through various forms of social differences and power including, for instance, race, ethnicity, class, culture, sexuality, place, politics and history. The gendered self thus is not readily available to act but is relational, dynamic, intersectional and formed and performed as a process. Many other studies now recognized as discipline of political ecology showed that even nature is not given, they showed “dynamism of multiple ecologies” also constantly in flux.


The debate on gender and the environment has come a long way in last two decades. In short, the gendered self can be described as a site of domination and subordination at the same time, converging into formation of agency, and response-ability towards others and the environment.

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