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The following is the story of EVE, excerpted from an essay that Colleen and I wrote called "Grass-Roots Ecofeminism: Activating Utopia". The full version can be found in the anthology, Ecofeminist Literary Criticism: Theory, Interpretation, Pedagogy, edited by Greta Gaard and Patrick Murphy, 1998. It is reprinted here with permission from the University of Illinois Press.
My name is Cathleen McGuire and I founded Ecofeminist Visions Emerging, or EVE, with my twin sister, Colleen McGuire, in New York City in 1991. We wanted a "retreat" for women to explore ecofeminism on both cerebral and spiritual levels.
The primary activity of EVE was a monthly discussion group that examined issues from an ecofeminist perspective. Colleen and I transcribed those lively discussions into 25 essays, creating in essence a documentation of grassroots ecofeminist thinking. These provocative essays can be found in the Ecofeminist Perspectives section.
EVE's primary activity was the monthly ecofeminist study group. While there is nothing especially novel about forming a study group, as far as we know EVE's was probably the first and (at that time) the only study group in the country devoted exclusively to ecofeminism.
Through EVE, women came together and developed grass-roots intellectual theory. We use the term grassroots to distinguish ourselves from scholars whose work, while indisputably more rigorous, is written in an academese frequently inaccessible to lay people. We use the word intellectual because our gatherings were focused and serious, not mere gabfests of gut opinions.
Influenced by our involvement in a variety of political and spiritual circles, we sought to inject EVE with a politic of sensitivity and a balance of power. We wanted to walk our talk and do the right thing. Our standards prompted endless debates between us on how to organize the study group most democratically.
Egalitarianism, safe speech, and respect for difference are a few of the principles we aspired to uphold. (We realize that having a vision and a consciousness is the relatively easy part; execution of that vision is the Sisyphean struggle.) We strived to put our ideals into practice here, now, today. Process matters. By acting utopian, one activates utopia.
As anchors for the study group, we organized the sessions, selected and circulated the readings, and opened up our apartment for monthly meetings. Despite our initial expectations, women did not step forward to help organize. Sensing the degree of labor involved, most seemed relieved that two energetic bodies had volunteered to keep the study group alive and thriving. The mantle thus remained on our shoulders to make key decisions on the role and scope of leadership, the structure of the meetings, and the nature of the membership.
The study group had no facilitators. The two of us were particularly wary of chairing the meetings since they occurred in our home and we already loomed large as "the face of EVE".
Our decision not to facilitate the discussions arose from a desire for a classless, communal egalitarianism. We harbored a vague, although not entirely groundless, fear that taking the reins was somehow patriarchal. In retrospect, we have come to recognize that there is such a thing as "the tyranny of structurelessness," and that mindful leadership has value.
Since the gatherings were always small, women generally policed themselves so that no one person dominated the conversation. The experience of figuring out how to hold a collective discussion without a visible leader proved to be a meaningful ecofeminist exercise in and of itself. It lent an anarchic quality to the sessions through which creative ideas organically surfaced.
The most important decision each month was choosing the reading since its theme set the tone for the gatherings. We spent considerable time researching and culling lively material that would educate us, stimulate conversation, and cultivate an ecofeminist consciousness. A few of the myriad topics the group critiqued included urban living, power and oppression, animals, nature as female, Pacific women and nuclear testing, dreams, and sexuality.
Few of the participants were students or teachers, people accustomed to reading entire books on a regular basis. In contrast, most of the women did not have the time to read or the money to invest in a different book each month. This compelled us to rely chiefly on essays, a number of which came from Healing the Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism and Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism. These two books are excellent, easy-to-digest anthologies.
A typical study session attracted a half a dozen or so women. While several were core participants, others wove in and out of the study group and frequented EVE's tangential activities as well. The group also saw its share of one-timers who wandered in out of curiosity.
Each session represented a heterogeneous cross-section of ecofeminism's constituencies as women from uniquely different points on the ecofeminist continuum came together in one room to theorize. In recalling past EVE study sessions, we marvel at the interesting combination of women engaged in stimulating repartee, as exemplified by the following exchanges:
Although women from different races, classes, sexual orientations, and age groups consistently came to the study group throughout its three years, it bothered us that overall most of the participants were white. We longed for a dynamic diversity of women.
- An artist and rainforest activist debating genetic engineering;
- A fertility awareness counselor examining disability rights with a writer;
- A yoga instructor exploring the New Age movement with a Latina literature major;
- A witch probing the ethics of abortion with a battered women's shelter activist; and
- A dancer deconstructing the politics of menstruation with a computer programmer.
While EVE did not specifically reach out to communities of color, in truth there was no recruitment program for any community. Our shoestring operation had no outreach budget. Simply put, EVE was a labor of love.
EVE's vanilla complexion, coupled with the fact that most ecofeminist literature to date has been written by white people, caused us to query whether ecofeminism even speaks to people of color. Or, put another way, is ecofeminism incorrigibly white?
If the women of color who did come to EVE are any barometer, their rich contributions indicate that a budding, vibrant grass-roots ecofeminism of color is out there. That women of color were not proportionately represented at EVE meetings in many ways heightened our attention to issues of race.
Women of color were not the only community whose increased presence would have enhanced EVE's ecofeminist dialogues.
We also would have welcomed far more engagement with mothers, lesbians, senior citizens, disabled women, immigrant women, homeless women, and teenagers, for example.
Men likewise have significant contributions to offer ecofeminism. We encouraged those few males who expressed an interest in attending EVE sessions to form their own ecofeminist study groups or to subscribe to EVE's newsletter. At this stage in history we felt a woman-only spaceeven as infrequent as once a monthserved an important need. Women repeatedly expressed gratitude and relief that a safe, woman-identified "retreat" was available. This does not mean, of course, that EVE or ecofeminism is anti-men or that men cannot be ecofeminists.
Buoyed by the energy percolating in the study sessions, we created a newsletter to preserve their conversations. The EVE Newsletter was written each month by the two of us and recapitulated in essay form the ideas expressed in the ecofeminist study group discussions.
The Newsletter also featured information about the readings for the upcoming session, a calendar of EVEnts, announcements, and sundry items of general interest. The Newsletter kept EVE participants au courant, and helped to connect metropolitan New York's scattered ecofeminist community.
"Newsletter" is a rather grandiose term for our modest kitchen table publication, one whose production and design aspired to an "ecological correctness." The EVE Newsletter was printed on a single sheet of recycled paper. Text in ten-point type was squeezed onto both sides so as to not waste paper. When folded, it became the mailing envelope.
Adamant that the Newsletter be economically accessible to all, subscriptions were frozen to a break-even sliding scale price of four to eight dollars a year. In the three years of EVE's existence, we produced a total of thirty-three newsletters.
Additionally, it is somewhat of a misnomer to characterize the main feature of the Newsletter as an essay. It was more like minutes of a meeting resulting from a laborious and complex process. It was usually not until long after a session was over and we had reflected extensively on our notes that we were able to distill and transform what had been the free-form thoughts of an unstructured evening of discourse into a flowing, coherent "essay".
The writing process was also taxing because we had to ensure that these conversations cum essays made sense to the majority of subscribers who rarely came to the actual sessions and who most likely had not read the "homework".
The "voice" of the Newsletter was a composite of each woman's contribution. Faithful to the spirit of their words, we never wrote anything that had not been conceptually raised at the sessions. In honor of the essential collectivity of the discussions, anonymous attribution seemed appropriate.
Needless to say, we were unequipped to preserve the full oral history of the monthly ecofeminist study sessions. To produce a compact and cohesive Newsletter, as least half of the ideas and words spoken during the two-hour sessions had to be cut.
There was a distinct pedagogy to the Newsletter. Ecofeminist consciousness blossomed among the already converted and took root with the newly initiated. For many of our readers, The EVE Newsletter was their primaryif not only source of ecofeminist information.
The Newsletter enabled us to share ideas sparked by women at the sessions with a wider audience and served as a terrific tool to promote ecofeminism in general. One subscriber (whom we never did meet) called to tell us that she and her officemates would eagerly congregate around the water cooler on a regular basis to read and discuss The EVE Newsletter together.
In time, the small local body of women who physically showed up each month had expanded into a virtual community of national and international dimensions. Upon receiving the Newsletter, women from as far away as Malta, Namibia, and Tasmania were linked into the EVE dialogue. Visitors to New York checked in with EVE to network, say hello, and establish solidarity.
EVE had become a quasi-clearinghouse, albeit unintentionally, and to this day people continue to contact us requesting information on ecofeminism. The EVE Newsletter's initial goal of sharing ecofeminism with other interested souls exceeded our wildest expectations. As EVE's most enduring legacy, the essays from the Newsletter constitute a documentation of grass-roots ecofeminist theory.
In parsing and scrutinizing ecofeminism in the EVE study group, four points became apparent and undergirded our formulative thoughts.
First, we discovered that as with other movements and philosophies, ecofeminism is not monolithic. Our readings acquainted us with various versions of ecofeminism that could probably be categorized as social ecofeminism, radical ecofeminism, liberal ecofeminism, and spiritual ecofeminism. Since EVE was not beholden to any political party, academic institution, board of directors, or funders, the group was free to harvest the best fruits available from ecofeminism's varied strands.
We were also open to and borrowed judiciously from the broad continuum of progressive ideas associated with the politics of oppressions, a pre-patriarchal analysis of history, and alternative spirituality.
The politics of oppression address, at a minimum, issues of racism, class struggle, sexism, heterosexism, sexual identity, disability rights, imperialism, AIDS, environmental racism, (deep) ecology, bioregionalism, speciesism, and anthropocentrism.
As for a pre-patriarchal analysis of history, many ecofeminists find it instructive to examine the period before men began monopolizing power (approximately five thousand years ago). Skeptics often dismiss the study of prehistory as unscientific and utopian. Many ecofeminists, however, advocate for a more open-minded excavation of our prepatriarchal roots.
If we are to forge a just and balanced world, men and women alike must look to the full spectrum of human presence on earth for clues to a time when gender equality and an unalienated relationship with nature may well have existed. This not necessarily to legitimize or sentimentalize some past paradise, but rather to allow ancient memory to fuel our imaginations as we explore new, life-affirmation possibilities for the future of our planet.
By "alternative spirituality," we refer to a vast nonlinear catch-all category that defies easy compartmentalization. This incredibly diverse, metaphysical melange includes everything from nonmonotheistic spiritual practices such as paganism, Eastern religions, Wicca, Yoruba traditions, shamanism, and mysticism to more physical/emotional modalities sometimes referred to as the human potential movement.
Under this rubric one finds yoga, psychic development, twelve-step programs, acupuncture, past life regression, dream work, hypnosis, near-death experience, astrology, tarot, runes, palmistry, creative visualization, est, reiki, feng shui, extraterrestrial consciousness, herbal healing, art therapy, chakra balancing, Rolfing, meditation, t'ai chi, ritual dance, reflexology, hallucinogenics, tantric sex, and journal writing.
By no means is this list of alternative spirituality options exhaustive. Also, it goes without saying that to identify as ecofeminist does not imply an affiliation with any of the above practices. Conversely, mere adherence to any of the above does not qualify one as ecofeminist.
Second, we were and remain perplexed that some ecofeminists perpetuate an exasperating dualism: narrowly dichotomizing their identity as either political or spiritual. It is unfortunate that these antipodal camps do not accept, or at least respect, the positive aspects each brings to the ecofeminist table.
The beauty and allure of ecofeminism is that it has the capacity to incorporate an analysis and a practice of both the political and the spiritual. EVE's motto, "For a Spiritual Politic and a Political Spirituality," underscores our radical agenda to synthesize these oppositional forces within both ecofeminism and society at large.
A third point is that ecofeminism is not the be-all and end-all exegesis or universal, totalizing theory. There are other "wisdom traditions" (those of indigenous peoples or Buddhists, for example) in which Western-based models provide little meaning or significance. While born from classically Western roots, ecofeminism actually has a great deal in common with the ontologies of non-Western wisdom traditions.
Proponents of a Eurocentric worldview, however, are achieving planetary hegemony at an alarming pace and therefore the Western paradigm merits urgent attention. We assert that from within a Western framework, ecofeminism offers a singularly powerful and comprehensive vision for attaining peace, harmony, and prosperity on political, social, and spiritual levelsminimum criteria for any utopia.
Strictly speaking, at present there is no official organization dedicated to promoting ecofeminism as a cause or political party. Rather, ecofeminists are active in a variety of political and spiritual forums that tend to focus on single issues, a logical modus operandi for accomplishing specific aims. Single issue activism is fine; single issue thinking is not.
Because ecofeminism embraces so many constituencies, it would be impossible to partake in every movement, fight every struggle. The point is to bring to one's workwhatever the frontan overarching vision as exemplified by ecofeminism's interdisciplinary approach.
Finally, it bears repeating that the philosophy ecofeminists espouse is not necessarily new. In one way or another, its essence has almost always existed in the collective consciousness. Ecofeminism's unique contribution at this point in history is in coalescing and popularizing ancient and modern wisdom.