The essay below
was originally written in the early 1990s, a time when ecofeminism was
gaining currency with activists and academics. The views expressed here still present an
accurate overview of ecofeminism, yet in retrospect we feel the essay has a
It assumes patriarchy is the root cause of all our problems. While the
patriarchal mindset is certainly accountable for much of humankind's
dysfunctionality, patriarchy is only 5,000 years old.
Emerging theories from thinkers like Chellis Glendinning contend that
our dislocation from nature (and hence from ourselves) goes back at least
20,000 years ago when humans moved from the gatherer/hunter stage to that
of domesticating plants and animals.
As such, we have come to believe that anthropocentrism and
speciesism—the impulse to conquer and control animals—are conceivably a more
accurate source of today’s problems than is patriarchy per se.
Furthermore, patriarchy is not solely a Western phenomena. We focus on Western patriarchy, however,
because its unparalleled and unrivaled hegemony adversely impacts even the
world’s most remote inhabitants and ecosystems.
NOTE: The 2003 revision of
this essay was published Spring 2004 in a university text book called American Political Thought, co-edited
by Kenneth Dolbeare and Michael S.
Congressional Quarterly Press, 5th edition.
By Cathleen McGuire and Colleen McGuire
revised 1993 & 2003
We must remember the
chemical connections between ourselves and the stars, between the beginning
and now. We must remember and reactivate the primal consciousness of
oneness between all living things.
Co-author, The Great Cosmic
Do you remember the first time
you heard the word "ecofeminism"? Despite its novelty, it
probably resonated a familiarity since "ecology" and
"feminism" are common words. Who put these two concepts together
and why? Does the combination of "eco" and "feminism"
make sense? Is there a need for this new term?
As a practice, ecofeminism is
as ancient as our species. Many ecofeminists believe that the nature
of our species is more in line with how we lived prior to the debut of
written history. This period, extending back as far as 250,000 years ago,
was a time when cooperation—not competition—was valued and necessary for
species survival. New
archeological discoveries of early civilizations in Mesopotamia yield a vast array of evidence
that an egalitarian lifestyle and a unity with nature were prevalent among
ancient peoples of those regions. Theories supporting territoriality,
survival of the fittest, or man the great hunter are appearing to be
inadequate, if not false.
It is important to keep in mind
that, for the most part, indigenous cultures worldwide have held on more
steadfastly to an earth-based worldview and communal way of being than
Eurocentric cultures and their “wannabe” imitators. Because Western powers
indisputably dominate the globe today economically and militarily and as a
result are the ultimate root of much of the world’s pressing problems, this
essay is preoccupied with Western history and thought.
theory, ecofeminism is fairly new and still finding its voice. Hence, there
is no single definition of ecofeminism. French feminist Françoise D'Eaubonne is credited with
coining the word ecofeminism in 1974. She
sought to describe the epic violence inflicted on women and nature as a
result of male domination. Her early analysis has since been expanded upon
and refined, based in part on new conceptions of the history and character
of our species.
Ecofeminism sprouted in the
early 1970s as Western women became disillusioned with the ideologies of
the day. The environmental movement lacked a feminist analysis. Feminism
had little concern for nature. The
Left paid almost no attention to women, animals, or ecology. Political organizations rarely included a
spiritual component, and few spiritual groups cultivated a progressive
are often perceived as environmentally-oriented women who are feminist, or
alternatively, as feminists who focus on the environment. Yet ecofeminism
is not simply a subset of feminism or ecology. It is in many respects a
meta-feminism, if you will, offering a distinct and more broadened
methodology for understanding the world.
While feminism is a primary
entry point, women and men also come to ecofeminism through
environmentalism, alternative spirituality, animal rights, and other
progressive affiliations. The kaleidoscopic lens of ecofeminism
includes a prepatriarchal historical analysis, an embracement of
spirituality, and a commitment to challenging racism, classism,
imperialism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, anthropocentrism (i.e., human
supremacism), speciesism and other forms of oppression.
spirituality, such as goddess spirituality, has likewise left a distinct
imprint on ecofeminism. Alienated by male-centered hierarchical religions, Westerners—especially women—are
increasingly turning to spiritualities which validate female divineness and
equality. Many people are also (re)embracing shamanism, the ancient,
nature-based spirituality that was originally practiced by all humans
everywhere, and preceded female-centric spirituality.
synthesis of the political and the spiritual is one of ecofeminism's most
appealing features. Contributions
from these divergent sectors have influenced ecofeminist theory and action
and have given ecofeminism its refreshing and unique interdisciplinary
Although there is no one
"correct" ecofeminism, most ecofeminists would agree with the
core precept that the domination of women and the domination of nature are
fundamentally connected. In other words, violence against Mother Earth came
to be intertwined with an emerging urge to subdue and control women. These
twin oppressions were created and are perpetuated by an ideology called patriarchy.
Pinpointing the origins of patriarchal thought and practice is as elusive
as trying to identify who invented the wheel. Suffice it to say, Western
patriarchy arose roughly 5,000 years ago and has discombobulated our planet
The Western patriarchal way of
thinking is based on "dualism." Dualism is a world view that
splits mind from body, spirit from matter, male from female, humans
from nature. It thereby creates imbalanced power relationships by
artificially dividing entities in half, according one side of the equation
greater worth over the other. These dichotomies give rise to an
"other" which is then demonized and discriminated against. The
Western patriarchal mindset is often referred to by academics as the
"dominant/subordinant duality paradigm," and in its classic form
delineates the following hierarchy of value:
The modern version of the
paradigm includes racism (white people valued over people of color, sexism
(men prioritized over women), speciesism (human animals deemed superior to other
animals), and classism and imperialism (haves pitted against have-nots).
The Western patriarchal belief
system also places higher value on linear, mechanistic, analytical, and
rational qualities. The intuitive, emotional, anarchic, and earthy are negatively
perceived as passive, weak, irrational—and female. Nature is paradoxically
considered inert, dead mass and a wild, chaotic force. By either
reckoning, nature is to be dominated and harnessed for human ends. By
extension, the patriarchal mind objectifies, controls, and devalues all
that is labeled "female."
Both women and men are
socialized to accept these man-made values. Although men, too, are harmed
by patriarchal practices, they nonetheless benefit from them at the expense
of women. For example, men own 99% of the world's property while women
perform two-thirds of the world's labor.
Another example: men rarely
shoulder the physical, social, political, or psychological consequences of
the experience of rape (unless sexually abused as children or as prison
inmates). It is women of all ages
who are burdened with the psychic fear induced by a climate in which the
threat of sexual violation looms like a distant rain cloud: sometimes miles
away, other times hovering right over us.
Although ecofeminism is not a
movement in the traditional sense, patterns exist among those who think and
act with an ecofeminist consciousness. Ecofeminists affirm qualities
traditionally considered "female" such as being cooperative,
nurturing, supportive, nonviolent and sensual. Ecofeminists further strive
for a balanced synthesis with qualities traditionally deemed
"male" that in appropriate contexts are valuable, such as
competitiveness, individuality, assertiveness, leadership, and
The concept of
"female" and "male," however, are social constructions
and not innate qualities. Both men and women share in the pool of human
character traits, some of which came to be categorized as
"female" and "male."
In an effort to be
"equal," many mainstream feminists downplay biological female
capabilities such as birthing, lactation, and menstruation. Ecofeminists
are proud of women's unique physiology, and feel that equality with men
should not come at the expense of disavowing or understating our physical
differences. This does not imply
that ecofeminists necessarily perceive women as closer to nature. As with
other animals, humans are intrinsically part of nature. Ecofeminists are
simply at the forefront in developing a deeper analysis of the human/nature
At the heart of that analysis
is an understanding that for the past 5,000 years, the “male” has dominated
the “female.” Many ecofeminists
believe the planet at this point needs massive infusions of female energy
to regain balance. Although ecofeminists are immersed in
social and political struggles for reform on a variety of fronts to achieve
this balance, there remains a certain sympathy for Ynestra King’s classic
declaration, "We don’t want a piece of their rotten, carcinogenic
few inspiring examples of ecofeminist activism (from the early 1990s)
intended to right the balance include:
- Wangari Maathai's
formation of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya in which rural women
planted trees as part of a soil conservation effort to avert
desertification of their land;
- The women of Greenham
Common Peace Camp in England whose over ten-year
presence was instrumental in the removal of nuclear missiles there;
- Mohawk women along the St. Lawrence River who established the
Akwesasne Mother's Milk Project to monitor PCB toxicity while
continuing to promote breastfeeding as a primary option for women and
- Judi Bari's bringing together labor
and environmental groups in Northern California to save the remaining
five percent of old growth redwood forests from corporate logging;
- Artist Helene Aylon's Sister
Rivers performance ritual in which Japanese women placed rice,
seeds, and soil from Hiroshima and Nagasaki in pillowcases and then
floated the artwork down the Kama River;
- Bernadette Cozart, a
gardener and founder of the Greening of Harlem, who organizes diverse
community groups in Harlem to transform vacant
garbage-strewn lots into food and flower gardens;
- Lois Gibbs' exposure of
Love Canal as a toxic waste site, and her founding of the Citizens
Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste to share tactical skills with local
Finding Your Ecofeminist Self
There is a burgeoning library
of ecofeminist literature available. The following random mélange of
ecofeminist concepts have been culled from a variety of sources and give
the reader a sense and flavor of the broad continuum of ideas embraced by
ecofeminists. These sound bites, so to speak, encompass some—but by no
means all—of the various dimensions of ecofeminism.
To give shape to your personal
interests and beliefs, check off those concepts that especially speak to
you. Review your choices. Do you see your own ecofeminist visions emerging?
- Politics and spirituality
go hand in hand, as do theory and action.
- Experiential knowing is as
useful and important as "objective" scientific knowledge.
- Fear of death is a
constructed anxiety. Ecofeminists respect death, for it is an integral
part of the natural cycles of life.
- Sexual repression and
control of women's reproductive powers are key mechanisms used to
maintain patriarchal hegemony.
- Biogenetic engineering is
dangerous for many reasons, one of which is because it is predicated
on the elimination of women as the primary force in the creation of
- Early in the evolution of
the human species, it has been postulated that females had an estrus
cycle, akin to animals in heat. Women's revolutionary contribution to
the emergence of Homo sapiens was the development of the
menstrual cycle. This enabled human animals to have sex at any time
and for reasons other than procreation, such as for companionship,
fun, spiritual bonding, and physical release.
- Sexuality was enhanced by
the development in women's bodies of the clitoris, the only organ
existing exclusively for sexual pleasure.
- Menstruation was once a
powerful and celebratory act when bleeding women bonded with each
other in concert with the primordial rhythms of the moon.
- Women were pivotal architects in the formation of civilization.
Growing evidence indicates that women may well have been the first
farmers, weavers, doctors/healers, astronomers, potters, and
mathematicians. Some say women also developed language.
- In the context of 250,000
years of human history, women's sexuality has only recently been
bought and sold as a commodity. Claims that prostitution is the
"oldest profession on earth" are simply insulting.
- All spirituality was
originally earth-based or pagan and centered on a oneness with nature.
Organized religion based on a single, authoritarian, male,
hierarchical godhead figure (i.e., monotheism) is a relatively new
concept arising a mere 2,000 or so years ago.
- People, particularly
Westerners, can restore deep meaning to their lives by rediscovering
and nurturing their own prepatriarchal spiritual and cultural
roots—instead of appropriating wholesale from the practices of
- Just as diversity thrives
in nature, multiculturalism likewise is an asset to society.
does not need humans to survive. Contrary to techno-capitalist
propaganda, it is counterintuitive and suicidal to manipulate,
control, and attempt to transcend nature.
- It is doubtful whether our
species is innately greedy, aggressive or competitive. Darwinian
theories are not the final word on the nature of human behavior.
- Attacking patriarchy is
not the same as male-bashing. The masculine sex is not "the
enemy." Rather, patriarchy is a particular way of thinking whose
practitioners can be of any gender.
- Just as white people need
to root out internalized racism and not rely on people of color to
educate them, so too, men must take initiative to expunge male
privilege and not wait for women to petition the cause.
- The nuclear family grew
out of the practice of woman as man’s private property. Alternative
family arrangements deserve recognition and legal support.
- Femicide today has reached
epidemic proportions. Worldwide statistics show that up to 100 million
women are "missing" because of a preference for male
children. Infant females are disproportionately aborted, killed at
birth, or die through neglect.
- The Burning Times was a
misogynist holocaust in European history when tens of thousands of
people, mostly women, were tortured and murdered. Persecuted as
witches, the political agenda of the Church and State all but
obliterated the accumulated wisdom of ancient wise-women's ways.
- For thousands of
centuries, earth-based medicine worked. The Western medical
establishment imperiously devalues the healing power of the body, the
psyche, herbs, and nutrition.
- Eating factory-farmed
animals and dairy products devastates the environment, exacerbates
world hunger, and is a major cause of death in meat-eating societies.
The extreme suffering nonhuman animals endure solely to satisfy the
carnivore palate is unnecessary and unconscionable.
- Overpopulation is
inevitable when the control of reproduction is wrested away from
women, and educational and contraceptive resources are not broadly
- In ancient times, women
exercised exclusive self-determination over their bodies. Our
foresisters had extensive holistic knowledge about birth control,
abortion, birthing, and other gynecological concerns.
- Massive infusions of greenery
in urban areas would benefit the residents of inner cities who lack
the resources of privileged people to purchase nature retreats.
the ecology within one’s habitat—is imperative for the welfare of our planet, as is sustainability—the idea that
we must not diminish natural systems beyond their capacity to
replenish at comparable levels.
usage of private cars, subsidized by innumerable tax breaks, is
destructive to the planet and accounts for wars over access to oil. Commuters who use mass transport or
nonmotorized forms of transportation like bicycles merit gargantuan
tax breaks for their earth-friendly efforts.
- Television programs
chronic viewers for rampant consumerism, political inertia, and
What Is To Be Un-Done?
The Western linear calendar
declares the approach of the second millennium, obscuring the fact that our
species is thousands of centuries old. Male-dominated history has occupied
less than two percent of the time period Homo sapiens have existed
on earth. Yet, in a mere 5,000 years, the patriarchal mindset has managed
to steer us all to the brink of extinction. Many ecofeminists believe this
5,000 year-old path is an aberration, a cancer gone haywire.
We as a species are in an
arrested state of adolescence as insecure egos (mostly male)
for unrestrained power and attention. Playing god, they manipulate life by
splicing genes in a frenzy of womb envy. As profit-driven warmongers, they
traffic in death. Defiling our habitat, the patriarchs seem to be
recklessly inventing new ways to junk Earth like some inner city ghetto and
venture off in sterile techno-womb machines for ever more vainglorious
conquests on the cosmic plane.
In opposition to such a
frightening mindset, ecofeminism offers radical alternatives for
reconstituting life on Earth. We seek to conjure new postpatriarchal
ways of being based in part on prepatriarchal values that resurrect
and restore our original profound oneness with nature. By reactivating the
ancient spiritual power of the feminine principle and balancing it with the
male principle, men and women together can abandon dualistic thinking,
"grow up," and live as sensitive, mature human beings in harmony
with other animals and nature.
As visionary activists,
ecofeminists of all colors and classes are midwifing earth’s denizens
toward a new version of an ancient consciousness. Millennia of gynocentric
wisdom exists with which to inform our collective and individual reality.
Truths lay dormant in your own genetic memory. Reach deep within. Let us
spiral outward from the past, in consciousness with the present, and onward
to the future for a sustainable oneness with Mother Earth!