ISY MOISY discusses whether women have a unique role to play in the battle against climate change.

Is it plausible to claim that women have a more insightful understanding of environmental damage and are therefore more uniquely positioned to fight its effects?

To see the effect environmental damage has, we can look to Ecofeminism, a theory that grew during the 1980s among women from the anti-nuclear, environmental, and lesbian-feminist movements. It is clear that environmentalism and feminism are both conspicuous, contemporary issues that cannot be understated, and that gender discussion should be integrated into discussions about environmental reparation. Ecofeminism sees a critical connection between the two, as both having been caused by a result of patriarchy – and wants to say more than just that women are more affected by environmental damage. 

The Chipko movement in India accomplished a victory in 1980 when Indira Ghandi, the leader at the time, issued a ban on felling trees in the Himalayan regions for at least fifteen years until the green coverage was entirely restored. One of Chipko’s most salient features was the mass participation of female villagers in the struggle. As the backbone of the Uttarakhand’s Agrarian economy, women were uniquely positioned to understand the problems, because they were most affected by the extensive deforestation.

This felling disproportionately harmed women by increasing the amount of time women spent collecting firewood. As a result it reduced women’s ability to maintain household economies that were dependent upon trees for food and products for the home, as well as decreasing opportunities for women to produce income-generating wood products. They best understood the problems caused by environmental degradation and deforestation, making them stronger and more effective advocates. This is the intersection between ecology and feminism that I think is pertinent.

To expand on the idea that women have a unique standpoint when it comes to environmental activism, it is crucial to see where it derives from. To do this, one has to first acknowledge that women suffer more from climate change than men. In the words of ecological feminist Wangari Maathai: ‘In Kenya, women are the first victims of environmental degradation, because they are the ones who walk for hours looking for water, who fetch firewood, who provide food for their families. All of these endeavours are made more difficult by climate change.’ Secondly, there are parallels between the subjugation of women and humanity’s unjust domination of nature. Looking at the intersectionality of these two issues is helpful in elucidating women’s unique standpoint, and women’s potential to bring about an ecological revolution.

The Chipko Movement, a 1970s group of activists from India that protected local forests from deforestation, is seen by many as a model for Environmental Ecofeminism today. Image courtesy of Hindi First Post.

Womanhood has long been associated with nature, but for all the wrong reasons. In 1970s Western environmental philosophy, which wound its way into the world of feminism, the notion of the ‘feminine’ and women’s bodies was connected with the natural world. Women were purportedly closer to nature and had better insight than men just in virtue of their ‘feminine nature’.

In my opinion, this is not the right basis for the intersectionality of feminism and environmentalism. It is rather that the subjects of each theory are treated surprisingly similarly. Feminism has a longstanding amour-propre with the practically embodied, theoretical idea of fighting the patriarchy, where the patriarchy denotes the oppression of women for the benefit of the oppressors. This seems, extraordinarily, to mirror exactly how humanity treats the environment.

It seems convincing to claim that these levels of subordination did not arise from similarities, but rather from the capitalist patriarchy. The capitalist patriarchy has led to predominantly male ownership of the means and forces of production, and this has resulted in a male-biased distribution of a society’s resources. This systematically disadvantages women and exploits nature, and it is, in my view, what modern ecofeminism is based on. Growing from Françoise d’Eaubonnes’s Le Féminisme ou la Mort, ecofeminism argues that the oppression of women and unjust domination of nature are connected because patriarchal dualism places women and the concept of ‘nature’ in the same category. Both are deemed less worthy than ‘culture’ and ‘men’, and are subordinated for their benefit.

Women can arguably take a unique approach to environmental reform because their relationship to the environment reflects a Marxist standpoint. Just as the proletariat are uniquely positioned to liberate society because they are uniquely aware of their status as ‘exploited’, women are uniquely situated to free the environment from the unjust domination of nature, as they are the first and foremost affected by climate change and subordinated in the same way the patriarchy subjugates the environment.

Indeed, this can be seen in successful women-led environmental movements, such as the Green Belt Movement in Kenya and the Chipko movement. This by no means validates an exclusion of men in the climate change debate, but it tentatively places some responsibility on women to liberate themselves and the environment, and for ecofeminism to be taken seriously as a genuinely productive approach in explaining what needs to be changed and how to change it.

Image courtesy of Ana Mendieta, from ‘Silueta Works in Iowa’, 1976-78.

Being a woman in times of patriarchy as well as a liberal who stands for government protection of the environment, I want to be convinced by ecofeminism. There are a couple of snags, however, that draw me away from the ‘general conception’ of ecofeminism. First of all, the whole theoretical balance between environmentalism and feminism is fairly essentialist. It does not account for fluidity between femininity and masculinity, nature and culture and works, rather, with strict, rigid dichotomies. Furthermore, ecofeminism should, in my opinion, also exert more effort into deriving practical implications of the theory and making explicit the intersectionality of other factors into ecofeminism. Although ecofeminists appreciate the intersectionality of class and race in gender and environmental issues, they have fallen short of their explicit support of it and commitments that arise because of it.

As Janet Biehl has argued in Rethinking Ecofeminist Politics, ecofeminism focuses too much on a mystical connection between women and nature and not enough on the actual condition of women. Modern ecofeminism has taken up this responsibility, however, by claiming that this ‘mystical’ relationship is simply an oppressive tool used by men to subjugate both women and nature, and by emphasising the fact that women should not take up all the responsibility of environmental change, just that feminism contributions to the debate might be the most instructive.

What we can draw from this is that the mystical connection between women and nature is not a fruitful way of understanding the connection between feminism and environmental activism. Instead, what ecofeminism can offer us is an insight into how women have a unique standpoint epistemology into environmental damage, both because they are the most affected by environmental degradation and because capitalist patriarchy has classed women and nature in the same category, treating them in the same subordinative and subjugated manner.

Featured image courtesy of Louise Camu.