Friday, September 10, 2010

What is "Ecofeminism" and What is "Ecofeminism and Mothering"?

Ecofeminism and Mothering  
by Heidi Hutner

Ecofeminism and mothering are deeply intercon- 
nected in Western ideological constructions of both 
nature and gender. Ecofeminism as a set of princi- 
ples emerged in the 1970s with the increased aware- 
ness of the connections between women and nature. 
Françoise d’Eaubonne established the Ecology-Fem- 
inisme Center in Paris in 1972, and in 1974 she first 
used the term ecofeminisme. D’Eaubonne addressed 
the need for an ecological revolution lead by women, 
which she claimed would establish equality of gen- 
der relations and bring an end to the power of one 
group over another—including the domination of 
humans over nature. D’Eaubonne linked environ- 
mental degradation with patriarchal culture, and 
believed that a social structure based on feminisme 
would prevent the destruction of human beings and 
the planet. D’Eaubonne’s feminisme was based upon 
the principles of complete equality and the absence 
of all oppression; in effect, no one gender group or 
species would have power over the other. 

Woman and Mother Exploited 

Ecofeminism, as it has developed further through 
the work of such theorists as Carolyn Merchant, 
Karen J. Warren, Charlene Spretnak, Ynestra King, 
Judith Plant, and Val Plumwood, among others, 
locates the domination of women and the domina- 
tion of nature as interrelated and overlapping. As 
posited in Merchant’s The Death of Nature, women 
and nature both suffer under patriarchal domina- 
tion, as they historically have been treated as objects 
to be exploited, consumed, controlled, subdued and 
tamed. The Earth is depicted (both currently and 
historically) in feminized terms, and this descriptive 
language is complex and fraught with ambivalence: 
nature is portrayed as fertile, nurturing, and pro- 
tective (stereotypically maternal); sexualized and 
seductive (as observed and possessed by men); and 
wild, dark, and dangerous (needing to be tamed 
and civilized). According to ecofeminist theory, this 
complex representation of female nature as simul- 
taneously alluring, nurturing, and dangerous justi- 
fied the patriarchal domination and exploitation 
of nature throughout history—particularly with 
the advent of new science, colonization, and the 
industrial revolution in European cultures. Within 
this mechanistic and masculinist discourse, nature- 
woman is constructed as needing and deserving of 
being possessed, penetrated, and domesticated by the 
more rational and civilized white male. 

According to ecofeminist theorists, this system of 
patriarchal domination negatively impacts all liv- 
ing beings—including nature, women, indigenous 
people, and the poor. In this sense, ecofeminism 
overlaps with environmental justice theory, which 
argues that the racial, social, and economic under- 
classes are most negatively impacted by environ- 
mental degradation because they lack 
the economic and political power to protect their 
communities. Ecofeminist and environmental jus- 
tice theorists argue that the exploitation of nature, 
women, and people of color takes place because the 
rights of the individual (man) come before those 
of the community (all living things). A solution 
offered by ecofeminists is the ”partnership ethic” 
advocated by Merchant in Reinventing Eden. In 
this work and elsewhere, Merchant promotes a 
“moral ethic of care,” similar to the belief system 
of many Native American tribes, in which human 
beings live in a balanced and equitable relationship 
with all living things. In what Merchant calls a partnership
community, no group or species holds power over
the other, and interdependence replaces individualism. 

Expanding Field of Study

Ecofeminism is an expansive field of study with 
numerous branches: liberal, social, socialist, and 
cultural. It also has multiple applications, including 
scientific, philosophical, historical, literary/artistic, 
psychological, and spiritual. A significant aspect of 
ecofeminism is political activism; ecofeminist writers, 
academics, and scientists work to protect and pre- 
serve environmental rights. The so-called “mother” 
of American environmentalist movement was Rachel 
Carson, author of the acclaimed Silent Spring, which 
exposed the dangers of dichlorodiphenyltrichloro- 
ethane (DDT); Carson’s research demonstrated the 
deeply negative impact of toxics and chemicals on 
the environment, animals, and humans. 

In Africa, Wangari Maathi founded The Green 
Belt Movement to help restore denuded land in 
her country, enlisting poor African women to help 
plant millions of trees to stop the soil erosion and 
improve soil quality, food production, water quality, 
and economic prosperity. In India, Vandana Shiva 
founded Navdanya, an organization that works to 
preserve the biodiversity of seed and food, as well 
as what she calls the “democracy” and “sovereig- 
nity” of water. Winona LaDuke, a Native Ameri- 
can author and environmental activist and founder 
of the Indigenous Women’s Network, White Earth 
Land Recovery Project, and cofounder (with The 
Indigo Girls) of Honor the Earth, fights to protect 
the environmental rights and land of Native Ameri- 
can communities throughout North America. Petra 
Kelly cofounded the Green Party Movement in Ger- 
many and fought against the use and creation of 
weapons of mass destruction. In her work and writ- 
ing she claimed connections between sexism, war, 
and environmental degradation. 

Nature and Earth as Mother 

In her forthcoming, Polluting Mama: Ecofeminism, 
Literature, and Film, Heidi Hutner argues that the 
relationship between mothering and nature is cru- 
cial to ecofeminist theory and ecofeminist activism 
on linguistic, spiritual, political, and ideological lev- 
els. Hutner claims that the very way in which nature 
is constructed in language is inextricably bound 
with culturally constructed concepts of mother- 
hood, such as the expressions “mother nature” and 
“mother Earth.” These terms are embedded so deeply 
in Western culture that it would be impossible to 
detach them. Hutner suggests that there are deeply 
complex ideological, feminist, and ecological rami- 
fications inherent in this linguistic construction of 

Spiritual Branches 

Some spiritual branches of ecofeminism are tied 
to mothering through the belief in Earth-goddess 
worship. Starhawk, for example, holds that a 
human return to the goddess “Mother 
Earth, who sustains all growing things” will 
heal the deep ideological rifts between men and 
women, humans and nature, God and the human 
world. For spiritual ecofeminists, the Earth mother
goddess is the center of all spiritual life. 

Alice Walker, a self-proclaimed paganist (and 
womanist) follows a similar spiritual path in her 
work and discussions about The Color Purple. In 
her poem, “The Earth Is Our Mother,” Walker 
articulates a distinctly ecofeminist spiritual con- 
nection to the mother Earth—linking the nature 
body of the Earth with a human mother’s body— 
and this mother Earth connects all living things in 
her loving “embrace.” 

Female Reproductive Biology and Ecofeminism 

There is a historical relationship between mother- 
ing and environmental and peace activism; accord- 
ing to Hutner, many women have felt the “call” to 
fight against environmental degradation to protect 
their families from environmental toxins, pollution, 
nuclear waste, and disaster.

The impact of toxics and pollution on female 
reproductive biology plays an important part in the 
connections between mothering and ecofeminism, 
according to Hutner. In Having Faith, Sandra Stein- 
graber examines the delicate relationship between 
the mother’s body with the developing fetus and 
young nursing child, and points to the effect of 
environmental pollution on the placenta and breast 
milk. Embryos, fetuses, infants, and children are 
especially sensitive to environmental damage in 
their early stages of neurological and hormonal 
development. As mother’s bodies transfer poisons 
and unwittingly and adversely impact their young, 
they may be rendered infertile as a result of envi- 
ronmental pollution. 

Ecofeminist theory allows for an analysis of the 
highly charged and complex concepts of the moth- 
er’s womb—which can be made toxic through 
pollutants—as a sacred and protected space. Hut- 
ner argues that in an environmentally degraded 
world, mothers are "set up" as being at fault
for polluting their own children (or for being infertile),
and they are viewed as beingresponsible for
cleaning up the world. 

A novel such as Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s 
Tale warns of the potential impact of such reason- 
ing. In the fictional nation of Gilead, a land so pol- 
luted that human reproduction has diminished sig- 
nificantly, women are forced to procreate for the 
“good of the nation,” are blamed for their inabil- 
ity to conceive, and are punished when they give 
birth to “monsters.” 

Critics of Ecofeminism

Some critics argue that ecofeminism goes too far 
in embracing the woman and nature connection--  
which idealizes the female-as-natural and reifies the 
position that women are not capable of function- 
ing as rational thinkers. Ecofeminism has also been 
charged with setting men up as inherently outside 
of any real connection with the natural world. In 
other words, by idealizing the female-nature con- 
nection, some ecofeminists may be accused of rec- 
reating the very dualities it seeks to erase. Despite 
these claims, ecofeminists claim to move out of 
these binaries and include men, women, children, 
the elderly, and people of all races, cultures and 
classes in their theories. 

Atwood, Margaret. Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Ran- 
dom House, 1998. 
Carson Rachel. Silent Spring. New York: Fawcett Crest 
Books, 1964. 
Hutner, Heidi. Polluting Mama: Ecofeminism, Mother- 
ing, Literature and Film. Forthcoming, 2011. 
Kelly, Petra. Fighting for Hope. Cambridge, MA: South 
End Press, 1999. 
King, Ynestra. “The Ecology of Feminism and the Femi- 
nism of Ecology.” In Healing the Wounds. Gabriola 
Island, BC: New Society, 1989. 
LaDuke, Winona. All Our Relations: Native Struggles 
for Land and Life. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 
Maathi, Wangari. The Greenbelt Movement. Brooklyn, 
NY: Lantern Books, 2003. 
Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. 
New York: Routledge, 1994. 
Shiva, Vandana. Earth Democracy. Cambridge, MA: 
South End Press, 2005. 
Starhawk. The Earth Path. New York: Harper One, 
Steingraber, Sandra. Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Jour- 
ney to Motherhood. New York: Perseus, 2001. 
Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Harvest, 

Heidi Hutner 
State University of New York, Stony Brook 
Copyright © 2010 SAGE Publications. Not for sale, reproduction, or distribution.

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