Genesis of Eden

Genesis Home

Rethinking Eocfeminist Politics Janet Biehl
South End Press, Boston 1991 ISBN 0-89608-391-8

NOTE: This extract is included as an essential reading for transforming the world. You are requested to purchase the book yourself as it is, without question, essential reading material.


My main purpose in writing this book has been to defend the best ideals of feminism from a disquieting tendency that has arisen from within its midst - ecofeminism. This effort is one that I have found very painful to perform. There once was a time when it seemed to me-as it did to other women-that feminism and ecology stood to mutually enrich each other. It had been my earnest hope that ecofeminism would draw upon the best of social theory and meld it with radical concepts in ecology to produce a genuinely anti-hierarchical, enlightened, and broadly oppositional movement, one that could oppose sexism and the many forces that are at work in destroying the biosphere and trammeling human freedom. Its emphasis on women's sexual liberation as part of the "revolt of nature" seemed an exhilarating contribution to feminist theory. It seemed to promise a new integration of humanity's place in nonhuman nature, an appreciation of women's historical role in childbearing and childrearing, while at the same time emancipating women from regressive definitions that placed them exclusively in that social role. It seemed to provide feminists with a creative and thoughtful approach for building an ecological movement. I But recent ecofeminist literature does not fulfill this promise at all. It has-not drawn on the best of previous social theory, but instead works in a realm outside it, even rejecting it as "male" or "masculine." It has not drawn on the best legacies of Western culture-and despite its many abuses, Western culture does have emancipatory legacies-but instead situates women outsi,' -i Western culture altogether, associated with a mystified notion of "nature. " It largely ignores or rejects legacies of democracy, of reason, and of the project of scientifically understanding much of the natural world as part of a radical liberatory movement. For if women and nature are radically counterposed to Western culture, as many ecofeminists claim, this lodges women basically outside the best of that cultural legacy. It has thus become an ideology that, far from being liberatory, is regressive for most thinking women. Ecofeminism has also become a force for irrationalism, most obviously in its embrace of goddess worship, its glorification of the early Neolithic, and its emphasis on metaphors and myths. it has also become irrational in another sense: that is, by virtue of its own incoherence. Although some book-length works have been written on themes pertaining to women and nature and have inspired ecofeminists-Mary Daly's GynIEcology, Susan Griffin's Woman and Nature, Carolyn Merchant's Death of Nature, Andr6e Collard's Rape of the Wild-to my knowledge, no sustained book-length account of ecofeminist theory itself has yet appeared. Instead, ecofeminist theory defines itself largely by a plethora of short, often self-contradictory essays on the subject. Such essays have been anthologized under the broad rubric of ecofeminism, most recently in Irene Diamond and Gloria Orenstein's Reweawng the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism and in Judith Plant's Healing the Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism. A few basic themes run through most of the essays in these anthologies: an acceptance that "women and nature" are to be counterposed, almost without qualification, to Western culture; that women have an exclusive role in developing a sensibility of "caring" and "nurturing"; and that they are unique in their ability to appreciate humanity's "interconnectedness" with the natural world. But apart from these basic themes, the short essays anthologized in these books often blatantly contradict each other. Some of the recent essays argue, for example, that there is an innate, even biological "connection" between women and nature, while others avow that this "connection" is really a socially constructed product. Some advocate a belief in a goddess, wbile others are adamantly secular. Some locate the roots of the ecological crisis in the late Neolithic in Europe, while others locate those roots in Christianity, and still others in the Scientific Revolution. Some assert that "All is One," while others argue for particularism and multiplicity. Some are influenced by social ecology, while others have ties with deep ecology. Some regard ecofeminism as a liberatory concept of nearly unprecedented proportions, while others-even in articles in these anthologies themselves-reject the name "ecofeminism" altogether as insulting to feminist activists. Although most political movements might feel the need to sort out these differences and their theorists might argue for and against them, producing a healthy debate, ecofeminists rarely confront each other on the differences in these writings. Ecofeminists who even acknowledge the existence of serious contradictions tend, in fact, to pride themselves on the contradictions in their works as a healthy sign of "diversity"-presumably in contrast to "dogmatic," fairly consistent, and presumably "male" or "masculine" theories. But dogmatism is clearly not the same thing as coherence, clarity, and at least a minimum level of consistency. Ecofeminism, far from being healthily diverse, is so blatantly selfcontradictory as to be incoherent. As one might expect, at least one ecofeminist even rejects

The very notion of coherence itself, arguing that coherence is "totalizing" and by inference oppressive. Moreover, because ecofeminists rarely debate each other, it is nearly impossible to glean from their writings the extent to which they agree or disagree with each other. The reader of this book should be wary of attributing the views of any one ecofeminist, as they are presented here, to all other ecofeminists. But ecofeminists.' apparent aversion to sorting out the differences among themselves leaves the critical observer no choice but to generalize. The self-contradictory nature of ecofeminism raises further problems as well. Some ecofeminists literally celebrate the identification of women with nature as an ontological reality. They thereby speciously biologize the personality traits that patricentric society assigns to women. The implication of this position is to confine women to the same regressive social definitions from which feminists have fought long and hard to emancipate women. Other ecofeminists reject such biologizations and rightly 6onsider what are virtually sociobiological definitions of women as regressive for women.

But some of the same ecofeminists who reject these definitions nonetheless favor using them to build a movement. Even as they rej(,ct them theoretically, even as they fail to confront ecofeminists who accept them, they still disseminate the same "woman-nature" metaphors. Indeed, the very existence of the ecofeminist movement depends on some people believing in such metaphors, whether their theorists regard them as ontologically true or not. In my view, the notion of building a movement on something one knows is a reactionary falsehood raises serious moral questions about deception and manipulation, questions that women in the ecology movement would do well to ask of ecofeminists and that should be a matter of grave concern to serious feminists today generally. Some of the more highly visible ecofeminists have been well served by this body of "ideas," leading to careers in academia and on the ecology movement's lecture circuit. And from the sweeping claims that ecofeminists make about "women and nature," one might suppose that everywoman who ever worked as an ecological activist is ai least a proto-ecofeminist, if not an outright ecofeminist - from Rachel Carson, to the Love Canal anti-toxics activists, to the women of the Chipko "tree-hugging" movement in India, to women in the bioregionalist, deep ecology, social ecology, Earth First', and other wings of the ecology movement. To be sure, some activist women in these movements no doubt do identify themselves as ecofeminists. As a feminist who finds the contradictions in ecofeminism embarrassing, I resent the claim of ecofeminist writers to embrace nearly every female ecological activist under their own rubric. It is hardly likely that they all do. What is also of deep concern to me is that many female ecological activists feel obliged to mute their criticism due to subtle ecofeminist demands for gender solidarityin the name of an "ecofeminist imperative," as several ecofeminists have put it-that verges on moral and intellectual coercion. In fact it is not at all clear that for a woman to be a feminist and a radical ecologist of any kind, she must also be an ecofeminist. Despite the grandiose generalities about women and nature made by ecofeminist writers, it is eminently possible for a feminist who is also an ecological activist not to adopt this often-problematic agglomeration of contradictory ideas. I myself once wrote an article called "What Is Social Ecofeminism?" as an attempt to provide an alternative to "mainstream" ecofeminism.' In that article I drew primarily on the ideas of social ecology as they pertain to women, and I @ought to show how women's concerns could be integrated into social ecology. I sought to construct a coherent, rational, democratic, and libertarian alternative under the rubric of "social ecofeminism." Other theorists, like Chiah Heller, have also worked toward developing a social ecofeminism. If there are still other women who wish to continue to work on that project, I certainly encourage them to do so. But for my part, the very word ecofeminism has by now become so tainted by its various irrationalisms that I no longer consider this a promising project. I have no doubt that one can be a feminist who is deeply preoccupied with ecological questions, as I would hope there are many ecologically oriented people who regard the liberation of women as an integral part of their social agenda. But in my view, it hardly makes sense to build a movement on metaphors that I oppose and on confused ideas that I cannot formulate in any coherent manner. Nor do I consider it promising to work in a particularistic vein, advancing women as in any way the special custodians of nonhuman nature. Instead, since I am committed to the concept that ecology is a movement that should speak for a general interest of human beings as a whole, I primarily identify myself with social ecology-an antihierarchal, coherent, rational, and democratic body of ideas. Social ecology's dialectical approach to a clear understanding of hierarchy and dominationdeveloped originally and still most fully by Murray Bookchin-is basic to my understanding of contemporary social and ecological problems. As a form of eco-anarchism, social ecology's guiding precept is that we cannot rid ourselves today of the ideology of dominating nature until we rid ourselves of hierarchy and class structures in human society-including not only sexism and homophobia and racism, but also the nation-state, economic exploitation, capitalism, and all the other social oppressions of our time. Neither nonhuman nature nor humanity will cease to be subject to domination until every human being is free of domination. In this respect women are objects of domination but not the sole or primary objects of domination. It is only by eliminating domination as such-including the domination of man by man-both as idea and reality that women will be able to fulfill themselves completely, not only as gendered beings, but as human beings. The early radical feminism of the late 1960s and early 1970swhich most inspires me-called for the equality of women in every aspect of social and domestic life. The more radical ferriinists who initiated that movement recognized that the full equality of women could not be achieved without far-reaching changes in all structures of society. By contrast, ecofeminism's sweeping but highly conftised cosmology introduces magic, goddesses, witchcraft, privileged quasi-biological traits, irrationalities, Neolithic atavisms, and mysticism into a movem-int that once tried to gain the best benefits of the Enlightenment and the most valuable features of civilization for women, on a par with thinking and humane men. What were once seen by progressive thinkers as the general goals of humanity as a whole, to be attained without any gender restrictions, have been dissolved by ecofeminists into a body of vague parochial notions focused overwhelmingly on women's allegedly special quasi-biological traits and a mystical relationship that they presumably have with nature-a "nature" conceived as an all-nurturing and domestic Great Mother. This highly disparate body of hazy, poorly formulated notions, metaphors, and irrational analogies invites women to take a step backward to an era whose consciousness was permeated by myths and by mystifications of reality. It does not bode well for women-especially those who regard themselves as more than creatures of their sexuality-to follow in this regressive path. Social ecology, with its eco-anarchist, anti-hierarchical approach, argues for the need to raise once again the social and intellectual questions that the early radical feminist movement raised-including women's need to go beyond the domestic realm into a new politics for radical social change. In its call for the abolition of hierarchy as such, social ecology reveals the countless forms of domination that afflict women in all areas and walks of life, whether they are in the family, the state, the church - including attempts to regard them, however "reverently," as earth mothers, priestesses, magicians, or more conventionally, as the guardians of Victorian morality. Embracing metaphors that associate women with nonhuman nature, far from being ecological, are actually mystifications of oppressive patriarchal stereotypes. That this process of mystification is widespread today is no accident, in view of the sweeping disempowerment of people, the erosion of human community ties in the Western and non-Western worlds, and ubiquitous flights into escapism and mythopoesis. As a woman and a feminist, I deeply value my power of rationality and seek to expand the full range of women's faculties. I do not want to reject the valuable achievements of Western culture on the claim that they have been produced primarily by men. The music of Beethoven is as dear to me as the poetry of Emily Dickinson. We cannot dispense with millennia of that culture's complex social, philosophical, and political developments-including democracy and reason-because of the many abuses that are intertwined with that culture. Whether one agrees with me that social ecology is the best alternative or not, it is my hope that this book will open up a serious debate about ecofeminism in the ecology and feminist movements, on questions that have gone unaddressed for far too long. At the very least, I hope it will carve out a space for women who are working in the ecology movement so that they can free themselves from "the ecofeminist imperative"-indeed, to resist its moralistic obscurantism-and to think for themselves.

Burlington, Vermont October 7, 1990