When people hear the word “feminist,” they tend to gravitate immediately to the radical feminism that is generally cited in the mainstream media. Names like Andrea Dworkin, Gloria Steinem and Catharine MacKinnon come to mind, or probably more mainstream—Betty Friedan, though I would not classify her as radical. Some tend to boil all feminism down to—men are bad, evil, etc. However, not all feminism falls under this stereo-type. Sure, all brands of feminism involve some form of patriarchy oppressing women, but it does not limit women to walking around topless (because men do) or calling all sex rape.
If there were to be a continuum with radical feminism on one side and full patriarchy on the other, I would say eco-feminism and cultural feminism fall somewhere in between and near the center. In order to understand better, I will summarize the definitions of eco-feminism and cultural feminism.
Eco-feminism is the feminist view of ecology that regards the oppression of women and nature as interconnected. Eco-feminists unite under the idea that “they give positive value to a connection of women with nature which as previously, in the west, given negative cultural value and which was the main grounds of women’s devaluation and oppression.”[i] More recently, eco-feminists have expanded their analysis to the interconnectedness of sexism, nature’s domination, race, and social inequality.
Cultural feminism recognizes the distinctions between men and women and seeks to create a unique women’s culture in society. Rather than trying to break down the culture of patriarchy by denouncing and working to reduce male institutions, women build up their own institutions and culture.
You might think I am making a jump in tying these two together, but I promise you, I am not alone! Carolyn Merchant shows this more clearly in her book Earthcare: Women and the Environment when she states:
The body, home, and community are sites of women’s local experience and local contestation. Women experience the results of toxic dumping on their own bodies (sites of reproduction of the species), in their own homes (sites of reproduction of daily life), and in their communities and schools (sites of social reproduction).
Feminists and other women use the environmental movement to empower themselves and change society. “Women’s leadership and organizing skills gained in grassroots struggles empower them to change society and themselves.”[ii] Many women have played key roles on a grassroots level and then gone on to provide for social change. Many of these women see their position as “primary caretakers of young children in the home” and therefore contribute their work to a special concern for health and safety.”[iii]
While many grassroots environmental activists do not claim to be feminists, the feminist can be see in both Louis Gibbs and Rachel Carson as examples of feminism in action and “in ecofeminist critiques.”[iv] One example of Carson’s work that is cited often is from her famous and groundbreaking book Silent Spring:
“As man proceeds toward his announced goal of the conquest of nature, he has written a depressing record of destruction, directed not only against the earth he inhabits but against the life that shares it with him.”[v]
I hope, after reading this, you can better understand where I am coming from in terms of the interconnection between women and the environment—through eco-feminist and cultural feminist thought. Also, I hope it changes the pre-conceived notions that some people carry as a result of the mis-representation of feminist theory by the media and through socialization. Not all feminists are radical, though I would like to think we all are working for some dramatic changes.
Then again, as Martin Luther King Jr. said:
"The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be ... The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists."
Eco-feminism links and definitions
[i] Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (London: Routledge, 1993), 8.
[ii] Merchant, Carolyn. Earthcare: Women and the Environment. New York: Routledge, 1995: 160.
[iii] Robert R.M. Verchick, “In a Greener Voice: Feminist Theory and Environmental Justice,” Harvard Women’s Law Journal 19 (1996): 28.
[iv] Mellor, Mary. Feminism & Ecology. New York: New York University Press, 1997: 15.
[v] Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962: 85.