A presentation by Anne Primavesi at the EN Conference, London, May 2009
The term ecofeminism was coined by the French writer Francoise d’Eaubonne and introduced in her book Le Féminisme ou la mort, published in 1974. She used it for a particular kind of ecological movement in which women’s consciousness of oppression is the main driving force.
- Ecofeminist discourse joins together feminist visions and ecological politics, on the basis that there are connections between the domination of persons and the domination of nonhuman nature. It takes the feminist critique of human relationships and puts it side by side with an analysis of human-nonhuman relationships.
- Ecofeminists use an ecological perspective to point to the lack of hierarchy in Nature and contrast that with the commonly accepted cultural presumption that one species, the human, is entitled to dominate all others.
- For the fact is that we humans are not able to live apart from the rest of nature. Each of us is internally related to all aspects of our environment and that relationship is part of what we are. Breathing in, we receive. Breathing out, we give back. The natural sciences have given us information about the larger global environment: about the ozone layer, acid rain, deforestation and desertification, and carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. These now show that not only couldNature live quite happily without us, but that in fact it would be a lot happier without our inputs into it. At the same time, we are becoming more and more aware that the reverse is not true: we cannot live outside of Nature’s life support systems.
- Masculine cultural descriptions of ourselves as ‘outside of’ or ‘in control of’ not only our environment but other living beings within it have now been challenged—but not eliminated. Throughout western human history women were routinely classed with and treated as slaves. This emerged with the public movement for the emancipation of women. It began in America with the movement for the emancipation of slaves, campaigning for their rights to own their bodies, their children and whatever property they might acquire. Women realized that they too did not have these rights. The lesson was driven home in 1840 at the World Anti-slavery Convention in London. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, along with other American women delegates, were relegated to the balconies as ‘observers’. Outraged, they convened a conference in 1848 in Seneca Falls to consider ‘the social, civil and religious condition and rights of women’. Indigenous peoples too have lacked such rights. Until 1967, Australian Aboriginal people were legally classed as ‘flora and fauna’, that is, not capable of rising from nature into culture.
- This devaluing of women and indigenous people happened in a secular culture dominated by an image of ourselves (or more precisely, of men) as ‘minds’; and in a religious culture dominated by men who considered their ‘spirit’ as well as their mind as being in control not only of their own bodies but by extension, the bodies of women, children, indigenous peoples and of course, all of material nature. This goes back to Plato’s creation myth, the Timaeus. His devaluing of bodiliness became entrenched in Christian teaching and reached its nadir in the concept of sin supposedly embodied in Eve. The Platonic and the Christian mindset come together in a passage from the Apocalypse read on the feast of All Saints concerning the 144,000 who will be saved (Revelation 7:1ff; 14:1-5). Rev 14:4 sums up the ideal to which we are all meant to aspire! Yet we know that the spiritual is alive in us only where spirit and matter, mind and body are all part of the same living organism. No one aspect takes precedence over another, for they can only function together as a living whole.
- There is another factor in this history, the rule of the physically strongest, that links the subjection of women with that of the Earth right up to the present day. I call it ‘economic militarism’. Bismarck was describing militarism when he said that the only practical political reality is power and the sole source of power is physical force—the capacity to kill and to wound. This ‘capacity’ was and is a major and still growing export from the countries of the economic North to those of the economic South—most of them former colonies. For it was the physical force behind European colonisation of other continents and their attendant Christianization. Today it takes the form of a military-industrial complex that continues to grow, to consume resources in every sense and to leave environmental devastation in its wake. Again, women, children, indigenous peoples, the poor and their lands are the major victims. The World Council of Churches, in their preparation for the United Nations Summit in Rio on Environment and Development in 1992, made explicit connections between these issues in the program: Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation. Their connections to the Earth were ignored in the RC programme of Justice and Peace.
- Religiously, the model of the rule of the strongest is supported by the concept of hierarchy or ‘sacred rule’ endemic in Christianity and in western cultural institutions. Literally and figuratively, it takes the form of a pyramid or of ‘The Great Chain of Being’. In both, nonmaterial (but male!) Spirit, God, or Intelligence, is the pinnacle and source of power. Power flows down from it to men; from them to women, children, and indigenous peoples. ‘Underneath’ them all and subject to those ‘above’ is the Earth.
- Hierarchical societies and institutions value beings according to where they are in the pyramid or chain: God / Spirit / Intelligence at the top and women, children and the Earth at the bottom. There they are religiously and institutionally subject to power from ‘above’, wielded in the name of an all-powerful God.
All of the above features are still discernible in our present secular and religious culture. They impact on our self-understanding and on what is counted as acceptable opinions and behaviour. Dom Helder Camara’s well-known dictum serves as a way of illustrating this effect.
He said: ‘If I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. If I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist/Marxist’.
This can serve as a methodological basis for ecofeminist critiques:
If I work for women’s rights, I am a human rights activist.
If I ask why women, children and slaves have not got these rights, I am a feminist philosopher.
If I set up refuges for battered women or war victims, I am a social worker.
If I ask why the shelters are needed, I am a feminist ethical philosopher.
If I study the position of women throughout the history of Christianity, I am a church historian.
If I ask why they have been kept in that position, I am a feminist theologian.
If I study the interrelationships between women, indigenous peoples and environmental movements, I am a social scientist.
If I ask why that interrelationship has been based on the devaluation of and violence against the bodies of women and indigenous peoples and against the body of Earth, I am an ecofeminist philosopher.
If I ask all these questions and what role western Christianity has played in this, I am an ecofeminist theologian.
Patriarchy, the rule of the Fathers, was not added onto the formulation of Christian doctrine. It went into the formulation of the doctrines themselves.
We now have to deal with the effects of patriarchy and religious devaluation of ‘bodies’ not only on women, children and indigenous peoples but also on Earth’s body Those effects are what we are coming to know as ‘climate change’. They call for a change in the religious climate too.