The nature of eco-feminism – plain language version

Eco-feminism has emerged from one of humanity’s most powerful movements for human rights—the struggle for women to be recognised, respected, valued, listened to, and regarded as fully human.

Within the movement of feminism, feminist theology evolved, challenging the norms of patriarchal religious language, concepts, structures, social placement, traditions, and spirituality.  Facing these changes involves struggle, but also liberation for the women and men involved in the effort.  Another stream within feminism has been the identification of women with the earth, with deep roots in ancient cultures and traditions.[1] While this heritage has often grounded and inspired women, it has also proved a problem stereotype in patriarchal structure.  The tendency in patriarchy to place the masculine at the center of the sacred, and the feminine at the periphery has given rise to the philosophy and academy of eco-feminism.

Sophia’s Spring is an eco-feminist community of the Uniting Church that meets at CERES environmental park.  It is a community that embraces eco-feminist theology.  Eco-feminism, and eco-feminist theology, offers a multi-layered perspective, relationship, and interconnectedness between creatures, gender, earth and God.  It is a feminism that draws the connection between the oppression of women and the degradation of the earth.  Many early feminists drew upon Marxism as an analytical base, observing that patriarchy was both cultural and material, and that the exploitation of nature was intrinsic to patriarchal capitalist development.  The 1970s saw a renewal of interest in the connection between Goddess and nature-based religion.  In 1972, Franciose D’Eaubonne, a French feminist, set up a project titled ‘Ecologie-Feminisme,’ coined the term eco-feminism, and called women to lead an ecological revolution to ensure the survival of the planet.[2]

A core eco-feminist perspective is the suggestion that women are closer to nature then men.[3]  This is open to debate, but there is no debate that women in third world countries stand to lose the most when globalised business destroys their environment.  Disregarded and destitute, these are the ones who are left to eke out what they can from the earth in order to feed their children, care for their aged, and see to the survival of their homes.  Eco-feminists therefore believe that there are significant connections between the domination of women and the domination of non-human nature.  Eco-feminism identifies two deep struggles—the struggle of women against patriarchy and its destructive impact on their lives, in order to redefine their position within gender relations, and the struggle of the earth to survive against the devastating actions of wholesale pollution, denuding and ‘conquering.’

Another deep struggle is against the dichotomy found in many theologies between spiritual and earthly, body and soul, and ephemeral and eternal.  Many hermeneutics have taught, or at least implied, that the male gender aligns to the spiritual, contrasted to the female that is relegated to things of the earth.[4]  One tradition actually puts forth that ‘only male seed conveyed the soul’ at conception, a theory that established men as the very owners of ‘soul.’

The entrenched stereotype that God is male has implications for inherently gender-biased theologies and spiritualities.  In this view, the place of women is always ‘other’ than God and not quite made in god’s image.[5]

Eco-feminism, in recognising the degradation of women and non-human life, creates a stand-point from which to challenge invalid notions.  Eco-feminist theology seeks to give wings to new and freeing theologies and spiritualities, a deeper regard and at-one-ness to the earth, a holistic realisation of connectedness, a a better embracing sense of sacredness.

[1] see Mary Judith Ress, Ecofeminism in Latin America: Women from the Margins, Orbis Books, New York, 2006 p. 43ff

[2] Gnanadason A, in: Quest for gender justice: a critique of the status of women in India, edited by Sebasti L. Raj. Madras, India, T.R. Publications, 1991. pp192-203

[3] see Catherine M. Roach, Mother/Nature – Popular Culture and Environmental Ethics, Indiana University Press, 2003

[4] for example, Kim Power, in “Body and Gender in the Fathers of the Church,” 1995a, cites the androcentric tradition that ‘only male seed conveyed the soul’ at conception, a theory that established men as the very owners of ‘soul’

[5] see Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age, Fortress Press, 1987