The nature of eco-feminism

Friday, 12 October 2012

Author: Rev Dr Robyn Schaefer. October 2012

Sophia’s Spring is an eco-feminist community of theUnitingChurchthat meets at CERES environmental park in innerMelbourne. It is a community that embraces and seeks to live within an eco-feminist philosophical and theological framework.

Eco-feminist theology has emerged from three of humanities most powerful movements over contemporary decades; feminism and its struggle for women to be recognised, respected, valued, listened to, and regarded as fully human; the ecological movements which seeks to respect, conserve, and acknowledge the interconnectedness of all of life – including all creatures and plants, along with the essential elements of life on earth (earth, air, fire and water) ; and the various expressions of liberation theology, that endeavours  to free people from oppressive, ingrained, and non-inclusive notions of, God, Christian philosophy, and the practices of the Christian church.

Eco-feminism draws a parallel between the subjugation, by patriarchal structures and systems, of women and feminine contribution, and that of the pillage, rape and mandate to ‘conquer’ the earth.   In 1972, Francoise 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. (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. :192-203.)

The 1970s, saw a renewal of interest in the connection between Goddess and nature based religions, both of which respected and acknowledged the sacredness of the earth, thus adding a spiritual challenge to both secular feminism, and the ecological movement. Within the church, feminist theology challenges the norms of patriarchal religious language, concepts, structures, and practices. It thus contests the audacity of all patriarchal religions to place the masculine at the centre of the sacred, and the feminine to the periphery. While eco-theology advocates for the value and interconnectedness of all creation, eco-feminist theology weaves together these two vital perspectives.

As with feminism in general, eco-feminism has many perspectives. One core suggestion is that women are closer to nature than men (for an amplified discussion see Catherine M. Roach, Mother/Nature – Popular Culture and Environmental Ethics, Indiana University Press, 2003). Whilst this is open to debate, it is certainly true of women in third world countries who stand to lose the most when, often left disregarded and destitute by the destruction of their environment by globalised business. 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, see to the survival of their homes etc. Eco-feminists therefore believe that there are significant connections between the domination of women, and the domination of non-human nature. It therefore identifies two deep struggles – the struggle of women against patriarchy and its destructive impact upon their lives, 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’.

Intrinsic to many theologies, is the traditional stance that separates the spiritual from the earthly, the body from the soul, the ephemeral from the 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 the things of earth (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’).

Men own the tools of culture (for example the machines that conquer and overcome nature – see Sherry B. Ortner, Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?, in “Readings in Ecology and Feminist Theology”; Eds Mary Heather MacKinnon and Moni McIntyre: Sheed and Ward, 1995). If God is male, this then has implications for inherently gender biased theologies and spiritualities, the most intrinsic being the place of women as off-side to God and not quite made in God’s image (see Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age, Fortress Press, 1987).

The degradation of women non-human earth life, has therefore created a common standpoint from which to challenge such notions in order to give wings to new and freeing theologies and spiritualities, a deeper regard and at-one-ness to the earth, and a holistic realisation of connectedness and a better embracing sense of sacredness.

A Short Reading List

A. Gnanadason, 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. :192-203.

Catherine M. Roach, Mother/Nature – Popular Culture and Environmental Ethics,IndianaUniversity Press, 2003

Sherry B. Ortner, Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?, in “Readings in Ecology and Feminist Theology”; Eds Mary Heather MacKinnon and Moni McIntyre: Sheed and Ward, 1995

Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age, Fortress Press,Philadelphia, 1987

Rosemary Radford Ruether, Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing, Harper San Francisco, 1992

Nancy R. Howell, A Feminist Cosmology: ecology, solidarity, and metaphysics, Humanity Books,New York, 2000

Mary Judith Ress, Ecofeminism in Latin America: Women from the Margins, Orbis Books,New York, 2006.

Power, K. E. (1995a). Body and Gender in the Fathers of the Church. In J. S. Barton & C. J. Mews (Eds.), Hildegard of Bingen and Gendered Theology in Judaeo-Christian Tradition (pp. 41-62). Clayton: Centre for Studies in Religion and Theology, MonashUniversity.


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