"Ecofeminism" - what's in a name?

By Eleanor McKelvey - National Director of Online Engagement (Blog)


If you follow OWP on facebook or instagram, you might have noticed that this month’s social media spotlight is on ecofeminism. If you are anything like I was at the start of this year, this might have left you wondering what, exactly, does ecofeminism mean?

The first time I heard of ecofeminism was when I joined OWP in January, and was shown the list of monthly social media campaigns. I assumed ecofeminism was just a neat catch-all term, which could be used to describe the overlap between feminism and environmental activism. It wasn’t until after doing some research that I realised it actually refers to an entire branch of feminist philosophy.

The ecofeminist movement, and use of the word ecofeminism, really had its heyday in academia of the 1980s and 90s. In her article, “Feminism and ecology: the same struggle?”, Marijke Colle points out that “ecofeminist awareness” has its origins in the “The Third World” (or, to use a preferable phrase, Less Economically Developed Countries) in the mid-twentieth century. Colle describes how environmental movements in these countries, like the Chipko Movement in India, have historically been led by women. Such movements inspired feminist academics to consider why environmental activism was inextricable from concerns like gender and race.

In the Introduction to their 2014 book Ecofeminism, Carol J Adams and Lori Gruen (two of the most prominent voices in the field) describe ecofeminism as “address[ing] the various ways that sexism, heteronormativity, racism, colonialism and ableism are informed by and support speciesism and how analysing the ways these forces intersect can produce less violent, more just practices.” I think many young people today would broadly align themselves with this streamlined description of ecofeminist philosophy; in my experience, people who are interested in feminism also tend to be engaged in climate activism, and vice versa. This is because those of us who aspire to be “intersectional” feminists understand that systems of oppression are interlinked - like how climate change denial is fuelled by racist and colonialist attitudes.

In spite of some alignment with “fourth-wave” feminist ideology, the ecofeminist movement has undergone a significant demise over the past two decades. In fact, many of the criticisms that were made of ecofeminism in the early 2000s reflect those which are used to call out white feminism.

For a start, the ecofeminist movement has been accused of purporting gender essentialism, or the idea that women and men display fixed, intrinsic, innate qualities. Ecofeminist writing often speaks of a dichotomy between man versus women, and equivocating this to the dichotomy of subject versus object, and exploiter versus nature. Such language reinforces binary understanding of gender, and the outdated notion that “females” are more “innate”-ly connected to nature.

Ecofeminist Greta Gaard has since admitted that the “charges of gender essentialism” landed at ecofeminism were largely “accurate”. Nonetheless, Gaard also believes that ecofeminism can accommodate for the understanding of gender as a social construct. According to Gaard, if men are discouraged from connecting with nature because nature is constructed as feminine, and therefore inferior; tackling systems of gender oppression will also help to reduce perceptions of nature as inferior, and therefore available for exploitation.

Nonetheless, much of the imagery and analogy that was used to construct twentieth century ecofeminist scholarship are discriminatory. For example, the concept of “speciesism” (which underpins much of the ecofeminist discourse) is seen by many to be profoundly racist. Discussions of “speciesism” all too often entail comparisons between the mistreatment of non-human species with the racist oppression of people of colour (including the Holocaust and slavery), thereby evoking the racist tradition of comparing people of colour to animals.

Ecofeminism has also been accused of adopting an anti-sex-work stance. This is detailed by Carrie Hamilton in her article on Carol Adams’ 1990 book The Sexual Politics of Meat . According to Hamilton, Adams condemns the meat industry because she sees it as having similarities to sex-work, e.g. because the meat industry has used pornographic motifs in advertising. Adams therefore assumes the sex-work industry is inherently unethical; conflating sex-work with trafficking and coercion.

Because of these connotations, the word ecofeminism has become almost taboo in contemporary feminist scholarship. In her article on ecofeminism and gender essentialism, Greta Gaard argues that: “Recuperating ecofeminist insights of the past thirty years … may be (dare I say it?) essential”. Whilst I would agree that ecofeminism offers valuable insight, whether or not it is essential to revisit ecofeminism is a different question.

At their most basic level, systems of social oppression function by restricting access to vital resources - including natural resources - to those with power. This means that we cannot resolve social issues without also considering the environment, and vice versa. But must we do so under the banner of ecofeminism? Is it possible to address criticism of ecofeminism whilst retaining its central tenets? Can we revisit ecofeminist scholarship safely, without the risk of further marginalising people of colour, sex-workers and non-cisgender people?

This is about more than just arguing over the semantics of niche academic phrases. Only by confronting the problematic aspects of historical feminist thinking will we be able to build a better and more inclusive feminism for future generations.