From Charlene Spretnak, "Critical and Constructive Contributionsof Ecofeminism," Pp. 181- 189 in Peter Tucker and Evelyn Grim (Eds.),Worldviews and Ecology, Philadelphia: Bucknell Press, 1993.

Critical and Constructive

Contributions of Ecofeminism

Charlene Spretnak

THE earth-body and the womb-body run on cosmological time. Just asthe flow of earth's life-giving waters follows lunar rhythms, so toofollow the tides of a woman's womb. No culture has failed to noticethese connections or the related feats of elemental power: that thefemale can grow both sexes from her very flesh and transform foodinto milk for them, and that the earth cyclically produces vastbounty and intricate dynamics of the biosphere that allow life.Cultural responses to the physical connections between nature and thefemale range from respect and honor to fear, resentment, anddenigration. Whatever the response, it is elaborately constructedover time and plays a primal, informing role in the evolution of asociety's worldview.

The central insight of ecofeminism is that a historical, symbolic,and political relationship exists between the denigration of natureand the female in Western cultures. The field has grown immenselysince the term (as eco-feminisme) was coined in 1972 byFrancoise d'Eaubonne in La feminisme ou la mort. Women havecome into ecofeminism in the United States from several directions,including the environmental movement, various types of alternativepolitics, and the feminist spirituality movement. (l) In recentyears, a number of ecofeminist anthologies, as well as hundreds ofarticles, have been published. (2) This introductory article willpresent three main aspects of ecofeminism: philosophy, politicalactivism, and spirituality.

Historical Background

With regard to European cultures, considerable archaeologicalevidence indicates that both the earth and the female were held inhigh regard in the Neolithic settlements prior to the Bronze Age. (3)Ritual figurines of a stylized sacred female with incised patterns ofwater or with the head of a bird, for instance, reflect perceptionsof inherent interconnectedness with nature and seemingly "obvious"honoring of the elemental power of the female. After 4500 B.C. thearchaeological record reveals a radical shift. Graves were no longerroughly egalitarian between the sexes (with women having somewhatmore burial items than men) but suddenly followed the barrow model ofburial, wherein a chieftan is surrounded by the bodies of men, women,children, animals and objects that he owned or controlled. Thewestward migrations of nomadic Indo-European tribes from the Eurasiansteppes imposed in old Europe a warrior cult, the addition offortifications around settlements, a patriarchal social system, andthe transferral of the sense of the sacred from nature and the femaleto a distant sky-god, although not all societies followed thispattern, of course. (4)

From the Bronze Age onward, the denigration of nature and thefemale in European societies fluctuated but never disappeared. ThePythagoreans codified their influential table of opposites in whichthe female is linked with the negative attributes of formlessness,the indeterminate, the irregular, the unlimited--that is, dumbmatter, as opposed to the (male) principles of fixed form anddistinct boundaries. Aristotle considered females to be passivedeformities. The intellectual prowess of the male, he felt couldreveal and categorize all forms and functions of organisms in nature.Later, the medieval cosmology ranked men above women, animals, andthe rest of nature, all of which were considered to be entangled withmatter in ways that the male spirit and intellect were not. Theadvent of modernity created by the succession of Renaissancehumanism, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment shatteredthe holism (but not the hierarchical assumptions) of the medievalsynthesis by framing the story of the human apart from the largerunfolding story of the earth community. (5) The "new mechanicalphilosophy" of the Scientific Revolution in the sixteenth andseventeenth centuries perceived the natural world as a clockwork thatcould be fully apprehended and mastered by (male) human intellect.The practitioners of empirical science used metaphors that expressheady delight in assaulting nature in order to learn "her secrets."Ecofeminists and others have noted that similar metaphors andattitudes were used in the "trials" (legalistic rituals ofpatriarchal hysteria) that preceded witch burnings and other tortureduring the era of the new rationalism. (6)

Dualistic Thinking in Western Philosophy and Culture

The dualistic thinking that has shaped so much of the Eurocentricworldview is perhaps the central concern of ecofeminist philosophicaland political analysis. Countless ramifications follow from theEurocentric notion of "the masculine" being associated withrationality, spirit, culture, autonomy, assertiveness, and the publicsphere, while "the feminine" is associated with emotion, body,nature, connectedness, receptivity, and the private sphere. Thereductionism of this orientation is accompanied by severalassumptions that are essential to patriarchy: that the cluster ofattributes associated with the masculine is superior to thatassociated with the feminine; that the latter exists in service tothe former; that the relationship between the two is inherentlyagonistic; and that a logic of domination over nature and the femaleshould prevail among (male) humans in the "superior" configuration.The Eurocentric construction of masculinity hence is a reactive andunstable posturing to appear "not-nature" and "not-female." Thepatriarchal core of the Eurocentric worldview is the culturallyimposed fear that nature and the elemental power of the female arepotentially chaotic and engulfing unless contained by the will of thecultural fathers.

Ecofeminists feel that the above analysis is relevant toidentifying problematic assumptions in philosophical and politicalsituations that have evolved within the Eurocentric orientation. Inthe area of ecofeminist philosophy, two topics that have received agood deal of attention are the critique of "manstream" (7)environmental ethics and the dialogue between ecofeminism and deepecology.


Ecofeminist Critiques of Environmental Philosophy

With regard to the field of environmental ethics, ecofeministsmaintain that many of its leading philosophers are largely blind totheir patriarchal assumptions and hence can only replicate the logicof domination, albeit embedded in various versions of an ecologicalworldview. Ecofeminist philosophers reject the assumption thatclinging to the rationalist concept of the self and the instrumentalview of nature that dominates Western philosophy is a viable way toframe a postpatriarchal environmental ethics. The Kantian-rationalistframework is based on oppositionally construed reason: intellectualfacility that is sharply distinct from the "corrupting" influences ofthe emotional, the personal, the particular. (8) Because the self isbelieved to be discontinuous from other humans and the rest of thenatural world, moral progress is possible via a progression away frompersonal feelings to abstract, universalized reason. This approachresults in strong opposition between care and concern for particularothers (the "feminine," private realm) and generalized moral concern(the "masculine," public realm). Ecofeminists have identified thisfalse opposition as a major cause of Western maltreatment of nature,noting that concern for nature should not be viewed as the completionof a process of (masculine) universalization, moral abstraction anddisconnection, discarding the self, emotions, and special ties("Nature," passim).

Ecofeminists also challenge the Eurocentric concept of rights as abasis for philosophical frameworks of environmental ethics. "Ethicalhumanists" and "animal liberationists" attempt to establish therelative values of various parts of nature via such criteria assentience, consciousness, rationality, self-determination, andinterests. A being possessing one of these characteristics is said tohave "intrinsic value" and hence the right to "moral consideration."(9) Ecofeminists generally regard this approach as static, arbitrary,and lacking a holistic apprehension of the natural world (includinghumans). Another objection to the use of rights theory is that itrequires strong separation of individual rights-holders and is set ina framework of human community and legality. Its extension to therest of the natural world often draws upon Mill's notion that if abeing has a right to something not only should he or she (or it) havethat something but others are obligated to intervene and secure it.Such reasoning gives humans almost limitless obligations to intervenemassively in all sorts of far-reaching and conflicting ways innatural, balanced cycles to secure rights of a bewildering variety ofbeings ("Nature," 8). Ecofeminists feel that a more promisingapproach for an ethics of nature would be to remove the concept ofrights from the central position it currently holds and focus insteadon less dualistic moral concepts such as respect, sympathy, care,concern, compassion, gratitude, friendship, and responsibility("Nature," 9). (10)

The Ecofeminist Dialogue with Deep Ecology

The response of ecofeminist philosophers to the body of thoughtknown as deep ecology has drawn attention to its gender-blindassumptions in condemning anthropocentrism without taking seriouslythe formative dynamics of androcentrism, or male dominance. Mostecofeminists acknowledge common ground with deep ecology's rejectionof rationalist value theories and an environmental ethic grounded inabstract principles and universal rules believed to be discoverablethrough reason alone. (11) Most ecofeminists also appreciate deepecology's rejection of the Eurocentric sense of discontinuity betweenhumans and nature. However, ecofeminists are wary of assumptions thatmay lie embedded in the concept of the "ecological self," which wasformulated by the founder of deep ecology, Arne Naess, and whichrefers to the aspect of one's being that is continuous with the largeSelf (that is, the unitive dimension of being) rather than theindividual self. It is sometimes described by Naess's colleagues inways that could be interpreted to result in the obliterating of allparticularity, a worrisome notion to the sex that has been socializedin patriarchal culture to sacrifice their own self-definition to theneeds of husbands and children. Other ecofeminist concerns includeissues of differentiation (embedded in relationship), biocentricegalitarianism (the recognition that all species have worth), andconcepts of caring. (12)

Political Analysis and Activism

In this area, ecofeminists have astutely critiqued the masculinistbias in the daily functioning of the environmental movement; (13)played an important role in the growing challenge to the modern modelof "development" for the Third and Fourth Worlds; (14) and been aleading force in campaigns for animal rights (15.) and opposition toseveral aspects of reproductive technologies. (16) Most ecofeministactivists are engaged with grassroots political work, whether or notthey identify themselves with any particular party, movement, orideology. Many ecofeminists work in the Green politics movement,often within Green parties, because the democratic, community-based,and the ecological Green political vision includes ecofeministconcerns and aspirations. (17.) Its ideal of community-basedeconomics, in which wealth and ownership are spread as broadly aspossible, stands in stark contrast to the increasing centralizationof power and control in the hands of huge corporations.

The experience of most feminists who have entered theenvironmental movement either in institutionalized organizations oralternative groups has been painfully disillusioning. The historicallink noted by ecofeminist theory between patriarchal attitudes andthe logic of domination over nature, women, and people of color hasyet to be acknowledged in practice by most male activists. In theGreen politics movement this situation is often somewhat better thanin environmentalist organizations because feminist values are amongthe core values, at least in principle. Hence Greens areideologically committed to eliminating patriarchal behavior. Whenthat fails to occur, women leave the Greens, as they havedemonstrated in several countries. Sometimes they return whenconditions improve.

An example of the political issues addressed by ecofeminists istheir vocal opposition to policies that reduce women of the Third("developing") and Fourth (indigenous) Worlds to "resources" in theemerging global economy. A leading ecofeminist critic, Vandana Shiva,who is an Indian physicist, maintains that "maldevelopment" is a newproject of Western patriarchy, one that results in the death of the"feminine principle." She asserts that the modern model ofdevelopment being imposed by the West is inherently patriarchalbecause it is fragmented, "anti-life," opposed to diversity,dominating, and delights in "progress" based on nature's destructionand women's subjugation. (18) Ecofeminists insist that Third andFourth World women themselves must have control over decisions aboutwhether to opt for local self-reliance or integrate into the globaleconomy. Unfortunately, enormously powerful banks and transnationalcorporations in the "developed" world are furthering "maldevelopment"via centralized, large-scale projects that are usuallycapital-intensive, energy-intensive, and disruptive of localself-reliance and ecological integrity.

Spiritual Dimension

In addition to the philosophical and political aspects,ecofeminism contains a spiritual dimension. The ecofeministalternative to the Western patriarchal worldview of fragmentation,alienation, agonistic dualisms, and exploitative dynamics is aradical reconceptualization that honors holistic integration:interrelatedness, transformation, embodiment, caring, and love. Suchan orientation is simpatico with the teachings of several Eastern andindigenous spiritual traditions on nonduality and the relative natureof seemingly sharp divisions and separations. To refer to theultimate mystery of creativity in the cosmos--its self-organizing,self-regulating dynamics-- spiritual traditions draw on metaphor andsymbol. Those may be female, male, or nonanthropomorphic, such as theTaoist perception of The Way. Ecofeminists are situated in all themajor religious traditions, and most see good reason for women to usefemale imagery in references to "the divine," or ultimate mystery inthe cosmos. Particularly, in patriarchal societies, the choice offemale metaphors is a healthy antidote to the cultural denigration ofwomen. Those ecofeminists drawn to Goddess spirituality appreciatethe nature-based sense of the sacred as immanent in the earth, ourbodies, and the entire cosmic community--rather than being located insome distant father-god far removed from "entanglement" with matter.The transcendent nature of creativity in the cosmos, or the divine,lies not above us but in the infinite complexity of the sacred wholethat continues to unfold. Goddess spirituality is not the soletradition that contains these understandings, and even religions thatare somewhat hostile to them are being persistently challenged bytheir own ecofeminist members.


In summary, ecofeminism is a movement that focuses attention onthe historical linkage between denigration of nature and the female.It seeks to shed light on why Eurocentric societies, as well as thosein their global sphere of influence, are now enmeshed inenvironmental crises and economic systems that require continuing theecocide and the dynamics of exploitation. Ecofeminism continues theprogression within traditional feminism from attention to sexism toattention to all systems of human oppression (such as racism,classism, ageism, and heterosexism) to recognition that "naturism"(the exploitation of nature) is also a result of the logic ofdomination. (19) Ecofeminism challenges environmental philosophy toabandon postures upholding supposedly gender-free abstractindividualism and "rights" fixations and to realize that humanrelationships (between self and the rest of the world) areconstitutive, not peripheral. Hence care for relationships andcontextual embeddedness provides grounds for ethical behavior andmoral theory. Politically, ecofeminists work in a broad range ofefforts to halt destructive policies and practices and to createalternatives rooted in community-based legitimacy that honors theself-determination of women as well as men and that locates thewell-being of human societies within the well-being of the entireearth community. Spiritually, ecofeminists are drawn to practices andorientations that nurture experiences of nonduality and lovingreverence for the sacred whole that is the cosmos.

Ecofeminism is a global phenomenon that is bringing attention tothe linked domination of women and nature in order that both aspectscan be adequately understood. Ecofeminists seek to transform thesocial and political orders that promote human oppression embedded inecocidal practices. The work consists of resistance, creativity, andhope.


1. See Charlene Spretnak, "Ecofeminism: Our Roots and Flowering,"in Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism, ed.Irene Diamond and Gloria Feman Orenstein (San Francisco: Sierra ClubBooks, 1990).

2. The anthologies include the one in the previous citation plusHealing the Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism, ed. JudithPlant (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1989); Ecofeminism.Women, Animals, and Nature, ed. Greta Gaard (Philadelphia: TempleUniversity Press, 1993); Ecofeminism and the Sacred, ed. CarolJ. Adams (New York: Crossroads Press, 1993); EcofeministPhilosophy, ed. Karen J. Warren (New York: Routledge,forthcoming); and Ecological Feminism, ed. Karen J. Warren(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, forthcoming).

3. See Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess: Unearthingthe Hidden Symbols of Western Civilization and TheCivilization of the Goddess: Neolithic Europe before thePatriarchy (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1989 and 1991respectively). Gimbutas cites the work of numerous Europeanarchaeologists in addition to the discoveries from her ownexcavations.

4. For an account of other, living options, see Peggy Reeves,Female Power and Male Dominance (Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 1981).

5. See Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco:Sierra Club Books, 1988).

6. See Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology,and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper & Row,1980). Also see Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature: The Roaringinside Her (New York: Harper & Row, 1978).

7. The term "manstream" is used by Janis Birkeland to refer to themale-dominant mainstream of Eurocentric societies. See ' Ecofeminism:Linking Theory and Practice," in Gaard, ed., Ecofeminism.

8. See Val Plumwood, ''Nature, Self, and Gender: Feminism,Environmental Philosophy, and the Critique of Rationalism,"Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 6, no. 1 (Spring1991): 1-7; hereafter, "Nature," with page references cited in thetext.

9. See Marti Kheel, "The Liberation of Nature: A CircularAffair.'' Environmental Ethics 7, no. 2 (Summer 1985): 139.

10. This list is common in feminist models for ethics, butPlumwood is citing here from a book on Buddhism, Francis Cook'sHua-Yen Buddhism The Jewel New of Indra (University Park:Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977). Plumwood's citation of anadmirable approach to moral theory from a book on Buddhism reflectsthe common ground between many of the concerns of ecofeminism andthose spiritual traditions that emphasize nonduality, wisdom, andcompassion.

11. Marti Kheel, "Ecofeminism and Deep Ecology: Reflections onIdentity and Difference," Covenant for a New Creation: Ethics,Religion, and Public Policy, ed. Carol S. Robb and Carl J.Casebolt (Mary Knoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991), 142-45.

12. For a summary of the dialogue between ecofeminism and deepecology as of spring 1987, see Michael E. Zimmerman, "Deep Ecologyand Ecofeminism: The Emerging Dialogue," in Diamond and Orenstein,eds., Reweaving the World. Also see the articles by Kheel andPlumwood cited in nn 8, 9, and 11, above. Also see Charlene Spretnak,'Radical Nonduality in Ecofeminist Philosophy," in Warren, ed.,Ecological Feminism.

13. See Pam Simmons, 'The Challenge of Feminism," TheEcologist 22, no. 1 (January/ February 1992): 2-3.

14. See Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology andDevelopment (London Zed Books, 1988). Also see Pam Simmons, "'Women in Development': A Threat to Liberation," The Ecologist22, no. I (January/February 1992): 16-21.

15. See Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics Meat (New York:Continuum, 1990). Also see Andree Collard and Joyce Contrucci,Rape of the Wild: Men's Violence against Animals and the Earth(London: The Women's Press, 1988). Also see several articles inGaard, ed., Ecofeminism. Also see the article by Kheel citedin n. 9. above.

16. See Irene Diamond, "Babies, Heroic Experts, and a PoisonedEarth," Reweaving the World, 201-10. Also see Vandana Shiva,"The Seed and the Earth: Women, Ecology, and Biotechnology," TheEcologist 22, no. I (January/February 1992): 4-7.

17. The "Ten Key Values" of' the Green politics movement in theU.S. are ecological wisdom, nonviolence, grassroots democracy, socialjustice and personal responsibility, community-based economics,decentralization, feminism, respect for diversity, globalresponsibility, and sustainable future focus. See Charlene Spretnakand Fritjof Capra, Green Politics: The Global Promise (NewYork: Dutton, 1984)

18. See Shiva, Staying Alive.

19. See Karen J. Warren, "The Power and Promise of EcologicalFeminism," Environmental Ethics 12, no. 2 (Summer 1990):132-46. Note that the first footnote in this article is abibliographic listing that cites numerous ecofeminist books andarticles.


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