(penultimate draft, 11/14/97)
What is ecofeminism? Ecofeminism represents a union of two concerns:
ecology and feminism. The word ecology emerges from the biological
science of natural environmental systems. Ecology examines how these
natural communities function to sustain a healthy web of life and how
they become disrupted. causing death of plant or animal life. Human
intervention is the main cause of such interruption as it occurs today.
This ecology was popularized as a combined socio-economic and biological
study in the sixties to examine how the human use of nature is causing
pollution of soil, air and water, the destruction of the natural life
systems of plants and animals, threatening the bas of life upon which
the human community depends.
Deep ecologist have insisted that it is not enough to analyze this
devastation of the earth in terms of human social and technological use.
We have to examine the symbolic, psychological and cultural patterns by
which humans have distanced themselves from nature, denied their reality
as a part of nature and claimed to rule over it from outside.
Ecological healing demands a psycho-cultural/spiritual conversion from
this anthropocentric stance of separation and domination. We have to
recover the experience of communion in nature and rebuild a new culture
based on the affirmation of being one interconnected community of life.
Feminism is also a complex movement with many layers. It can be
defined as a movement within liberal democratic societies for full
inclusion of women in political rights and access to equal employment.
It can be defined more radically in socialist and liberationist feminism
as a transformation of the patriarchal socio-economic system in which
domination of women is the foundation of all social hierarchies.
Feminism can also be studied in terms of culture and consciousness,
charting the symbolic, psychological and cultural connection between the
definition of women as inferior mentally, morally and physically, and
male elite monopolization of knowledge and power.
This third type of feminist analysis has affinities with deep ecology,
although many ecofeminists have faulted deep ecologists for their lack
of gender analysis and their failure to see the relationship between
anthropocentrism and androcentrism. Ecofeminism is founded on the
basic intuition that there is a fundamental connection in Western
culture, and in patriarchal cultures generally, between the domination
of women and the domination of nature. What does this mean?
Among Western ecofeminists this connection between domination of women
and domination of nature is generally made, first, on the
cultural-symbolic level. One charts the way in which patriarchal culture
has defined women as being 'closer to nature', or as being on the nature
side of the nature-culture split. This is shown in the way in which
women have been identified with the body, earth, sex, the flesh in its
mortality, weakness and 'sin-proneness', vis a vis a construction of
masculinity identified with spirit, mind and sovereign power over both
women and nature.
A second level of ecofeminist analysis goes beneath the
cultural-symbolic level, and explores the socio-economic underpinnings
of how the domination of women's bodies and women's work interconnects
with the exploitation of land, water, and animals. How have women as a
gender group been colonized by patriarchy as a legal, economic, social
and political system? How does this colonization of women's bodies and
women's work function as the invisible substructure for the extraction
of natural resources? How does the positioning of women as the
caretakers of children, the gardeners, weavers, cookers, cleaners and
waste managers for men in the family both inferiorize this work and
identify women with a nonhuman world likewise inferiorized?
This socio-economic form of ecofeminist analysis them sees the
cultural-symbolic patterns by which both women and nature are
inferiorized and identified with each other as an ideological
superstructure, by which the system of economic and legal domination of
women, land and animals are justified and made to appear 'natural' and
inevitable within a total patriarchal cosmovision. Ecofeminists who
stress this socio-economic analysis underlying the patriarchal ideology
of subordination of women and nature also wish to include race and class
hierarchy as well.
It is not enough simply to talk of domination of women as if women were
a homogenous group We have to look at the total class structure of the
society - connected with racial hierarchy, in some societies - and see
how gender hierarchy falls within race-class hierarchy. This means that
women within the ruling class have vastly different privileges and
comforts from women in the lowest class, even though both may be defined
in a general sense as mothers, child raisers and sex objects. It also
means that there are different ideologies about upper class and lower
class women, exacerbated when racial ideologies are also present. Thus
in American society, the images of the white woman as sheltered leisure
class Lady, and the Black woman as strong Mammy or sexually available
tart, shaped by slavery, still informs cultural patterns affecting real
African-American and Euro-American women today.
How does religion come into this mix of ecofeminist cultural-symbolic
and socio-economic analysis? Religion, specifically the Christian
tradition, with its roots in the Hebrew and Greco-Roman worlds, has been
faulted by ecofeminists as a prime source of the cultural-symbolic
patterns which have inferiorized women and nature. The patriarchal God
of Hebrew Bible, defined as outside and over against the material world
as its Creator and Lord, when fused with Greek philosophical dualism of
spirit and matter, are seen as the prime identity myth of the Western
ruling class males. He has made this God in the image of his own
aspiration to be both separate from and ruling over the material world,
as land and animals or non-human 'resources', and as subjugated groups
The denunciation of Christianity, as well as scientific ideology, as
the main sources and enforcers of the domination of women and nature is
often connected with what might be called an ecofeminist 'fall from
paradise' story. In this story, humans in the hunter-gatherer and
hunter-gardener stages are said to have lived in egalitarian classless
societies in a benign nurturing relation to the rest of nature. The
social system of war, violence and male domination came in with a series
of invasions by patriarchal pastoralists from the Northern steeps
sometime in the 6th to 3rd millennia B.C.E., reshaping earlier
egalitarian societies into societies of militarized domination,. This
view has been popularized in Riane Eisler's book, The Chalice and the
For Eisler, this shift to patriarchy was reflected in a religious
revolution in which the worship of a Goddess, representing the immanent
life force within nature was repressed, in favor of a patriarchal sun
God positioned outside and ruling over nature as a warrior Lord.
Ecofeminists who draw on this 'fall from paradise' story believe that
recovery of a partnership relationship between men and women and a
life-sustaining relation with nature demands a rejection of all forms of
patriarchal religion and the return to or reinvention , in some way, of
the worship of the ancient nature Goddess. This viewpoint is expressed
by groups of women and some men, not simply as a theory, but as a
practice of creating worship groups that have developed ritual practices
that they see as reviving the ancient worship of the Goddess. Perhaps
the best know thealogian and liturgist of this neo-pagan or Wiccan
movement is Starhawk, author of books such as The Spiral Dance: A
Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess.
My own view is that this 'fall from paradise story' is a myth, a
powerful contemporary myth. By myth, I do not mean that it is simply
'untrue', but that it is a vastly simplified and selective story that
contain elements of truth about the actual shaping of Western history in
the last 6000-8000 years. In Gaia to God I have charted a more complex
process that led from the invention of agriculture and the domestication
of animals to the shaping of early urban cultures and empires in the
Ancient Middle East in the 3rd millennium, with their patterns of
patriarchy, slavery, and temple and palace aristocracies controlling the
land and labor of peasants and slaves, and the subjugation of women.
>From the context of this historical trajectory one might re-imagine. a
lost alternative that lay behind and was covered over by this process of
shaping the system of domination but we know very little about whether
or how such societies existed.
This story, as told by its contemporary mythmakers, however, also tends
to take for granted certain gender stereotypes about masculinity and
femininity and the connection of women and nature with nurture that have
more to do with certain lines of Euro-American Victorian culture that
what is probably the views of ancient Anatolia or Crete. This is why
the story 'rings true' to many contemporary European American women and
some men. Like all good myths, this story should be taken seriously,
but not literally. We should ask what it tells us about ourselves and
our histories, but also how it may mislead us about ourselves and our
histories and particularly about what is to be do to heal ourselves, our
relations to each other and to the earth.
Here I see a sharp distinction between two lines of thought among
ecofeminists, even though they may share many common values. One line
of thought sees the woman-nature connection as a social ideology
constructed by patriarchal culture to justify the ownership of and use
of both women and the natural world as property. In reality women are
not more like non-human nature than men, or to put it another way, human
men are as much like other creatures as human women.
This critique of the woman-nature connection as a patriarchal cultural
construction can be used to separate both women and men as humans, who
are much like each other, but different from the rest of nature. Or it
can be used to insist that men as much as women need to overcome the
myth of separation and learn to commune with nature as our common biotic
community, while respecting animals, trees, lakes, plants, wolves,
birds, biological communities, and insects as being with their own
distinct modes of like and raison d'Ítre apart from our use of them.
Ecofeminists also analyze the separation of women from men by patterns
of cultural dualism of mind-body, dominant-subordinate,
thinking-feeling, and the identification of the lower half of these
dualisms with both women and nature, as a victimology. The dualisms
falsify who women and men, and also nature really are in their wholeness
and complexity, and justify the treatment of both women and nature as
property of men to be used as they wish.. Social ecofeminism is about
deconstruction these dualism, both in regard to women and in regard to
A second line of ecofeminism agrees that this patriarchal woman-nature
connection justifies their domination and abuse but also believes that
there is a deeper truth that has been distorted by it. There is some
deep positive connection between women and nature. Women are the
life-givers, the nurturers, the ones in whom the seed of life grows.
Women were the primary food gatherers, the inventors of agriculture.
Their bodies are in mysterious tune with the cycles of the moon and the
tides of the sea. It was by experiencing women as life-givers, both
food providers and birthers of children, that early humans made the
female the first image of worship the Goddess, source of all life.
Women need to reclaim this affinity between the sacality of nature and
the sacrality of their own sexuality and life-powers. To return to
worship the goddess as the sacred female is to reconnect with our own
I find this exaltation of women and nature as Great Goddess attractive,
but also potentially misleading. There are two major way of reclaiming
reverence for the ancient Goddess. First, there are some women for whom
the worship of the Goddess means the reclamation of their own lost
powers unjustly stolen from them by patriarchy and patriarchal religion.
Some of these women exclude men from their circles and others allow
men in, but as 'sons of the Great Goddess', the boy masculine in
relation to the Great Mother. This suggests to me that men in these
circles, not only cannot be dominators, but also cannot be adult peers
of women. I find this a problem for genuine adult peer relationships
between me and women. Men don't "grow up".
A second approach - more popular with men - sees men appropriating the
Goddess as Divine Feminine the repressed feminine side of their souls
which they must reclaim to midwife themselves into androgynous
wholeness. But there is a tendency in these circles to demand that
women specialize in the feminine as nurturers of the development of a
male-centered androgyny. Women who get too independent are rebuked as
'animus-driven'. The result, it seems to me, is that men stay in
control, but seductively, as 'beautiful souls'.
A third ???, more negative, stance towards such Goddess visions,
however, is rising from the "Christian" Right today. It us expressing
itself as angry backlash, in all the old language of witchhunts us
trotted out as declarations of vehement outrage against what is seen as
'gynecentric chauvinism', producing 'effeminate men' ruled by women.
SOMETHING HERE I CAN'T READ. The new Right's re-assertion of masculinist
aggressive individualism against all forms of 'softness' is seen as the
appropriate response to such deviance from 'real American' (male)
All three of these 'takes' on the meaning of the Goddess, ?and some
return to this there was one ? an alternative matricentric world, that
can be reclaimed for today, tell us something about where we are and
have come from, but we see how easy it is to reduplicate the old
patterns that have long underlaid and reproduced patriarchy. We are
still far from the kind of transformed story that will break the cycle
both of female maternalism and submission, both of male insecurity and
retaliatory dominance, and which can fin real partnership.
Much of Western essentialist or matricentric ecofeminism (as distinct
from social ecofeminism) fails to make real connections between the
domination of women classism, racism, and poverty. Relation with nature
is thought of in psycho-cultural terms; rituals of self-blessing of the
body, experiencing of the sacrality of the rising moon, the seasons of
the year. I don't disvalue such ceremonial reconnecting with our bodies
and nature. Indeed I have included such rituals in my liturgical
writings. They have a place in our healing of our consciousness from
patterns of alienation.
But I believe they can become recreational self-indulgence for a
privileged counter-cultural elite, if our cultural expressions of
healing of our bodies and our imaginations as white Europeans and
American are not connected concretely with the realities of over
consumerism and waste by which the top 20% of the world enjoys 82% of
the wealth while the other 80% of the world scrape along with 18%, and
the lowest 80% of the world's populations, disproportionately female and
young, starve and die early from poisoned waters, soil and air.
An ecofeminism which does not tend toward a cultural escapism for a
privileged Western female elite must make concrete connections with
women at the bottom of the socio-economic system. It joust recognize the
devastation of the earth as an integral part of the appropriation of the
goods of the earth by a wealthy minority who can enjoy strawberries in
winter winged to their glittering supermarkets by a global food
procurement system, while those pick and pack the strawberries lack the
money for bread and are dying from pesticide poisoning.
I remember standing in a market in Mexico in December looking hungrily
at boxes of beautiful strawberries and wondering how I might send some
back on the airplane through customs into the United State on a
airplane. A friend of mine, Gary McEoin, long-time Latin American
liberation journalist standing next to me said softly, "beautiful,
aren't they,.. and they are covered with blood". To be an ecofeminist
in my social context is to cultivate that kind of awareness about the
goods and services readily available to me.
I look for an important corrective to the myopias of the white affluent
context through dialogue with ecofeminists from Asia, Africa and Latin
America, as well as from the struggles of racial-ethnic peoples against
environmental racism in the United States and other industrialized
countries. I find that ecofeminism sounds very different she it comes
from women in these class, racial and cultural contexts, White Western
ecofeminists can profit from readings how these women see the
While there are also many differences among women of these many
non-white and non-affluent contexts, what seems to me basic is that
women in Latin America, Asia and Africa never forget that the base line
of domination of women and nature is impoverishment; the impoverishment
of the majority of local people , particularly women and children, and
the impoverishment of the land. This connection of women and nature in
impoverishment is present in everyday concrete realities. Deforestation
means women walk twice as far and three times as long each day gathering
wood; it means drought which means women walk twice and three ties
farther each day to find and carry water back to heir modest houses.
When theses women talk about how to heal their people and their land
from this impoverishment and poisoning, they talk about how to take back
control of over their resources from the World Bank and the wealthy
nations. They critique the global system of economic power. They
envision ways of reclaiming some traditional patterns of care for the
earth and indigenous forms of spirituality, but in a flexible, pragmatic
way. For example, women from Zimbabwe and Malawi point to local
territorial cults in their traditions where women were the
spirit-mediums and guardians of the land. Women led ceremonies of
calling for rain and thanksgiving foe harvests, kept sacred forests from
being cut down and guarded sacred pools.
But these traditions are not romanticized. These African women also
now how women were limited by pollution taboos that forbade them access
to forests and kept them from growing their own trees. They want to
combine pragmatically some of the old customs that cared for the water,
tress and animals with modern understandings of conservation and legal
rights of women to own land and have equal access to agricultural credit
that have come to them from Western liberalism. If they are Christians
they don't mind citing some good stories from the Bible, side by side
with good stories from their indigenous traditions. In short, they are
practical ecumenists who know how to cross cultures, to speak Shona and
also English, to use whatever come from these cultures to enhance life
for all, particularly for women at the bottom of the society.
I believe Western feminists of Christian backgrounds need to be
similarly ecumenical and similarly clear-sighted about the economic
system in which we stand. I don't believe there is a ready made
feminist ecological culture that can be resurrected from prehistoric
cultures, although we can catch glimpses of alternative in ancient pasts
that might help midwife new futures. We also need to mine our Greek,
Hebrew and Christian heritages, as well as modern emancipatory
traditions, for useable insights.
Catherine Keller has suggested that feminist theologians are the great
recyclers of culture, just as women have always been the recyclers of
the waste products of human production. In constructing an ecofeminist
culture and spirituality we are the cultural equivalent of the many
marginalized people around the world who pick through garbage heaps
seeking for useable bits and pieces form which to construct a new
habitation. While this is a grim picture of our relationship to the
past, it does highlight SOMETHING.
There are two important aspects of our task, First, that there is much
of our Christian and Western past which is useable, but only by being
reconstructed in new forms, as material reorganized by a new vision, as
compost for new flowering. Secondly, its is we who must be the artisans
of this new culture. It will not come to us ready-made, either from
Christianity or science, or from Asian or Indigenous peoples.
We are facing a new situation which humans have never faced before;
namely, that human species power, actualized by a dominant class, has
grown so great that it may destroy the planetary basis of life for all
other humans. as well as the non-human biosphere. Past cultures,
whether they sought to harmonize humans with each other and with nature
in the name of immanent deities, or to subdue nature in the name of a
transcendent God, did not imagine that such power was ours to posses.
Most accessible cultures, including indigenous ones, had some patterns
of subordination of women, and many tied this to serf, slave or worker
populations. Their cosmologies and ethical codes reflect and justify
these social patterns.
Religious cultures have often mandated the social hierarchies of race,
class and gender patterns of their societies. But they have also, in
various ways, sought harmony and justice, overcoming enmity and
alienation, reconciling humans and humans, humans and animals, humans
and the Ultimate source of Life. It is these many quests for harmony,
reconciliation and justice which we can separate out from the oppressive
legacy of of socialized domination of past cultures. Our legacy will
doubtless need to (be?) reconstructed by our children and grandchildren.
At best we may construct a new foundation that is more sustainable as
the base for their rebuilding.
Many cultures can provide us with clues to a healing culture. The
great Asian spirituality of Taoism and Buddhism, Hinduism and
Confucianism have possibilities to be explored, particularly in their
vision of letting go over overweening individualism, which releases an
outflowing compassion for all sentient beings, the harmonization of the
dialectical forces at work in society and the cosmos.
The many cultures of indigenous people of the Americas, Asia, Africa
and the Pacific Islands, long scorned as 'pagans', have begun to be
accorded more respect as we recognize how each of these peoples created
their own bioregional culture that sustained the local human group as
part of a community of animals and plants, earth and sky, past ancestors
and future descendants. Euro-Americans can also look for hints of such
indigenous spiritualities in our pre-Christian past in the Celtic,
Germanic and Slavic worlds, careful to separate these roots from their
misuse by fascist racist ideologies.
But Western Christians also need to free themselves form both our
chauvinism and our escapism to be able to play with the insightful
aspects of our Jewish, Greek and Christian legacies, as well as
critically appraising its problems, letting go of both the need to
inflate it as the one true way, or repudiate it as total toxic waste.
In my book GAO and God I suggest two patterns of Biblical thought that
are important resources for ecological theology and ethics; covenantal
ethics and sacramental cosmology.
Covenantal ethics give us a vision of an integrated community of
humans, animals and land who seek to live by a spirituality and code of
continual rest, renewal and restoration of just, sustainable
relationship between humans and other humans, humans and the land, in
one convenanat under a caretaking God. We need to reject the
patriarchal aspects of this covenantal tradition, while reclaiming the
visions of community, sustained by processes which continually right the
distorted relationships created by unjust domination and exploitation;
the fertility of the land renewed by letting it lie fallow, the human
and animal workers given rest, the debts forgiven, those in servitude
emancipated and land restored to those who have become landless.
Covenants ethics can be complemented by the Jewish and Christian
heritages of sacramental cosmology. Here we have a sense of the whole
cosmic come alive, as the bodying forth of the Holy Spirit, the Word and
Wisdom of God which is its source of life and renewal of life. In God
we live and move and have our being, not as some detached male ego
beyond the universe, but as the Holy One who is in and through and under
the whole life process.
Covenantal ethics and sacramental cosmology are profound resources
from our Biblical and Christian heritage, but we Christians also have to
let go of the illusion that there is one right way to create the new
ecological world culture and that we can and should do it all. We need
to see ourselves a part of a converging dialogue, as ecofeminists in
may regions make their distinctive cultural syntheses; as Zimbabwe
ecofeminists interconnect spirit mediums and kinship with animals with
themes of just self-government that came to them from the British; as
Indian ecofeminists, like Vandana Shiva, connect the pre-Hindu
understanding of Shakti, the feminine cosmic life Principle, with the
critique of western science and development, and as Korean
ecofeminists, such as Chung Hyun Khung, integrate a Buddhist woman
Bottisatva and Shaman dance with Biblical Christian emancipatory
But white affluent Western Christian Feminists, women and men, must not
only shape cultural syntheses from the best of our traditions, in
dialogue with those of others, but we also need to know who we are. We
are those who profit from the most rapacious system of colonial and
neo-colonial appropriation of the land and labor of the earth ever
created. We need to question this system, starting with its excessive
benefits to ourselves, by asking how we can use these benefits to stand
in solidarity with the women of the poor.
We need to keep the reality of these women firmly in our mind's eye, as
they hold the child dying of dehydration from polluted water, and trek
long hours to fetch basic necessities, and also as they continue to
struggle to defend life with a tenacity that refuses to be defeated and
celebrate with a fullness of spirit that belies the seeming hopelessness
of their situation. Only as we learn to connect both our stories and
our struggles, in concrete and authentic ways with women on the
underside of the present systems of power and profit, can we begin to
glimpse what an ecofeminist theology and ethic might really be all