Feminism and the Mastery of Nature
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Feminism and the Mastery of Nature

Val Plumwood

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eBook - ePub

Feminism and the Mastery of Nature

Val Plumwood

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Two of the most important political movements of the late twentieth century are those of environmentalism and feminism. In this book, Val Plumwood argues that feminist theory has an important opportunity to make a major contribution to the debates in political ecology and environmental philosophy.
Feminism and the Mastery of Nature explains the relation between ecofeminism, or ecological feminism, and other feminist theories including radical green theories such as deep ecology. Val Plumwood provides a philosophically informed account of the relation of women and nature, and shows how relating male domination to the domination of nature is important and yet remains a dilemma for women.

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Chapter 1
Feminism and ecofeminism
In what does man’s pre-eminence over the brute creation consist? The answer is as clear as that a half is less than a whole, in Reason. For what purpose were the passions implanted? That man by struggling with them might attain a degree of knowledge denied to the brutes. Consequently the perfection of our nature and capability of happiness must be estimated by the degree of reason, virtue and humanity that distinguish the individual and that from the exercise of reason, knowledge and virtue naturally flow.
(Mary Wollstonecraft)
That women’s inclusion in the sphere of nature has been a major tool in their oppression emerges clearly from a glance at traditional sources: ‘Woman is a violent and uncontrolled animal’ (Cato 1989:193); ‘A woman is but an animal and an animal not of the highest order’ (Burke 1989:187); ‘I cannot conceive of you to be human creatures, but a sort of species hardly a degree above a monkey’ (Swift 1989:191); ‘Howe’er man rules in science and in art/The sphere of women’s glories is the heart’ (Moore 1989:166); ‘Women represent the interests of the family and sexual life; the work of civilisation has become more and more men’s business’ (Freud 1989:80); ‘Women are certainly capable of learning, but they are not made for the higher forms of science, such as philosophy and certain types of creative activity; these require a universal ingredient’ (Hegel 1989:62); ‘A necessary object, woman, who is needed to preserve the species or to provide food and drink’ (Aquinas 1989:183). Feminine ‘closeness to nature’ has hardly been a compliment.
There are, however, many traps for feminists in extracting themselves from this problematic. Both rationality and nature have a confusing array of meanings; in most of these meanings reason contrasts systematically with nature in one of its many senses. Nature, as the excluded and devalued contrast of reason, includes the emotions, the body, the passions, animality, the primitive or uncivilised, the non-human world, matter, physicality and sense experience, as well as the sphere of irrationality, of faith and of madness. In other words, nature includes everything that reason excludes. It is important to note this point because some ecofeminists have endorsed the association between women and nature without critically examining how the association is produced by exclusion. On the other hand, some equality feminists, equally uncritically, have endorsed women’s ascent from the sphere of nature into that of culture or reason without remarking the problematic, oppositional nature of a concept of reason defined by such exclusions. In this chapter, I will point to a route of escape from the problematic that the traditional association between women and nature creates for feminists, to a position which neither accepts women’s exclusion from reason nor accepts the construction of nature as inferior.1
The dominant and ancient traditions connecting men with culture and women with nature are also overlain by some more recent and conflicting ones in which unchangeable ‘male’ essence (‘virility’) is connected to a nature no longer viewed as reproductive and providing but as ‘wild’, violent, competitive and sexual (as in the ideas of Victorianism, Darwinism and recent sociobiology), and ‘the female’ is viewed in contrasting terms as insipid, domestic, asexual and civilising.2 As Lloyd (1984) has noted too, the attitude to both women and nature resulting from the traditional identification has not always been a simple one. Also, as Merchant (1981) notes, it has not always been purely negative. The connection has sometimes been used to provide a limited affirmation of both women and nature, as, for instance, in the romantic tradition (Ruether 1975:193).3 But both the dominant tradition of men as reason and women as nature, and the more recent conflicting one of men as forceful and wild and women as tamed and domestic, have had the effect of confirming masculine power.
It is not surprising that many feminists regard with some suspicion the view expressed by a growing number of women who describe themselves as ‘ecofeminists’: that there may be something to be said in favour of women’s connectedness with nature. The very idea of a feminine connection with nature seems to many to be regressive and insulting, summoning up images of women as earth mothers, as passive, reproductive animals, contented cows immersed in the body and in the unreflective experiencing of life. It is both tempting and common therefore for feminists to view the traditional connection between women and nature as no more than an instrument of oppression, a relic of patriarchy which should simply be allowed to wither away now that its roots in an oppressive tradition are exposed (Echols 1989:288).4
But there are reasons why this widespread, ‘common-sense’ approach to the issue is unsatisfactory, why the question of a womannature connection cannot just be set aside, but must remain a central issue for feminism. The connection still constitutes the dynamic behind much of the treatment of both women and nature in contemporary society. As I will show, it is perilous for feminism to ignore the issue because it has an important bearing on the model of humanity into which women will be fitted and within which they will claim equality. And as I argue in this chapter, how it is that women and nature have been thrown into an alliance remains to be analysed. This analysis forms the basis for a critical ecological feminism in which women consciously position themselves with nature.
The inferiorisation of human qualities and aspects of life associated with necessity, nature and women—of nature-as-body, of nature-as-passion or emotion, of nature as the pre-symbolic, of nature-as-primitive, of nature-as-animal and of nature as the feminine—continues to operate to the disadvantage of women, nature and the quality of human life. The connection between women and nature and their mutual inferiorisation is by no means a thing of the past, and continues to drive, for example, the denial of women’s activity and indeed of the whole sphere of reproduction.5 One of the most common forms of denial of women and nature is what I will term backgrounding, their treatment as providing the background to a dominant, foreground sphere of recognised achievement or causation. This backgrounding of women and nature is deeply embedded in the rationality of the economic system and in the structures of contemporary society (Ekins 1986; Waring 1988).6 What is involved in the backgrounding of nature is the denial of dependence on biospheric processes, and a view of humans as apart, outside of nature, which is treated as a limitless provider without needs of its own. Dominant western culture has systematically inferiorised, backgounded and denied dependency on the whole sphere of reproduction and subsistence.7 This denial of dependency is a major factor in the perpetuation of the non-sustainable modes of using nature which loom as such a threat to the future of western society.
The backgrounding and instrumentalisation of nature and that of women run closely parallel. For women, their backgrounded and instrumental status as nature does not usually need to be explicit, for it structures their major roles in both public and private spheres. Women are systematically backgrounded and instrumentalised as housewives, as nurses and secretaries (Pringle 1988),8 as colleagues and workmates. Their labour in traditional roles is also systematically omitted from account in the economic system (Waring 1988) and omitted from consideration when the story of what is important in human history and culture is told. Traditionally, women are ‘the environment’—they provide the environment and conditions against which male ‘achievement’ takes place, but what they do is not itself accounted as achievement (Irigaray 1985a; Le Doeuff 1977). Women are vulnerable to backgrounding even when they step outside their traditional roles, as the history of areas such as DNA research makes plain (Watson 1969), but are most strongly backgrounded in their traditional roles and especially in their roles as mothers.
Diverse strands of feminist theory converge on the invisibility of the mother. The immensely important physical, personal and social skills the mother teaches the child are merely the background to real learning, which is defined as part of the male sphere of reason and knowledge (Benjamin 1988; Jaggar 1983:314). The mother herself is background and is defined in relation to her child or its father (Irigaray 1982), just as nature is defined in relation to the human as ‘the environment’. And just as human identity in the west is defined in opposition to and through the denial of nature, so the mother’s product—paradigmatically the male child—defines his masculine identity in opposition to the mother’s being, and especially her nurturance, expelling it from his own makeup and substituting domination and the reduction of others to instrumental status (Chodorow 1979; Irigaray 1982; Kristeva 1987; Brennan 1993). He resists the recognition of dependence, but continues to conceptually order his world in terms of a male (and truly human) sphere of free activity taking place against a female (and natural) background of necessity.
The view that the connection of women with nature should simply be set aside as a relic of the past assumes that the task for both women and men is now that of becoming simply, unproblematically and fully human. But this takes as unproblematic what is not unproblematic, the concept of the human itself, which has in turn been constructed in the framework of exclusion, denial and denigration of the feminine sphere, the natural sphere and the sphere associated with subsistence. The question of what is human is itself now problematised, and one of the areas in which it is most problematic is in the relation of humans to nature, especially to the non-human world.
The framework of assumptions in which the human/nature contrast has been formed in the west is one not only of feminine connectedness with and passivity towards nature, but also and complementarily one of exclusion and domination of the sphere of nature by a white, largely male elite, which I shall call the master model. But the assumptions in the master model are not seen as such, because this model is taken for granted as simply a human model, while the feminine is seen as a deviation from it. Hence to simply repudiate the old tradition of feminine connection with nature, and to put nothing in its place, usually amounts to the implicit endorsing of an alternative master model of the human, and of human relations to nature, and to female absorption into this model. It does not yield, as it might seem to do at first, a gender-neutral position; unless the question of relation to nature is explicitly put up for consideration and renegotiation, it is already settled—and settled in an unsatisfactory way—by the dominant western model of humanity into which women will be fitted. This is a model of domination and transcendence of nature, in which freedom and virtue are construed in terms of control over, and distance from, the sphere of nature, necessity and the feminine. The critique of the domination of nature developed by environmental thinkers in the last twenty years has shown, I think, that there are excellent reasons to be critical of this model of human/nature relations. Unless there is some critical re-evaluation of this master model in the area of relations to nature, the old female/nature connection will be replaced by the dominant model of human distance from and transcendence and control of nature. Critical examination of the question then has to have an important place on the feminist agenda if this highly problematic model of the human and of human relations to nature is not to triumph by default. If the model of what it is to be human involves the exclusion of the feminine, then only a shallow feminism could rest content with affirming the ‘full humanity’ of women without challenging this model.
There is another reason then why the issue of nature cannot now be set aside as irrelevant to feminism. As Karen Warren (1987) has observed, many forms of feminism need to put their own house in order on this issue.9 Feminists have rightly insisted that women cannot be handed the main burden of ecological morality, especially in the form of holding the private sphere and the household responsible for the bulk of the needed changes (Ruether 1975:200–1; Instone 1991). The attempt to lodge responsibility mainly with women as household managers and consumers should be rejected because it continues to conceive the household as women’s burden, because it misconceives the power of the private household to halt environmental degradation, and because it appeals to women’s traditional self-abnegation, asking them to carry the world’s ills in recognition of motherly duty. Nevertheless, women cannot base their own freedom on endorsing the continued lowly status of the sphere of nature with which they have been identified and from which they have lately risen. Moves upwards in human groups are often accompanied by the vociferous insistence that those new recruits to the privileged class are utterly dissociated from the despised group from which they have emerged—hence the phenomenon of lower middle-class respectability, the officer risen from the ranks, and the recently assimilated colonised (Memmi 1965:16). Arguments for women’s freedom cannot convincingly be based on a similar putdown of the non-human world.
But much of the traditional argument has been so based. For Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, what is valuable in the human character ideal to which women must aspire and be admitted is defined in contrast to the inferior sphere of brute creation. In her argument that women do have the capacity to join men in ‘superiority to the brute creation’, the inferiority of the natural order is simply taken for granted.10
Several critiques have converged to necessitate reconsideration of the model of feminine connectedness with nature and masculine distance from and domination of it and to problematise the concept of the human. They are:
1 the critique of masculinity and the valuing of traits traditionally associated with it (Chodorow 1979; Easthope 1986).
2 the critique of rationality. Relevant here is not only the masculine and instrumental character of rationality (Adorno and Horkheimer 1979; Marcuse 1968), but also the overvaluation of reason and its use as a tool for the exclusion and oppression of the contrasting classes of the non-human (since rationality is often taken as the distinguishing mark of the human [Ruether 1975; Midgley 1980; Le Doeuff 1977]), of women (because of its association with maleness [Lloyd 1984]), and, as well, of those inferiorised through class and race (since greater rationality is also taken to distinguish the civilised from the primitive and the higher from the lower classes [Kant 1981:9]). The overvaluation of rationality and its oppositional conception are deeply entrenched in western culture and its intellectual traditions. This overvaluation does not always take the extreme form of some of the classical philosophers (for example, the Platonic view that the unexamined life was worthless), but appears in many more subtle modern forms, such as the limitation of moral consideration to rational moral agents.
3 the critique of the human domination of nature, human chauvinism, speciesism, or anthropocentrism (Naess 1973; Plumwood 1975); of the treatment of nature in purely instrumental terms (Adorno and Horkheimer 1979) and the low valuation placed on it in relation to the human and cultural spheres. Included in this is a critique of the model of the ideal human character and of human virtue, which points out that the western human ideal is one which maximises difference and distance from the animal, the primitive and the natural; the traits thought distinctively human, and valued as a result, are not only those associated with certain kinds of masculinity but also those unshared with animals (Rodman 1980; Midgley 1980). Usually these are taken to be mental characteristics. An associated move is the identification of the human with the higher, mental capabilities and of the animal or natural with the lower bodily ones, and the identification of the authentic or fully human sphere with the mental sphere. This mental sphere is not associated with maleness as such but rather with the elite masculinism of the masters (male and female) who leave to slaves and women the business of providing for the necessities of life, who regard this sphere of necessity as lower and who conceive virtue in terms of distance from it.
The critiques converge for several reasons. A major one is that the characteristics traditionally associated with dominant masculinism are also those used to define what is distinctively human: for example, rationality (and selected mental characteristics and skills); transcendence and intervention in and domination and control of nature, as opposed to passive immersion in it (consider the characterisation of ‘savages’ as lower orders of humanity on this account); productive labour, sociability and culture. Some traditional feminist arguments also provide striking examples of this convergence of concepts of the human and the masculine. Thus Mary Wollstonecraft in the Vindication of the Rights of Women appeals strongly to the notion of an ungendered human character as an ideal for both sexes (‘the first object of laudable ambition is to obtain a character as a human being’ [1982:5]), but in her account this human character is implicitly masculine. The human character ideal she espouses diverges sharply from the feminine character ideal, which she rejects, ‘despising that weak elegancy of mind, exquisite sensibility, and sweet docility of manners’. Instead she urges that women become ‘more masculine and respectable’. The complementary feminine character ideal is rejected—both sexes should participate in a common human character ideal (1982:23) which despite some minor modifications (men are to become more modest and chaste and in that respect to take on feminine characteristics) coincides in its specifications with certain masculine ideals. A single supposedly ‘unsexed’ character ideal is substituted for the old two-sexed one, where the old feminine ideal was perceived as subsidiary and sexed.
The key concepts of rationality (or mentality) and nature then create crucial links between the human and the masculine, so that to problematise masculinity and rationality is at the same time to problematise the human and, with it, the relation of the human to the contrasted non-human sphere. As we shall see, however, these concepts also form links to other areas of exclusion, for it is not just any kind of masculinity which is usually involved here, but a particular kind which is formed in the context of class and race as well as gender domination (which I have called the master model). The western rationalist ideals of the human embody norms not only of gender exclusion but of race, ...

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Citation styles for Feminism and the Mastery of Nature
APA 6 Citation
Plumwood, V. (2002). Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1621769/feminism-and-the-mastery-of-nature-pdf (Original work published 2002)
Chicago Citation
Plumwood, Val. (2002) 2002. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1621769/feminism-and-the-mastery-of-nature-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Plumwood, V. (2002) Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1621769/feminism-and-the-mastery-of-nature-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2002. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.