Ecofeminism makes such big promises!
I first encountered the word ecofeminism in 1987 when I was a master's student doing research for a term paper in a course in feminist sociology. Freshly arrived in the big city of Toronto, which I then perceived to be completely devoid of nature (I grew up in Victoria on Vancouver Island, where nature may not have been more plentiful but was certainly bigger), I was absolutely thrilled to discover a word that already existed to represent my deepest personal and political desire, the inclusion of an environmentalist perspective in feminist theory. I craved a language that would describe my growing sense that nature must be an important consideration in any feminist political vision; I remember devouring the first ecofeminist text I encountered – Green Paradise Lost, I think it was – at the expense of the readings on public policy on which I was supposed to be focusing.
But the exhilaration I felt as a new convert was over quite soon, and I have never felt so strongly that I belonged in ecofeminism, despite my increasing commitment to feminist ecological politics and theory.
Although I’ve been attracted to thinking at the intersections of feminism and environmentalism for years, I hesitate to call myself an ecofeminist. Indeed, I prefer to think of my work as ecological feminism, in an effort to keep the emphasis on feminism, and also to distance my approach somewhat from other work done by self-titled ecofeminists. Though I share motivations with the authors of such work, I am sufficiently critical to be uncomfortable with the label. Accordingly, in these pages, ‘ecofeminism’ is an umbrella term referring to forthright attempts to link some versions of feminism and environmentalism, and ‘ecological feminism’ refers to a specific subset of ecofeminist approaches I wish to articulate and endorse here.
Dealing with my own objections to the essentialism of some ecofeminist arguments, and the effects on my work of a widespread assumption among my academic feminist peers that such essentialisms permanently and thoroughly tarnish ecofeminism as a political position, I have struggled with the question of whether I would want to identify myself and my work as ecofeminist.
Confessions of reluctant eco/feminists: essential/ist concerns
once described with excitement as offering such promise (see also Warren 1990
), had by the mid- to late 1990s become for many in academia a somewhat ‘reluctant confession’ (Cuomo 1998: 5), or even an identification that some wished to disown entirely. This shift from exhilaration to disavowal speaks of an intense and fraught period in eco/feminist history. Only a few years separate Lahar's excited, but also cautionary comment – ‘Ecofeminism makes such big promises!’ – from the struggles of Sandilands, Cuomo and Sturgeon with the term ‘ecofeminism’. For them, as for many others, reservations about the spectre of essentialism came to circumscribe possible identifications with eco/feminism. Or, more precisely, their concern was that they might be perceived as essentialist by other feminists. To be clear, Sandilands, Cuomo and Sturgeon did not straightforwardly accept eco/feminism as essentialist. Indeed, they all robustly provided accounts of eco/feminism as that which cannot be reduced to essentialism. And, whatever label they might choose, all resolutely continue to work at the interfaces of ‘women’ and ‘nature’, feminism and environmentalism. Nonetheless, the weight of essentialism marks the work of these and many other eco/feminists.
My ‘confession’, or as I would prefer, affirmation
(following Bell 1999
), is that I am, still
, a passionate eco/feminist. It is true that I write some years after Sandilands, Cuomo and Sturgeon, and the present moment is a different time in which to make an affirmation of eco/feminism – albeit that accusations of essentialism might still be forthcoming – and (my) writing remains marked by the intractable nature of the debate. In 1997 Sturgeon (1997) reported encountering audiences that anticipated (or even demanded) either essentialism or anti-essentialism, and she reflected on her attempts to confound both expectations. I have sometimes experienced something slightly different – a sense of puzzlement about why I still feel mired in a debate that others possibly perceive as anachronistic. This perception suggests a failure to appreciate the damage caused by the critique of essentialism. The disavowal of eco/feminism, by feminists and by eco/feminists themselves, might be understood as one consequence of this critique. Eco/feminism thus offers a particularly useful site for an examination of the devastating impact of the accusation of essentialism, as well as of an insistent anti-essentialism, on feminist theorizing and activism. By the late 1990s talking about eco/feminism (in an academic context at least) had become difficult, unless one also addressed, and clearly rejected, the inevitable question/accusation of essentialism.
In the context of the hyper-politicized ‘nature’ of essentialism, eco/feminists have been frustrated that their research and politics have been dismissed as essentialist and that others have doubted their feminist credentials. For instance, in Ecofeminist Natures, Noël Sturgeon (1997: 167) wrote, ‘Some ecofeminists have argued that there is an “establishment feminist backlash” against ecofeminism, resulting in a lack of ecofeminist writing in prominent feminist journals such as Signs, as well as the invisibility of ecofeminist theory in important academic feminist conferences and anthologies’. Offering examples from her own career, Sturgeon (ibid.: 6, 167–68) recalled that a feminist mentor advised her to delete ‘ecofeminism’ from the title of one of her papers, and that another suggested that her job applications should not mention her editorship of the Ecofeminist Newsletter. Such anecdotal accounts of feminist distancing of eco/feminism, together with eco/feminists’ sense of rejection and unjustified exclusion from the feminist sisterhood, are evidence of just how much has been at stake for eco/feminists.
In this chapter, I trace the damaging effects of critiques of essentialism on eco/feminism, taking the palpable disappointment of the 1990s onward as a departure point for an exploration of histories of, and possible futures for, eco/feminism. In doing this, I draw on and develop Noël Sturgeon's genealogical approach, which has offered one of the clearest accounts of the consequences of critiques of essentialism for eco/feminism. Necessarily, in the process I construct my own – interested – genealogy of eco/feminism. Extending Sturgeon's work, I pay attention to the ways in which eco/feminists described eco/feminism before the critique of essentialism became prevalent, pointing to accounts of eco/feminist diversity and the centrality of stories of global grassroots activism. I focus on how eco/feminists have responded to feminist critiques of essentialism, through juxtaposing the figures of Françoise d’Eaubonne and Vandana Shiva, in her role popularizing the Chipko Movement. The attribution of the naming of ‘ecofeminism’ to d’Eaubonne has appeared as problematic when compared with the prominence once accorded to the Chipko movement. In conclusion, I turn to the emergence of ‘new materialism’ as an intriguing site through which to reflect on eco/feminism today.
Disowning eco/feminism_ the critique of essentialism and the practice of typologizing
Sturgeon termed her account of eco/feminism ‘not so much a history as a genealogy’ (1997: 4). Her take-up of the possibilities afforded by genealogy offered a more complex account of what has been at stake in different manifestations of eco/feminism than others thus far, and in doing so she made an invaluable contribution to understandings of eco/feminism_
[m]y version of the history of the origins and development of ecofeminism is thus not so much a coherent narrative of the even, dependable growth of an independent political position as it is several snapshots of scattered, uneven, and in many ways disconnected beginnings, retreats, dormancies, and proliferations imbedded within several different political locations. This is a genealogy rather than a history, and as a result, I am not following one unitary subject (ecofeminism) through different historical moments. Instead I am articulating relationships, legacies, simultaneous births of related entities, discontinuities, renamings, mutations, throwbacks.
(Sturgeon 1997: 3–4)
Sturgeon traced the emergence of eco/feminism through its appearance across a range of sites; academic, activist, organizations, and writings of all kinds. Sturgeon's careful attention to ways of describing and defining eco/feminism is instructive. Her final chapter of Ecofeminist Natures offers a powerful account of the limits of the practice of creating typologies of eco/feminism, whether relying on existing categories such as radical, cultural or socialist ecofeminisms, or creating new terms such as ‘feminist ecological politics’, ‘ecological feminism’ and ‘environmental feminism’. She clearly identified typologizing as an exercise in naming and exclusion, as enabling the disavowal of certain aspects of eco/feminism by carving it up, disowning ‘essentialist’ varieties and renaming ‘good’ (non-essentialist) ones. In this process, she demonstrated that the search for a new descriptor for eco/feminism was bound up with a desire to create a term which was purified of any taint of essentialism.
Sturgeon identified two common effects of typologizing in eco/feminism. First, she pointed out that feminisms of colour are frequently ignored. Second, citing Chela Sandoval (1991
), she noted that superior and inferior types of feminism are implicitly constructed, making coalitions between activist and academic feminisms difficult. Sturgeon argued that:
the critique of essentialisms of various kinds has been a prominent tool in creating various types of typologies of feminisms, usually to support an ‘agonistic narrative structure’ (de Lauretis) in which certain feminist theories (usually socialist feminism or poststructuralist feminism) come out to be the winners in the contest for the most politically useful feminist theory. That these winners in the anti-essentialist competition have also been the feminist theories most embedded in the academic contexts is suggestive.
(Sturgeon 1997: 16)
Sturgeon's analysis offers ways of understanding much about eco/feminism's current state. I want to push her genealogical approach further, to see what might be learned from applying it to other ways of describing eco/feminism.
Typologizing has not been the only approach to defining eco/feminism. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the emerging and overlapping academic and activist literatures commonly described eco/feminism by stressing its diversity. For instance, Elizabeth Carlassare wrote:
Ecofeminism does not lend itself to easy generalization. It consists of a diversity of positions, and this is reflected in the diversity of voices and modes of expression represented in ecofeminist anthologies. The ecofeminist anthologies, Reclaim the Earth, and Reweaving the World, and the issues of Heresies and Hypatia on feminism and ecology include the work of different women from different countries and social situations, and their work does not adhere to a single form or outlook. Poems, art, photographs, fiction, prose, as well as theoretical/philosophical/‘academic’ works are included. Ecofeminism's diversity is also reflected by its circulation in a variety of arenas, such as academia, grass-roots movements, conferences, books, journals, and art.
This range – of positions, of voices, of forms, of locations – was generally viewed positively, as suggesting that eco/feminism was not dogmatic and could embrace difference, an important value in feminism during the early 1990s. With such an emphasis on diversity, anthologies and special issues of journals, which allowed for a variety of voices and forms, were the preferred publication formats at the time. Even so, their editors sometimes felt the need to point out their limitations, as in Judith Plant's introduction to the collection Healing the Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism (1989b: 4): ‘This anthology in no way fully represents the wide spectrum of thought that is ecofeminism.’
However, some commentators suggested that this emphasis on diversity might create confusion. Stephanie Lahar (1991: 28) observed that ‘the newness of the movement, the breadth of issues it encompasses, and the diversity of people thinking and writing about eco/feminism have resulted in considerable confusion about what eco/feminism actually is, who eco/feminists are, and what they have to say’. Thus, though diversity was prized, making sense of eco/feminism's sheer variety constituted something of a challenge, and one feature came to be foregrounded – the emphasis on diverse locations all over the world.
The importance of the global dimensions of eco/feminism are particularly clear in the anthologies Healing the Wounds
), Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism
(Diamond and Orenstein 1990b
), and Reclaim the Earth: Women Speak Out for Life on Earth
(Caldecott and Leland 1983
). All three stressed the importance of global activism. As Caldecott and Leland (1983: 5) explained, ‘In many countries all over the world, women are taking an increasingly prominent role in political struggles: in the peace, anti-nuclear, health and ecology movements.’ Diamond and Orenstein stated,
This volume, with its chorus of voices reflecting the variety of concerns flowing into ecofeminism, challenges the boundaries dividing suc...