“The Three Graces” by Elsie Russell

“He says that woman speaks with nature. That she hears voices from under the earth. That wind blows in her ears and trees whisper to her. That the dead sing through her mouth and the cries of infants are clear to her. But for him this dialogue is over. He says he is not part of this world, that he was set on this world as a stranger. He sets himself apart from woman and nature.”

— Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her


The term “Ecofeminism” is believed to have been coined by the French writer Françoise d’Eaubonne in her 1974 book, Le Féminisme ou la Mort. Ecofeminism emerged in the 1970s and 1980s as the feminist and environmental movements intersected. The nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island prompted large numbers of women to come together in 1980 for the first ecofeminist conference at Amherst College, titled “Women and Life on Earth: Eco-feminism in the Eighties”. Ynestra King, one of the organizers of the event, declared in the opening address:

We here are part of a growing movement of women for life on earth, we come from the feminist movement, the anti-nuclear movement, the disarmament movement, the holistic health movement. We have come because life on earth and the earth itself is in terrible danger. … We’re here to say the word ecology and to announce that for us as feminists it’s a political word–that it stands against the economics of the destroyers and the pathology of racist hatred. It’s a way of being which understands there are connections between all living things and indeed we women are the fact and flesh of connectedness. … feminism and ecology are where politics come face to face with biology, and where the spiritual and the political come together. … the crisis of this civilisation which has led us to the brink of nuclear annihilation, is spiritual as much as it is economic. … Both (the feminist and the ecology movement) are deeply cultural and even spiritual movements, whose principles explode the categories of the political to include the biological on the one hand and the spiritual on the other.

Ecofeminism has been described as a third wave of feminism, a branch of deep ecology, an environmental critique of feminism, and a feminist critique of environmentalism. Ecofeminists argue that the oppression of women and the abuse of the environment are related phenomena, both arising from patriarchal power structures of hierarchy and domination. Ecofeminists also explore the intersection of sexism and environmental desecration with racism and class exploitation. Ecofeminists argue that certain races and social classes have also been oppressed through their association with nature. Early leaders in the ecofeminist movement included Rosemary Radford Ruether — New Woman/New Earth (1975), Mary Daly — Gyn/Ecology (1978), and Susan Griffin — Woman and Nature (1978), Carolyn Merchant — The Death of Nature (1980), as well as Sallie McFague, Monica Sjoo, Starhawk, Charlene Spretnak and others. These writers argued that male dominance of women and nature are variations on a theme and must therefore be addressed together. Ecofeminists call for a change, not only of social and political structures, but of consciousness.

Dismantling Dualisms

Patriarchy perpetuates itself by reinforcing a paradigm built of interrelated hierarchical dualisms:


Each of these dualisms is hierarchical; the first element is valued, privileged, and sacralized, while the second is disvalued, unprivileged,  and desecrated. These dualisms are also interrelated: male is equated with heaven, mind, human etc., while female is equated with earth, body, animal, etc. These dualisms are used to reinforce social and psychological structures which perpetuate the dominion of men over women and of humankind over nature. They also divide us against ourselves.

Ecofeminists attack these dualisms by turning them on their head, reclaiming and valorizing the disfavored element in each dualism, or by dismantling the dualisms altogether, replacing them with new metaphors of relationship, connectedness, interdependence, mutuality, and wholeness. Ecofeminists seek to replace the worldview constructed of these hierarchical dualisms with one which values radical diversity, modeled on both the biodiversity of the environment and the feminist value of the strength of difference.

Woman and Nature

Sherry Ortner has argued that the identification of women with nature and men with culture dates to the earliest historical times. This likely arose, at least in part, from the analogy of women as child bearers and nurses to the earth as the place from which the plant life arises which sustains human life. This correspondence allowed men to believe that they were exempt from the category of nature, and they could escape from the cycle of birth and death through mastery of nature and everything associated with nature, including women. With the development of agriculture and animal husbandry, women came to be defined as property that could be owned in the same way that land and animals could be owned.

The denigration of both women and matter was later compounded by Hellenism and later by Christianity, especially after its absorption of Neoplatonic philosophy, which radically dissociated the realm of ideas from the world of the senses. The masculine ego, which had become disassociated from the realm of matter, was now projected onto a single God, who was depicted as a titanic patriarch standing apart from a corrupt and changing material creation which was controlled from without. This projection reinforced the dominion of man over woman and nature, because, as Mary Daly wrote, “when God is male, then the male is God.”

While the Enlightenment did initiate social changes that would bring greater equality and freedom to women, in other ways it perpetuated and deepened the masculine/feminine dualism discussed above. Grounded in the Cartesian separation of the knowing subject and the known object, the Scientific Revolution extended the patriarchal ego’s domination of the material world, seeming to legitimate dualistic thinking. Susan Bordo describes the Scientific Revolution as a “flight from the feminine”, specifically a flight from the organic “female” universe of the Middle Ages, a universe which humans were integrally a part of. In the words of Owen Barfield, a person in the Middle Ages experienced themselves “less like an island, rather more like an embryo”. But the Scientific Revolution changed all this. Descartes idealized detachment and sought to turn men into mental islands — “islands” which had to be defended against anything that reminded men of their finitude and their connection to living nature. As Morris Berman describes, the new man of science sought to “solve it all, destroy any vestige of wild, disorganized [feminine] Other entirely, so that the [masculine] Self now reigns supreme in a pure, dead, and totally predictable world.” Michael Zimmerman explains how the dissociated ego cut itself off from nature

“The patriarchal ego divinizes reason, because it seems eternal in comparison with the mortal flesh. In recoiling from death, the ego must also shrink back from life. Egoic disassociation represses the entire human organism. Ecstasy is rejected in favor of control; sensuality becomes reduced to genital sexuality. Women, the body, emotions, and nature are all constant reminders of what has been disassociated.  They represent the unruly, unpredictable, boundary-less Other, which always threatens to invade the patriarchal ego’s well-defenses psychic space.”

In her 1980 book, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution, Carolyn Merchant examines the root metaphors used to describe both women and nature and how they mutually reinforce each other. According to Merchant, from ancient times until the 16th century, nature was described in “feminine” terms, either as a nurturing mother (Madonna) or as a wild and chaotic woman (whore). But with the Scientific Revolution, organic metaphors for nature were replaced by mechanical metaphors. While the feminization of nature was itself problematic, at least “the image of the earth as a living organism and nurturing mother had served as a cultural constrain restricting the actions of human beings.” “By reconceptualizing reality as a machine rather than as a living organism”, Merchant argues that science “sanctioned the domination of both nature and women.”

Exemplary of this paradigm shift was Francis Bacon, the father of modern science. Merchant writes, “Much of the imagery Bacon used in delineating his new scientific objectives derives from the courtroom, and, because it treats nature as a female to be tortured through mechanical interventions, strongly suggests the interrogations of the witch trials and the mechanical devices used to torture witches.”  Consider this excerpt from Bacon’s De Augmentis Scientiarum:

“…. however the use and practice of such arts [witchcraft] is to be condemned, yet from the speculation [read, speculum?] and consideration of them (if they be diligently unravelled) a useful light may be gained, not only for the true judgment of the offenses of persons charged with such practices, but likewise for the further disclosing of the secrets of nature. Neither ought a man to make scruple of entering and penetrating into these holes and corners, when the inquisition of truth is his sole object.”

This language persists today when we speak of “hard” scientific facts and the “penetration” of nature by the (masculine) scientific mind. Words have power, and this language has reflexively reinforced the subjugation of women. Just as nature went from being, in Merchants words, “an active teacher and parent” to “a mindless submissive body”, so women went from being subjects to objects, from persons that act to things which are acted upon, i.e., controlled by men.

Ecofeminists have been accused of gender essentialism, to the extent that they perpetuate the equation of women with nature. However, it is one thing to say that women lives are inherently closer to nature by virtue of their biology (i.e., menstruation, birth, lactation), and another to say that, while all people — including men — are a part of nature, men have been socialized to set themselves apart from and above both nature and women. Thus, it is not women’s biology which gives them greater insight into our interconnectedness, but the social construction of that biology.

Ecofeminism invites us to question what we have gained and what we have lost with the “masculinization of thought” which began in the Enlightenment. “For what shall it profit a man,” we might ask, “if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Ecofeminism calls us to reunite “masculine” and “feminine” ways of knowing and thereby heal ourselves, our society, and the world.

Related Pages:

Feminist Spirituality Movement

Deep Ecology
Gaia, Our Mother Earth
Neo-Animism and Bioregionalism

External Links:

“Ecofeminism: Historic and International Evolution” by Laura Hobgood-Oster
“The Death of Nature” by Carolyn Merchant
“Is Male to Female as Nature Is to Culture?” by Sherry Ortner
“The Cartesian Masculinization of Thought” by Susan Bordo

Updated: 10/1/14

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