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ecofeminism: a fresh perspective on environmental discourse

Image: Laura Di Iorio

Image: Laura Di Iorio

Since the rise of first-wave feminism in the late 19th century, the role of women in public and political discourse has steadily increased. Slowly but steadily, outdated gender stereotypes were, and still are being challenged, and the traditional images of women as wives and mothers have given way to a more fluid interpretation of femininity that no longer tries to constrain women within the outmoded male-female binary. Whilst many believe that feminism no longer has a place in public discourse and that its goal of equality, among other things, has been achieved, a new branch of feminism, ecofeminism, has emerged to bring a new perspective to our ongoing dialogue regarding the environment, and the world in which we live.

In recent years some of the biggest challenges to face the global population have been environmental. The rise of anthropomorphic climate change is an accepted fact within the scientific community, and finding ways to live with a greater understanding of our environmental impact has become a huge part of modern political and social policy. It is not surprising that many of the loudest voices to speak on behalf of the environment are male. Scientists and activists like Australian of the Year Tim Flannery, and former vice-president of the United States Al Gore are recognisable names in this field. The goal of ecofeminism is to give females a louder voice within this male-dominated arena.

To gain a greater understanding of ecofeminism we must first go back to its roots. The term “ecofeminism” was first coined in the 1970s by French writer Françoise d’Eaubonne and was conceived as a kind of merging of feminism and environmentalism; of finding a way to analyse the relationship between women and the environment. Ecofeminists believed that the same patriarchal structures that sought to control and oppress women were the same structures that sought control of the environment, and so in some sense there was a shared experience between the two, and women were therefore better placed to argue on behalf of the environment.

Ecofeminism as a theory isn’t without its flaws. There are arguments that it tends towards essentialism, and that it perpetuates gender stereotypes. For centuries, women have been connected with nature, which has typically been seen as representing disorder and chaos as opposed to men, who have traditionally been seen as more reasonable and rational. Biological factors like childbirth and menstruation, which often seem to define women, are ways in which some ecofeminists promote women’s connection to nature. This is not always helpful, but in recent years there has been a shift away from this type of essentialist thinking, and there has been a greater focus on encouraging women to engage in environmental policy debates.

Groups like the Women’s Environment Network in Australia seek to provide a gender perspective on the current environmental debates and have begun to lobby for more environmentally friendly consumer choices, such as making cloth nappies cheaper and more accessible to cut down the use of disposable brands, and encouraging cosmetic companies to develop cleaner and less toxic products.

Feminism was essential in breaking down the accepted binary opposition between male and female, with many feminists, such as Judith Butler, arguing that much of what we perceived as “masculine” and “feminine” and “male” and “female” was nothing more than a societal construct. Ecofeminists have carried on this work and have begun to break down the barriers between human/nature and human/animal, thus trying to find a common ground where these concepts can be looked at together without the need for difference. This change in attitude towards the non-human others we share our world with, be it plants or animals, can bring about greater awareness of our need to protect the natural world for the future, and this, among other things, is the fresh perspective ecofeminism can bring to the table.

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