Writing by Claire Shankie. Illustration by Paola Valentina.
Human beings are a part of the whole we call the Universe, a small region in time and space. They regard themselves, their ideas and their feelings as separate and apart from all the rest. It is something like an optical illusion in their consciousness. This illusion is a sort of prison; it restricts us to our personal aspirations and limits our affective life to a few people very close to us. Our task should be to free ourselves from this prison, opening up our circle of compassion in order to embrace all living creatures and all of nature in its beauty.
Nature is everything we are. It is the thing that connects all living beings at our core. It is what we are composed of and what we inhabit. Women are often seen as being intimately linked to nature and many have argued that the two are conflated; women are nature and nature is women. However, this association has been criticised throughout the history of the feminist movement as being unprogressive and futile in fighting for women’s rights. Yet, as this article will go on to argue, I think we must reclaim this association and rather than letting it restrict us, we should embrace it and intentionally reinstate it as a part of our identity.
In the long history of gender politics, a recurring theme seems to be this association of women and nature which, as widely argued by feminist scholars, is at the root of gender discrimination. Women have been seen to share similar characteristics with nature, such as being passive or unpredictable. This association is clear and obvious in mythologies of the Ancient Near Eastern, Hebrew, Greek, and early Christian cultures where women and nature are symbolised as ‘spheres to be conquered, ruled over, and finally, repudiated altogether’ (Ruether).
It has been argued that women have been pushed into this identity by society because of our bodies and biology. It is thought to be fundamental to our identity, who we are, how we define ourselves and how we have been defined in the past. This idea was pioneered by De Beauvoir in her book “The Second Sex”. Below, she quotes Aristotle;
…he grasps his body as a direct and normal link with the world that he believes he apprehends
in all objectivity, whereas he considers woman’s body an obstacle, a prison, burdened by
everything that particularises it. The female is female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities”
Aristotle said. “We should regard women’s nature as suffering from natural defectiveness” ...
He is alluding to the idea that women, because of their biology, must be inferior by some law of nature. This idea is echoed by Ruether, who attributes the connection of women and nature to their reproductive role as child bearer which meant that they were the primary productive and maintenance workers. This meant that men dominated culture whilst women maintained the ‘material basis of daily life’ which was deemed inferior to the male role (Ruether). Consequently, the material world became symbolically linked with women; ‘the earth, as the place from which plant and animal life arises, became linked with the bodies of women, from which babies emerge’.
However, this biological dimension to the connection between women and nature is not as pertinent in today’s society. This is because it is now broadly understood and recognised that biology does not define who a woman is. Moreover, it creates a binary lens to view gender through, which excludes other genders. It is the experience and way that women move through the world that composes the female identity, and it is this that is close to nature. The link between women and nature is no longer about women’s bodies and biology as ‘prisons’. Rather, it encompasses what it means to be a woman in the social world. Women are diverse, unpredictable, powerful and so many things at once just as nature is. This is intrinsic to the formation of the female identity.
Yet, some feminists contest that this connection is unhelpful and regressive. As Sarah Milner-Barry states: ‘Unfortunately, the idea that women and nature are inherently linked is a tacit acceptance of their mutual exploitation.’ Such feminists believe that by distinguishing women as the ‘other’ and thus naturalising this association between women and nature, we are essentialising the differences in positions and experiences of women. Sherry Ortner in ‘Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture’ makes the point that women are easier to subordinate when they are considered as connected to nature.
However, I think that dismissing this connection as a mere tool for essentialism is hindering progress. As Baker-Fletcher points out, ‘when we are reluctant to listen and are silent on these issues, we reinforce our own oppression. We reinforce the assumption that we are indispensable, nothing, because it appears that we do not care’. We need to start recognising that this connection is useful in explaining gender inequality in that it represents and emphasises the domination of women by men and the ‘male monopolisation of resources and controlling power’ (Ruether).
It is also important to point out that this association is not just beneficial for the feminist movement, but it could also profit environmentalism as well. In seeing women as nature, this could force us to look at how we understand nature and the role that it plays in our lives in a spiritual way. If we were to grow to see nature as being much closer to us, it would become an essential part of our lives and of our understanding of the world. It would become habit to care about nature in everything that we do. It is easy to suggest that feeling nature in a spiritual sense is harder or more unrealistic for ‘Western’ societies because of a general lack in symbols and literature surrounding it. However, I think this has been a barrier to instigating real change surrounding climate change. That is, we have deliberately pushed nature out of our realm of consciousness and cultural consumption so that it is more straightforward for us to exploit it on a profoundly monumental scale.
As Baker-Fletcher said, ‘the earth is our common ground. We are each made from the earth and depend on it. This common ground is not something we need to find. This common ground is something we must learn to see we are on it and it is in us. We are it…’. Buddhist understandings of nature state that ‘when we abuse nature, we abuse ourselves’. The role that the connection between women and nature can play in recognising this common ground and instigating real change is monumental. The vehicle for achieving this is a movement called ecofeminism. Ecofeminism is a kind of merging of the two points that I have mentioned and is referred to as ‘the union of the radical ecology movement’ by Ruether. It celebrates the connection between women and nature as the catalyst for change. In fact, Gebara goes as far to say that ecofeminism ‘opens us not only to the possibility of real equality between men and women of different cultures, but to a different relationship between ourselves, the earth, and the entire cosmos’. She also elaborates on the role that women play in the ecofeminist movement, which is that there are things that ‘women are vehemently affirming with regard to their own dignity and that of all humanity’.
This begs the question: how can ecofeminism instigate real change in the future? The answer lies in conceptualising nature as an (hopefully) infinite mirror to human society. As Raymond Williams noted, ‘the idea of nature contains, though often unnoticed, an extraordinary amount of human history’. Nature has mirrored two key issues that we have faced and continue to face as a collective human race: gender discrimination and climate change. Currently, nature is reflecting what Ruether called our ‘dualistic concept of reality as split between soulless matter and transcendent male consciousness’. That is, everything that exists in our reality is meaningless until it is given meaning by men. This means that we ‘have chosen not to listen or give conscious effort to these problems, suspecting that ecology is “the white man’s issue”’ (Baker-Fletcher). What we need to aim for is a mirror that reflects ‘our actual reality as latecomers to the planet’ (Ruether) for if we don’t, this mirror will erode. We must then focus on treating nature as wiser and more valuable than human consciousness or consumption. We must ‘rediscover and reflect on the truly universal aspects of life, on dimensions that reflect what the earth and the cosmos are telling us about themselves’ (Gebara). Yet, this mirror will erode if we 1) dismiss the connection between women and nature as damaging or insignificant and 2) ignore the climate crisis that has had a head start in aiding this erosion. The mirror that is nature is the key to unlocking substantive change in the near future.
I therefore implore us all to look for the true power in women, nature and the essential connection between the two. This is where the power lies. We must use this power as the fundamental force for change that our world needs and to prevent the mirror that is nature from eroding. In order to do this, we must remember that nature is everything that we are.
The only way that we can ‘free ourselves from this prison’ as Einstein instructed us to do so at the start of this essay, is to realise and embrace this power which has the potential to radically change the world as we know it.