Neutralizing Gender

(Also published in a longer version as "Disengendering Ecofeminism,"
The Trumpeter 12, no. 4 (1995): 178-180)

The dominant paradigm owes its tenacity in part to its ability to absorb and neutralize threatening ideas. Similarly, ecophilosophy has moved beyond the avoidance or disparagement of ecofeminist critiques toward osmosis. In the process, however, feminist insights have tended to be recast in a degendered framework. This transformation raises an important question: could a neutered ecofeminism retain its transformative potential?

Ecofeminism regards social oppression and environmental exploitation as inextricably linked to social constructs that coevolved with patriarchal values and power relations. Ecofeminists observed that the dualisms of Western thought that have been implicated in the environmental crisis (such as culture/nature, reason/emotion, subject/object, science/art, public/private, hard/soft, mind/body) are also hierarchical and gendered. That is, the latter in each pair is associated with the feminine and devalued in Western patriarchal thought. Ecofeminism explores how this androcentric, dualistic construct has shaped our values, theories, institutions, our sense of self, motivations, and our re-lationship to nature and community.

"Culture" (order) was the male domain, while "nature" (chaos) was conceived as female and included women as a caste, slaves, indigenous peoples, nonwhite races, and animals. The association of these latter groups with nature justified their exploitation. As "lower orders," they were deemed to exist for (elite, white) man's ends and means; their dominance and control seemed preordained. The demeaning of the natural, biological, and feminine was also internalized in the individual psyche. There remains a tendency to deny dependency upon, distance oneself from, and control what patriarchy has deemed "female" (natural) aspects of one's internal and external nature. Although ecofeminism is falsely labeled "essentialist" (the idea that women have an essential nature), it is actually a deconstruction of patriarchal essentialism.

To many ecofeminists, the concept of gender (the social construction of sex) is part of the conceptual glue connecting the hierarchical dualisms above, while patriarchy refers to their systemic expression in social/institutional structures. Such concepts seem confrontational because they evoke taboos that protect power relations. It is perhaps for this reason that Val Plumwood, in Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (London: Routledge, 1993), substitutes the term mastery for patriarchal consciousness, and the master-slave dualism for dominance relationships, as overarching concepts. Such terms make ecofeminism more palatable and academically kosher. However, they may also weaken its force. For example, although the term mastery purportedly subsumes gender, it becomes, instead, just another means to categorize and marginalize people, analogous to race, sex, and class.

More importantly, a degendered ecofeminist construct may reinvent the mind/body dualism which most ecofeminist writings avoid. In androcentric theories, the self is connected to nature on the cerebral and experiential plane only. This self is depicted without sex drives or personal insecurities, moved only by intellectual and sensate knowledge. Is not this sentient version of the traditional "rational information processor" a denial of the nature within? Humans have many biological and instinctual behavior patterns (e.g., those related to reproduction) that they share with a mix of other animals- although how it all works is beyond us. A paradigm which excludes the "curly bits" posits a separation of mind and its antennae from subconscious needs and motives (e.g., status and power seeking).

Theories are not made more inclusive or pluralistic by excluding that which is seen as belonging to the feminine sphere-the bodily, nonrational, biological, mundane, chaotic, emotional, and subjective. Nor is it necessary to marginalize gender in order to prioritize issues of race and class. Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, in Ecofeminism (London: Zed Books, 1993), made colonization and racism central without losing sight of the crucial role of gender in maintaining these power relationships. Highlighting the gendered nature of hierarchical dualisms does not exonerate women of racism, classism, or hostility toward nature. Yet, even as oppressors, they are viewed as an inferior subset of their male counterparts. This gendered hierarchical dualism is not a one-dimensional, binary concept: like DNA, it has a vast array of combinations.

Where sex and gender are not pivotal elements in a deconstruction of Western thought, we may overlook their role in motivating the abuse of power which underlies the exploitation of nature. Thus, in Plumwood's delineation of the master-slave relationship, the power drive (on the part of the master) appears not to arise until the introduction of rational logic in ancient Greece. Further, power and dominance are not really defined; they just somehow pervade human relationships. These deficiencies, in an otherwise fine work, suggest that power cannot be adequately deconstructed without looking at both mind and body.

A new cerebral construct is necessary but not sufficient to motivate people to abandon relations of personal power, and the value systems that legitimize them (whether they are called patriarchy or mastery). To develop transformative theories and strategies, we need to recognize that the human is a complex blending of emotional/social needs and motives-as well as reasoning processes and sensory experiences. Doing so requires a paradigm in which gender is not marginalized.

Janis Birkeland

Centre for Environmental Philosophy, Planning and Design, P.O. Box 1, University of Canberra, Belconnen, ACT 2616, Australia

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CEP - EE - Comment - April 30, 1997