Purple Magazine
— The Revolutions Issue #40 F/W 2023

is there an angel in the ecosystem?



artworks by AUREL SCHMIDT


Australian-born Val Plumwood (1939-2008) was an influential ecofeminist philosopher, activist, teacher, and the author of highly acclaimed books such as Feminism and the Mastery of Nature and Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason


The story of a land where women live at peace with themselves and with the natural world is a recurrent theme of feminist utopias. This is a land where there is no hierarchy, among humans or between humans and animals, where people care for one another and for nature, where the earth and the forest retain their mystery, power, and wholeness, where the power of technology and of military and economic force does not rule the Earth, or at least that part of it controlled by women. For usually this state is seen as a beleaguered one, surviving against the hostile intent of men, who control a world of power and inequality, of military and technological might and screaming poverty, where power is the game and power means domination of both nature and people. Feminist vision often draws the contrasts starkly — it is life versus death, Gaia versus Mars, mysterious forest versus technological desert, women versus men.

It is hard to deny the power of that vision, or its ability to harness the hope and the sorrow the present world holds for those who can bear to confront its current course. We do live in a world increasingly and distressingly like the feminist dystopias, where technological mastery extinguishes both nature and less technologically “rational” cultures, where we face the imminent prospect of loss of the world’s forests along with the bulk of its species diversity and human cultural diversity, where already many cultures have had the whole basis of ancient survival patterns destroyed by a species of development and “progress” which produces inequality as inexorably as it produces pollution and waste, and where the dominance of “rational” man threatens ultimately to produce the most irrational of results, the extinction of our species along with many others. Ecological feminism tells us that it is no accident that this world is dominated by men.

If we are women, we have as a group an interest in escaping our ancient domination. We women also have an interest, which we share with all other living creatures, and among them with men, in a sound and healthy planet, in sound, healthy, and balanced ecosystems and in a sustainable and satisfying way of living on the Earth. But according to ecological feminism, there is more to it than that, and more to the connection of the movements than this accidental one, of women who happen to be green. Gender is at least a major part of the problem, and there is a way of relating to the other that is especially associated with women, which contains the seeds of a different human relationship to the Earth and perhaps, too, of human survival on it and with it.

But as it is often stated, the ecofeminist vision, so sane
and so attractive, seems to raise many problems and questions. Is ecofeminism giving us a version of the story that the goodness of women will save us? Is it only women (and perhaps only certain properly womanly women) who can know the mysterious forest, or is that knowledge, and that love, in principle, accessible to us all? Do we have to renounce the achievements of culture and technology to come to inhabit the enchanted forest? Can we affirm women’s special qualities without endorsing their traditional role and confinement to a “woman’s sphere”? Can a reign of women possibly be the answer to the Earth’s destruction and to all the other related problems? Is ecofeminism giving us another version of the story that all problems will cease when the powerless take over power? Is ecofeminism inevitably based in gynocentric essentialism?

I come from a background in both environmental philosophy and activism, and feminist philosophy and activism, yet my initial reaction to the position asserting such a link, like that of many people, was one of mistrust. It seemed to combine a romantic conception of both women and nature, the idea that women have special powers and capacities of nurturance, empathy, and “closeness to nature,” which are unsharable by men and which justify their special treatment, which of course nearly always turns out to be inferior treatment. It seemed to be the antithesis of feminism, giving positive value to the “barefoot and pregnant” image of women and validating their exclusion from the world of culture and relegation to that of nature, a position which is perhaps best represented in modern times by the masculinist writer D.H. Lawrence. It appeared to provide a green version of the “good woman” argument of the suffragettes, in which good and moral women, who are nurturant, empathic, and life-orientated, confront and reclaim the world from bad men, who are immersed in power, hierarchy, and a culture of death. Later reading showed me the diversity of the position and that, while an element of this is present in some accounts, by no means all of them conform to this romantic picture, nor is it a necessary part of a position which takes seriously the idea of a non-accidental connection between the liberation movements.

One essential feature of all ecological feminist positions is that they give positive value to a connection of women with nature which was previously, in the west, given negative cultural value and which was the main ground of women’s devaluation and oppression. Ecological feminists are involved in a great cultural revaluation of the status of women, the feminine, and the natural, a revaluation which must recognize the way in which their historical connection in western culture has influenced the construction of feminine identity and, as I shall try to show, of both masculine and human identity. Beyond that, there is a great deal of diversity; ecological feminists differ on how and even whether women are connected to nature, on whether such connection is in principle sharable by men, on how to treat the exclusion of women from culture, and on how the revaluing of the connection with nature connects with the revaluing of traditional feminine characteristics generally, to mention a few areas. There is enormous variation in ecological feminist literature on all these areas.

Like any other diverse position, ecological feminism is amenable to careful and less careful statements, and some versions of ecofeminism do provide a version of the argument that it is the goodness of women which will save us. This is an argument, with its Christian overtones of fall and feminine redemption, which appeared in Victorian times as the view that women’s moral goodness, their purity, patience, self-sacrifice, spirituality, and maternal instinct, meant either that they would redeem fallen political life (if given the vote), or, on the alternate version, that they were too good for fallen political life and so should not have the vote. The first version ignores the way in which these sterling qualities are formed by powerlessness and will fail to survive translation to a context of power; the second covertly acknowledges this but insists that in order to maintain these qualities for the benefit of men, women must remain powerless.

A popular contemporary green version attributes to women a range of different but related virtues, those of empathy, nurturance, cooperativeness, and connectedness to others and to nature, and usually finds the basis for these also in women’s reproductive capacity. It replaces the “angel in the house” version of women by the “angel in the ecosystem” version. The myth of this angel is, like the Victorian version, of dubious value for women; unlike the more usual misogynist accounts which western culture provides of women, it recognizes strengths in women’s way of being, but it does so in an unsatisfactory and unrealistic way, and again fails to recognize the dynamic of power.

Simplistic versions of this story attribute these qualities to women directly and universally. But it is only plausible to do this if one practices a denial of the reality of women’s lives, and not least a denial of the divisions between women themselves, both within the women’s movement and in the wider society. Not all women are empathic, nurturant, and cooperative. And while many of these virtues have been real, they have been restricted to a small circle of close others. Women do not necessarily treat other women as sisters or the Earth as a mother; women are capable of conflict, of domination, and even, in the right circumstances, of violence. Western women may not have been in the forefront of the attack on nature, driving the bulldozers and operating the chainsaws, but many of them have been support troops or have been participants, often unwitting but still enthusiastic, in a modern consumer culture of which they are the main symbols, and which assaults nature in myriad direct and indirect ways daily. And of course women have also played a major role, largely unacknowledged, in a male-led and male-dominated environment movement, in resisting and organizing against the assault on nature. The invisible, undervalued alternative economy which has for so long framed their identity is less strongly based on disregard for the earth than the masculine-centered official economy of the developed world. As we shall see, the western mapping of a gender hierarchy on to the nature/culture distinction has been a major culprit in the destruction of the biosphere. But if we think that the fact of being female guarantees that we are automatically provided with an ecological consciousness and can do no wrong to nature or to one another, we are going to be badly disappointed.

The “angel in the ecosystem” is a simplistic version of the affirmation of feminine qualities, both individual and cultural, which has been such a marked feature of this century’s second wave of feminism, especially that which has stressed difference. The link is not nearly as simple as the “angel” version of women’s character takes it to be — in fact, the “angel” argument involves a classic sex/gender confusion, since to say that there are connections, for instance, between phallocentrism and anthropocentrism, is not to say anything at all about women in general being “close to nature.” Nevertheless, there is an important point in the linkage of women to many of these qualities which our culture needs now to affirm, and a vitally important critique in the addition of the critical dimension of gender to the story of human, and especially western, relations to nature. Clarifying and refining what it is that is liberatory and defensible about this affirmation of the feminine, and clarifying just how these qualities are connected to women, has been the major task of the search for a feminist identity and for feminist theory and scholarship in the last twenty years, and this task continues to challenge our political and philosophical understandings and frontiers.

An ecological feminist analysis of these problems may help in turn to advance our understanding of some of these questions, which have been difficult and often divisive for feminist theory. Clarification and development of an ecofeminist position in a way that is both strategically useful (for the social movements involved) and theoretically rigorous is one of the central intellectual endeavors of our time. Ecological feminism is essentially a response to a set of key problems thrown up by the two great social currents of the later part of this century — feminism and the environment movement — and addresses a number of shared problems. There is the problem of how to reintegrate nature and culture across the great western division between them and of how to give a positive value to what has been traditionally devalued and excluded as nature without simply reversing values and rejecting the sphere of culture. There is the problem of how (and whether) to try to reconcile the movements and their associated theoretical critiques (of phallocentrism and anthropocentrism), which have many areas of conflict as well as some common ground. These are central problems for the theories, strategies and alliances of both movements.



Excerpt from Feminism and the Mastery of Nature by Val Plumwood, published in the Taylor & Francis e-LIBRARY, 2002. first published by Routledge, London, 1993. Copyright 1993 Val Plumwood.

Aurel Schmidt, Untitled (Cabbage Elbow), 2013, colored pencil on paper, 24.5 x 16.5 inches, copyright Aurel Schmidt Aurel Schmidt, Untitled (Cucumber Claw), 2013, colored pencil on paper, 34 x 20 inches, copyright Aurel Schmidt

[Table of contents]

The Revolutions Issue #40 F/W 2023

Table of contents

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