Ecofeminism: Inspired by Goddess in Women

 Vrinda Pujals

[Essay first submitted as course requirement in “Critical Thinking” with Prof. Carol Christ, Women’s Spirituality Program, CIIS]

After “four thousand years of accepting male centrality,”[1] and the ecological, political, economic and social disasters supported by the “implicit acknowledgment that men are the same sex as God,”[2] ecofeminism and women’s spirituality founding mothers lead us through a journey of gratitude to women in remote, almost inaccessible areas, where women are and have always been the same sex as Goddess. From the influential works of Charlene Spretnak, Dorceta E. Taylor, Judith Plant and other ecofeminists I will discuss the role and interrelation between ecofeminist activism and women’s spirituality for recreating a new vision of the sacred as embodied, immanent and transcendental.

What is at stake when we forget to acknowledge the value of the invisible in living systems? It seems to me that without taking the invisible into account there is nothing left for scientific enquiry. Perhaps the “invisible,” or Spirit, as it is known by some, or the “unknown” as it is known in some Eastern traditions, is the common ground of science and spirituality. This common ground can be visualized as system-continuum from individuality to commonality, from empirical to transcendental views of “reality”—it morphs or dissolves into something else at every phase, going from abstract to concrete and to abstract again—and, like life itself seems to emerge out of “nothing.” Then, what is the value of spiritual experience if it does not make us instruments or agents of compassion and preservation when biotic systems of life are at stake?

It is in the light of these merging, re-emerging, manifesting and dissolving experiences, and the mystery of our own visible and invisible sacred spaces, that women are addressing “interlocking systems of oppression”[3] in religion, politics and economics, from multiple standpoints like gender, class, ethnicity, and other sub-categories, in order to gestate a biotic community of interrelated systems of cooperation.

Prepatriarchal and nonpatriarchal cultures keep inspiring and informing us, western feminists and ecofeminists have drawn extraordinary strength from women who have preserved matrilineal indigenous traditions. While paradoxically in the West, or the so-called “First World,” I agree with Judith Plant that, “With God, and his righthand Man, at the “center of the universe”—conceived of as the hierarchical Chain of Being—there is no room for anyone or anything else in the driver’s seat.”[4] In “The Spiritual Dimension of Green Politics, Charlene Spretnak defines spirituality as, “The focusing of human awareness on the subtle aspects of existence, a practice that reveals to us profound interconnectedness.”[5] This interconnectedness embodies living spirituality, as we bridge actions from the invisible intentions within to the visible web of life in a continuum using our whole beings: energy-matter-emotions-Spirit. Even though I agree with Spretnak about the need “to encourage ecofeminist philosophical consideration of radical nonduality,”[6] I find that to lend a sense of urgency to achieving radical nonduality trivializes a spiritual achievement that in many indigenous spiritual traditions, as well as in the perennial philosophy, is explained as a culmination or perfection of disciplines through many embodiments. Part of the problem possibly stems from distorted patriarchal interpretations given to the term “duality” and “nonduality.” But discussing Spretnak’s suggestions from the perspective of the meaning of nonduality in the perennial philosophy of India would require a different essay.

On the other hand, the “denigration of nature,”[7] as Spretnak points out, remains perpetuated through the advent of modernity in dualistic thinking modes prevalent in Western philosophy and culture. Here it is interesting to note that the term “dualism” as interpreted by Spretnak refers to polarities and dyads like man/woman, victim/oppressor, nature/spirit, while “dualism” in Indian and Eastern spirituality refers to ontological polarity perspectives like object/subject experience, individual-God, life-death, dharma/adharma, microcosm/macrocosm, etc. She also points out to the “anti-life” patriarchal ways “based on nature’s destruction and women’s subjugation,” in the words of Indian physicist Vandana Shiva, Spretnak concludes that “ecofeminists are drawn to practices and orientations that nurture experiences of nonduality and loving reverence for the sacred whole that is the cosmos.”[8]

In her anthology, “Ecofeminism” Karen J. Warren states that, “According to ecofeminists, nature is a feminist issue. Just as there is not one feminism, there is not one ecofeminism, or one ecofeminist philosophy.”[9] For Warren it is helpful to “visualize ecofeminist philosophy as the intersection of three spheres:[10] 1) feminism, 2) native, indigenous, local perspectives, and 3) science, development and technology;[11] she insists that we take empirical data seriously, giving due attention to the role of women in preserving trees, forests, rivers, food, farming, technology, toxins, environmental racism, children, and the sexist-naturist language. While Charlene Spretnak emphasizes that, “The central insight of ecofeminism is that a historical, symbolic, and political relationship exists between the denigration of nature and the female in Western cultures.”[12] After laying down the Eurocentric historical background that informs the so called “First World,” she proceeds to elaborate on ecofeminist philosophy, political activism and spirituality. It is interesting to point out that Spretnak, Christ, Collins, Warren Pintchman, Irigaray, Franzmann, and many other feminist theAlogists and ecofeminists, acknowledge “The validity of noncognitive and nonlinguistic knowledge (as well as conceptual and analytical modes of knowing),”[13] and a most of them insist on women creating new language to define women’s experience in the center of home, community and societies.

For Judith Plant ecofeminism is a response to fear and alienation. After men and women, humanity and the rest of nature have been separated in the name of profit, “This movement has a lot to do with learning to live with differences.”[14] Another manifestation of patriarchal exploitation of nature that concerns ecofeminists is the appropriation of land, expatriation of indigenous people prevalent in a patriarchal sense of entitlement over land through colonial occupations. In “Learning to Live with Differences,” Judith Plant addresses some of the historical events which have contributed to the progressive and systemic collapse of biotic societies. Plant, like Starhawk, speak of a “culture of estrangement”[15] where “The basis of power-over, of domination of one over the other, comes from a philosophical belief that has rationalized exploitation on such a massive scale that we now not only have extinguished other species but have also placed our own species on a trajectory toward self-destruction.”[16]

In addition to a power-over society where “Power over is the order of the day,”[17] a concept that Plant shares with ecofeminist Petra Kelly, Andy Smith addresses colonial issues which have been relegated to “non-question” and “non-data” in both the US environmental justice movement and in ecofeminisim. As a woman of color born in Puerto Rico, a US colony for over 100 years, patriarchal false sense of entitlement aimed at appropriating land and cultures touches me profoundly. The “non-question” and “non-data” issues of US imperial presence imposed over our culture, and the oppressive presence of U.S. military bases in the Island-nation of Puerto Rico lead to deep, personal and spiritual issues that affect me and every woman of color in the Island.[18] But, the deplorable US military and/or imperial occupation in most of the Americas south of Turtle Island, which consists of 35 sovereign states, 23 in North and Central America and 12 in South America,  is not contained to my Island of birth. The newcomer’s “notion of hierarchy” and its pretenses of “democracy” forced upon people immersed in consensual traditions[19] introduced a catastrophic “abuse of nature in the name of profit.”  Here Plant points out to important academic work in US and Canada “revealing how the US Constitution, through Benjamin Franklin and Tom Paine, was very much influenced by the Iroquois, Or Haudenossaunee, form of democracy.”[20] A system where “leaders belong to the people.”[21] Ah, but aren´t they called public servants? It is only a name. This “Forcing ‘democracy’ on a consensual people reveals how little the ‘democratic process’ can be trusted to deal fairly with ethnic and cultural differences.”[22] And we call this civilization? I invite women, especially mothers, to invite within the center of family reunions where there are children, the important question of whether we live in a civilized society.  I strongly believe we don’t.

While Plant gives us deeper insight into white men’s destruction of First Nation people and their ways of life, the hegemonic out of control power of transnationals, megacorporations with a goal for “complete control of the global economic and political order,” she makes us aware that ecofeminists want to listen to the wealth of knowledge from the First People about ending the underlying fear of death in this male dominated society,[23] a fear that is opportunistically exploited for profit by the industry of so-called “mental health” professionals, the importance of returning to bioregionalism, diversity as a “sign of a healthy and stable ecosystem,”[24] and the hope that “Out of the dark ages of fear and power-over there is emerging a way of being for humanity which we can barely comprehend but to which we are attracted like bees to honey.”[25] All pointing out to renewed hopes in recovering our interconnections.

In her essay Plant elaborates on five hundred years of European people’s abuse of the First People, and the old order “Fear of difference and its desperate need to control the world…” while giving little attention to the even more diverse group of US diasporic African people of color, apart from a cursory mention to “white over black”[26] oppression. As I struggle to contain this essay within some boundaries, I wonder what contributed to her ignoring the abuses inflicted on people of color, their greater ethnic, social and cultural diversity and their contributions for “Learning to Live with Differences.” I find Dorceta E. Taylor’s empirical data research significant to our better understanding the centuries of Eurocentric terrorism and oppression over indigenous people whose struggles show us many ways to recover a balance between matter and spirit for future generations.

In “Women of Color, Environmental Justice and Ecofeminism,” Dorceta E. Taylor exposes the dissonance found in communication attempts across women of color, the environmental justice movement and ecofeminism. Taylor points out that “Ecofeminists match the racial and socioeconomic profiles of traditional environmentalists… [who do not] even recognize womanism.” [27] Ecofeminists are not fully nor adequately understanding the difference in experience and “the differences between white women and women of color.”[28]

The complexity in this need to acknowledge and be open to honor differences is further confirmed in Taylor’s claim that, “According to ecofeminist scholars, there are four types of feminism—liberal, Marxist, radical and socialist—and two kinds of ecofeminism arising from them: radical ecofeminism and socialist ecofeminism.”[29] One can observe how patriarchal political, cultural, educational, and corporate strategies succeed in their aims to “divide and conquer” women’s efforts. One can see how the effects of internalized oppression thrive by keeping women divided, and challenging ecofeminist solidarity. But ecofeminists are creating a unifying language, theory and more empathetic actions leading to leadership towards greater social justice.

As ecofeminist and panentheist, I reject the futility of academic theories which serve little to reach women in privileged groups about how to recognize, listen, value and learn from the insights and the contributions of marginalized women and women of color. By this I am referring to the little application of high sounding academic jargon which Chandra Talpade Mohanty argues obstructs women’s solidarity. In very simple terms, as a white-black woman, and a black-white ecofeminist whether I am certain, by DNA testing or empirical data, or not, of being part of such a rich interracial privilege or not, I am aware and conscious of embodying the ripples of sorrow from unending abuses and indignities perpetrated against women of color, and am immensely enriched by the intelligence, resilience, dignity and generosity of indigenous women everywhere. The open wounds of women of color, and their vulnerability reach me in physical, emotional, mental, intellectual and spiritual ways. I used to define myself as a radical ecofeminist, but after assimilating the abuses and deliberate systems of oppression that keep excluding women from deciding their futures and the future of their communities, my mission is that of a radical, socialist, womanist-ecofeminist woman of color. Is it possible that sometime in a past embodiment, I may have been the white oppressor, without being conscious of how to separate from destructive socio-pathologies? Ending the abusive male monoculture depends on women’s solidarity with women of all colors who “will not be lulled into thinking there has been fundamental change and will continue to raise questions about typologies and definitions.” [30]

I agree with Taylor that “The political activism of women of color in environmental justice movements is very complex.” [31] These women are not only interested in seeking “liberation only for themselves,”[32] they are fighting gender issues, racial and sexual discrimination, inequality, civil rights, labor rights and colonial, and imperial structures.  “They are dominated not only by white men but also by men of color and by white women.”[33] I also agree that “gender equality for women of color means something quite different from what it means for white women.”[34]

The many dimensions of women of color activism and their contributions to the environmental justice movement include redefining what is considered “environmental,” working with research and evidence, increase the communication among women and across issues, building alliances, including civil and environmental rights alternative focus, creating better political strategies about the differences and similarities with ecofeminism,  issues of race and domination, racial and sexual equality, social class, environmental justice, theory, politics and activism among other emerging issues.

When Taylor exposes the little attention that has been given to many issues which “have disproportionate impacts on people of color,”[35] and that “It is time for ecofeminists to increase their awareness of these problems and their commitment to work with women of color to improve conditions…” it is significant that she cautions all women to do so, “without being domineering or imperialistic.” [36] It is in this context that the NIMBY campaign (not in my backyard) movement and “environmental justice activists looked at the relationship between class, race, power, control, money, and the exposure of environmental  hazards and saw that increasing numbers of undesirable facilities and land uses were being foisted in communities of color after they were successfully blocked in other communities.”[37] This may require further preparation as white women purge themselves from the internalized mechanisms of male oppression which have prevailed for centuries and keep emerging in tensions which also divide white women groups.

Communities of people of color continue being the target of increasing toxic dump sites, increased health hazards, and manifold environmental injustices. Taylor adds that, “For a long time environmentalists did not recognize that certain issues and activities had disproportionate negative impacts on communities of color; if they were aware of the impacts, they paid no attention to them. [… And] did not consider people of color to be part of the constituency they served;”[38] therefore, the crimes committed against people of color became “non-questions” and “non-data.” Contrary to feminists, who sometimes inform us from divergent standpoints, ecofeminists like Spretnak and Taylor intersect and agree in areas like spirituality, politics, theory and activism. But the environmental justice movement sets itself apart from ecofeminism and the environmental movement in that it is concerned with distributive justice and corrective justice.[39]

The voice of Judith Plant in “Learning to Live with Differences” provides an interesting contrast with Taylor’s essay and the “challenge of the ecofeminist community” as Plant describes how “the delicate balance of life became disrupted.”[40] Plant reports on what most of us experience in a “culture of estrangement,”[41] and proposes ecofeminism as “a response to fear and alienation”[42] Plant takes a look at Western civilization, what I called the uncivil self-denominated civilized, “and how we might do something about healing these relationships.”[43]

Plant brings to this work “the committed belief that humanity must turn toward ecocommunity: the creation of vibrant and sustainable human communities…”[44] For her the most essential feature of ecofeminist thought is that “all oppressions—whether men over women, First World over Third World, north over south, white over black, adults over children, human beings over other species, society over nature—have their roots in common… a philosophical belief that has rationalized exploitation on such a massive scale that we…have also placed our own species on a trajectory toward self-destruction.”[45]

Hierarchical structures, the notion of power over, centuries of violence, the concept of “rights’ which actually serves to keep us separated from each other and the land,[46] European philosophical perspectives of self-interest—which has given us today a system of government and a way of being in the world that is self-centered, twisted, distorted, and very seriously out of balance[47]—the insistence on forcing “democracy” on a consensual people, and the unholy alliance of corporate policemen and mega-corporations goal is complete control of the global economic and political order.[48]  Plant proposes that “Among the many strands of thought and action helping to uncover the lies and half-baked truths of Western civilization is ecofeminism.” [49]

Most feminists would agree with Taylor that radical ecofeminists “are critical of worship of a father god[…] claiming that replacement of goddesses with a transcendental god was linked to the rise of patriarchy, male dominance, wars, and the devaluation and destruction of nature.”[50] What Spretnak calls “the logic of domination” is on its way to be dissolved by the other half of the human race. As Karen J. Warren confirms, “Feminism is intrinsically a movement to end racism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, anti-Semitism, ethnocentrism.”[51] And ecofeminism is bringing together women from all traditions, indigenous, womanist-feminist, mujeristas and even women from the ecology movement who learn about the contributions of ecofeminists and indigenous women who hold the ancient wisdom from their ancestors centuries of listening and learning from the ways of the land, the rivers, the mountains, the birds and all the living forest. And this wisdom reveals to us that we are One. Women will keep inspiring the need to honor and enjoy our differences. We are all a continuum web/river of life experience seeking to sing in distinctive voices.



References

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought, Sociology 319 –Contemporary Social Theories, March 24, 2006 http://uregina.ca/~gingrich/319m2406.htm .

Plant, Judith. “From Learning to Live with Differences: The Challenge of Ecofeminist Community,” in Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature, edited by Karen J. Warren, 122-139. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997

Spretnak, Charlene, “From Critical and Constructive Contributions of Ecofeminism.” In Worldviews and Ecology, edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John A. Grim, 181-89.  Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1993.

Spretnak, Charlene. “From Preface: The First Twenty Years.” In The Politics of Women’s Spirituality: Essays by Founding Mothers of the Movement, edited by Charlene Spretnak, xi-xxi. New York: Doubleday, 1982.

Taino Indians Counted Out of Existence http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=As01jVTvLVI#!

Taylor, Dorceta E. “From Women of Color, Environmental Justice and Ecofeminism.” In Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature, edited by Karen J. Warren, 38-81. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997.

Warren, Karen J. editor. Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997.


[1] Charlene Spretnak, “From Preface: The First Twenty Years, in The Politics of Women’s Spirituality: Essays by Founding Mothers of the Movement, ed.  Charlene Spretnak (New York: Doubleday, 1982), xiii.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Patricia Hill Collins, “Black Feminist Thought,” Sociology 319 –Contemporary Social Theories, March 24, 2006 http://uregina.ca/~gingrich/319m2406.htm .

[4] Judith Plant, “From Learning to Live with Differences: The Challenge of Ecofeminist Community,” in Women, Culture, Nature, ed. Karen J. Warren (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997), 126.

[5] Charlene Spretnak, “The Spiritual Dimension of Green Politics,” (New Mexico: Bear & Company, 1986), 41.

[6] Charlene Spretnak, “From Radical Nonduality in Ecofeminist Philosophy,” in Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature, ed. Karen J. Warren (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997), 425.

[7] Ibid., 182.

[8] Ibid., 188.

[9] Karen J. Warren, “From Taking Empirical Data Seriously: An Ecofeminist Philosophical Perspective,” in Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature, ed. Karen J. Warren (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997), 4.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 5.

[12] Charlene Spretnak, “From Critical and Constructive Contributions of Ecofeminism,” in Worldviews and Ecology, ed. Mary Evelyn Tucker and John A. Grim (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1993), 181.

[13] Spretnak, “From The Politics… in “Preface,” xviii.

[14] Plant, 131.

[15] Ibid, 120.

[16] Ibid., 121.

[17] Ibid., 123.

[18]Taino Indians Counted Out of Existence,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=As01jVTvLVI#!

[19] Plant, 125.

[20] Ibid., 122.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 125.

[23] Ibid., 128.

[24] Ibid., 139.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 121.

[27] Dorceta Taylor, “From Women of Color, Environmental Justice and Ecofeminism,” in Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature, ed. Karen J. Warren,(Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997) , 62.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., 63.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., 68.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Dorceta E. Taylor, Women of Color , 49.

[38] Dorceta E. Taylor, Women of Color, 38.

[39] Ibid. 42.

[40] Judith Plant, “From Learning to Live with Differences: The Challenge of Ecofeminist Community,” in Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature, ed. Karen J. Warren,(Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997), 120.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid., 126.

[43] Ibid, 121.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid, 123.

[47] Ibid., 123.

[48] Ibid., 125.

[49] Ibid., 127.

[50] Dorceta E. Taylor, Women of Color, 66.

[51] Warren, Ecofeminism, 4.