The word “ecofeminism” first appeared in the early 1970s as part of the radical feminist movement that was appearing around the world to challenge patriarchal power. Ecofeminism is a dynamic political theory that identifies how oppressions are interconnected.
In the early nineties, ecofeminism became the focus of much scholarly work—including a special edition of Hypatia. Several anthologies appeared, including my Ecofeminism and the Sacred. Ecofeminist philosophy was being engaged with by other disciplines. At that point, one aspect of ecofeminism challenged the idea that you could talk about the environment and consider yourself an environmentalist without addressing the fact that people were eating animals and dairy products and eggs. This strand of ecofeminism became known as “animal ecofeminism” in some quarters.
And then the backlash occurred. Ecofeminists were described as being essentialists, i.e., that we were saying that there was something unique or distinct about being a woman that made us more pacifist or less violent, that we were somehow holding an essentialist position that upheld the gender binary. In our new anthology, Ecofeminism: Feminist Intersections with Other Animals and the Earth, Lori Gruen and I say, “Exposing dualistic frameworks operating in oppressive situations did not mean that ecofeminists valorized the non-dominant parts of the dualism nor viewed the characteristics of the non-dominant part as ‘natural.’ In arguing relationally and developing a care tradition in animal ethics, ecofeminists were challenging, not accepting, the essentializing structure of the division between men as rational and women as emotional.”
For this new anthology, Lori and I created a chapter called “Groundwork” in which we say, “Look--these ideas, these ecofeminist ideas, this is not new, this is not recent; we have been intersectional and we have been engaging around these ideas for a long time and it is important for us to recognize it.”
Ecofeminism allows for the articulation of an ethic of care. Care is part of how we relate to the other, and that “other” isn’t just another so-called “human being,” but is potentially any part of this planet. Care is a radical political situating of ourselves in relationships to others. The ecofeminist articulation of care becomes both a radical critique of patriarchal privilege and becomes a remedy to this privilege.
The ethic of care is also a practice. In the writings that Josephine Donovan and I have done together, one of the words we use is attention (from Simone Weil, a twentieth century French thinker and mystic). She says, “What is attention? Attention is being able to ask your neighbor what they are going through – and then being willing to hear the answer.”
The question is, and it’s a very political one, “Who is your neighbor?” The ethic of care recognizes how we have failed to acknowledge that who our neighbors are could be defined much more expansively.