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Feminist Perspectives on the Environmentfree

Feminist Perspectives on the Environmentfree

  • Sonalini  SapraSonalini  SapraDepartment of Political Science, Saint Martin's University


The field of gender and environmental studies deals with the ways that gender roles shape the access to and management of resources. From being dominated by old debates on whether the earth is our mother goddess or whether women are inherently closer to nature than men, gender and environmental studies has evolved into a largely activist-informed and materially-focused discipline. Feminist perspectives are now being articulated in a variety of wide-ranging themes and issues such as environmental justice, global climate change, population debates, disasters, water, and militarization. The main feminist perspectives for studying women and the environment can be divided into two “umbrella” groups: the “ecofeminist” camp and the “materialist” camp. The ecofeminist group argues that there is an “innate” connection between domination of nature and the oppression of women and that there exists a system of patriarchy in human society that leads to the domination of the “Other.” The materialist camp rejects this claim. It makes use of two approaches, feminist environmentalism and Feminist Political Ecology (FPE), to contend that women’s oppression is rooted in structural and material inequalities. Some of these feminist perspectives, including ecofeminism and feminist environmentalism, are applied by the field of Gender, Environment, and Development (GED) to the environmental policy domain. Three transnational environmental organizations doing GED work are GenderCC—Women for Climate Justice, Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), and Development Alternatives for Women in a New Era (DAWN).


  • Politics and Sexuality and Gender


The field of gender and environmental studies has been primarily concerned with how gender roles shape the access to and management of resources. Having come a very long way, the field is no longer dominated by old debates on whether the earth is our mother goddess or whether women are inherently closer to nature than men (Ortner 1974; Plant 1989; Diamond and Orenstein 1990; Adams 1993; Plumwood 1993). The field is now largely activist-informed and materially focused (Agarwal 1992, 1997, 2003; Jackson 1993, 1995; Seager 1993, 1996, 2003; Warren 1996; Sachs 1997; Warren and Erkal 1997; Jackson and Pearson 1998; Leach 2007; McFague 2008). One theme that unites scholars of different theoretical traditions is the understanding that environmental issues are gendered in complicated and significant ways.

We now see feminist perspectives being articulated in a host of wide-ranging themes and issues such as environmental justice (Verchick 2004; Buckingham and Kulcur 2009), global climate change (Dankelman 2002; Denton 2002; Hemmati and Rohr 2009), population debates (Hartmann 1995, 1999; Committee on Women, Population and the Environment 2006), disasters (Enarson and Chakrabarti 2009; Sultana 2010), water (Ray 2007; Seager 2010), and militarization (Seager 1993).

In the course of this essay I will attempt to give a brief introduction to some of the main debates that feminist environmental scholars have participated in and also analyze the main feminist perspectives for studying women and the environment. For ease of analysis, I have grouped these perspectives into two “umbrella” groups.

The first of these is the “ecofeminist” camp. This group includes three main approaches – conceptual connections, historical connections, and spiritual connections. Early ecofeminist influences sought to analyze the “closeness” of women and nature, which was often understood to be intrinsic or innate. This put the concept of essentialism, or the idea that there are certain characteristics essential to or inherent in women, front and center within feminism debates. Over time, many feminists strongly rejected the idea that there were any natural connections between women and the environment. I will expand on these critiques later in this essay.

It is crucial to note that there is no real linear development in these three groups' trajectory. Different ecofeminists were often writing at the same time as each other, and there was considerable overlap in their work. These three groups (conceptual connections, historical connections, and spiritual connections) have many differences amongst them but share some core assumptions as well – namely, that there are significant connections between the domination of nature and the oppression of women and that there exists a system of patriarchy in human society that leads to the domination of the “Other.” Much of this early literature points to women's “special” relationship with the environment, with many theorists taking a different stance on how to actually understand this relationship.

I end the section with a discussion of more recent literature in the field of ecofeminism. This literature has tried to respond to criticisms that have been levied against the field by reconceptualizing the interrelationships between women and nature in more materialist ways, which can be seen most prominently in the field of feminist spirituality/ecotheology (particularly in the recent work of Rosemary Ruether).

The second umbrella group can be broadly categorized as the “materialist” camp. This includes two main approaches: feminist environmentalism and Feminist Political Ecology (FPE). The materialist camp has an integrated understanding of women's oppression as rooted in structural and material inequalities. They reject ecofeminist arguments claiming that there is any “innate” connection between women and the environment. They argue that the access and distribution of natural resources are differentiated through gender within societies. Women, particularly in developing countries, do most of the agricultural and domestic work, putting them at the frontlines in struggles for health, food, and water.

I have chosen to focus on these theoretical frameworks, as I believe they have collectively generated the most important and politically prescient insights for the feminist environmental movement and have had a significant impact on moving the field forward. I end the essay with a discussion of policy and activism in the field of Gender, Environment, and Development (GED).

Ecofeminist Theory

Ecofeminism in the United States can be traced back to the mid-1970s and was largely influenced by Mary Daly's brand of cultural feminism.1 Growing primarily out of the antimilitarist movement of the late 1970s and 1980s, it drew heavily on the peace movement's analysis of the connections between militarism, classism, racism, sexism, and environmental destruction. Many women in the United States, in particular, were also moved to action by the partial nuclear reactor meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear energy plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (Johnson 1999). During this time there was a great deal of excitement around ideas from the green movement concerning the reliance of humanity on the natural world (Sturgeon 1997). As Joni Seager writes, “Environmentalists provided baseline insights into the interdependence of human life and planet life and offered a systems analysis of the ways ecological destruction cascaded through intertwined social and ecological webs. Feminists honed these understandings with analyses of the ways the construction of social power, in its ineluctably gendered dimensions, produced those conditions of ecological threat” (2003:947).

Many ecofeminists have argued that contemporary Western culture does not have a sense of how heavily reliant it is on the environment, and that it is consistently damaging both its own space and that of the rest of the world. They argued against simply integrating women into existing social structures (government, corporations, etc.) which have been inherently problematic. Unlike cultural feminism, which wrestled with charges of omitting racism from its analysis, ecofeminism has been more readily able to appeal to women across racial and cultural lines on the basis of its critique of Western culture and the export of Western oriented development to the global South.

However, the precise connection between women and nature is a highly contentious issue within ecofeminism. As feminist philosopher Karen Warren writes:

The varieties of ecofeminism reflect not only the differences in the analysis of the women/nature connection, but also differences on such fundamental matters as the nature of and the solutions to women's oppression, the theory of human nature, and the conceptions of freedom, equality, epistemology, on which various feminist theories depend.

(Warren 1987:4)

I highlight below some of the early formulations of the women–environment connection and discuss how ecofeminists have responded to certain criticisms. While the first two formulations (conceptual connections and historical connections) have largely been debunked, the third (spiritual connections) still retains some of its currency in contemporary discourse.

Conceptual Connections between Women and Nature

Most of the ecofeminists who adopted this conceptual approach followed radical feminists in identifying Western patriarchy as the main source of global ecological destruction. Sherry Ortner was one of the first feminists to examine the dualistic ideas of women being aligned with nature and men with culture. She linked this to a host of binary structures such as women being more caring and emotional and men being more rational and competitive (Ortner 1974).

In the context of a bourgeoning environmental movement in the 1980s and 1990s, this belief led some feminist scholars to regard certain personality traits of women as innate. They argue that because it is women who do most of the caring work that sustains human life, they assume a sense of compassion toward their environment which leads them to take action to preserve and repair it (Mies and Shiva 1993; Salleh 1997).

For instance, Ariel Salleh conflates the feminism in “ecofeminism” with “womanism.” She defines womanism as a “transvaluation of ‘feminine’ experiences and, in particular, the relational sensibility often gained in mothering labors” (1997:104). At various points in her work she reduces the category of “female” to the category of “mother,” arguing for the moral superiority of the latter.

Another scholar, Andree Collard, argues that women's reproductive biology is “the wellspring of her strength.” She writes:

Nothing links the human animal and nature so profoundly as woman's reproductive system which enables her to share the experience of bringing forth and nourishing life with the rest of the living world. Whether or not she personally experiences biological mothering, it is in this that woman is most truly a child of nature and in this natural integrity lies the wellspring of her strength.

(Collard and Contrucci 1989:106)

Toward the latter half of the 1980s, US ecofeminists started producing literature on Native American and “Third World Women” as examples of ecofeminist practice. This literature privileges indigenous women as the “ultimate ecofeminists.” In works like Rebecca Plant's Healing the Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism and Irene Diamond and Gloria Orenstein's Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism, Native American women and women in the global South are held up as exemplars of feminist ecology.

For these and other early ecofeminists, the one international movement that resonated most with their theories was the “Chipko Movement” in India. Much of the information that was transmitted about the Chipko Movement was done via scholarship produced by Vandana Shiva, the Director of the New Delhi based Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy. Her work used many of the ecofeminist ideas detailed above to argue that Indian women have an inherent connection to nature. Similar to the treatment of Native-American women, Shiva's examination of the Chipko Movement in particular was used as a model for Western feminists who wished to paint Third World women as “natural environmentalists” or “ultimate ecofeminists,” perpetuating the image of women as being wholly integrated into their natural habitats.

In Shiva's 1988 book titled Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development, she discusses the Chipko Movement2 in northern India and the women who were at the forefront in saving the forests from commercial loggers. Shiva explicitly points to the inherent connection that Indian women have with nature by claiming that the life of forest-dwellers and peasants has been structured around environmental sustainability and embodies what she terms the “feminine principle.” She adds to this:

Historically, however, when such societies have been colonized and broken up the men have usually started to participate in life-destroying activities or have had to migrate; the women, meanwhile, usually continue to be linked to life and nature through their role as providers of sustenance, food and water. The privileged access of women to the sustaining principle thus has had a historical and cultural, and not merely a biological, basis.”

(Shiva 1988:42)

She argues that this principle is necessary to keep Indian culture in balance with nature. She points out that it is this feminine principle that makes women involved in the Chipko Movement willing to risk their lives to save their forests. These points highlight the essentialist nature of her earlier writing, much of which would come under heavy criticism.

Historical Connections between Women and Nature

Other women–nature connections have been established on the basis of history. Feminist scholars such as Riane Eisler have pointed to the matrilineal nature of societies before 4500 bce as being relatively at peace with nature. This ended with the invasion of Indo-European societies by Eurasian nomadic tribes (Eisler 1990:29). Other scholars have traced these historical connections back to Greek philosophy and the rationalist traditions. More contemporary analyses of history focus on the scientific revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They argue that this ushered in an era of reductionist and mechanistic science which led to unhindered industrial expansion and the subordination of women (Merchant 1980). Carolyn Merchant writes:

As Western culture became increasingly mechanized during the 1600s, a female nurturing earth and virgin earth spirit were subdued by the machine. The change in controlling imagery was directly related to changes in human attitudes and behavior towards the earth. Whereas the older nurturing earth image can be viewed as a cultural constraint restricting the types of socially and morally sanctioned human actions allowable with respect to the earth, the new images of mastery and domination functioned as cultural sanctions for the denudation of nature.

(Merchant 2006:417)

Arguing that there was a fundamental shift in thinking during this time period which moved us from more organic assumptions of the earth to a view of nature as a mechanical framework, Merchant has drawn parallels between the violence done to the land and the violence done to women and argued that women were fighting against exploitative developments using their inherent connection to nature.

Spiritual Connections between Women and Nature

Scholars such as Starhawk, Charlene Spretnak, and Carol Christ are examples of early spiritual ecofeminists. These ecofeminists see the problem of ecological destruction not only as a social, economic, and technological problem but also a spiritual one.

Writing in this vein, Charlene Spretnak argues that certain biological traits connected to being a woman enables the mysteries of nature to be unlocked. She writes:

The earth-body and the womb-body run on cosmological time. Just as the flow of earth's life-giving waters follows lunar rhythms, so too follow the tides of a woman's womb. No culture has failed to notice these connections or the related feats of elemental power: that the female can grow both sexes from her flesh and transform food into milk for them, and that the earth cyclically produces vast bounty and intricate dynamics of the biosphere that allow life.

(Spretnak 1993:181)

Others have pointed to the extreme anthropocentrism and androcentrism that exists in religion and offer alternative spiritual symbols (for example, Gaia and goddess symbols). They have asked how hierarchies of gender in religion and culture have translated into hierarchies of humans in nature and argue for a return to more traditional views that stress the interconnected nature of life (Starhawk 1979; Christ 1995, 1997). Scholars such as Sally McFague subcribe to the idea that, at an ideological level, women are closer to nature and more in touch with their bodies, emotions, and the natural world (McFague 1993, 1995, 1997).

In recent times more comprehensive work has been done by ecofeminists to link corporate globalization and its challenges to both ecofeminism and interfaith ecological theology (Ruether 1996, 2003, 2005; Eaton 2003, 2005). For instance, Rosemary Ruether in her 2005 book Integrating Ecofeminism, Globalization, and World Religions dedicates a chapter to the “Greening of World Religions.” In the introduction to the book, she examines some of the problems that have hampered world religions from taking up the issue of women and the environment. She argues that “most of these religions have patterns that justify the domination of women, both in the religious practices and in society. Hierarchies over lower-class and slave people and marginalized races are also factors in many of the world's religions. From an ecofeminist and ecojustice perspective, it is essential for the religions to deal with this interface between domination of nature and social domination” (Ruether 2005:xi).

A second problem she highlights is the lack of real connection between religious theory and practice. Ruether highlights two major differences she sees in the production of work by Southern feminists and Northern feminists with regards to the work being done in the field of feminist religious environmentalism. The first is that women from Asia, Africa, and Latin America are much more likely to keep material concerns in the foreground of their analysis and understand that the basis for domination of women and nature is impoverishment. The second is that these women from the global South are interested in recovering patterns of spirituality from their own indigenous roots, a tradition that is still present despite having been interrupted by colonialism (Ruether 1996:6).

Indeed, grassroots women's spirituality movements working on these issues in the global South have been very attentive to the link between the hierarchies of gender in religion and culture and the hierarchies of humans over nature. For example, in 1991 a group of Latin American women began a group called “Con-spirando” (a play on words meaning “breathing with” instead of “conspiring against”). This group was marked by a feminist perspective and sought spirituality and a theology that would be more adequate for women. They have been instrumental in unmasking some aspects of theological violence toward women, renaming and connecting with the sacred, offering an embodied theology, and bringing an ecofeminist perspective to theology. They have also made real connections between religious theory and practice. They have not restricted themselves to only talking about theories of the sacredness of rivers and earth, but have translated these into promoting ethical practices on the ground. These practices include engaging with struggles to stop the pollution and contamination of rivers and deforestation of forests and mountains (Gebara 2003; Ress 2003).

The academic work done by Ruether and the activist work done by the organizations above demonstrate that although spiritual ecofeminists still articulate “innate” connections between women and the environment, they have also expanded the scope of their analysis to include the intersections of class and race. The recent work by Ruether also highlights the point that feminist scholars from the global North are not a homogeneous group who all argue that women are naturally closer to the environment. As alluded to above, Ruether's understanding of the gender–environment connection is empirically grounded in an understanding of the socioeconomic conditions that women face. Her work also takes an explicitly intersectional approach to understanding the connections between women and the environment, which takes into account privilege and oppression based on race, class, nationality, ethnicity, and gender.

At the same time, there are feminists from the global South such as Vandana Shiva whose work was extremely essentialist in orientation and is responsible for perpetuating stereotypes about women in the global South as being more naturally caring about the environment than men. It is important to note though that debates over whether women are closer to nature than men are largely over. Most scholars have moved beyond these ecofeminist debates, and we find that they have adopted a more materialist understanding of the women–environment connection. These materialist conceptions will be discussed in the sections below.

Materialist Conceptions of the Women–Environment Connection

As shown in the sections above, there have been some moves within ecofeminism to adopt a more materialist analysis of the connection between women and the environment. The most prominent theoretical schools that have facilitated this shift are feminist environmentalism (Agarwal 1992) and Feminist Political Ecology (Rocheleau et al. 1996). While the three fields within ecofeminism grew up largely independent of each other, Feminist Political Ecology (FPE) builds its insights from the seminal work done in the field of feminist environmentalism. The two fields arose primarily as a response to or critique of ecofeminist thought.

Feminist environmentalism emphasizes material conceptions of gender–environment relations and their connections with particular ideological conceptions. Drawing on these and broader works within political ecology, FPE draws particular attention to issues of gendered knowledge, resource access and control, and the engagement between local and global issues.

It is important to note here that there are less explicit differences between these two bodies of work (unlike ecofeminist scholars who tend to have real conceptual differences in how they approach women–environment connections). The unifying theme in this scholarship is that there is no “innate”/“natural” connection between women and the environment. Rather, they argue that women's relationship with the environment is based on the fact that women are primarily responsible for tending the land and gathering products from forests, particularly in the global South. The two fields also share a commitment to examining in an intersectional way the ways in which gender, class, and race mediate people's lives.

Feminist Environmentalism

As shown above, conceptualizing the relationship between women and nature as an essential one has helped us see the connections between environmental degradation and classism. However, the essentialism in ecofeminist writings on women and the environment has made it untenable to many scholars both in the global North and South (Sandilands 1999). In the North, essential conceptualizations of women were critiqued by women of color who argued that issues of race, class, and gender were much more salient in shaping their life experiences (Taylor 1997).

Scholars writing from a Marxist perspective were also critical of the claims advanced by some ecofeminists. Cecile Jackson was particularly critical of the way that Northern ecofeminists used the category of “Third World Woman” as being the embodiment of the quintessential ecofeminist. She argued against the ecofeminist assumption of women being natural promoters of environmental sustainability and the idea that the mere presence of women in an environmental movement made it a feminist movement. She points out that movements such as Chipko and the Green Belt Movement, a tree-planting movement started in Kenya by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai (Green Belt Movement 2011), are hardly ever interrogated to discern their feminist character. Jackson writes:

There is the need, then, to unpack the idea that women's “responsibilities” make them environmentally friendly. The responsibility to provide firewood for cooking a meal may lead a woman, when faced with a firewood shortage, to plant a tree but it may also lead her to pull up a wooden fence and burn it, to argue for the purchase of a fuel efficient stove, to insist on the purchase of charcoal, to delegate fuel wood collection to a younger woman in the household or any number of alternate responses.

(Jackson 1993:412)

The problem that Jackson is dealing with appears to be that of the propensity within ecofeminism to consider any action by women that can be described as “environmental” to be an example of ecofeminism, even when the actors who engage in these activities hold no feminist, environmental intention. Her whole intellectual and political project is to make visible the problems that women identify and how they are understood. She seeks to interrogate the meanings that surround gendered discourses on women and the environment.

In India, Bina Agarwal drew on her own fieldwork on women and fuel wood issues in the Himalayas to highlight some of the problematic aspects of ecofeminist arguments, particularly those advanced by Vandana Shiva. First, she argues that, failing to differentiate among women by class, race, ethnicity, etc., Shiva posits “woman” as a unitary category, ignoring other forms of oppression that also impinge critically on women's lives. Second, Agarwal argues that Shiva seems to locate the domination of women and nature almost solely in ideology, neglecting the ways in which economic advantage and political power structure this relationship. Third, she argues that Shiva does not give a historical account of the social, economic, and political structures in which these problems are produced and transformed. Shiva also does not give an account of how dominant groups are able to get ideological shifts in their favor in the first place (Agarwal 1992:125–6).

Agarwal's work has been a significant contribution to debates around gender and the environment. Although she also argues that rural women's environmental knowledge is important, she bases her claim on material practices such as men's and women's work and land ownership practices. This focus on material conditions has made visible how certain kinds of environmental problems are produced and how these problems make women's lives more difficult by increasing their household labor.

Agarwal proposed an alternative theoretical framework to examine the relationship between women and the environment which she named “feminist environmentalism.” In this, she stressed that the relationship of each sex with nature needs to be understood in its specific forms of interaction with the environment, i.e., their material reality. She argues that scholars should view this interaction through “a given gender and class (/caste/race) organization of production, reproduction, and distribution” (Agarwal 1992:127). This approach would entail engaging with groups that have the primary control of resources and would transform notions of gender and division of work and resources between the genders.

This material critique was echoed by other scholars working in Africa and Latin America. For instance, Celia Nyamweru, a researcher looking at local environmental movements in Kenya, spent two field seasons in Kilifi and Kawale Districts in 1996 and 1997. She examined the uses made of the environment by men and women of Mijikenda (a predominantly farming people), the opinions they expressed about the value of the environment, and the changes that have occurred in their lifetimes. She found that the relationship of Mijikenda women to the kaya forests does not follow the prototype described by Shiva, but instead that both men and women extract forest products in an unsustainable way. She found that women collect firewood from the kaya forests and men cut building poles, even though they recognize the sacred and cultural significance of these forests (Nyamweru 2003).

Bina Agarwal's sophisticated theoretical and empirical analysis of the material conditions that mediate women's social experiences with the environment has done a great deal in bringing legitimacy back to the field of feminist environmental studies. Furthermore, many of the ideas developed by her and other scholars writing in a similar vein have led to the articulation of a new framework on feminist environmentalism, Feminist Political Ecology. These criticisms were instrumental in pushing for a new theoretical approach to the study of women and the environment, one that puts social justice issues and materialist concerns at the center of its analysis.

Feminist Political Ecology

Building on the work done in the field of ecofeminism and feminist environmentalism, scholars such as Dianne Rocheleau, Barbara Thomas-Slayer, and Esther Wangari have laid out what they saw as the key issues emerging from feminist theorizing on gender and the environment and recent political ecology work. The first to provide a coherent analytical framework to the FPE approach, their analyis joins three critical themes: first, gendered knowledge; second, gendered environmental rights and responsibilities; and third, gendered environmental politics and grassroots activism (Rocheleau et al. 1996).

The first theme, gendered knowledge, focuses on how gender, science, and the environment converge in academic and political discourse, as well as in everyday life. Within a variety of cases of political and environmental struggle, they examine what the gender implications of the separation of work and knowledge/science and practice mean for the gendered science of survival in rural as well as industrial contexts. They point out that men often have more access to agro-forestry extension work and knowledge associated with science, while women have experiential knowledge which has been gained from their role as household subsistence providers. They write:

Women's multiple role as producers, reproducers, and “consumers” have required women to develop and maintain their integrative abilities to deal with complex systems of household, community, and landscape and have often brought them into conflict with specialized sciences that focus on only one of these domains. The conflict revolves around the separation of domains of knowledge, as well as the separation of knowing and doing, and of “formal” and “informal” knowledge.

(Rocheleau et al. 1996:8)

The second theme, gendered environmental rights and responsibilities, explores the different political contexts in which women are denied control and rights over resources. For example, agrarian reforms in developing countries such as India and Kenya have legally distributed land only to male heads of households, adversely impacting on women's de facto claims to land use rights and control over land (Chant and Radcliffe 1992).

The third theme, gendered environmental politics and grassroots activism, examines environmental movements with a special focus on the role of women within them. They point out how women have been empowered through struggles not only around changing environment and global economic processes, but also the resulting “sustainable development” policy shifts nationally and internationally. Rocheleau et al. write:

Women are beginning to redefine their identities, and the meaning of gender, through expressions of human agency and collective action emphasizing struggle, resistance, and cooperation. In so doing, they have also begun to redefine environmental issues to include women's knowledge, experience, and interests. While this is a worldwide phenomenon, the process and results in any one place reflect historical, social, and geographical specificity.

(Rocheleau et al. 1996:15)

In each of the cases the authors analyzed, they found that people have acted in response to some combination of threats to health, livelihood, quality of life, and social justice. For example, the rubber tapper union in Brazil addressed livelihood, justice, and quality of life issues, all related to forest protection and management (Campbell 1996). In Kenya, women's environmental interests rested on access to land, as well as other forms of capital and resources for livelihood security in both long-and short-term contexts (Rocheleau and Edmunds 1997).

Analyzing women's environmental struggles around the world, other scholars have used the FPE approach to dispel neo-Malthusian myths about environmental degradation, population, and security. For example, Lucy Jarosz uses an FPE approach to analyze Eko Okoko's article on women and environmental change in the Niger Delta. In the primary article, Okoko interviews 100 Ibeno women who are the heads of their households and later argues that their vulnerability is a result of an interconnected chain of events: pollution from oil extraction reduces farm and fish yields and leads to male outmigration, then leading to female-headed households who rely on increased forest use for survival (Okoko 1999:375). Jarosz's commentary adds another layer of analysis pertaining to the population debates. Using Okoko's analysis, she states:

Okoko provides important evidence demonstrating that land shortage and resource pressures are not the result of population growth in sub-Saharan Africa. Rather than population pressure causing resource degradation, the case pivots upon narratives of the globalization of energy extraction and demand and the complicated relationship between the Nigerian state and its regional subjects/citizens who demand a share of the oil wealth and accountability for environmental destruction.

(Jarosz 1999:392)

In summary, FPE does a good job of bringing activist issues to the foreground and taking empirical data seriously in order to demonstrate how gender structures access to particular types of knowledge, space, and resources. In recent times, feminist political ecologists have attempted to discern new directions for the field. A recent panel at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers sought to uncover the direction FPE was moving, as well as some of the field's most urgent challenges. Two big themes emerged from this panel. The first emphasized the importance of examining not only gender in relation to the environment but other forms of difference as well, such as class, race, ethnicity, etc. The second big theme was the importance of being attentive to the politics of knowledge production and connecting theory to practice (Hawkins and Objeda 2011:250).

In addition to these themes, I suggest that the current literature could be enhanced by adopting an immanent methodological approach (Ackerly 2000). This approach examines feminist environmental activists' discourses and strategies and assesses them against their own stated aims. Its adoption would enable FPE scholars to focus on the strategies employed by women to combat the problems they face at local and global levels. An analysis of these strategies enables us to see what kinds of spaces are being created for democratic participation in national and global policy processes, as well as how activists are building networks at national, regional, and international levels.

Secondly, although FPE theorists are constantly examining the relationships between men and women, discussion of gender often tends to be focused solely on women. Consequently, this can lead to replication of the same problematic essentialized nature of women generated in ecofeminist discourse. Even more problematic may be the absence of analysis toward the political and material reasons these groups have for generating a certain representation of women. FPE needs to more closely interrogate not only its own definition of gender, but the process of how women define themselves.

Gender, Environment, and Development: Activism and Policy

The field of Gender, Environment, and Development (GED) can be considered the activist arm of the feminist environmental movement. It applies some of the feminist perspectives discussed above (mainly ecofeminism and feminist environmentalism) to the environmental policy domain. While some of the early work in the field of GED had echoes of ecofeminist thinking, particularly the notion of women being “closer to nature,” this view has now largely been abandoned as the policy field moved toward a more material perspective. Although it is beyond the scope of this essay to delve into all the various perspectives on gender and development at the policy level, newer perspectives have built on an intersectional understanding of gender relations and social context as being dynamic.

In this section I discuss some of the important activist and policy work that has been done with regards to integrating environmental issues in gender and development policy. I discuss some of the main milestones in gender and environmental work at the local and transnational levels and end by discussing three transnational environmental organizations doing GED work.

Feminist activists have played a major role in pushing the field of development studies to recognize substantive issues influencing women and the environment. Such issues include how the privatization of water services has forced poor and working women to choose between paying for water or feeding their children (Adams et al. 1997), how epidemics of breast cancer can be linked to the local environment that women live in (Bretherton 2003; Seager 2003), and how planting of woodlots on common land has led to women losing access to traditional herb and wood gathering sites (Mulder and Coppolillo 2005:118).

There is also robust grassroots activism taking place on environmental issues. For instance, in March 2007 women from Via Campesina occupied the Cevasa sugar mill in the region of Ribereiro Preto, Sao Paulo, to protest a large sugarcane factory. They argued against the conventional wisdom that the production of ethanol could benefit small farmers and protect the environment and highlighted the water, air, and soil pollution as well as the respiratory diseases caused by sugarcane monoculture (La Via Campesina 2007). In addition, women have provided extensive critiques of how corporate capital has been using the language of “sustainable development” to legitimize a global neoliberal agenda (Indonesian Peoples Forum 2002; Shiva 2005).

At the transnational level, the 1992 Rio Earth Summit (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, UNCED) contained within it a well-organized and proactive women's lobby. They succeeded in ensuring that women's concerns were included both within the final Rio Declaration and throughout Agenda 21, the statement of principles and policy proposals issued at the end of the conference.

Three organizations that have done a considerable amount of work to bring gender and environment issues to the transnational levels are GenderCC – Women for Climate Justice, Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), and Development Alternatives for Women in a New Era (DAWN). I briefly discuss each of these organizations below.

GenderCC – Women for Climate Justice

Since the beginning of 2001, the growing involvement of women's groups in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process has meant greater awareness to gender issues. Women's groups held a number of side events at the various incarnations of the Conference of the Parties (COP), which raised awareness of gender issues among COP participants and negotiators. The COP13 in Bali in 2003 marked an important moment for transnational feminist organizing around climate change. The transnational network GenderCC – Women for Climate Justice was established, and the conference also saw the highest number of side events (six) incorporating gender issues as their main focus (GenderCC 2011; Hemmati and Rohr 2009). Adding to this momentum, the COP15 held recently in Copenhagen was said to be more gender sensitive than any of the UNFCCC COPs.

Feminist activists from GenderCC have drawn our attention to the gendered effects of global phenomena such as climate change. Women constitute more than half of the world's agricultural work force and produce more than 60–80 percent of the food in the global South (World Bank/IFAD/FAO 2009:328). One of the projected consequences of climate change is the reduction in crop yields and food production particularly in developing countries. This affects not just women's livelihood but their food security and survival (United Nations Committee on Sustainable Development 2006; McFague 2008; Shiva 2008).

GenderCC has a strong network of feminist activists drawing both from the global North and South and are very committed to connecting the local with the global. They write on their website: “The slogan ‘emissions down, women's rights up’ is central to our advocacy, awareness raising and campaigning.” Another prominent slogan within the organization is “There is no climate justice without gender justice” (GenderCC 2011).

Although the organization has done a good job of trying to mainstream gender issues in climate change negotiations, they face an uphill task with regards to access to resources and fissures within the larger climate justice movement. For instance, at the transnational level, despite interventions by groups such as GenderCC arguing for a focus on issues of reproductive health and not population control, one finds a disturbing return of old discourses that push forth ideas of “population control as conservation.” Mainstream environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club are pushing “population justice” initiatives (Sierra Club 2011), which puts issues of women's reproductive capacity front-and-center on the agenda of global environmental politics.

Discourses that link environmental destruction to population growth have resurfaced again and again at the international level. In response to this there was an emergence in the early 1990s of feminist academics and activists who formed a committee titled “Committee on Women, Population and the Environment” (CWPE). This group has actively fought against ideas perpetuated by what they termed the “population control lobby.” They believe that the way to climate justice is not through population control, but through reducing economic, social, gender, and racial inequalities. Betsy Hartmann, one of the founders of the CWPE writes, “The implicit and explicit race, class, and gender biases of population control are detrimental to building an inclusive movement for climate justice. This narrow worldview also blocks a deeper understanding of the economic and political forces that both drive climate change and prevent effective solutions” (Hartmann 2009:3). In accordance with this statement, they see a focus on over-population detracting from a focus on the rampant over-consumption in the “developed” world.

Women's Environment and Development Organization

Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) is one of the biggest transnational feminist networks working on the issue of women and the environment. The organization itself was founded in 1991 by Bella Abzug and Mim Kilber shortly after the “World Congress for a Healthy Planet” was held in Miami, seeing participation from some 1,500 women in 83 countries. At the Congress, women from a variety of regions presented before a tribunal testimonies of their struggles against environmental and economic devastation (Sturgeon 1997).

One of the major outcomes of this conference was the Women's Action Agenda 21 (WAA21), which sought to bring a gender dimension into local, national, and global environmental decision-making. It also proposed actions to strengthen women's role in sustainable development by eliminating obstacles to their equal participation in decision-making. Partly because of its broad scope, this proved to be an effective tool to advocate for a more gender-sensitive UNCED process. It also helped that there were several prominent feminists who succeeded in sharing the document at the policy level, such as Maurice Strong (Director General of the UNCED) and Bella Abzug (United States Congresswoman). According to a WEDO report, “Women's Action Agenda 21 is a document of principles that women worldwide could both contribute to and use for their own advocacy purposes. The Agenda is a means to encourage women to take and lead action, recommending accountability measures for advocacy at the UN and other international agencies and institutions, governments, industry, and nongovernmental organizations” (WEDO 2001).

WEDO's current work is in the general areas of sustainable development, women's participation, and global governance. Unlike GenderCC, WEDO tends to work more closely with the United Nations and believes strongly in the power of tools like gender mainstreaming. In terms of its work on climate change, WEDO has been a strong advocate for including gender sensitive language in the UNFCCC process. WEDO also tries to ensure that access to money for climate change mitigation and adaptation is allocated fairly to men and women and also does a great deal of training on the linkages between gender and climate change (WEDO 2011).

Development Alternatives for Women in a New Era (DAWN)

Transnational feminist organizations such as Development Alternatives for a New Era (DAWN) have been critical of mainstream development organizations' handling of the women and environment question. They have also had problems with the propogation of an essentialist and biologically reductionist ecofeminism. Peggy Antrobus, one of the founders of DAWN, argues that a more integrated analysis is needed. She articulates some of the characteristics of DAWN's analysis on women and the environment and urges others to emulate them because

it is holistic; it is feminist; it builds on a synthesis of regional diversity which places, for example, the consequences of tourism in one part of the world and desertification in another in a context which relates them to their common structural origins, thus linking the experience of women at the level of their daily lives (the micro level) to economic trends and their global environmental impacts (the macro level); and it is political – it makes a critique of political systems that ignore women's unpaid work at the level of social and economic planning.

(Antrobus and Peacocke 1992)

In recent times, DAWN has introduced a new thematic area in their activism named “Political Ecology and Sustainability,” arguing for the need to pay greater attention to the health of the planet alongside women's human rights. These issues are seen as interrelated and develop from a Southern feminist perspective. They explicitly link their political ecology analysis to critiques of global trends in body politics, governance, and political economy (DAWN 2009).


In this essay, I have delineated the important schools of thought in feminist environmentalism. I point out that earlier “naturalized” articulations of the connections between women and nature have given way to a much stronger materialist understanding of these connections. The literature on FPE and GED in particular has stressed that the gendered access to, control over, and distribution of resources are at the heart of many environmental issues, both in terms of social justice and environmental degradation. By conducting fieldwork within these environmental organizations and movements and incorporating the insights they have found as part of their analytical framework, FPE scholars have been attentive to the environmental and social concerns motivating grassroots movements around the world. In addition, feminist activists are pushing the environmental change agenda far beyond simply advocating for incremental changes at the policy level or women's representation in international organizations. They are pushing for a transformation of the agenda itself.


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Links to Digital Materials

Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment. At, accessed August 26, 2011. Provides data and information on a number of issues such as gender and environmental degradation, conflict, and growing poverty. Activist in orientation, it seeks to promote the social and economic empowerment of women. Includes a special focus on criticism of population and immigration control programs in the global South and North.

GenderCC – Women for Climate Justice. At, accessed August 2011. Provides data and information on the gendered impact of global environmental problems such as climate change. The organization has a network of feminist activists located in both the global North and South and is very prominent in its activism at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC).

Green Belt Movement. Wangari Maathai. At, accessed August 2011. One of Africa's most important and prominent women's civil society organizations. It is based in Kenya and was started by Nobel Prize Winner Wangari Maathai in 1977. Initially worked on issues of deforestation, soil erosion, and lack of water, but has expanded its program to issues of good political governance and economic development.

Sierra Club. The Population Justice Environmental Challenge. At, accessed August 2011. American-based environmental organization founded by prominent environmentalist John Muir. Seeks to protect American wildlife and offer viable solutions to combat global warming. Started the Population Justice program to address issues of inequality as a root cause of rapid population growth and environmental degradation.

United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). At, accessed August 2010. Founded by a resolution of the General Assembly in 1972. It is the institution responsible for coordinating the response to environmental concerns within the United Nations. Played an active role in scientific research on environmental issues and has coordinated and supported the negotiation of international environmental agreements.

Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO). At, accessed February 2009. One of the largest transnational feminist networks working on the issue of women and the environment. The organization itself was founded in 1991 by US Congresswoman Bella Abzug and journalist Mim Kilber. It is based in New York City but has offices in multiple locations such as Togo, West Africa, Costa Rica, and Central America. WEDO works on a range of issues, such as women's leadership, sustainable development, and global governance.


  • 1. The term ecofeminism was coined by the French feminist Françoise d'Eaubonne (1974).

  • 2. The Chipko Movement used Gandhian methods of satyagraha and nonviolent resistance to stop the felling of trees. Women would form circles and hug the trees to prevent the logging.