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Women and Nature – who is She to You?

women and nature

From a young age, I always found it so intriguing how nature took on the role of a woman – Mother Nature. How we referred to it as ‘her’ or ‘she’ and even at times seeing people and literature spell it with a capital N. How cool, I thought as a little girl, that we gave nature so much recognition, we even made it a pronoun. That we, women, were being compared to something so magnificent, so powerful and so beautiful. But for some reason, this Women’s Month, when I started thinking about why we refer to nature as a woman, the ecofeminist within me was flooded with mixed emotions.

The term ‘fertile land’ was my first gaze into this kaleidoscope of beautiful, yet unclear thoughts when looking through this new and confusing lens. How beautiful, to think, just like a woman, who can create new life, so too, can nature carry the power to reproduce. But if the land isn’t fertile, it is referred to as barren. Being able to empathise with the shame that women sometimes feel when they are unable to reproduce, I found this term quite demoralizing.

I started thinking about the parallels between women and nature. I was looking into this not-so-new revelation, but my rose-tinted glasses no longer covered my eyes. It dawned on me, women have been fighting for their rights, to be seen and heard, and to stop the discriminatory actions of society for centuries. So too, have we been fighting for the rights of our environment, giving a voice to the voiceless, fighting against its destruction. While progress has been made, albeit slow, we have been fighting against society’s oppression of both. Fighting for society to understand that they are both worth fighting for.

Was it he that made nature a she?

The idea of nature being a woman has existed for centuries. From ancient and enduring traditions of feminine spiritual incarnations such as the Incan Goddess Pachamama and the Greek deity Gaia, to its connection portrayed in art and language. Explorers and travelers, who were mostly men, often described and compared their discoveries to the beauty and the shapes of women. Even Shakespeare famously asked ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

We are taught from a young age to refer to our natural environment as ‘Mother Nature’, giving us the idea that our planet is a parental figure which is there to sustain us. Well, that’s the comforting analogy I believed for years, one taught to us as children, but what we are not taught as children, or with age, is the impact which gendered terms and languages can have to reinforce gender hierarchies and stereotypes within our society. These metaphors, imagery and language paint certain images of the feminine, which can reinforce these stereotypes. Women and nature are morally linked if we think of it in a way that both are oppressed and fighting in solidarity for one another.

Carolyn Merchant explained in her book “The Death of Nature” how the environment shifted into something which was altered, exploited and used to create profit post the revolution of science. This transformation took place in the context of a patriarchal society, where women’s rights were already being protested, as women’s reproductive and labour abilities had for years been exploited.

The comparison between nature and women has long been deep seated in Western culture, something which confirms the other’s inferiority. By creating this connection between nature and women are we not condoning or justifying the acts of exploitation? I do believe that by truly understanding nature through the hierarchical structural lens with which society is seen, we may begin to place the natural environment in a different ideological place in our minds, showing it the respect it truly deserves.

When we fail to respect nature, are we disrespecting women?

Ideological terms are not the only manner through which disrespect for nature translates to disrespect towards women. When we fail to respect and protect our natural environment it translates into unbalanced disadvantages for certain socioeconomic groups, in particular, women. Climate change impacts poorer communities more harshly, especially women, since women have great and valuable roles and responsibilities within nature, particularly within these communities, as well as the fact that women constitute the majority of those living below the poverty line. In the global south, 60% of food is produced by women, with 50% of the world’s agricultural workforce consisting of women.

Therefore, anything that impacts climate agricultural activities, such as flooding or droughts will have an impact on women’s sources of income, security, as well as their access to food and their basic survival. When the impacts of climate change result in girls and women being taken out of their education in order to work harder and walk further to collect and produce resources, we must realise that we are essentially taking away opportunities from them, which would empower them to have a brighter future. Women have incredible and unique knowledge which is exceptionally valuable in the fight against climate change. In order to enact positive climate change action, we have to incorporate women in environmental policy. By bringing women into climate change action on a decision-making level; it not only promotes the empowerment of women, but it also pushes to redefine their relationship with the natural environment, but this time, it’s on their own terms.

Dismantling dualisms

The manner in which we think about our natural environment is directly linked to the manner in which we think about women. In a patriarchal society, perceiving our planet as feminine is to some degree to perceive it as inferior, whether we realise it or not. Why do some people regard things made naturally to be less than things which are man-made? In a society founded on polarities and pairs; female and male, physical and mental, emotional and rational, natural and man-made, body and mind; nature has been seen as the antithesis to rationality with its unpredictable patterns. Men are symbolized by their rationality, while women are portrayed as irrational.

Women are often hidden in the shadows; “behind every successful man is his woman.”  That outdated quote reminds me how women have for centuries been placed in the background to males’ actions and success, without recognition, being devalued. In the same way women are often thought of as background figures to the success of the men in the foreground, so too, does society often think of nature as a background to the happenings in the foreground. Philosopher Val Plumwood says

‘[t]o be defined as ‘nature’ in this context is to be defined as passive, as non-agent and non-subject, as the ‘environment’ or invisible background conditions against which the ‘foreground’ achievements of reason or culture […] take place […] a resource empty of its own purposes or meanings, and hence available to be annexed for the purpose of those supposedly identified with reason or intellect, and to be conceived and molded in relation to these purposes’

Plumwood suggests there to be a logical inconsistency in the way we perceive our relationship with the natural world. Majority of the population acts as a mind which ceases to understand their impact on the body of which they are a part of. These socially constructed dualisms create a distinction between natural and man-made, but in fact, we are all just a part of a larger whole.

Understanding Nature and the Mother

In order to understand the feminization of nature, we need to really understand how our mothers are treated, which differs from person to person and within various cultures. Catherine Roach describes this intricate relationship in “Loving Your Mother: On the Woman-Nature Relation.” She explains that even the most benevolent usually regard our mothers as existing for us instead of the sovereign beings that they truly are. Catherine reveals how we identify our mothers as a  person we can turn to for anything and that they will, without expecting anything in return, be there for us, whether it be for advice or support.

This imbalance in the mother-child relationship conceptualizes many peoples’ relationship with nature; Mother Nature. We act in a manner to which no cost is fixed to our negligent use of natural resources, as if resources are there purely for our ability to deplete them, with no guilt attached. When we view nature as a mother – a woman; we view it as an endless being from which we can take with no consequences. In a patriarchal society, where women are often viewed as being valuable for their abilities to become mothers and their capacity to produce new life, we are placing value on what they can offer us instead of what they indeed are. Just as we should respect our mothers, we too should respect nature, not simply for its ability to produce new life, but simply for what it is. The power it has, the beauty it holds, the life it carries.

Disrespecting women is a natural disaster

By viewing the natural environment as a simple background entity, we are essentially dismissing the fundamental role it plays and denying the reliance we as a society have on it for our basic human existence. The urge for change has long been standing, but how do we overthrow the deep-rooted exploitation of nature and women which has been ingrained in Western culture? Just as we presume nature will just simply remain silent while we continue to disrespect it, disregard it, devalue its importance in our everyday lives, just as we proceed to view nature as a background non-agent, while we very well recognise, that without nature itself, we will not be able to sustain life. So too, if women remain in the background, without honouring them with the respect they deserve, acknowledging their ability to sustain, these two, magnificent, powerful entities, will carry on acting irrationally, fighting back, fighting for their voices to be heard… they will erupt with anger, they will bring the heat and they will burn anything in its path, they will bring tears, delivering a tidal wave of reimagining, flooding society with new paradigms. They will tear through the toxic masculinity which poisons and soils everything which sustains us, bringing winds of change. It’s time to listen. Feel the tremors, let it shake you up from the inside out.

As destructive as this dismantling change may be, it’s a beautiful thing to see how nature and women are no longer allowing themselves to be placed in the background. Until they are both brought to the foreground, we will be dealing with a natural disaster, resulting in damage which will take years to mend. The effects may be catastrophic, tragic and even disastrous. I’m not necessarily saying we need to stop referring to nature as a woman, but that when we do, we recognise the parallels of oppression that both have had to endure for many years, and that we begin to value them both as they rightfully deserve, such that our planet is not only sustained, but can function optimally, for many years to come.

Changing the way society views women and nature

Our relationship with the natural world is clearly a complicated one, and the dualistic assumptions under which we operate do not always paint a realistic view of the world. But the relationship we hold with nature, the way we feel about it, the way we respect it, has a vast impact on the way we treat it and the degree to which we engage with nature with conscious behaviours. Ecofeminists suggest that we stop looking at nature as something below or above us on a hierarchical scale, but rather viewing it with reverence. Just as women, if we saw nature as something which we had no right to exploit, would society not begin to treat them both differently? Yes, women are more connected to nature, and forging more connectedness to nature would be beneficial, but the creation of reverence will be more powerful in its ability to stop the exploitation of nature.

What if the idea of drawing connections between nature and women didn’t lead to oppression? Maybe there’s an opportunity for the connection to be reclaimed in a way that becomes liberating? I believe women are inherently closer to nature, but I do not find this association to be disempowering. Despite what I’ve come to learn about why we refer to nature as a woman, the fact that nature and women are both the source and sustainers of life, that we share an incredible connection to our natural environment, the roles women have played in nature for centuries, and that the bodies of women are more affected by the natural world in comparison to men, is a beautiful thing. I will never stop referring to nature as a woman, as I believe that they are both alike in their power, beauty and value, but when I do, I will always remember to recognise the fight they have both fought for years and be reminded of the respect and value they both deserve.

Note from the author

By all means, my perception and connection with nature is a direct result of my own experiences. I am privileged enough to have grown up in Cape Town, where nature is always around the corner, and I was able to make time in my day for time in the ocean or to go on hikes, as well as being able-bodied, which allowed me to explore freely. Other women, with differing backgrounds and circumstances may have a different relationship with nature. Of course, the experiences of other women are as significant as mine, and the greater picture of ecofeminism would be incomplete with these variant experiences. However, it’s important that an ecofeminist space is created which is not dominated by white, able-bodied, straight and privileged women. It’s important to create an inclusive ecofeminism space. In the same way we seek to end the oppression of both women and nature, within this space, we should prioritize marginalised voices within.

Business woman Carin BrinkAbout the author

Carin is a nature enthusiast with a passion for sustainability. While completing her Masters in Environmental Science, Sustainability and Society, she also co-founded and owns vegan sushi company Plushi, as well as a boutique marketing agency, Peeled Orange Agency. 

As part of our Women’s Month celebrations at Shop Zero™, we recently interviewed a few fellow female entrepreneurs. Carin was one of them and gave us such thoughtful answers. Read the interview here.

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