Ecofeminism : neither essentialist nor universalist

13 novembre 2005 par  Iseline

At an eco-gathering recently in France we realised that we were not very satisfied with the feminist theories. We would here like to provide a starting point for a discussion on what an ecological feminism could look like.

Feminism thought today is characterised by two currents of opinion : on the one hand the essentialists (or differentialists), on the other hand the universalists. We shall briefly review these schools of thought to criticise and move beyond them.

Essentialists defend the right to be different. These feminists claim that there are specifically feminine features that complement masculine features. For example women may be by nature more faithful than men. Essentialists seek to establish a harmonious utilisation of female skills in a complementary fashion for the greatest good of society. This is “feminism” in so far as it emphasises allegedly female values. These arguments were often put forward during a debate over equal political representation in France : every party must now have 50% female candidates in parliamentary elections. According to some essentialists this so-called parity would render public policy more human since women are by nature softer and closer to everyday reality than men who are by nature more prone to abstraction and ideology.

Universalists defend the right to equality. They defend strict equality in the name of human rights. For universalists biological differences can not explain behavioural differences and domination. All differences are explained culturally. For example young girls specialise in subjects of lower esteem although they have the better marks. For universalists this is a result of a subtle impregnation during childhood and adolescence of what are male and female careers. Universalists tend to stress on legal action, they want to change the law to affect equality for all.

But feminism according to these schools of thought has perverse effects for women. By positing biological differences between men and women essentialists justify differential treatment, often excluding women from all that is “inappropriate for gentle spirits” (business, abstract reasoning etc.). The universalists fight for access to these so called male domains. But should women follow the bad examples of men ?

As a feminist I can not agree with essentialists who say what I have to do to be a woman. As an ecologist I do not want to become a business woman to prove my independence. Do we really want a society in which women are prepared to oppress men in order to liberate themselves ? According to general opinion they may be successful but my idols are not Condolezza Rice or Margaret Thatcher...

In a capitalist society women will remain oppressed even if they assemble all the resources men currently possess. The competitive forces of capitalism will at most liberate a small portion of rich, well-educated women prepared to give up their private lives (as men who hand over domestic work to their spouses). Few people are capable of living a fulfilled life (with friends, culture, family and affection) whilst working long hours under stress. The resulting specialisation is even welcomed by some in the name of economic growth and prosperity.

Nowadays, women often have a double working day of business and domestic work. On top of this they are expected to keep up appearances. How can this be emancipation ? Reducing the working week could represent a progress for women. They have several additional hours of leisure, and above all their partners as well. This would allow men to get involved in household work as well.

Ecofeminism requires a new definition of work. The value attached to different types of work must be changed, domestic work revalued in the process. On the other hand paid work were seen as the activity of producing essential items of consumption only, we would work a lot less. The never ending quest for economic efficiency has resulted in unhealthy specialisation. The gender-based social divisions of labour are the cause of social and sexual domination.

Women’s liberation requires the abolition of work !