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Literature Review: Exploring the Nexus between the Subjugation of Women and Nature


This paper will consider the subjugation of women and it’s alignment to that of nature as an ecofeminist argument. It will describe the rationalisation behind the oppression of women and its connection to the extractive approach to nature. The changing roles of women as the evolution of environmental and gender ethics unfolded will be discussed, along with the complexity involved in what the rational patriarchal, consumption-driven culture sells as success, opposed to what an ecofeminist approach might offer, in dealing with current crises. The essence of what challenges the two approaches present to women will also be shared. This will be supported by work done by organisations and authors such as, Cilliers (2000), Fred and Mcmillen (2002), Gardiner (2006), (Hattingh 1999), Woermann and Cilliers (2012), Swilling and Annecke (2012), Gaard (2015), etc.

Problem Statement

Ecofeminism claims that the oppression of women is linked to the subjugation of nature. Such domination must be rooted in certain assumptions being made about the oppressed and the oppressor. In our current consumption driven culture, actors within it must contribute to buy-in to these assumptions and how gender roles are taken up in reality. The same could be argued for another approach, such as matriarchy, which would require a different set of assumptions being adopted by society as superior or preferred.

Academic positioning on the Environment and Gender- Complex Muse for Inertia

According to Hattingh (1999), the debate on environmental ethics has been one spanning over decades and has been useful in creating the space for dialogue on the matter. However, he argues that while ethics and positions have been explored in the academic arena the practical translation to inform action has been limited while ‘philosophers talk to themselves’. Similarly, the debate on what sustainable development is and what the key focus areas should be, has also been in debate amongst academia for a long time. Significant deliberation and analysis has gone into emphasising the importance of defining more clearly how social, environmental and economic development could deliver a more balanced approach with a holistic measure of growth and prosperity in this envisioned ‘sustainable future’. Leadership for action has unfortunately been limited as implementable policy is weak (Swilling and Annecke 2012). Sneddon, Howarth and Nordgaard (2006) support this argument and emphasises the interrelatedness of economy with social and environmental aspects. Reference is made to the time-lag since the Brundltand report and the lack of integrated action towards sustainability. This lays the basis for the observation that a lot of useful dialogue has happened but not much meaningful action.

Leppänen (2004) reflects on Elin Wagner’s work done, in 1941, and the significance of her publication, Alarm Clock, which looked at what matriarchy and what an ecofeminism approach can offer in interactions on gender, race, reductionism and the utilitarian exploitation of nature. This work was not only significant in bringing the spotlight on the role of women but also the complexity of the interactions within a patriarchal culture and the devastating results it has yielded.

According to Gaard (2015), since ancient roman times, everything that is feminine or ‘of women’ is disregarded and considered lesser or inferior. Even though the United Nations’ (UN) efforts seemingly bring expression to women’s views, it is not really evident what the weight or impact of dialogue is and whether efforts have in fact had real practical value beyond creating greater visibility of women. Countless academics such as; Battersby (2012), Swilling and Annecke (2012) and many more have pointed out that women and children suffer the most in terms of food insecurity and poverty while women produce half of the food required across the globe.

Hattingh (1999) argues that environmental ethics really takes six different positions, ranging from the radical to more plausible, and the same can be said about feminist positions developed over time.

All being said, sadly it appears that women and nature find commonplace in being a muse for debate and superficial local, national and international agreements and intellectual dialogue that have unfolded over many years. However, very little value seems to be attached to their space and connectedness in our world. Real progress seems unachievable while extractive economic growth remains the pivot of this ‘sustainable future’ we talk to one another about.

‘Rational’ Domination of Women and Nature

Warren (1990) conducts a very clinical, scientific look at the rational substantiation behind the patriarchal view on the oppression of women and nature. The assumptions that are made regarding entities’ power to influence its environment and subsequent power to be of greater significance and justifiably exercise domination over other entities, underpins the argument for patriarchy. It is also argued that assumptions are made on women’s association with nature, linking strongly to that which is physical and not intellectual, human and man.

According to Leppänen (2004) the power of patriarchy is sewn together by maintaining oppression of what is feminine which includes and is connected to the ultimate feminine, i.e., nature. Fred and Mcmillen (2002) describe the significance of an integrated framework and systems thinking when involved in social work. The relationship between humans and our environment is of great significance and acknowledgement of this is important for our holistic development and wellbeing. Patriarchal ideology in essence denies and rejects this and it demands a separation of nature from what is human, powerful and superior, man.

This masculine ideology is practiced by way of violence, military approaches to reduce and even control reproductive processes (Gaard 2015). Mainstream agricultural production practices are governed by this principle, as we see animal’s young removed from mothers for slaughter, mothers mutilated to maximise production output and turnover. Over time this has also taken root by introducing family planning programmes mainly in developing countries, in response to overpopulation and the fears attached to urban population projections, especially on the African continent reaching 57% by 2050 (Swilling and Annecke 2012). Ironic though, the debate on the overconsumption by 20% of the world’s population in the West and North and the implications on the rest of the 80% of the world’s population that only accesses 20% of the resources, very seldom enjoy the same attention as the developing world’s population crisis. This demonstrates the reduction of the value of women and all aspects of nature to a mere resource.

Gaard (2015) argues that only when an entity from nature or connected to nature, enters the cash economy is it deemed valuable in today’s society. Value is not something that we are able to quantify or appreciate outside of the economic realm. We are so far removed from that way of being, that value to sustain life is inconceivable without a price tag. Men are seen as the ‘breadwinners’, hence the assumption is that women are less valuable and nature is only seen as a resource to dominate, extract from and add monetary value as a result of man’s intervention. Women and nature have really been coined as commodities in our world today.

The Dichotomous ‘Feminine Human’ Consumer

Modernity, the establishment and refinement of patriarchy as replacement to matriarchy, is behind our daily experience in the oppression of women. This internalisation of this system has far reaching effects on the minds of all who encounter it, women, men, nature and all that it encompasses. How they see themselves and each other in the world is fundamentally informed by this internalisation (Leppänen 2004). Kopnina and Shoreman-Ouimet (2015) refer to the maintained focus on economic growth within an envisaged ‘sustainable future’, as being a weak vision and this in itself undermines the value that nature truly holds, even amongst those leading the sustainability debate and action. According to Gardiner (2006), moral corruption has taken root in these circles where convening for the cause and signing declarations of promises, provide some relief to our consciences, with respect to the environmental and inequality issues haunting us.

The question that hangs on the edge of one’s tongue is, ‘how does all of this lip service and the smoke and mirrors surrounding the real value of nature and women, affect our individual and societal perception, commitment and stance on the cause for women and nature?’

In parallel, the plight of women has followed a similar route with feminist movements making significant progress, comparatively to what women were subjected to in ancient times. However, women around the boardroom tables today have had to adopt the patriarchal way in order to be partakers in the game. They still remain, sadly, very much on the back foot in terms of remuneration and not being valued for the unique intuitive contribution they make in the workplace (Leppänen 2004). Could this be considered as equity when women are forced to openly demonstrate domination over other women as a rite of passage in a man’s world?

In applying complexity systems thinking to patriarchy, it would make sense to consider that women would have, over time, and will continue to, self-organise and become more sophisticated in adapting to this dynamic patriarchal environment (Cilliers 2000). This adaptation may very well also involve reflection on inherent intuition and retreat to what comes naturally, as in the matriarchal system. On the other hand, Fred and Mcmillen (2002) argue that the current patriarchal system has brainwashed society to support the cultivation of a system that thrives on power, possession and invasive control. Women are imbedded in this culture, even with their inherent intuition and connection to nature and care for its survival. They are buried deep under the dirt mined from the earth to feed the ever increasing consumption that builds the image of even their own ‘prosperity’ (Leppänen 2004).

Seger (2010) analyses the work of Simona Vinci and interprets the actions of the women in the story, Agosto Nero, demonstrating the play between the feminine connection with nature and its intercourse with the principles of patriarchal consumerism. The duality is glaring as the element of possession, prosperity and superiority has what is feminine in shackles. It is indeed the mind that has been colonised and what women inherently know has been overtaken by the very need to participate in what is deemed to be good and prosperous by todays’ measure.

In the establishment of this value system, that only recognises and measures possession of equity and financial wealth, no other intrinsically feminine values connected to the wellbeing of society and nature that supports is embraced. Women cannot be who they naturally are (Gaard 2015). Seger (2010) through this beautiful story is able to portray this dance between two worlds, one acknowledged and one not, like an illegitimate love child. It would stand to reason that women would find it hard to fight against such powerful forces and that abandoning what is within them naturally for the comforts of a life that could otherwise, outside of the controlled modernist institutions, be very hard. The dichotomy in the life of the modern women is a complex web and Gardiner (2006) argues that it might be easier for women to convince themselves in contrary to what they may inherently know feels right. Perhaps the modern women might soon reach a point to seek new rules and in a complex system, transgressivity and rewriting ‘the way of doing’ is always possible (Woermann and Cilliers 2012).

Unlocking the Ecofeminism Offering

Leppänen (2004) argues that women’s authority and connection with nature is powerful and could be especially useful as we face breaching planetary boundaries. The capacity of women to unite in their connection with nature will require them to emerge from the patriarchal doctrine which has concretised a psyche that deems women as inferior. This psyche, in the backdrop of a very strong connection of women and nature being inferior to that which is human and civilised, justifies the continuous destruction of nature.

According to (Warren 1990), if women are to rekindle the connection with nature and use their intuitive power and ‘unite in sameness’, there might be a chance of influencing a meaningful change in the current modern system to one that is appreciative of nature as an equal and divine authority. The current social, environmental and economic challenges pose a particular array of difficulty which spans across nations, generations and is transdisciplinary in content (Gardiner 2006). This requires capacity and belief to deal with the magnitude and complexity of the challenge.

So what could the connection between women and nature offer the future if we were brave enough to do things differently?

Perhaps it would be wise to only focus on a few things that might be useful to reflect on. Firstly, Kopnina and Shoreman-Ouimet (2015) guide us to bringing acknowledgement to the earth as a being, nature as an equal into our consciousness. The principle of appreciation should steer our behaviour and decision making in everyday live considering the exploitative implications on nature. Women are seen as the homemakers, with significant decisions being made on consumption patterns on a very local scale. This awareness of nature and shift in behaviour could have significant effects on the attitudes of our children and future society.

Secondly, Gaard (2015) points out that the measure of value attached to the cash economy is a major flaw in our society. Women in their connection with nature and the experience in it, can create opportunity for other’s to experience its value. Women from all walks of life can create such experiences even in the most simple way for themselves and others.

Thirdly, Fred and Mcmillen (2002) refer to social wellbeing requiring acknowledgment of the human connection to the environment. Women can play a role in bringing emphasis to this in all facets of life and by being more vocal about the environmental aspects of health, education, food security, inequality, employment the connection will become more natural to those who never thought it would be.

Warren (1990) refers to ‘uniting in sameness’ which really calls for women to unite in what connects us, nature. Women have a special connection with the earth and with one another and supporting one another and coming together to build a sustainable future by caring for nature will be doing what we know feels right. Finding other women who also have that deep need to do something about the state of society and our environment should be a priority to mobilise.

The connection between women and nature is undeniable. The philosophies and arguments for its parallel subjugation exist, in support the ecofeminism view. However, we are all silent on action.


This paper has presented the subjugation of women and it’s alignment to that of nature, within an ecofeminist argument. It has described the rational thinking behind the oppression of women and its connection to the extractive approach to nature. The changing roles of women as the evolution of environmental and gender ethics unfolded has be discussed, along with the complexity involved in what the rational patriarchal, consumption-driven culture sells as success, opposed to what an ecofeminist approach might offer, in dealing with current environmental and social crises. The essence of what challenges the two approaches present to women and how they could naturally respond has also been shared. This has been supported by work done by academics such as, Cilliers (2000), Fred and Mcmillen (2002), Gardiner (2006), (Hattingh 1999), Woermann and Cilliers (2012), Swilling and Annecke (2012), Gaard (2015), etc.

© Submitted as an assignment for Leadership and Environmental Ethics, April 2017. Post Graduate Diploma in Sustainable Development, Stellenbosch University.

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