Exploring ecofeminism: Women who dared to believe in a better future

Left to right: Vandana Shiva, Wangari Maathai, Octavia Butler. (Photo by Stephan Röhl under CC BY-SA 2.0) (Photo by Martin Rowe under CC BY-SA 2.0) (Photo by Nikolas Coukouma under CC BY-SA 2.5)

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Even for those who practice environmentalism and intersectional feminism, ecofeminism can be challenging to fully grasp. Exploring the work of ecofeminists can be a good starting point for those looking to unravel ecofeminism. The ecofeminist movement highlights the relationship between women and Earth, positioning it as holding solutions for environmental crises and women’s issues.

Theorists of ecofeminism have entered a divisive debate surrounding the ecofeminist movement’s role in reproducing gendered stereotypes. Some believe that ecofeminism could essentialize femme folks as possessing intrinsic caretaking or stewardship qualities, which could reproduce dynamics of oppression. While discussions surrounding the validity of the ecofeminist movement occur in university classrooms, the women discussed below simply harnessed the power of ecofeminism and got their hands dirty building a better future.

Vandana Shiva (1952-)

“Women’s way of creating, ruling, supporting, sustaining is the only place where we can sow the future, because the capitalist system and the patriarchal system is killing the future.” — Vandana Shiva

Shiva is an Indian scholar, environmental activist and advocate for global food sovereignty. She has authored more than 20 books on topics such as globalization, sustainable farming and soil. Similar to seeds, her words have dispersed across borders and rooted in faraway places, inspiring food sovereignty movements all over the world. She is an outspoken ecofeminist, and her work often draws links between the exploitation of women and the exploitation of the planet. In particular, she works to shift focus away from Western ecofeminist movements and toward feminist movements and women’s issues of the Global South. In essence, Shiva argues that the environmental degradation wrought by monocropping, harmful pesticides and genetically modified organisms will lead to social degradation that disproportionately harms women. Therefore, Shiva positions leadership and stewardship by women as a solution to the environmental and social crises.

Octavia Butler (1947-2006)

“I began writing about power because I had so little.” — Octavia Butler

Butler was an American science fiction writer whose novels featured Black protagonists, a radical change within a genre that has historically been dominated by white characters. Her most notable works include “Kindred,” “Bloodchild and Other Stories,” “The Parable of the Sower” and her last work, “Fledgling.” Her writing most notably reflects themes of Afrofuturism, but veins of ecofeminist thought are expressed as well. Readers of Butler follow historically disenfranchised and oppressed femme characters as they reclaim a future for themselves. When we consider that ecofeminism positions women as the protagonists in fighting environmental crises, Butler’s science fiction work epitomizes the movement.

Wangari Maathai (1940-2011)

“When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and hope.” — Wangari Maathai

The work of Maathai and her Green Belt Movement illustrates that women are already on the front line, getting their hands dirty in the fight against ecological catastrophes. As agricultural revolutions in the West work to fulfill corporate-driven dreams of industrialization and unsustainable practices, women in the continent of Africa are organizing to protect biodiversity and promote sovereignty. Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, which has empowered Kenyan women to plant 51 million trees and counting in Kenya, increasing the biodiversity and resiliency of their land. The movement has directly improved the lives of these women, who benefit from the healthier soil, increased rainwater storage and work opportunities it brings. Under the leadership of Maathai, fostering biodiversity and building sovereignty became a key pillar of ecofeminist thought. 

Ecofeminism is an abstract concept but can be brought into focus through the work of these three women. While they hail from three different continents, speak different languages and exist in different fields, they are united by their belief in a better future. While it’s unlikely that we’ll all start a movement on a similar scale, by looking through the lens of ecofeminism, these women can inspire us to create change within our own spheres of influence.

Sarah Siegel is the deputy blog editor. Contact Sarah Siegel at [email protected].