Hypatia 16.3 (2001) 149-156
[Access article in PDF]
Still Fooling with Mother Nature
In this essay I consider The Good-Natured Feminist: Ecofeminism and the Quest for Democracy by Catriona Sandilands (1999) and Ecofeminism as Politics: Nature, Marx and the Postmodern by Ariel Salleh (1997). Together these books on ecofeminism and politics provide a sense of the drastic divergence among positions regarding what ecofeminism has to offer liberatory twenty-first century politics--especially as these positions have been shaped and addressed by white female academics. They also provide examples of two very different feminist methodologies. Australian political theorist Ariel Salleh is compelled not by a question, but by a mission: she wants to set the record straight, to define and defend ecofeminism, and to exhibit its superiority to other left/green theories and movements. In contrast, Canadian sociologist Catriona Sandilands' work is an interrogation: she aims not to unify but to investigate the cluster of approaches that define themselves as "ecofeminist" in terms of their genealogies and their weaknesses and strengths in relation to postmodern political theory, and to push ecofeminism along toward its own radical democratic possibilities. It is not surprising that these different starting points bring the authors to opposing views regarding a set of questions central to debates over the meanings and significance of ecological feminisms: what are the relationships between ecofeminism and women, between women and nature? How might ecological feminisms address multiple forms of domination, including the domination of nonhuman beings and communities, without reinscribing false, dangerous notions of femaleness and femininity?
The powerful image that graces the cover of Salleh's book might serve as an instructive illustration of these central points of contention. The image is a photo of a sculpture by Lin Onus, entitled Maralinka after Australian Aboriginal land that was the site of nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s. The work [End Page 149] consists of a clear Plexiglas form in the shape of a mushroom cloud, covered with red, white and blue radioactivity symbols. The right side of the cloud floats toward a true-scale sculpture of a woman clutching a child to her breast, their hair and clothing blown back by the radioactive wind. The child clutches the woman/mother, face buried in her body, but the adult faces the invisible monster, eyes and mouth open in defiance. Her lips form an open scream-- a hard-won, harrowing NO!
What makes this incredible work a piece of ecofeminist art? In Australia, the title of Maralinka brings to mind not just the slaughter of innocent women and children, but also the destruction of Aboriginal land, the genocide of indigenous people, and nuclear and colonial legacies all over the world. Maralinka is a work of art about intersections among various forms of domination, yet also about a very specific struggle for justice for Aboriginal people and other Australians in the face of deadly forces symbolized by the red-white-and-blue of the Australian and American flags. Some months ago, when I saw the sculpture in the Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth, I was moved by its depiction of resistance, and impressed to find such a piece of political art in a state-owned museum.
But when I encountered the photo of Maralinka on the cover of a book with the word "Ecofeminism" emblazoned on the cover, my response was different, cautious. I worried that the decontextualized art, alongside the much-misunderstood title "ecofeminism," was reduced to a simple message: Ecofeminism = Mothers Protecting Children. While ecofeminists include mothers and ecofeminist values include protecting those who are dependent on us, to identify ecofeminism with mothering is to perpetuate the view that ecofeminism is a limited, limiting perspective that leaves unquestioned traditional conceptions of gender.
My intention is not to pick on Salleh's choice of art for her book cover. Rather, the central point of disagreement between Salleh and Sandilands is their different responses to what I perceived as the discomforting message conveyed by the photo on the cover of the book--that ecofeminism is a motherhood environmentalism built on prefeminist conceptions of gender and...