- James Tiptree Jr.:Rereading Essentialism and Ecofeminism in the 1970s
Ecofeminism’s Family Trees
In the introduction to This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein describes the incomprehensibility of climate change through her maternal fears about the future her son will inherit (2014, 26–28). “Becoming a mother in an age of extinction brought the climate crisis into my heart in a new way,” Klein reflects (419). “If the earth is indeed our mother, then far from the bountiful goddess of mythology, she is a mother facing a great many fertility challenges of her own,” one who prompts us to create “a worldview based on regeneration and renewal rather than domination and depletion” (424). Within a work that the New York Times hailed as “the most momentous and contentious environmental book since Silent Spring” (Nixon 2014, BR12), this ecofeminist invocation of the maternal invites pause, forcing us to reckon with the specter of an environmental politics that has been under attack by academics nearly since its origins. When Klein’s environmentally just future rests on a vision of Earth as a woman needing help with her ovaries, it’s time to revisit ecofeminism.
Since its emergence in the 1970s, feminist scholars have often criticized ecofeminism for its dangerous essentialisms. Many of those well-founded critiques dismantled the problematic adoption of a second wave feminist perspective in which the universalizing category of “woman” assumed whiteness, heterosexuality, upper middle class status, and fertility. Others took issue with the reframing of feminized traits such as nurturing and protectiveness as environmentally positive, suggesting that this subversion actually reproduced the dualistic logics that it sought to unmake insofar as it refused to meaningfully interrogate the category of “nature.” In the wake of these attacks, ecofeminist defenses began to emerge, arguing that ecofeminism [End Page 223] is a complex field possessing internal divisions with varying and contradictory relationships to essentialism.1 Yet even recasting ecofeminism as, to borrow Noël Sturgeon’s description, “a multivoiced and vibrant set of political positions” with “very different theorizations of the connections between the unequal status of women and the life-threatening destruction of the environment” does not always do enough to acknowledge the messy connections, as well as distinctions, that characterize these ecofeminist attitudes (1997, 28). And, as the rhetoric and practice of ecofeminism take on more prominent roles in climate activism, we should rethink how (not whether) we read essentialism in ecofeminist discourse—a reconsideration that must begin with a return to the 1970s, when ecofeminism was first emerging.
A common strategy when diagnosing ecofeminist attitudes—essen-tialist? antiessentialist? strategically essentialist?—is to articulate distinct origin points and genealogies that explain the differences among these categories. My suggestion in this article is that such clean articulations may be neither accurate nor productive. Rereading early formulations of ecofeminism from the 1970s reveals that even individual thinkers moved fluidly among essentialist positions. Such acts of ecofeminist repositioning and essentialist crossover demand renewed attention to the complicated ways in which concepts of “gender” and “nature” have been articulated in relationship to each other, not just within ecofeminism, but also within feminist discourse writ large. This relatively focused task—exploring varying proto-ecofeminist perspectives on the relationship between gender and nature—thus opens up into a much larger project: namely, unpacking how our expectations about essentialism and the reading practices that allow us to detect it can prove self-perpetuating, particularly when we encounter 1970s texts that engage with the fraught concepts of nature and gender that we know were often essentialist during that formative decade.
While there are innumerable ways to think through the relationship between gender and nature in the 1970s, this article makes the perhaps unusual choice to focus on James Tiptree Jr., a science fiction (SF) writer who rose to prominence in that decade. I say unusual for a number of reasons: First, because Tiptree criticism has failed to note that “Tip” was equally as invested in questions of nature as he was in questions of gender, and [End Page 224] thus has never understood him as an environmental writer. Yet the 1970s were both the decade of second wave feminism (with which Tip’s...