Feminism vs Environmentalism

12 Feb

I’m a feminist and an environmentalist. I like it that way. I always thought the two ideologies were mutually reinforcing – feminism is a social justice issue, climate change is a social justice issue (since it impacts those who are already vulnerable the most). Climate change disproportionately affects women (links here, here & here), but at the same time there is also evidence to suggest that increasing women’s rights across the globe will do a lot to mitigate against the effects of climate change. So far, so reinforcing.

But then I came across these articles on French feminist academic Elisabeth Badinter. I’m a little behind the times, but last year she published a book, Le Conflit, La Femme et La Mère (The Conflict, The Woman and The Mother), which argues that environmentalists, among others, are pressuring women to be perfect mothers and essentially driving them back into the domestic sphere.

“Between the protection of trees and the liberty of women, my choice is clear,” she says. “It may seem derisory but powdered milk, jars of baby food and disposable nappies were all stages in the liberation of women.”

Reusable nappies, the modern insistence on breast-feeding, the trend for local and organic food and made-from-scratch meals are, to Badinter, a modern form of oppression leading to a limitation on women’s personal freedom and the “tyranny of motherhood”.

Now, Badinter’s views are strongly worded, but it has made me wonder whether she has a point. The washing machine, microwave, supermarket, ready meals and other such time-saving, energy-intensive inventions have historically freed up women’s time and, to some extent, encouraged their entry into the workplace.

Cécile Duflot, leader of France’s Green Party, rejects the Badinter thesis saying, “Greens have always been feminists and always defended equality in the sharing of household tasks. There are indeed men who like to cook for their children, but for Elisabeth Badinter, it is unthinkable to imagine that cooking for a child means anything other than an obligation.”

Of course, I imagine there must be joy to be found in breast-feeding, or cooking for your child. But I think Duflot is slightly missing Badinter’s point here. Duflot asserts that green feminists are for the sharing of household chores between husband and wife, however I think Badinter hits upon the reality – that, surprising as it may seem, household tasks still fall to the woman to complete.

According to the Office for National Statistics, women in the UK spend nearly 3 hours a day on average on housework (excluding shopping and childcare). This compares with the one hour 40 minutes spent by men. Another survey found that 80% of women compared with 17% of men are responsible for looking after the children or arranging childcare facilities. I know that personally, I did a lot more housework when I was living with a boy than I do now, living alone. A problem shared is not necessarily a problem halved.

So I completely get Badinter’s point – the green movement’s push to get us all growing our own vegetables, to shop locally instead of at the supermarket and to take public transport instead of whacking all the kids in the back of the car, can seem like an extended joke designed to take up women’s lives and leave little room for independence.

Even for those of us without kids, Seeds and Stitches (where I first stumbled across Badinter) describes this pressure to be eco-fabulous very well:

“Home made Christmas and Birthday presents, restricting the clothes I buy for 3 months and (admittedly failed, sob) attempts to grow vegetables. I am on a never ending quest for life improvement… We must work, have a fulfilling relationship, be really creative or crafty, cook like Nigella, have photogenic babies, open an etsy shop selling vintage wares, have Apartment Therapy worthy homes and dress stylishly.”

It’s enough to make you want to be a French feminist academic. That’s right, crack open that red, pass me a fag and a great hunk of brie.

But. Although I agree that the current burden-sharing within households leaves MUCH to be desired, I am (of course) not ready to give up on environmentalism. I believe in making things, I believe in public transport, I believe in healthy and nourishing food. I also believe that our real work in solving this dilemma is recognising that equality between men and women, a sharing of the burden, is going to be essential if we are to mitigate against the effects of climate change without making the situation of women around the world worse.

So, if you are a woman, don’t write off environmentalism, instead become an out and proud feminist. If you are a man, same deal, but shout even louder. We need equality, and we need everyone on board if we are to be successful, fair and free in this fight against climate change.

7 Responses to “Feminism vs Environmentalism”

  1. Jess M February 12, 2011 at 9:34 pm #

    I think the problems arise when environmentalists do not keep a feminist analysis in mind when they’re advocating. You can’t *just* say reusable nappies are better, as an isolated message, it has to be integrally combined with a message that childcare should be shared between both parents. Otherwise it just plays into assumptions of mothers doing that work (look at nappy adverts in general…)

    Just like anything else, when environmental campaigns need a thorough gender analysis – not just assuming that all types of action to address climate change, or whatever, are de facto good for everyone…

    • hannamade February 12, 2011 at 9:42 pm #

      Thanks Jess, very useful comment. Yes that’s exactly it – so, so rare for environmental orgs to really analyse their messaging across race and gender etc and really look at long-term implications of what they are advocating.

  2. renieddolodge February 12, 2011 at 9:59 pm #

    Thoughtful post, I’ve often pondered the hypothetical ups and downs of feminist motherhood. In an unequal society, environmentalism’s message can read ‘look after/cater to the demands of your children, your husband, and the environment, too! Whilst you’re at it, make sure you keep adhering to that gender role!’ It’s no wonder women turn to efficient and money saving solutions, just like you detailed in the post. However, this is where I think class comes in, and the difference between women who have the time and money to buy organic/grow veg/wash reusable nappies etc and those who don’t.

  3. Hannah February 21, 2011 at 1:38 pm #

    Hi, I just wanted to say, good post. I wrote my MA dissertation on the history of environmentalism and although my focus wasn’t on women within environmentalist movements, I certainly found a lot about this. It’s a really interesting topic.

    One thing that your post reminded me of is that the antifeminism of environmentalism is not a new thing – environmentalism has often been tied up with normative gender roles, such as the macho man of the American wilderness myth (including activists like Dave Foreman of Earth First!), and the supportive rather than leadership roles women have often been forced to take on in environmental campaigns. Derek Wall writes a bit about this in one of his earlier books on comparative environmental movements, in case you’re interested: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Ud3wLi83YSEC&pg=PA56&dq=derek+wall+women+earth+first&hl=en&ei=8GdiTcPyLoXr4AaR8smpCg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCkQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

    The modern anti-technology/slow food/breastfeeding agenda that essentially puts pressure on women to stay in the home is something newer, but I find it interesting to put this in context and look at the changing ways in which environmentalism is still often ‘in league’ with the oppression of women. It’s probably important to note that this is more of a Western thing; environmental movements I’ve studied in postcolonial countries (sorry, generalisation alert) are often led by women and so are much more aware of issues of intersectionality.

    Thanks for your post. I’m glad to encounter other feminist environmentalists and hopefully our existence can help make environmentalism a bit more self-aware…

    • hannamade February 21, 2011 at 10:06 pm #

      Thanks for the link – really interesting. And you definitely speak the truth re: western movements and the history of environmentalism. Definitely lots more for me to think about. Thanks again! x


  1. Tweets that mention Feminism vs Environmentalism « hannamade -- Topsy.com - February 12, 2011

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Hanna Thomas and Hanna Thomas, greenkurrentli. greenkurrentli said: Feminism vs Environmentalism « hannamade http://bit.ly/hhAqZq #green #eco […]

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    […] 5. Sarah Duff is a South African historian who has written the very interesting and thought-provoking post, Whose Slow Food? It definitely relates to and has added to my thinking around supermarkets, and the relationship between women’s work and environmentalism. […]

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