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Coined in 1974 by the French feminist Francoise d'Eaubonne, ecofeminism, or ecological feminism, is a recent movement that asserts that the environment is a feminist issue and that feminism is an environmental issue. The term ecofeminism has come to describe two related movements operating at somewhat different levels: (1) the grassroots, women-initiated activism aimed at eliminating the oppression of women and nature ; and (2) a newly emerging branch of philosophy that takes as its subject matter the foundational questions of meaning and justification in feminism and environmental ethics . The latter, more properly termed eco-feminist philosophy, stands in relation to the former as theory stands to practice. Though closely related, there nevertheless remain important methodological and conceptual distinctions between action- and theory-oriented ecofeminism.

The ecofeminist movement developed from diverse beginnings, nurtured by the ideas and writings of a number of feminist thinkers, including Susan Griffin, Carolyn Merchant, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Ynestra King, Ariel Salleh, and Vandana Shiva. The many varieties of feminism (liberal, marxist, radical, socialist, etc.) have spawned as many varieties of ecofeminism, but they share a common ground. As described by Karren Warren, a leading ecofeminist philosopher, ecofeminists believe that there are important con
nectionshistorical, experiential, symbolic, and theoreticalbetween the domination of women and the domination of nature. In the broadest sense, then, ecofeminism is a distinct social movement that blends theory and practice to reveal and eliminate the causes of the dominations of women and of nature.

While ecofeminism seeks to end all forms of oppression, including racism, classism, and the abuse of nature, its focus is on gender bias, which ecofeminists claim has dominated western culture and led to a patriarchal, masculine value-oriented hierarchy. This framework is a socially constructed mindset that shapes our beliefs, attitudes, values, and assumptions about ourselves and the natural world.

Central to this patriarchal framework is a pattern of thinking that generates normative dualisms. These are created when paired complementary concepts such as male/female, mind/body, culture/nature, and reason/emotion are seen as mutually exclusive and oppositional. As a result of socially-entrenched gender bias, the more "masculine" member of each dualistic pair is identified as the superior one. Thus, a value hierarchy is constructed which ranks the masculine characteristics above the feminine (e.g., culture above nature, man above woman, reason above emotion). When paired with what Warren calls a "logic of domination," this value hierarchy enables people to justify the subordination of certain groups on the grounds that they lack the "superior" or more "valuable" characteristics of the dominant groups. Thus, men dominate women, humans dominate nature, and reason is superior to emotion. Within this patriarchal conceptual framework, subordination is legitimized as the necessary oppression of the inferior. Until we reconceptualize ourselves and our relation to nature in non-patriarchal ways, ecofeminists maintain, the continued dual denigration of women and nature is assured.

Val Plumwood, an Australian ecofeminist philosopher, has traced the roots of the development of the oppression of women and the exploitation of nature to three points, the first two points sharing historical origins, the third having its genesis in human psychology. In the first of these historical women-nature connections, dualism has identified higher and lower "halves." The lower halves, seen as possessing less or no intrinsic value relative to their polar opposites, are instrumentalized and subjugated to serve the needs of the members of the "higher" groups. Thus, due to their historical association and supposedly shared traits, women and nature have been systematically devalued and exploited to serve the needs of men and culture.

The second of these historical women-nature connections is said to have originated with the rise of mechanistic science before and during the Enlightenment period. According to some ecofeminists, dualism was not necessarily negative or hierarchical; however, the rise of modern science and technology, reflecting the transition from an organic to a mechanical view of nature, gave credence to a new logic of domination. Rationality and scientific method became the only socially sanctioned path to true knowledge, and individual needs gained primacy over community. On this fertile soil were sown the seeds for an ethic of exploitation.

A third representation of the connections between women and nature has its roots in human psychology. According to this account, the features of masculine consciousness which allow men to objectify and dominate are the result of sexually-differentiated personality development. As a result of women's roles in both creating and maintaining/nurturing life, women develop "softer" ego boundaries than do men, and thus they generally maintain their connectedness to other humans and to nature, a connection which is reaffirmed and recreated generationally. Men, on the other hand, psychologically separate both from their human mothers and from Mother Earth, a process which results in their desire to subdue both women and nature in a quest for individual potency and transcendence. Thus, sex differences in the development of self/other identity in childhood are said to account for women's connectedness with, and men's alienation from, both humanity and nature.

Ecofeminism has attracted criticism on a number of points. One is the implicit assumption in certain ecofeminist writings that there is some connection between women and nature that men either do not possess or cannot experience. And, why female activities such as birth and childcare should be construed as more "natural" than some traditional male activities remains to be demonstrated. This assumption, though, has left some ecofeminists open to charges of having constructed a new value hierarchy to replace the old, rather than having abandoned hierarchical conceptual frameworks altogether. Hints of hierarchical thinking can be found in such ecofeminist practices as goddess worship and in the writings of some radical ecofeminists who advocate the abandonment of reason altogether in the search for an appropriate human-nature relationship. Rather than having destroyed gender bias, some ecofeminists are accused of merely attempting to reverse its polarity, possibly creating new, subtle forms of women's oppression. Additionally, some would argue that ecofeminism runs the risk of oversimplification in suggesting that all struggles between dominator and oppressed are one and the same and thus can be won through unity.

A lively debate is currently underway concerning the compatibility of ecofeminism with other major theories or schools of thought in environmental philosophy. For instance, discussions of the similarities and differences between ecofeminism and deep ecology occupy a large portion of the recent theoretical literature on ecofeminism. While deep ecologists are primarily concerned with anthropocentrism as the primary cause of our destruction of nature, ecofeminists point instead to androcentrism as the key problem in this regard. Nevertheless, both groups aim for the expansion of the concept of "self" to include the natural world, for the establishment of a biocentric egalitarianism, and for the creation of connection, wholeness, and empathy with nature.

Given the newness of ecofeminism as a theoretical discipline, it is no surprise that the nature of ecofeminist ethics is still emerging. A number of different feminist-inspired positions are gaining prominence, including feminist animal rights , feminist environmental ethics based on caregiving, feminist social ecology , and feminist bioregionalism . Despite the apparent lack of a unified and overarching environmental philosophy, all forms of ecofeminism do share a commitment to developing ethics which do not sanction or encourage either the domination of any group of humans or the abuse of nature. Already, ecofeminism has shown us that issues in environmental ethics and philosophy cannot be meaningfully or adequately discussed apart from considerations of social domination and control. If ecofeminists are correct, then a fundamental reconstruction of the value and structural relations of our society, as well as a reexamination of the underlying assumptions and attitudes, is necessary.

[Ann S. Causey ]



Des Jardins, J. Environmental Ethics: An Introduction to Environmental Philosophy. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1993.

Griffin, S. Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.


Adams, C., and K. Warren. "Feminism and the Environment: A Selected Bibliography." APA Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy (Fall 1991).

Vance, Linda. "Remapping the Terrain: Books on Ecofeminism." Choice 30 (June 1993): 1585-93.

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The term ecofeminism was first used by French radical feminist Françoise d'Eaubonne (b. 1920) in 1974 to synthesize two movements previously thought of as separate: ecology and feminism. D'Eaubonne saw clear interconnections between the domination of women and that of nature, and she hoped, by making these interconnections explicit, to rescue the planet from the destructive effects of "the male system" and restore it for the benefit of humanity's future.

Ecofeminism offers a range of theoretical positions in which the prefix eco signifies the whole household of life. These positions include stringent critiques of reductionist ecological science because of its destructive effects on the whole. Ecofeminism is defined, however, by politically and socially multivalent feminist analyses that seek a positive understanding of the dialectic between nature and humanity in order to move beyond masculine domination of both women and nature.

The relationship between nature and human culture remains problematic for ecofeminists because the feminization of nature has contributed conceptually to downgrading women's cultural role and status. Ecofeminists reject a male elite model of human culture that inferiorizes and excludes groups of people, as well as nature. Within industrially developed societies, ecofeminists debate the issue of gender difference within cultures in dialogue with movements such as deep ecology, antimilitarism, animal liberation, antiracism, and environmental justice. Globally, ecofeminists consistently critique the environmental effects of gendered science and resource management, together with economic development models that have a disproportionate and often disastrous impact on women.

Ecofeminism also offers a potentially transformative philosophy of the self and of society. Influenced by process thought and Gaia science, every entity is seen as internally related to all aspects of its environment, with that relationship as part of what the entity is in itself. This awareness of ecological interdependence calls for an essentially nonviolent ethic of care within societies. It includes care for the fundamental elements of life in recognition of their limits, as well as attention to their present and future ecological and social costs.

Worldwide, ecofeminism focuses on relationships between global economic policies and global ecological crises, arguing that addressing the first in the form of a radical transformation of capitalist production, from an overwhelmingly competitive system to a cooperative one, benefits the global environment. Therefore ecofeminists unite with social justice organizations in order to reach out and care for those statistically most at risk from, but powerless to avert, environmental degradation: the poor, women, children, and indigenous peoples.

Ecofeminism encourages, indeed, requires a reshaping of the image of God from a hierarchical God above and beyond Earth to one continuously involved with, while not confined by, the evolutionary history of life on Earth. Therefore, ecofeminism fosters a sense of our belonging within, rather than being in control of, the community of life. The insights of process theology, feminist theology, non-traditional spiritualities, and the spiritualities of indigenous communities with a strong matriarchal tradition are used to highlight ecological interdependence and the value of biodiversity in all its forms. Many of these insights demonstrate a diversity of response to what is called sacred or divine.

See also Animal Rights; Deep Ecology; Ecology; Ecology, Ethics of; Ecology, Religious and Philosophical Aspects; Ecology, Science of; Ecotheology; Feminisms and Science; Feminist Cosmology; Feminist Theology; Gaia Hypothesis; Womanist Theology


d'eaubonne, françoise. "the time for ecofeminism," trans. ruth hottell. in ecology: key concepts in critical theory, eds. carolyn merchant and roger s. gottlieb. atlantic highlands, n.j.: humanities press international, 1994.

merchant, carolyn. earthcare: women and the environment. london and new york: routledge, 1996.

mies, maria, and shiva, vandana. ecofeminism. london and atlantic highlands, n.j.: zed books, 1993.

plumwood, val. feminism and the mastery of nature. london and new york: routledge, 1993.

primavesi, anne. sacred gaia: holistic theology and earth system science. london and new york: routledge, 2000.

sturgeon, noël. ecofeminist natures: race, gender, feminist theory, and political action. london and new york: routledge, 1997.

warren, karen, ed. ecological feminism. london and new york: routledge, 1994.

anne primavesi

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