Women’s Liberation and Environmental Transformation

Women are naturally the champions of an environmentally safe world. However, few people automatically make the connection between women’s liberation and environmental transformation. Certainly male domination within the context of a class society plays a major and critical role in the destruction of the environment.

I was recently speaking to a woman who left the feminist movement to become an environmental activist. She said that many of the female activists she knew in the environmental movement were feminists but that they were scared to raise feminist issues. 

In the environmental movement, as in other progressive movements for social change, many, many women are involved, particularly on a grassroots level. Some are in leadership positions. However, environmental organizations still tend to be male dominated. In general, men often lead on the “larger issues,” such as peace and the environment, while women’s issues, like reproductive rights, are marginalized. Women are also expected to set aside their issues during crises. Few people recognize that reproductive issues are global issues and that they have a major environmental impact. 

If we are to be effective in our work on the environment, we need to make the connection between women’s liberation and environmental transformation. We also need female leadership, and to challenge male domination, along with classism, racism, and all the other oppressions. 

I invite both women and men to share their thinking about this.

Diane Balser
International Liberation 
Reference Person for Women
Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, USA




Land and other natural resources have been turned into commodities and property to be owned and used for profit. Male-dominated governments create policies and fight wars in order to acquire these natural resources—exploiting and polluting our environments and, in turn, destroying our health, homes, and communities. Seeing the natural world as something to own, something separate from us as people, makes it easier to exploit and destroy.

In many countries outside the United States, particularly those that are still developing into industrialized nations, the connection between women and care of the environment is very visible. This is because women are the ones who are often in the field gathering drinking water and firewood. They are thinking about their family’s health and where to find nourishing food and clean air. They see firsthand how destroyed our earth is, and they are actively trying to reverse that. Through daily chores and actions, projects they create, and movements they build, they are addressing how their lands and other natural resources are being polluted or are disappearing and how their communities are being destroyed by the wars waged for these natural resources.

Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman, started the Green Belt Movement in which women plant trees. Planting trees helps to solve problems like scarce firewood, soil erosion, water pollution, and poor animal nutrition and contributes to human survival, health, and well-being. It also gives women jobs so they can support themselves. Maathai spoke publicly about the problems of a male-dominated post-colonial Africa, and she was beaten, jailed, and called a “crazy woman.” Her husband divorced her, claiming adultery, but she believed he did it because she was “too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn, and too hard to control.” She was the chairperson of the National Council for Women in Kenya, a member of the Parliament, and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2011 she died of ovarian cancer.

There must be countless women all over the world, especially from the grassroots, whose stories of women’s liberation and the environment are not recognized because of male domination, sexism, classism, racism, the oppression of Native and Indigenous peoples, and other oppressions. Their efforts are also marginalized and made invisible because fighting for the environment is fighting the capitalist agenda.

ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE

The environmental justice movements in the United States are based on an analysis of power, oppression, and liberation. This makes it easier for them to recognize and raise issues of male domination and sexism in their work. Making the connection between people and the environment also facilitates seeing the connection between women’s liberation and the environment. However, because of sexism and male domination, it’s still hard for those of us in these movements to remember to keep that connection central and visible. Because it’s easy to trivialize experiences of sexism and male domination, it’s easy to forget that the connection between the environment and women’s issues is important and needs to be talked about.

Many of the mainstream U.S. environmental organizations lack an analysis of power and oppression. This is reflected in how deeply divided they are from environmental justice movements and movements for Native liberation. The absence of such an analysis also makes it harder for people in these organizations to identify male domination and sexism in their work. 

EFFECTS ON WOMEN'S HEALTH 

Women’s health and reproduction are directly affected by the destruction of the environment. An example is the effects of dioxin. Dioxin is a waste product of common industrial processes that pollutes the water and land and gets lodged in the bodies of animals we eat. It causes cancer—in particular, breast cancer, as it is attracted to fatty tissue—and reproductive problems, such as birth defects, decreased fertility, and inability to maintain pregnancy. Agent Orange, used by the United States for chemical warfare in Vietnam, contained dioxin and killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of people. 

THE NATURAL WORLD AND THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT 

I grew up in an immigrant Chinese family in a suburb that still included working farms, open space, trees, and animals. My grandmother reused everything—plastic wrap, paper towels, tin foil. She kept as many lights off as possible and tried not to let water run in excess. She loved growing and taking care of plants. 

When I moved to New York City (USA), it was hard to be away from the kind of nature I was lucky enough to grow up around. I found it useful to recall pleasant times of being around nature and to discharge on the loss of my daily contact with it. I also had to change my definition of the environment to include the built environment. 

Many women workers (paid and unpaid) live in the built environment. This includes many poor and working-class women, and women of the global majority, who work as domestic workers and caretakers of theirs and other people’s homes and other spaces. People expect and rely on these women to think about and take care of the physical environment, while undervaluing, underpaying, and not respecting their work. 

Irene HongPing Shen 
Brooklyn, New York, USA
Reprinted from the RC e-mail discussion
list for leaders of wide world change


Last modified: 2017-05-06 23:35:41-07