“The universality of female subordination, the fact that it exists within every type of social and economic arrangement and in societies of every degree of complexity, indicates to me that we are up against something very profound, very stubborn, something we cannot rout out simply by rearranging a few tasks and roles in the social system, or even by reordering the whole economic structure.”
– Sherry B. Ortner, Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture? (1974)
The oppression of women has a long, complex history, variably and idiosyncratically affecting every woman who lives today. The enforcing patriarchy has taken many shapes and forms, in different cultural, economic, political, and physical patterns. As we stand today, we exist in the midst of a climate emergency and on the precipice of ecological disaster. An understanding of the multifaceted effects of patriarchy, in conjunction with the more commonly discussed effects of industrial capitalism in creating the aforementioned climate emergency must be reached, as well as the ways we, as a society, can move forward from this.
Expansionist and extractionist methods of economic growth have been well established within the European modus operandi for centuries, as evident through years of territorial wars and the brutal endeavours of colonialism. Murder, expatriation, and devastation of land was an accepted component of European prosperity. The utilisation of coal and the steam engine allowed an intensification of violent colonialism and war abroad, as well as entrenching systems of capitalism and inequality within England. Mechanised factories could move to cities, and a larger, more desperate pool of workers allowed factory owners to keep wages low and hours long. Women, and specifically married women, were desired as labourers, as they were seen as more docile and accepting of harsher conditions for less pay. Consumerism further legitimised waged working and alienated people from resources, methods, and production of goods. The interlocking processes of repressing workers, foreign imperialism, and resource extraction were simultaneously fuelled by coal.
Within Western European history and philosophy, there is precedent that allows men to think of conquering women and nature in the same way. Dualistic positioning labels Man as having standing, while Woman, as opposed to him, does not. Similarly, Humanity, or Culture, has standing, while Nature does not. Man has been bestowed by the Western Canon (a retrospectively applied label loosely linking Ancient Greece and contemporary England) the virtues of rationality, order, enlightenment, and law. The perceived superiority of European men justified/s the violent marginalisation of all foreign people in concurrence with the personal, physical, and political repression of women. Mary O’Brien notes that “… men did not suddenly discover in the sixteenth century, that they might make a historical project of the mastery of nature. They have understood their separation from nature and their need to mediate this separation ever since that moment in the dark prehistory when the idea of the paternity took hold.” Western European obsession with the complete comprehension and ‘penetration’ of nature set a track for the domination of the subject.
Issues of patriarchy and climate destruction have been exacerbated by the conditions of neoliberalism. Wealth and power have been consolidated within destructive industries such as fossil fuels, mining, and plastic consumables. This wealth exists in the hands of mainly white, American men. Circumstances of Western society today necessitates that average people continually buy new things that are cheap and disposable, with planned obsolescence built in. Women are disproportionately affected by this, with a specific instance being the constraints of the beauty myth that coerces women into buying huge amounts of clothing that will go out of style, chemical based makeup, and plastic surgery. People have been alienated from their environment, their labour, production and consumption, and their own existence both internally and externally. This luxury of consumerism in the West has been at the expense of the majority of the planet. Many countries have had to mine, farm, excavate, and export massive amounts of natural resources in an effort to match the path of industrialisation and modernisation as dictated by powers such as the United Kingdom and the United States.
Liberal feminism has not made the gains for all women as it has promised. The few figureheads of female CEOs and the ideas of ‘lean in’ feminism do not do justice to the vast majority of women. Women will not be liberated by gender equality that only favours the ruling class, especially when it is a known fact that women do two thirds of the world’s work for 10% of its pay. When the limitations of society and culture are pushed, women are forced to step to the plate. This is evident through research on ecofeminism by Ariel Salleh who identified that “…what happens in the fullness of capitalist patriarchal time, is that men retain their ‘rights’ in a public and legal sense, while social ‘responsibility’ falls to women.”
Environmentalism similarly will not make the gains the earth needs unless it also sets out to deconstruct the method and psyche of capitalism that rationalises extractivism and expansionism in the name of wealth. Women must constantly fight to have the gendered nature of environmental issues addressed. It is socially and structurally evident that women earn considerably less money than men and yet still have the burden of care, making them disproportionately susceptible to climate disasters in terms of mobility, safety, food security, and financial security.
None of this means to reduce discussion to any forms of gender essentialism. There is a tendency to discuss the procreational capacity and care work commonly undertaken by women as having more of a natural, biological aspect than the work of men. Women and men should be equally encouraged to engage in green, climate, service, and care work. It is to say that we must deconstruct the assumptions we have culturally generated and engage in perpetuating about the role of women in society and how we envision our relationship to the environment. The inscription of maternity and nature onto women’s bodies as a default is an element of the 1/0 culture and Man over Woman (= Nature) dynamic that justifies Male domination.
I apologise for the binary language used in this article. This is not to erase gender non-conforming identity from discussion surrounding environmentalism, nor is it to reduce the position of non-binary people in the environmental movement and larger society now. This article aims to interrogate the patriarchal dynamic of misogyny and extractivism that is critical to the climate crisis as it exists today, which has a distinct binary dynamic to it.