Evolving Our Way to Gender Freedom

Human civilization has been guided by a map of reality
that makes sense of life and evolution as a male war of
dominance….A misguided male war for survival of
the fittest is increasingly making our world unfit for living.
– Judah Freed
All of us are in the process of becoming.
– Max De Pree

“We live on a planet of stunning natural beauty.” That sentence is the opening line of the concert program notes for Planet Earth Live, a BBC documentary currently touring the United States. I recently attended the live concert in our lovely Grant Park in Chicago on a clear, warm evening with hundreds of other people. The experience involves viewing the astounding wildlife clips from the film while a live orchestra plays the accompanying score. I was left with beautiful images of Earth’s animal community and strains of haunting music, and a wondering at how wrong and misleading is that opening sentence in the program notes.

I suspect most people would not take note of the sentence, but I have become so sensitized through my relationship with the New Cosmology to anything that suggests that we humans simply “live on” Earth rather than the truth of it, which is “we emerged from” Earth. Attempting to fully comprehend that viewpoint has been so helpful for me in realizing that  many of our current problems can be connected to the other, false perception. The New Cosmology gives us the story of our emergence,  in all its blessings and its iniquities. If we are to address the problems of our time, on a personal and global scale, we need to know the story of our origins.

One of the iniquities with which we presently struggle has been identified by feminist scholars as “patriarchy,” or the “rule of the fathers.”  Judah Freed, in his book, Global Sense, addresses the issue of patriarchy in a chapter he calls, “The Hazards of Male Rule.” Like other scholars who address this topic, Freed attempts to offer a historical picture of how it came to be that men obtained complete social, economic, and political power over women. Freed summarizes the latest scholarly and scientific research on male and female social patterns, going as far back in human history as possible. He cites Celtic mythology, which seems to support the idea that at least in some parts of the world, women once held power, but lost it to men, with detrimental results.

The Mabingoeon tells of the Old Tribes ruled by women being defeated in a war by the New Tribes ruled by men. Patriarchy supplanted matriarchy. Lineage then was traced from fathers to sons. To assure the paternity of each son born from a woman’s womb, the men invented wedlock, which treated the wife as the man’s property (p. 38).

In the end, Freed concedes, as others have, that we may never know the origins of patriarchy, and our concern needs to be on overcoming its present effects:

Regardless of your beliefs about human origins, whether woman ruled or were equal with men, what matters is that at some point male dominance became the social norm. The masculine godhead displaced the feminine goddess, and the deity became “He.” Lust replaced love. Intellect dominated emotion. Perfectionism supplanted compassion. Hierarchy ousted equality. Private property usurped communal sharing. Competition exiled cooperation. War banished peace (p. 39).

My own study of patriarchy led me into an awareness of the feminist agenda for social transformation, and then finally into the eco-feminist agenda, which links the domination of women with the destruction of communities of life on our planet.

For many people, seeing the term eco-feminism likely brings up visions of small groups of women in sunny meadows, gathered in a circle, holding hands, and dancing in rhythm to the singing of melodic chants. However, there is much more to eco-feminism. Today, it is both a field of study and a political movement. Eco-feminist scholars are working to develop a body of research in support of their transformative insights, with new texts published each year. As a political movement, eco-feminism is gaining ground internationally, with both women and men contributing perspectives rooted in their local issues and multidisciplinary perspectives.

It was in the mid-1980s, that ecologists and feminists began to enter into dialogue with one another about their pursuit of similar goals. Together, they reached the conclusion that the abuse of nature and the abuse of women are rooted in the same cause: patriarchy. Eco-feminism extends the critique of patriarchal culture to its attitude toward nature. Eco-feminists argue that the abuse of nature is linked to the abuse of women because nature is identified within patriarchal culture with women; at the same time, women are identified with nature, while both are viewed as subordinate to men.

Most helpful for me in seeing how this works is the approach taken by the ecofeminist philosopher, Karen Warren, author of several articles in early ecofeminist anthologies and Ecofeminist Philosophy: A Western Perspective on What It Is and Why It Matters. As a philosopher, Warren (2000) defines patriarchy as a “conceptual framework”  – a socially constructed set of basic beliefs, values, attitudes, and assumptions that together shape our way of thinking and how we view the world and our place in it. The conceptual framework of patriarchy, argues Warren, functions to explain, justify and maintain the subordination of women by men. I find Warren’s approach helpful because it clearly suggests that the problem is with our way of thinking, and is not about women versus men.

Warren suggests that this conceptual framework and its destructive impact on women and Earth is accomplished party through the “feminization of nature” and the “naturalization of women.” She offers startling examples of this dysfunctional patriarchal pattern in the language of Western European culture. For example, the naturalizing or animalizing of women appears in the use of such terms for women as “pets, cows, sows, foxes, chicks, serpents, bitches, beavers, old bats, old hens, mother hens, pussycats, cats, cheetahs, bird-brains, and hare-brains”

Likewise, patriarchal cultures have become accustomed to the feminizing of nature.  Warren (1993) offers several examples: “ ‘Mother Nature’ is raped, mastered, conquered, mined; her secrets are  ‘penetrated,’ and her  ‘womb’ is to be put to the service of the ‘man of science’. Virgin [not stud] timber is felled, cut down; fertile soil is tilled and land that lies ‘fallow’ [not impotent] is ‘barren’ and ‘useless’.” Thus, Warren argues, “the exploitation of nature and animals is justified by feminizing them, while the exploitation of women is justified by naturalizing them” (p.12).

Warren also names five interrelated features of the patriarchal conceptual framework that feminists and ecofeminists claim underpins Western culture:

1. Value-hierarchical (“Up-Down”) thinking, which places higher value, status, or prestige on what is “Up” (men) or what is gender-identified with what is “Up,” and less value on what is “Down” (women) or what is gender-identified with what is “Down”;

2. Value dualisms, which organize reality into oppositional (rather than complementary) and exclusive (rather than inclusive) pairs, and which place higher value, status or privilege on one member of the pair;

3. Power-over conceptions of power, which function to maintain relations of domination and subordination;

4. Conceptions of privilege, which function to maintain power-over relations of domination and subordination by “Ups” over “Downs”;

5. A logic of domination, an argumentative structure that “justifies” the power and privilege of those who are “Up.” (1993, 122–123)

I will say more about these five features and how they relate to spirituality in the next post. Here I want to mention that Freed’s work is helpful in naming the damaging “social contract” which today men and women inherit from our patriarchal society. Freed cites Warren Farrell, author of Why Men Are The Way They Are, who says that under this social contract “the man becomes a walking wallet for the woman.” The male must first, however, “convince her of his valor or value in real or symbolic combat. This system requires men to compete for women.”

This “walking wallet” arrangement is bad enough, but it gets worse, says Freed. “Men are falsely taught to measure our manhood by muscles or intellect or even the length of our beards. We accept beliefs about what it means to be a man that are ruled by shame.” Referring to the work of Frank Pitman, author of Man Enough, Freed says: “Afraid of any genuine emotional intimacy, we tend to become ‘philanderers’ avoiding commitments, ‘contenders’ driven to compete and ‘controllers’ compelled to dominate others.” (40).

The good news in all of this for me was provided through my introduction to the New Cosmology. In the mid-1990’s, I attended a workshop offered by Miriam Therese MacGillis, a Dominican Sister who summarizes the work of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme in her presentations. During a segment of the workshop, we talked about the challenges of patriarchal thinking and behavior. Miriam Therese gave us her advice, which went something like this: “When you consider the 14-billion-year history of our Universe, patriarchy is just a blip on the screen. We’ll get passed it.”


De Pree, M. (1997) Leading without power: finding hope in serving community. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass. p. 5.

Freed, J. (2008) Global sense: Awakening your power to save the world. Birmingham, AL: Media Visions Press. pp 40-41.

Warren, K. (1993) A feminist philosophical perspective on ecofeminist spiritualities. In Adams, C.J. (Ed.) Ecofeminism and the sacred. New York, NY: Continuum.

Warren, K. (2000) Ecofeminist philosophy: A western perspective on what it is and why it matters. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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