EcoFeminism: Path to Freedom from Patriarchy

Patriarchy is a social system of unequal distributions of
power, benefits, and burdens….ecofeminist spiritualities function
as empowering antidotes to patriarchy.

– Karen Warren
I am saying quite bluntly that only when the scientific facts are interpreted
by an ecofeminist consciousness will we even begin to see
where we are, who we are, and what we are about.

– Brian Swimme

This week, as I prepare this post, we are having spectacular weather, the kind of cool, dry, clear, deep-blue-sky days that bless the region between the humid, sultry days of summer and the frosts of autumn. On Friday, I took a few minutes out of my work preparing material for my fall courses to go sit in my favorite spot alongside the Des Plaines River, which winds through the area around my home.

While at the river, I engaged in a ritual that I began doing some years ago. I came up with the ritual after reading that Earth’s water system of streams, rivers, and oceans carries nutrients around the planet just as the system of arteries and veins does in our human bodies. Now, every time I am near a flowing stream or river, I drop my hand into the water and hold it there for a few minutes, imagining that the water is carrying my healing intention around the body of Earth.

Coming up with this ritual was a natural outgrowth for me of an Earth-consciousness I seem to have carried all of my life. It is also why the concept of ecofeminism seemed so right for me when I first encountered it in the late 1980’s. Up until that point, I had been made aware of the feminist agenda in my own studies of social justice issues. However, I remember thinking even then that feminist concerns were not large enough. Healing the rift between men and women is important, I agreed, but I could not help searching for something more, something that would heal human relations with all of Earth’s community of life, and with Earth itself.

I first learned of the ecofeminist movement while at the library doing research for a writing project. I was looking through old reels of microfilm when I suddenly spotted a copy of an article from the Los Angeles Times headlined “A New Global Vision Called Ecofeminism.”  The paper was dated April 2, 1987, and the article was about a conference held the previous weekend at the University of Southern California (USC), which drew several hundred men and women from all over the world “intrigued or already familiar with the developing concept of ecofeminism.”

All it took to have me become intrigued was reading that headline. I immediately got excited and enormously relieved to know that at last I had found an answer to my search for a larger vision from which to address the ills of society and the planet. Just seeing that term, “ecofeminism” brought it all together for me, and it made enormous sense to me.

The conference organizers were Gloria Ornstein and Irene Diamond. Later, they would together edit and publish a book of essays called, Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism. For me, it became the first of many books purchased on the topic. Looking back at the book’s table of contents as I prepared this blog, I was amazed to be reminded that it includes an essay by the physicist, Brian Swimme, whom I later would come to know as a colleague of Thomas Berry. Together, Berry and Swimme wrote The Universe Story, published in 1992.

In his 1990 essay in Reweaving the World, Swimme praises early ecofeminists like Susan Griffin, Charlene Spretnak, and Starhawk for presenting an alternative holistic vision to that of the “fragmented scientific mind…abused by patriarchal shaping.”

For example, Swimme notes that physicists, most of whom work on weapons research, chose the term, “Big Bang” for the moment of the beginning of our Universe. Starhawk, on the other hand, hearing the scientific facts associated with it, composed a song about the beginning moments of our Universe: “Out of the point, the swelling, out of the swelling, the egg, out of the egg, the fire, out of the fire, the stars.” Comments Swimme, “Not bombs, not explosions…rather, she sees the event for what it is, a birthing moment, the Great Birth.”

The goal of ecofeminism is freedom from the hierarchical dualisms promoted by patriarchy that prevent us from living in wholeness. At the core of these is the male/female dualism, which ecofeminists now see as intrinsically linked in patriarchal consciousness to the human/nature dualism.

Rosemary Radford Ruether, whose book, New Woman, New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation, was first published in 1975, is the first feminist theologian to make a connection between the domination of women and the destruction of Earth. In the book is an essay of hers entitled, New Woman and New Earth: Women, Ecology, and Social Revolution. In the essay, Ruether (1995) traces the historical influence of patriarchy on both religion and science, resulting in “structures of patriarchal consciousness that destroy the harmony of nature [and] are expressed symbolically and socially in the repression of women” (p. 196).

As I mentioned above, discovering the emergence of the ecofeminist movement was key for me in discerning my own path to freedom from the influences of patriarchy. It also became a key element of all my future work.

However, before I go into that, I need to say one more thing about my early introduction to the ecofeminist movement. While I was pleased to join those who were putting the agendas of feminism and ecology together, I still believed there needed to be something more involved in our recovery from the influence of patriarchy. The answer came with another step forward on the path.

It was at that time, in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, that I was engaged in getting my master’s degree in religious studies. As part of that, I was taking a close look at Christian thought and culture, and at contemporary issues in ethics and social justice. One day, in the midst of my studies, I began reflecting on the need to get at the core problem underlying all of the ethics and justice issues. Addressing each one individually, did not seem adequate for me.

As I sat with this problem of finding a core issue underlying all social and ethical abuses, I began to speculate that the core issue lay in how we have come to think of ourselves and how it is we are to relate to others. In the midst of this meditation, I suddenly realized that I was really saying that the problem lay in how we answer the questions: “Who am I?”; “Who are you?”, and “How am I to be here with you?” And, in the next moment, I realized that those questions are “spiritual” questions. They are the very questions – along with their answers – that lie at the heart of our religious and spiritual beliefs and values.

Once I began to think along spiritual lines, I realized that our answers to each of those questions is profoundly and intrinsically influenced by the answer to yet one more spiritual question: “Who is God?”  It was at that moment that I realized that I must add to the combined agendas of ecology and feminism, the agenda of the spirituality movement.  From that point onward, I began to explore theology and spirituality from an ecofeminist perspective, searching to uncover ways in which patriarchy had influenced our understandings of God, self and others.

Very soon afterward, I began to offer workshops on ecofeminist spirituality, which I continue to offer today (as they say, the best way to learn something is to teach it). The insights from those workshops also form much of the basis for this blog.

I explore more deeply my learnings and insights into ecofeminist spirituality as a path of personal and social transformation in the spirituality step of my journey.


Radford Ruether, R. (1995) New woman, new Earth: Sexist ideologies and human liberation. Boston: Beacon Press.

Swimme, B. (1990) How to heal a lobotomy. In Diamond, I. and Feman Ornstein, G. (Eds.). Reweaving the world: The emergence of ecofeminism. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club. p. 16.

Warren, K. (1993). A feminist philosophical perspective. In Adams, C. (Ed.), Ecofeminism and the sacred. Carol Adams, edit. New York, NY: Continuum. p. 131

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