Eco-Feminist Spirituality: Moving Toward Social Transformation

Transformation, which essentially involves healing, is a slow process.
It is rarely full and complete in an instant. It takes time.
And during that time, it demands cycles of awakening, longing, darkness,
and yes, even death. All are crucial to this most sacred work in us.

– Phileena Heuertz
In adopting an ecofeminist perspective,
which is a combination of social feminism and holistic ecology,
what I have changed is my point of view: my way of looking
at the world, at people, and at events.

– Ivone Gebara

Much of the hope for me in the discovery of the ecofeminist spirituality movement is in the fact that it is precisely that: a movement. So, as we begin to explore more of what the movement is all about, and what its implications are, I find it helpful first to keep in mind certain characteristics of social movements, and how they can and do transform individuals and society. I also will say a bit more about what I mean by transformation.

A movement is a social phenomenon that usually emerges from within certain individuals around a tension with the dominant culture. It has been defined as “a cause” in which people can believe. A successful movement co-opts the dominant culture by recasting in new and dynamic forms the accepted, perhaps even strongly institutionalized, cultural understandings which appear no longer viable. A movement also is characterized as “free-flowing, web-like, and decentralized.” (Hadaway and Roozen, pp. 114-121)

The ecofeminist spirituality movement fits the above description well. You will not find that it has a single spokesperson, or a formal association, or a “headquarters.” That is partly why it remains off the radar of most mainstream news outlets.

What you will find is a loosely connected network of women, and a few men, who occasionally gather regionally, nationally, or even internationally, but for the most part act locally to implement changes in the way humans treat themselves, one another, and Earth’s broader community of life.

Rosemary Radford Ruether

Because the movement’s implications reach into so many areas of our dominant culture, the local arena in which ecofeminists focus their activity may be anything from the theological writings of Elizabeth A. Johnson (Women, Earth and Creator Spirit) Rosemary Radford Ruether (Gaia & God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing) in the U.S., and Ivone Gebara (Longing for Running Water) in Brazil, to the seed-keeping activism of Vandana Shiva in India, and the tree planting campaign of a Wangari Maathai in Kenya.

Each of us finds our own way to live out and promote the aspect of the ecofeminist “cause” that makes sense for us, given our own talents, interests, and contexts.  The decentralized, web-like structure of the movement also reflects its principles of diversity, creativity and inclusion.

The goal of the ecofeminist spirituality movement is a transformation of personal and cultural beliefs, attitudes and practices in regard to women and Earth. Its strength lies in an awareness of the process of transformation, so I want to say a little now about that process.

A friend and author has explained transformation this way: “When we study transformation, we are exploring the relationships between personal human consciousness, compassionate response, and action toward a more just and humane social order.” (Clendenen, 1988).

Transformation, then, is first about a change in consciousness. Second, this change in consciousness leads, whether in small or dramatic ways, to a change in behavior. What do we mean by that? To fully understand the process and its implications, we need to go back in time a few decades.

Significant learnings in how a change in conscious awareness can impact behavior and ultimately lead to changes in social structures came as a result of the emergence of the feminist movement in the 1960’s. Sociologists took note of what was happening when women began to gather in small groups to talk about their life experiences and their struggles. Out of this process of storytelling, the women “awakened” to new insights into the connections between their personal struggles and the expectations of women latent within dominant Western culture. It did not matter whether the women actually joined emerging activist movements, or just went back home to tense conversations with their husbands, or continued to quietly suffer, all of them recognized that they were forever changed.

The experience of these women’s storytelling groups, which came to be known as “rap groups,” has been called the most significant social contribution of the 1960’s feminist movement. Out of them came an awareness of the process of “consciousness-raising,” which was found to release a power for social change “stemming from the transformation and motivation (empowerment) of the individual who participates.”  Jo Freeman notes:

It is this process of deeply personal attitude change that makes the rap group such a powerful tool….This experience is both irreversible and contagious. Once one has gone through such a “resocialization”, one’s view of oneself and the world is never the same again, whether or not there is further active participation in the movement. Even those who do “drop out” rarely do so without first spreading feminist ideas among their own friends and colleagues. All who undergo “consciousness raising” virtually compel themselves to seek out other women with whom to share the experience, and thus begin new rap groups.

For me, the operative words in these descriptions of the experience of women involved in the early feminist movement are: “consciousness,” “irreversible,” and “power for social change.”

The ecofeminist spirituality movement is about transformation on a personal and on a global level; it is part of the “paradigm shift” that began in the 20th Century and continues today; and, it is of enormous and far-reaching consequences.

The holistic nature of the ecofeminist spirituality movement demands examination of patriarchal dualisms essential to dominant forms of Christian approaches to spirituality: male/female, mysticism/prophecy, art/life, body/soul, this life/next life, spirit/matter (Fox, 1981, p.12.)

A Movement Model for Social Change

Parker Palmer

A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to spend time with Dr. Parker Palmer, who is an activist in his own right. He has studied a number of social freedom movements throughout human history and from around the planet. He has concluded that these social movements did indeed begin with them a change in consciousness that led to a change in behavior. He calls this change in consciousness the decision “to live divided no more.” In other words, key individuals in the formation of the freedom movements that transformed entire nations (for example, Rosa Park, Nelson Mandela, or Lech Walesa) finally were move to act upon an inner conviction that who they were was not who the dominant culture defined them to be.  No more would they live there lives divided between who they knew themselves to be on the inside and how they were forced to act publicly.

Based on his research, Dr. Palmer identified four stages in the evolution of a movement. Stated briefly, the four stages are:

  • Isolated individuals decide to stop leading “divided lives.”
  • These people discover each other and form groups for mutual support.
  • Empowered by community, they learn to translate “private problems” into public issues.
  • Alternative rewards emerge to sustain the movement’s vision, which may force the conventional reward system to change.

I draw hope from the fact that the ecofeminist spirituality movement is gaining ground, and appears to have reached the third of Dr. Palmer’s stages.  That is, it is going “public” in many ways.  Together, women are discovering an alternative to the “rewards” in life promoted by a dominant, patriarchal, consumer culture.  Our voices are beginning to be heard by those who are seeking to work toward an alternative future for humanity.

One significant example of this public expression for me is the international Earth Charter movement, originally initiated by the United Nations. Integrated within that Charter is a recognition of the rights of women. Article 11 of the Charter states:

11. Affirm gender equality and equity as prerequisites to sustainable development and ensure universal access to education, health care, and economic opportunity.
a. Secure the human rights of women and girls and end all violence against them.
b. Promote the active participation of women in all aspects of economic, political, civil, social, and cultural life as full and equal partners, decision makers, leaders, and beneficiaries.
c. Strengthen families and ensure the safety and loving nurture of all family members.

Ecofeminist principles of diversity, mutuality and inclusiveness are reflected in the wording of article 12 of the Charter:

12. Uphold the right of all, without discrimination, to a natural and social environment supportive of human dignity, bodily health, and spiritual well-being, with special attention to the rights of indigenous peoples and minorities.
a. Eliminate discrimination in all its forms, such as that based on race, color, sex, sexual orientation, religion, language, and national, ethnic or social origin.
b. Affirm the right of indigenous peoples to their spirituality, knowledge, lands and resources and to their related practice of sustainable livelihoods.
c. Honor and support the young people of our communities, enabling them to fulfill their essential role in creating sustainable societies.
d. Protect and restore outstanding places of cultural and spiritual significance. (

For me, these examples from the Earth Charter provide just one illustration of a worldwide awakening stimulated in part through the power and potential of the ecofeminist spirituality movement.  They provide for me a concrete sign of progress that gives me a great deal of hope.

Heuertz, P. (2010). Pilgrimage of a soul: Contemplative spirituality for the active life. Westmon, IL: Intervarsity Press. Cited in Spirituality and Health Magazine, September – October 2010. [Opening quote p. 80.]

Clendenen, C. (1998). Syllabus, “Transformation Spirituality: A Feminist Approach,” Mundelein College.

Freeman, Jo. (1972). The women’s liberation movement: Its origins, structures and ideas. First published in Dreitzel, H.P. (Ed.) Recent Sociology No. 4: Family, Marriage, and the Struggle of the Sexes Hans Peter, New York: The Macmillan Co., pp. 201-216.

Gebara,I. (1999). Longing for running water: Ecofeminism and liberation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. [Opening quote p. vi.]

Hadaway, C.K. & Roozen, D.A. (1995). Rerouting the protestant mainstream: Sources of growth and opportunities for change. Nashville, TN: Abingdon.

Fox, M. (1981). Western spirituality: Historical roots, ecumenical routes. Sante Fe: Bear & Co.

Palmer, P. (1992, March/April). Divided no more: A movement approach to educational reform. In Change Magazine. Washington, D.C. Heldref Publications.

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