Lifting Up Our Foremothers

If we believe, and experientially know through various practices
such as meditation and holistic ritual, that neither our sisters and brothers
nor the rest of nature is “the other,” we will not violate their being, nor our own.
– Charlene Spretnak

For me, what is really at stake in our human journey today toward an uncertain future is made clear by the agenda of the ecofeminist spirituality movement (EFSM). Today it is not just women’s rights, but the rights of the entire Earth community that are now of concern. Our planet’s ability to sustain life is grievously threatened. From an EFSM perspective, this is due to a patriarchal consciousness that undergirds every assault on the environment.

In this post, I want to remember the women who have brought us this far in recognizing the women-Earth connection as an important aspect of our journey toward healing. I think it is worth lifting a few of these women up, whether to meet them anew, or to remind us of their struggles and their triumphs. I will do this from my own perspective as an American.

Early Feminist Roots

It was of particular interest to me as I first studied the history of the feminist movement some years ago that the feminist movement in the United States has its origins in the abolitionist movement, which sought freedom for those of African decent held in slavery. Its “founding mothers” were two active abolitionists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. In 1848, these women convened a conference of several hundred women and sympathetic men in Seneca Falls, New York. The Seneca Falls Declaration of Rights and Sentiments is a litany of the historic abuse of women’s rights by men.

Throughout the early 1800’s, more and more women in this country, individually and collectively, began to recognize that they were living in “a man’s world,” and began to call for equality for women, at least in the public sphere. They demanded changes in the legal system, in property rights, in politics, in social expectations and even in the church.

This “first wave” of feminism became known as the “Women’s Rights” movement, and its concerns centered on education, property and employment rights, and the right to vote. In 1919, women were granted the vote by an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Interestingly, having achieved this momentous goal, the Women’s Rights movement virtually died out in subsequent years. Jo Freeman, writing in Women: A Feminist Perspective, blames the death of the first wave of feminism on the development during the first half of the 20th Century of a “social mythology” which “firmly ensconced women in the home.”

Social fact, however, did not mirror the social myth. Statistics indicate that during these same years, the number of women obtaining college degrees rose astronomically, and more women were participating in the labor force, though in sex-segregated and poorly-paid positions.  The result, observes Freeman, “was the creation of a class of highly educated, underemployed, and underpaid women.” It is interesting to note that during this same era, Catholic women religious were founding and operating schools, colleges, and hospitals.

Finally, some 40 years after women gained the right to vote in this country, the so-called “second wave” of feminism began building in the 1960’s. Most famous among those who contributed to this resurgence was Simone de Beavoir, whose book, The Second Sex, published in the U.S. in 1953 (the same year I was born) became a world-wide bestseller. Ten years later, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique.

By the mid-1960’s, many business and professional women, aware of career barriers, began to organize themselves into groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), founded in 1966 by Friedan and others. Simultaneously, a younger group of women who were involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements were awakened to the inequity of the rights of women as they worked for the rights of others.

Evident on all fronts of the second wave of feminism was a clear distinction between the early Women’s Rights movement and the spirit giving birth to this later experience. Whereas the first phase of the movement sought to give women an equal place in a man’s world, the second was born in a cry for freedom from the oppression said to exist within the status quo. As the feminist Gerda Lerner (1986) observed, the new agenda “implies a radical transformation of existing institutions, values and theories” (p. 237).

Emergence of EcoFeminism

Initially working as a feminist theologian, Rosemary Radford Ruether was one of the first to discern the connection between the abuse of women and the environment, opening the way to the transition to ecofeminism. So many authors contributed to the rise of the movement after Ruether, it would be difficult to name them here, but I do list a few favorites in my bibliography, such as Ivone Gebara, Vandana Shiva, Charlene Spretnak, and Karen Warren.

Ruether guest lectured in my graduate courses at Mundelein College in Chicago, and in 1997 I attended a weekend workshop led by her. During that weekend, she presented us with a list of the transformational challenges facing the human community. She called it: “Necessary shifts from a Patriarchal to an Ecofeminist Culture, Religion and Society.”

I conclude this post with my adaption of Ruether’s list:

1. From a conception of God as holding all sovereign power outside of and ruling over nature, to a conception of God who is under, around, sustaining and renewing nature and humans together.

2. From a mechanistic worldview of our Universe as composed of inert physical matter pushed and pulled from outside, to a view of our Universe as organic, a living whole manifesting energy, spirit and creativity.

3. From an ethic that non-human entities on Earth and in our Universe (i.e., plants, minerals, etc.) only have utilitarian value for humans for industrial development, production, consumption and profit, to a view of all things as having intrinsic value, to be respected and celebrated for their own being.

4. From a psychology that splits mind from body, mind from physical nature, setting mind as superior and ruling over body and nature, to a holistic psychology of humans as psychospiritual wholes in interrelation with the rest of nature as psychophysical beings in one community life.

5. From patriarchal dominance as the order of creation and society, the necessary way to keep right order in all relations, to the recognition that patriarchal domination is the root of distorted relations and a shift to gender equality, equity and mutual interrelation between men and women in all aspects of life.

6. From the concept of one superior culture (white Western Christian) to be imposed on all other peoples to “save” and to “civilize” them, to a respect for a diversity of human cultures in dialogue and mutual learning, overcoming racist hierarchy and defending particularly the bioregional indigenous cultures on the verge of extinction.

7. From an economy of maximization of profits that treats nature as “material resources” to be used and as a depository of waste without accountability, to an economy of sustainability that will renew nature from generation to generation.

8. From a politics of survival of the fittest that allocates resources and power to the most powerful, to a political community based on participatory democracy, community-based decision-making and representation of the interests of nature in making decisions.

My deep gratitude goes out to all of these women as we continue to work toward the shifts that Ruether envisioned.

Gerda, L. (1986). The creation of patriarchy. New York, NY: Oxford University.

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