When patriarchal spirituality associates women, body, and nature
and then emphasizes transcending the body and transcending
the rest of nature, it makes oppression sacred.
– Carol Adams
During graduate studies at Mundelein College in Chicago from 1986 to 1991, I focused most of my coursework on Christian perspectives on social justice issues. Many of my instructors there, both male and female, encouraged examining these issues from the perspective of the feminist agenda and critique. I later realized that learning about feminism from them did not make me a feminist. On the contrary, they helped me to realize I was a feminist – I had just needed the language to claim it.
As I studied the feminist agenda and its method for critiquing the dominant culture, however, I felt an urge for “something more” in addressing the issues about which I was concerned in my studies: sexism, racism, environmentalism, poverty, abuse, etc. It seemed to me at the time that the feminist agenda, while it certainly identifies many needed aspects of social change, did not go far enough for me in providing solutions to the major, life-threatening forces facing humanity and the whole Earth community in our era. I experienced a continual, nagging sense that the solutions needed required a perspective that went far beyond the male/female divide.
Towards the end of my studies at Mundelein, I came across the first reference I had ever seen to a movement that emerged in the 1980’s known as “Eco-feminism.” I became very excited as I read about how the movement had come to birth among ecologists and feminists who recognized the common values and goals within their respective movements. The first author to make a serious attempt at articulating this connection is Rosemary Radford Ruether, whose work entitled, New Woman/New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation, first appeared in 1975.
Building on Ruther’s work, eco-feminists began to argue that the male/female split supported by patriarchal dualism extends to the human/non-human divisions that also exist within the dominant culture of the Western world. Eco-feminists claim there are historical cultural links between women and nature. These links, argue eco-feminists, have led to the twin domination of women and nature by a culture that is sexist, that is, a culture that gives all power and privilege to male-gendered individuals.
My discovery of the eco-feminist movement and its critique of patriarchal culture’s impact on women and nature gave me much encouragement, as it enlarged the scope of the investigation into the crises we face, asking larger questions as I had struggled to do in my own ponderings. The approach seemed to offer the first real hope of effectively addressing our environmental as well as social issues.
Still, I was not satisfied. Something still seemed to be missing. For, I myself had long been aware of the ecology movement, which had emerged full force in this country in the late 1960’s. I have a vivid memory of a television commercial featuring a Native American Indian sitting beside a roadside strewn with an amalgamation of litter; a closeup of his face revealing a single tear falling from one eye. The message of the advertisement seemed clear, yet after two decades had passed, I knew of neighborhood groups still collecting multiple bags full of litter from their roadsides.
The coming together of the ecology and feminist movements certainly felt to me like a move in the right direction conceptually, yet I continued in the sad realization that not much was changing in our behavior toward our planet. Why, I had begun to ask, have we not made the required change in our treatment of Earth?
The question of our lack of response to the planet’s needs prompted me to consider that the changes required would not come from people being preached at from pulpits or lectured at from their television screens about the need to change, but only from an interior shift in persons that produced an inner conviction to change behavior. After all, it is a simple thing, really, dispensing of one’s own litter properly, but clearly there needs to be some dramatic interior change, a transformation in conscious awareness through which properly disposing of one’s litter becomes something one cannot not do.
That intuition on my part about the need for an inner shift was the beginning of my quest to understand how personal transformation happens. It was obvious to me that to preach the values and principles of ecology – such as interdependence and diversity – or the principles of feminism – such as collaboration and inclusion – was not enough to produce real change.
Finding the Missing Link: Spirituality
It was either synchronistic or coincidental that simultaneously at this time I began to explore contemporary writings on the topics of leadership, organizational renewal, and systems theory. I was intrigued to find that many of the authors I encountered hinted at the role of spirituality in leadership and organizational affairs. This was in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, well into the spirituality movement that also had begun to emerge in this country in the 1960’s and was in full bloom by the 1980’s.
These writers clearly pondered the insights emerging from the movement linking spirituality with relationships and values. Yet, they were reluctant to speak too overtly about spirituality because of its dangerous associations with religious fundamentalism and evangelization. Intuitively, the linkage between leadership and spirituality felt right to me. I became excited, and my quest took on new focus. Suddenly I had a new terrain to explore: the connections between leadership and spirituality.
Also by that time, many eco-feminist thinkers were beginning to critique the West’s approach to theology and spirituality. Some were expanding that movement to integrate the insights of all three movements: ecology, feminism, and spirituality. Eco-feminist researchers expanded the list of hierarchical dualisms supported by patriarchy to include spirit/matter, heaven/earth, God/human and many others.
Radford Ruether was a lecturer in my courses at Mundelein. I read her later work, Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing, in which she declares that “all past human traditions are inadequate” in the face our current ecological crises.
Mundelein also hosted a workshop on eco-feminism, at which I was introduced to early collections of eco-feminist writings, such as Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism, edited by Irene Diamond and Gloria Feman Orenstein. Most important of all, I began to connect with other women whose experiences of dissonance resonated with my own.
Throughout the 1990’s, I continued to examine the three movements of ecology, feminism and spirituality, making connections between their fundamental principles and insights. From this study, I concluded that it is only in and through spiritual transformation and a change in consciousness that those of us raised in a patriarchal culture can make the choice to move away from isolationist, death-invoking behaviors to relational, life-affirming ones.
Path to wholeness
Put another way, the eco-feminist-spirituality movement can be seen as a journey toward wholeness. The author, educator and activist Parker J. Palmer studied the major liberation movements of the last century and concluded that they all began with isolated individuals who reached a point where the gap between their inner and outer lives became so painful that they resolved to live “divided no more.”
For the ecology movement, wholeness equals interdependence and diversity. For the feminist movement, wholeness equals overcoming the dualistic conceptual framework of patriarchy. For the eco-feminist movement, wholeness means the equal inclusion of both humans and non-humans to full rights and privileges. Today, I strongly believe that none of this is achievable without the insight of the spirituality movement that wholeness is achieved through a conscious process of transformation and integration at both the intrapersonal and interpersonal levels. Western culture, steeped in patriarchy and the thought lines affected by patriarchy emerging through the scientific-industrial revolution, lost sight of this indigenous wisdom because it simply dismissed it as irrelevant.
Developments in the areas of ecology, feminism, and spirituality in more recent years make understanding the full impact of the eco-feminist-spirituality movement both far-reaching and profoundly challenging. Most importantly, I find that for myself and for many of those who have participated in my lectures and workshops, exposure to the insights of the eco-feminist spirituality movement offers a great deal of hope for the future.
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