Until recently I didn’t understand that anyone could be a feminist; I certainly didn’t think it was a club that accepted guys.
I had misconceived feminism to be about women campaigning to have a female in every boardroom and lobbying for equal gay rights. For some people those issues will surely come under the umbrella of feminism, but the concept is much broader and holds potentially far reaching consequences for society and the planet.
My introduction to feminism came through eco-feminism—a study which draws parallels between feminist concepts and our treatment of the earth. For example, the domination of woman as akin to the domination of nature.
In particular, I was inspired by the late Australian eco-feminist philosopher Val Plumwood—a remarkable woman with a truly monolithic mind. Eco-feminism is a valid route through which to arrive at feminism in general, because all ecological issues are ultimately social and cultural issues; loosely speaking, the condition of the earth mirrors the condition of our society. Anything we do to the earth, on some level, we are ultimately doing to ourselves.
Feminism is about love, kindness, compassion, relationality and otherness. In ecological terms, some environmental philosophies (for example deep ecology) are based on a metaphysical conception of the earth and humanity as one. Indeed, that everything is one.
As the famed nature lover John Muir said, ”When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Although such a notion has been central to some spiritual traditions for millennia, and is somewhat backed by modern quantum physics (less discrete matter, more waves of potential), is it useful or harmful in how we treat others, human and non-human?
If we conceive of something as being hitched to us, does that not afford a certain freedom to do with it as we please? This is where the concepts of relationality and otherness must take centre stage.
If we think of something as being other than ourselves—an-other person or another species—an immediate sense of respect and consideration usually springs up; one of the keys to a civilized society. In this way of thinking, potential for correct behaviour lies entirely in the recognition of otherness, and the admiration and wonder that difference engenders.
But that is not to say that feminists conceive of a world of separate discrete objects—beings and things—which are entirely disconnected from each other. Rather, to feminist thinking, the very essence of a person or thing is defined in relation to other persons or things. Indeed we can only recognize something as being other than something else—it cannot be other than itself. This idea of relationality draws close to systems thinking—the interaction of parts, wholes and their relationship.
Why is this important? Many of our most shameful acts have been underpinned by dualistic thinking—an attitude of us and them. Racism, colonialism, the subjugation of nature and the subjugation of woman are prime examples of disrespecting otherness and enacting a attitude of polarization; men on one side, women on the other; nature on one side, culture on the other; the colonized on one side, the colonizers on the other and so on.
Although we often think of these as attitudes of a bygone era, unfortunately they are still very much with us. Val Plumwood wrote that the oppressed are often systematically relied upon, yet systematically denied. A pertinent example of this is the role that women play in raising children. Women, and of course men too (but mostly women), spend countless hours patiently and lovingly nurturing their children—playing the same game for the 100th time or pushing their child on the swing as they’ve done so many times before. And yet, so much of this goes unnoticed or uncelebrated—those amazing acts of kindness and love are praiseworthy, but that is often denied or withheld; it is simply assumed that these vitally important roles will be eagerly fulfilled.
Hopefully it is now clear why I think there is great potential in feminism. It encapsulates a set of frameworks that cut across divides, that foster respect and admiration—even wonder—and that motivates us to delight in difference; using the very fact of difference as the key to engendering the right attitude towards others, and, in these challenging ecological times, towards the entire planet, our home, our mother earth.
Author: Gary Thomson
Editor: Travis May