Since the beginning of the modern environmental movement in the 1960’s, a deep relationship between environmentalism and feminism was established, creating what is now known as ecofeminism. While these ideas were emerging, there were many efforts to persuade the general public to understand the importance of respecting women and the planet. For example, Rachel Carson and Janisse Ray are two women that have both demonstrated an innovative style of ecofeminist writing. Carson’s scientific approach in Silent Spring and Ray’s emotional approach in Ecology of a Cracker Childhood each exhibit the values of ecofeminism in a unique way in order to successfully inform and appeal to their targeted audience.
In an effort to understand the relationship between environmentalism and feminism, it is necessary to explore the values each movement holds. In 1981, Carolyn Merchant introduced four central connections between environmentalism and feminism. She first argues, “all parts of a system have equal value” (Merchant 10). Similarly to all elements of an ecosystem playing a vital role in preserving balance, feminism also requires men and women to have equal roles. Merchant proclaims that the “lower position of women stems from culture rather than nature,” so it is up to society to achieve equality for men and women (10). Next, she presents “the Earth is a home” and argues, “for ecologists and feminists alike, the goal must be the reversal of life-defeating intrusions and the restoration of healthy indoor and outdoor environments” (11). This means that in order for humans to feel peacefully at home on the planet, we cannot continue to pollute and poison it. The author then states that “process is primary” and explains that both men and women have “experience and knowledge that is of value to the human-nature community” (11). Lastly, she urges “there is no free lunch:” prompting that whatever “is taken from nature must be given back through the recycling of goods and the sharing of services” (11). This idea ensures that our life on earth is sustainable and will allow future generations to also live without a depletion of resources.
Each of Merchant’s ideas demonstrated the foundation of ecofeminism but there are also common themes discovered between the adversaries of ecofeminism. As described by the well-known ecofeminist writer Karin Bäckstrand, women have been known to be “associated with nature and the feminine, which, in turn, are devalued and degraded” (Bäckstrand 699). She further extends this association to be due to “the interconnections among masculine biases in science and technology, the destruction of the environment, and the subordination of women” (Bäckstrand 698). The author is arguing that the dominant masculinity in western society and intrusive aspects of modern science share commonalities equal and opposite to those of feminists and environmentalists. Therefore, because both women and nature have been subjected to dominion, they are able to unite against their unjustified oppressors in what we know as ecofeminism. Similarly to Bäckstrand, Karen Warren, another celebrated ecofeminist, sees ecofeminism as an idea that will re-introduce equality for men, women, and the environment. Warren states:
Ecological feminism is a feminism which attempts to unite the demands of the women’s movement with those of the ecological movement in order to bring about a world and worldview that are not based on socioeconomic and conceptual structures of domination. (Warren and Cheney 179).
She furthers the argument that ecofeminism was created to fight subordination by stating that society’s norms are cultural, not natural. Therefore, the roles of gender and nature can be changed to create a balanced society that will also yield better results in preserving the planet. To understand how this perspective was presented to the general public, it is necessary to consider Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
Silent Spring was published in 1962 and is still known today as one of the most fundamental and influential books in ecological awareness. It was an immediate success among Americans, setting an eighty-six week record on the New York Times bestseller list. It “played a vitally important role in stimulating the contemporary environmental movement. Never before or since has a book been so successful in alerting the public to a major environmental pollutant, rooting the alert in a deeply ecological perception of the issues, and promoting major public, private, and governmental initiatives to correct the problem” (Waddell 17). Carson, a biologist, shocked many Americans with her accusations against the corporations and people that used dangerous insecticides. Until then, the majority of citizens were unaware of the hazards of spraying plants. While biologists and the public commended her work, the chemical industry quickly countered with an attack against Carson and her claims. Since Silent Spring put such a negative spotlight on these chemical industries, they fought back with harsh and undeserving criticisms including belittling her for being woman. Maril Hazlett writes in her analysis of Silent Spring that “just as firmly as Carson’s critics rejected ecology, they also reinforced traditional social values” and “rigid beliefs about the divisions between humans and nature correlated with strict definitions of gender” (Hazlett 706). At this time, ecofeminism had not truly emerged so not only did Carson’s book inspire environmental action, the sexist attacks directed against her also inspired women to stand behind her. Hazlett explains the “attacks on Carson often occurred in gendered language” and “her detractors often denied her expertise on the basis of her gender” (706). Despite all these demeaning critiques, most knew her true credibility as a scientist.
Carson’s scientific knowledge allowed her to write a deeply informative and explanatory oriented text about many aspects of the ecosystem. Her claims are backed with research and in-depth explanations of the workings of the ecosystem making her book highly credible. However, Carson’s descriptions of the natural world extended slightly beyond the facts and she was able to achieve an almost spiritual aspect of her voice. Waddell, in his rhetorical analysis of Silent Spring, describes Rachel Carson as “a realistic, well-trained scientist who possessed the insight and sensitivity of a poet” with “an emotional response to nature for which she did not apologize” (Waddell xviii). The sheer provocative information in the book was enough to spark the nation’s interest. However, it was Carson’s voice and style of writing that also made Silent Spring such a success. The author writes in her final chapter:
We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but, at its end lies disaster, the other fork of the road—the one “less traveled by”—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth. (Carson 177).
Her reference to Robert Frost reminds readers that despite a heavy focus on the scientific aspects of chemicals and their effects on the environment, the true purpose of her book is to help humans realize the vital duty of caring for nature. The poetry reference allows the reader to recognize that whether or not they are educated in biology, they can make a difference in the world they are living in. Though most of the book is presented in an simple and technical manner, she stylistically interrupts the facts with urgent real life situations which provokes a stronger response from the audience. Her critics accused her scientific book of being an “’emotional and inaccurate outburst’ based on her ‘mystical attachment to the balance of nature’” (Hazlett 706). Clearly, despite Carson’s efforts to generate a truthful and factual novel, “one should bear in mind that, in her intense feeling for our relationship to the living world around us, she is ahead of her time” (Waddell xviii).
Whereas Carson was very well educated in the field of biology and held extensive knowledge of ecological issues, Janisse Ray, author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, spent most of her life closed off from mainstream culture. Ray was shielded from lifestyles that differed from her family’s fundamentalism and this isolation made her fearful of the real world. Until she went to university, she “never knew a naturalist or that there was such a thing as an environmentalist” (Ray 221). Her junkyard roots quickly embarrassed her once she began to gain perspective on the way most people lived. Despite growing up unaware of any ecological issues, she had always felt an undeniable love for nature. She explains that “something happens to you in an old-growth forest… every limb of your body becomes weighted, and you have to prop yourself up” because “if you stay in one place too long, you know you’ll root” (Ray 69). It is evident that the author truly appreciates her homeland even though as a young adult she struggled with feelings of shame towards her Southern heritage. Feminism also came naturally for Ray at an early age. She felt that it was unfair for her and her sister to have to clean and do chores while her brothers got to play outside. Ray’s “mama would hear [her] out when [she] raved at her about the injustice of women’s work, but she would not change the way her household operated” (Ray 203). Even though she loved her mother, she did not respect her complete devotion to taking care of her husband and children and she certainly “did not want to be like her” (203). Instead, she was adamant on receiving a higher education and seeking awareness beyond her family’s beliefs. It took some time but eventually Ray realized that her culture is not inferior to other ways of life. She came to recognize that “what [she] come[s] from has made [her] who [she is]” (Ray 33). Whereas she was once uncertain of her place in the world, she finally “can see [her] place as a human in a natural order more grand, whole, and functional than [she’s] ever witnessed, and [she] is humbled, not frightened by it. Comforted” (Ray 69). This understanding that everything on Earth has unique and equal roles allows her to simultaneously embrace her traditional roots and the modern values of ecofeminism.
Ecology of a Cracker Childhood provided not only a fresh perspective on clear cutting and preserving forestry through the emotional aspects of the story. This was relatable for many Americans and especially for those unfamiliar with the scientific aspects of environmentalism. Rather than rejecting her roots as she had tried to do for so long, she incorporates them into her book to create an emotionally appealing rather than plain and factual text. The story and message appeals not only to those already familiar with ecofeminism but also to those who may have had similar close-minded childhoods to Ray’s. Ray explains her family’s fundamentalist traditions and that “in this ideology, humans are spiritual in a way that plants and animals can never be, and they hold dominion over the earth as long as they bow to God’s will” (Ray 120). Though it is clear that Ray is now strongly against this belief, she does not belittle or show blatant distaste towards the belief. Instead she recognizes that many people may still hold this value and she gradually leads the reader to understand why humans should not try to dominate the Earth.
Ray does not accuse poor Southerners for treating the environment badly because “it was easy to see that Crackers, although fiercely rooted in the land and willing to defend it to the death, hadn’t had the means, the education, or the ease to care particularly about its natural communities” (Ray 165). She further explains that their “relationship with the land wasn’t one of give and return” because “the land itself has been the victim of social dilemmas—racial injustice, lack of education, and dire poverty” (Ray 165). Ray is careful not to put the blame on the Crackers but instead focus on what can be done in the future to prevent further degradation of long leaf pine forests. She uses terms such as “our” and “we” so the reader is aware that she still identifies herself with the Cracker culture and does not consider herself above it because she is now educated in environmental issues. These strategies employed by the author create a text that is easily understood and relevant to all of humanity.
While Carson utilized her scientific knowledge to expose corporations and capture America’s attention, Ray connected with her audience through her informative yet relatable personal stories. Both books demonstrated the avant-garde values of ecofeminism and displayed originality in the styles by which they were presented to the reader. Though their techniques differed, the authors held the same goal in educating and creating a call to action in an effort to draw awareness to environmental and gender issues. Carson and Ray argue against traditional beliefs of man dominating woman and nature. Instead, they introduce the importance of ecofeminism, which counters oppression by assigning equal value to all living organisms. Whereas Ray interrupts her environmental concerns with somewhat lighthearted childhood reflections to gain audience support, Carson’s Silent Spring is a nonstop attack on those in the wrong—those in charge and those not doing anything to stop those in charge. Carson makes it more difficult for the average citizen to identify with her beliefs; however, her honest, research oriented style is essential in order to introduce her discoveries and make an impact. Ray is writing after these ideas have been introduced so she instead attempts to identify with those in the wrong and help them understand that they can still make a change. Overall, the two authors express the core values of ecofeminism while also accomplishing innovation in their writing styles and appeal to their readers.
Bäckstrand, Karin. “Scientisation vs. Civic Expertise in Environmental Governance: Eco-feminist, Eco-modern and Post-modern Responses.” Environmental Politics 13.4 (2004): 695-714. EBSCO. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.
Carson, Rachel, and Louis Darling. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962. Print.
Hazlett, Maril. “”Woman vs. Man vs. Bugs:” Gender and Popular Ecology in Early Reactions to Silent Spring.” Environmental History 9.4 (2004): 701-29. EBSCO. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.
Merchant, Carolyn. “Women and the Environmental Movement.” Environment 23.5 (1981): 6+. EBSCO. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.
Ray, Janisse. Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1999. Print.
Waddell, Craig. And No Birds Sing: Rhetorical Analyses of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2000. Print.
Warren, Karren J., and Jim Cheney. “Ecological Feminism and Ecosystem Ecology.” Hypatia 6.1 (1991): 179-97. EBSCO. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.