Yucky Girly Nature

by lizmckinnell

This is one of those needing-to-get-something-off-my-chest posts, or to put it a more gendered way, one of those things-that-get-on-my-tits posts.

Something that I have come to notice in a few discussions lately (in academic articles, conference papers and on internet discussion forums – it gets everywhere) is a particular identification of women with nature. Of course, this is not a new thing – it has been around for thousands of years. I have been seeing it come up in order to make points supposedly in support of feminist ideas, and also in support of pretty silly anti-feminist ones that should have been consigned to the dustbin quite some time ago.

So let’s get something straight – as a woman I do not have privileged access to the secrets of life. Having a vagina, breasts and a womb does not put me in touch with the sacred feminine. I do not experience time as cyclical rather than linear because of my innate closeness to natural rhythms, and nor does my possession of these organs grant me access to any special sphere of mysterious empathy with my fellow creatures that is inaccessible to those fellow creatures who have sticky-outy bits where I have sticky-inny bits (hmm, maybe best to leave the stickiness out of things).  Just as a man does not automatically have a brilliant adeptness in the fields of culture and logic, I do not, in virtue of my gender or biological sex, know something mystical about nature and intuition that a man does not.  If I started talking about a rarefied form of sacred knowledge that a man cannot express, but uniquely feels through his bollocks, that would not be sensitive and respectful to men, it would be creepy and weird.  So let’s put away the tambourines and have a bit of a think before we all sign up to the cult of the sacred vagina.

Please do not be tempted to try to resurrect this stuff in the name of reifying the feminine: it does none of us any favours, and if you take the bits of it you like, you may have to put up with the crappy bits of being on that sort of pedestal – it often has pretty uncomfortable implications for reproductive rights for example.  If you begin any sentence with ‘As a woman…’ it had better be a good one, and most sentences that begin that way are not.

I am not alone in thinking that this stuff is really problematic. I think most people in mainstream liberal western cultures would take a similar view.  The response will tend to be that this is some bizarre mystical hogwash, that it is unnecessarily gender-essentialist, that we could have pretty much any arrangement of fleshy bits and pieces in our pants, but that none of this implies any particular connection to nature. Best then to treat everyone equally as cultured, active, free citizens, and leave all this woman-nature stuff well alone.

Well yes and no. The problem with this approach is that it attempts to simply cut off a whole bundle of fairly deep-seated cultural associations which are not going to untangle and shift themselves quite as easily as that.  The thing is that there has been a tendency, going right back to a fair bit of ancient Greek philosophy and literature, and probably earlier, to discard a lot of the things that we don’t like about ourselves into a box marked ‘natural’ and ‘feminine’ (yucky and girly).  Into the yucky and girly box go our biological natures, bodily change, mutual dependence, the fact our actions are often more constrained than we would like them to be, the fact that our emotional lives can be messy and confusing, and so on.  Once these things are in the yucky and girly box, we can shut the lid and pretend to be supremely powerful rational agents who, in our most essential natures, are free from all the inconvenient stuff.  So to open the box and invite the girls out, provided they don’t bring any of the yucky girly stuff with them, is not going to solve the problem (even if this were something achievable).  It expects women to conform to an image of masculinity that never served men particularly well in the first place, and which they could only maintain through a correspondingly implausible image of femininity.

These are some of the central issues concerning ecofeminism.  I have never particularly liked the term – ‘Ecofeminist’ sounds like a distinctly irritating and self-righteous superhero – but the concerns behind ecofeminism are important and fascinating.  It is through unravelling these associations (the same ones that lead to the female personification of nature, and phrases like the ‘rape of virgin forests’) that ecofeminists attempt to unpick the psychological and cultural associations between the idea of dominating and oppressing nature, and the idea of dominating and oppressing women.  In doing both, human beings are attempting to oppress and deny elements of themselves with which they are deeply uncomfortable.  Ultimately both are a form of self-harm that is dangerous and unsustainable.