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Women, Earth and God

By Trisha Elliott

That International Women’s Day and Earth Day fall in consecutive months may be happenstance, but it turns out that melting ice caps have a lot to do with the plight of women. “Eco-feminists” have been making the connection since the 1970s, when the term was first coined. They say that the destruction of the environment is tied to the oppression of women. You can’t address one without the other.

Over the last decade, eco-feminist theology has exploded. Ottawa-based author and theologian Heather Eaton offers a panoramic view of the diverse eco-feminist landscape in Introducing Ecofeminist Theologies.

As Eaton explains in her book, ideas that lead to the exploitation of the planet also lead to the exploitation of women, and vice versa. “Militarism, biotechnology, economic globalization, and privatization of Earth resources are only a few of the items looked at by ecofeminists. These are studied in terms of their ecological impact as well as their correlation to issues of ethnicity, class, and gender,” she writes.

Eco-feminist theologians agree that Christians have inherited a set of dualisms from classical Greek philosophy: reason/emotion, mind/body and culture/nature. Historically, men have been identified with reason, mind and culture, and women with emotion, the body and nature. Women and nature were bound and subjugated simultaneously.

The spirit continues to be identified as masculine, and matter as feminine. Language is a case in point. Eco-feminist philosopher Karen Warren offers numerous examples. Women, she says, are referred to in derogatory ways as animals: cows, hens, bitches, chicks, old bats. At the same time, nature is feminized and sexualized: Mother Earth’s fertile soil is applauded; barren land is bemoaned and virgin timber cut down. Meanwhile, God is perceived as beyond the world: alone, ruling, immaterial.

Feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether objects. “God is not a ‘being’ removed from creation, ruling it from outside in the manner of a patriarchal ruler; God is the source of being that underlies creation,” she writes in Women and Redemption.

Eco-feminist theologians say that social justice requires exposing how environmental destruction particularly hurts women.

For example, supplying food, fuel and water is considered women’s work in much of the world; environmental events such as droughts may force women to spend more time collecting water and fuel. Having less access to education compromises women’s ability to adapt to environmental changes. When food is scarce, women in developing countries are the first to go without.

“Eco-feminism is a missionary theology, because it acknowledges God’s mission as holistic and cosmic in nature,” writes Indian theologian Ivy Singh. “Its aim is not geographic, territorial and numerical expansion, but transformation of the whole cosmos.”

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa.

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