Gendering The Environment

Photo by I am Kat. | flickr.com

Photo by I am Kat. | flickr.com

When we think of popular depictions of nature in modern media, we think of women. Women are often found in ads that feature ‘natural’ products or designs from floral dresses to fruity shampoos. That is not to say that men are not featured in ads alongside nature, but taking a closer look we see that men are depicted as ‘conquering’ nature (think Jeep commercials), while women are depicted in unison with nature.

After all, nature itself is often described as female (Mother Nature), and taking this metaphor into account, we can see that nature (women) is something to be ‘conquered’ and commercialized by patriarchal institutions (men) such as government, militaries, and corporations.

This motif is damaging to everyone. It implies the notion that women and the environment can be taken advantage of and is also damaging to men as it creates an unhealthy concept of masculinity that normalizes environmental degradation and gender inequality.

Think of all the types of jobs that regularly harm the environment – oil workers, fishers, miners, pilots, politicians, corporate decision-makers. How many of these people are men? That is not to say all men are horrible people. There are many male environmental role models out there such as David Suzuki and Bill McKibben, but it is certainly something to think about.

However, in reality it is hard to separate gender from the environment. Many eco-feminists believe that when we hurt nature, we hurt the well-being and livelihoods of women.  Historically, women worked closely with nature. In many parts of the world, women are responsible for growing food and fetching water for their families.

This is especially true in developing countries today.  In Africa, over 80% of farmers are women. They depend on nature to thrive. Therefore, they are most affected by environmental problems such as climate change, soil erosion, and unsafe drinking water. Even women’s bodies with their higher fat composition make them more susceptible to environmental toxins, which often build up in adipose tissue.

While it is generally true that when we help the environment, we help women, it is also true the other way around. When we invest in education and better access to healthcare for women, they are more likely to have smaller families reducing some pressure on the environment. Education allows women to play a bigger role in environmental decisions that affect their selves, families, and communities.

A gender based approach to environmentalism is something is that has yet to take off into the mainstream. The challenge now for feminists, environmentalists, and eco-feminists alike is to help bridge the connections between gender issues and environmental issues. Ultimately, a gender based approach to the environment is necessary if we want to defend the rights of women and the rights of people to a clean and safe world.