IS IT ESSENTIALIST TO SPEAK OF EARTH AS OUR MOTHER? by Carol P. Christ


carol-christThe charge of “essentialism” has become equivalent to the “kiss of death” in recent feminist discussions. In this context it is taboo to speak of Mother Earth.  Yet, I would argue there are good reasons for speaking of Mother Earth that do not add up to essentialism. What if the values associated with motherhood are viewed as the highest values? What if the image of Mother Earth encourages all of us to recognize the gift of life and to share the gifts we have been given with others?

For those not familiar with the “essentialism” debate in feminist theory, it might be useful to define “essentialism.”  In philosophy, essentialism is the idea that every “thing” has an “essence” which defines it.  In its pure form, essentialism is a by-product of Platonic “idealism” which states, for example, that the “idea” of table is prior to every actual table and that every actual table is an embodiment of the idea of table.

Aristotle disagreed with the Platonic view “way back then,” arguing that the idea of what a table is can be inferred from actual tables, and so on for every “thing.”  There is no need for an idea to exist prior to the existence of anything. Rather ideas help us to name and categorize existing things.  In the 20th century “existentialism” again challenged “essentialism,” asserting that “existence precedes essence.”  Existentialism argued that free individuals are defined by what they do, not by what they “are” prior to or apart from their actions.

When Whitehead said that all western philosophy can be understood as a footnote to Plato, he was referring in part to disagreements among philosophers about the relationship of ideas to things and existence to essence.

In the context of feminist theory, the charge of “essentialism” is used to criticize theories which speak of woman as opposed to man or feminine as opposed to masculine.There are two concerns here.  One is that woman or the feminine is being defined in ways will inevitably prescribe and limit women’s roles and activities.  The other is that woman or the feminine are being defined in ways that may describe some women but will inevitably leave out others.

For example, if “woman” is defined through her biological capacity to give birth, qualities such as being nurturing and caring may considered “natural” to woman and by contrast not “natural” to man. This prescribes women’s roles, restricting them to motherhood, child care, teaching, and nursing, for example, but excluding them from leadership roles in commerce or warfare.

At the same time, such definitions of what woman’s nature is fail to do justice to the wide variety of experiences that people with female bodies including mothers have.  Some women don’t have children; some women hate being mothers and their children remember their anger and neglect more than their care and concern; some women do not have the luxury to devote themselves to nurturing, but must fight on many fronts for the survival of their children; and then some people fall outside the male-female binary altogether.

If these are the stakes, then why would anyone want to speak about Mother Earth?  Especially when the “essentialist police” are ready and waiting to tell us that if earth is a mother, then this means that earth is to be dominated and that her rape is to be expected.

What is not often understood is that the vast majority of feminist criticisms of essentialism are being made from a position that assumes that whatever is identified with women or the female will necessarily be considered inferior to what is identified with men or the male.  Indeed this is what has happened during patriarchy.

There is also an opposite temptation: simply to turn the tables and to assert that whatever is female or feminine, such as motherhood and nurturing, is good, while whatever is male or masculine, such as for example, assertiveness or aggressiveness, is bad.  But as the anti-essentialists are quick to point out, this means that women cannot be assertive, and in any case, they remind us, the tables can all too easily be turned back again.

tour goddessDespite all of this, it seems to me that there are very good reasons for speaking of Mother Earth.  While I would never want to assert that all women must be mothers (I am not) or that women cannot be anything else than mothers (I am many other things), I would argue that the symbol of Mother Earth has great metaphoric power. There is not one of us who would be here if a mother (natural or surrogate) had not carried us in her body until we were able to survive outside it.  Not one of us would know how to nurture if we had not been nurtured. Not one of us would know how to love if we had not been loved. Not one of us would know how to give if we had not been given to.  For many of us our earliest experiences of love and nurture were experiences of our mothers’ care and concern.  This does not mean that men and fathers cannot also be loving and nurturing. Indeed, I would argue that they can and should.  But fathers do not give us the gift of life in the same intimate bodily way that mothers do.

This is why the symbol of Mother Earth has such resonance.  It is about the physicality of the gift of life.  The symbol of Mother Earth reminds us that life is a gift and that we are all interdependent in the web of life.

kamares bowlA feminist song that I have quoted previously on Feminism and Religion says: “As we bless the Source of Life, so we are blessed.”*  We can of course imagine the Source of Life as male, female, or non-gendered.  But when we imagine the Source of Life as female, the gift of life and the Gift of Life are allowed to resonate with each other, engendering in us gratitude for the gifts of life in us and the desire to share them with others.

This is why the symbol of Mother Earth can and should be one of our symbols of the sacred.

Does evoking the symbol of Mother Earth mean that all women must give birth? Does it mean that all women and only women can be nurturing? Quite the contrary.

In the matriarchal societies described by Heidi Goettner Abendroth, the values associated with motherhood including generosity and care are understood to be the highest values.  They are not just for mothers but rather are the values women who have children and women who don’t—and men—should emulate.  I suggest that this should be our goal as well.

In this context Mother Earth is not to be dominated or raped, but rather in the words of another song that is circulating in the women’s spirituality movement: “The Earth is our Mother, She will take care of us. … The Earth is our Mother, we must take care of Her.” Blessed be.

Song “As We Bless the Source of Life,” by Faith Rogow.

Carol P. Christ  has just come back from the fall Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she led through Ariadne Institute.  It is not too early to sign up for the spring or fall pilgrimages for 2014.  Carol can be heard on a WATER Teleconference.  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.

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Categories: General, Goddess, Goddess Movement, Goddess Spirituality, Matriarchy, Motherhood, Women's Spirituality

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25 replies

  1. Mother Earth makes sense to me, Carol. It’s used by most people I know, although too few many question how they then treat Nature and the earth’s resources. We also call boats and planes, ‘she’, for the times we’re totally dependent on them for survival when travelling.

    Patriarchy and economies fixated on wealth/production do not value nurturing, whether by women or men . We’re supposed to produce and consume, or else ‘get the hell out of the way.’

    We can all see the impacts: poor care – and resources – for the vulnerable; loneliness; climbing rates of depression and suicide. Each one of us has both the anima and animus within, and men and women must claim both as our birthright.

    I do see hope, with our young people, and volunteers in many countries. Amid the turmoil everywhere, people are questioning more and choosing to do more nurturing things now. Perhaps they’re like grass pushing through the concrete? Nonetheless, they’re pushing.

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  2. Thanks Carol, for this intelligent post. The essentialist debate has always struck me as an overreaction to the genuine efforts of spiritual feminist who insisted on resurrecting the goddess so that women can also have a stake in the sacred image – be reflected by it. Nobody asked if having a male god was essentialist when he was given warring and vengeful attributes. Yet, in striving for inclusiveness, we risk parsing the language to death until no juice remains. The yin/yang image becomes more and more desirable as the one includes the other, and depending on which side of the gender spectrum a person is, one can make the dot bigger or smaller.

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  3. Hi Carol, an excellent question. I prefer Gaia as a name for our Planet. Also we might talk about the Gaia Hypothesis sometime, which proposes that the planet fulfills all the requirements needed to define it as a living organism and even as having consciousness via human consciousness. In that regard, “mother,” that is, naming Earth as an independent being, has some truth to it. There is a theory too that Gaia birthed or evolved the human intellect, and scientific curiosity so she could explore the universe. Even so to me it’s much more Mother Nature, that I think of when I witness the beauty and wonder of nature on Earth, and the name I think of as an all-embracing goddess image, since it encompasses both Earth and the Heavens, and all of creation’s mystic puzzles, as well as the wonder of scientific discovery.

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  4. I like this post… it seems to me that people spend a lot of time “in their heads” debating, discussing and analyzing. If folks spent more time “in their hearts”, then maybe put the two together, it would be obvious that Mother Earth gave us everything, EVERYTHING, we have/do today… Do I wear rose-colored glasses? No, I have rose-colored eyes! I think this post is saying that, but more eloquently. Blessed Be.

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  5. Brava! If were grading this blog, I’d give it an A++ for its cogent and logical argument. And for the fact that you define terms. And of course I totally agree with you.

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  6. It think it is important to be honest that it marginalizes some people. “Essentialism” may be an overused and overly general term. It is about as useful as “Patriarchy” to get at a *specific* problem. But it is important to take into account, as you know, that gender-sexuality conceived of as a binary is not based in anything ‘actual’ but rather an act of interpretation to enforce social hierarchies. So those who do not experience themselves as either “mothers-female” or “fathers-male” are automatically not among the life-givers either as womb or seed (putting aside for the moment those, whom you mention, don’t feel good about “mother” language and all the historical triggers it brings up).

    [For a heart-rending discussion of why gender/sexuality-essentialist language is harmful even in the most mundane moments of life, please read: http://sobersecondlook.wordpress.com/2013/11/24/day-of-remembrance/%5D

    As you know, like every other religious or secular mode of navigating our existence, the “Mother Earth” narrative is constructed and reconstructed by all those who have used this image and language in different places and times. Thus it can be reconstructed again to be inclusive rather than exclusive. I think your point about life-giving is so good! Perhaps “Mother-Earth” needs to be recast as “Life-Giver” in name, not just in definition.

    So in my constructed narrative, as a Muslim of a particular sort, this makes sense to me since Life-Giver is a name of God, and as such I understand the divine to be the source of all life. All life-giving in this world is a sign (real-metaphor) pointing to the Reality of Life-Giving, thus the earth is one of the most profound signs of that reality….but so are any other forms through which life is given whether that be a human being giving birth as well as a human being giving care to anyone who needs it, not to mention things such as coffee (Oh Giver of Life!) or a heart-lung machine. There is a verse in the Qur’an that says, “We shall show them Our signs in the horizons and in their own souls until they know the Real.” All of creation are signs, a divine language, that calls out to be recognized and understood so that one can bring oneself into harmony. The Earth as life-giver is, again, one of the most profound signs of all. It is the greater horizon. It mirrors our own souls! A powerful metaphor indeed!

    So maybe take Earth to the reality of the Source–even if one conceives of it without a “God/Goddess”–as the Source of Life-Giving Itself.

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  7. Carol, this is an interesting article, and Laury Silver’s reply is equally interesting. I appreciate that you defined the terms, and did not assume that all of us know what the essentialist debate in feminism is about.

    And while I sympathize with both points of view, as a recovering academic, I have a hard time getting too worked up about intellectual arguments which require an either/or response, in this case, either you’re essentialist or anti-essentialist. Life is much more complex than that, as I think your argument shows. We can recognize how essentialism can be a dangerous trap for women, and at the same time, understand that sometimes, as human beings, we require essentialist–seeming symbols like that of “Mother Earth,” in order to heal and thrive in a hostile patriarchal culture.

    I’m comfortable with that paradox and don’t want to give in to arguments that insist I believe either one way or the other. That either/or mentality is itself a product of the production and structure of power, which constantly pushes us to define ourselves rigidly the better to control us.

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  8. Thanks to all of you who read the essay and to those of you who commented.

    I am for a plurality of images, male, female, non-gendered. The Source of Life and Mother Earth and as many other images as speak to the diversity of life on planet earth and in the universe.

    That said, I think many of the accusations of essentialism stem from a horror of religion in general and some kind of unacknowledged fear that to affirm motherhood in any way means we will all be swallowed up by it.

    Goddess feminists and ecofeminists who are not making “all women” and “only women” statements are regularly accused of being essentialists. Why?

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  9. Hi Carol —

    Great post. I’ve been through the existentialist debate repeatedly, but never Realized that it had its source in Plato. Thanks for historically situating it for me.

    I recognize the Cucuteni goddess figure, but what is the second item you’ve reproduced in the photo?

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    • The Goddess figure is from Crete in the Neolithic, c. 5500 BCE; She is firmly rooted on earth, her face is a beak, water lines mark her body; She is Earth, She is Water, She is Sky; She is the Source of Life. The second is a bowl from Crete in the Kamares ware style c. 1900-1700 BCE; in it seeds sprout into interlocking spirals, the Source of life begetting interdependent life abundant.

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  10. My spellchecker keeps overruling essentialist. I don’t mean existentialist, and this the last time I try to type on a Kindle.

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  11. Using the concept of “mother” should evoke many images. Tenderness and nurturing but also being tough. Think of giving birth-it’s a dangerous and wonderful thing that some women do multiple times in their life. They love us no matter what we do and always want the best for us. They worry about us when they see us going down the right path and are there when we realize it.

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  12. (Biological) essentialist or social constructionist. not more binary opposition?

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  13. Feminist philosopher Chris Cuomo also discussed the problems with simplistic anti-essentialist criticisms of ecofeminism in her book Feminism and Ecological Communities: An Ethic of Flourishing (Routledge 1998)

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  14. I wrote about the use of “essentialism” as a blunt weapon in my article “The Meanings of Goddess, Essentialism or Essence? Out from the land of theory” http://www.goddess-pages.co.uk/index.php/2008-issues/7-summer-2008/item/221-the-meanings-of-goddess-part-3

    “For at least twenty years the Goddess movement has been assailed as “essentialist” by post-modernist theorists. They mean that an innate female essence is being claimed, in a biological determinism and rigid gender categorization. Alison Stone is not alone in noting that “within academic writing the charge of essentialism is used in a very adversarial way, as an allegation of the worst crime.” [“What is essentialism?” Online: http://www.lancs.ac.uk/staff/twine/ecofem/essentialism.html ] Some theorists even equate talking about “women” with gender “essentialism,” although it is not biology but historical, cultural, political, social developments and patterns that are being discussed.

    “There is a fear underlying the “essentialism” charge: that gendered symbolism locks women into the very categories that lie at the root of their oppression. But why assume that femaleness itself is the oppression, or gender for that matter? The problem is domination, and absolutism. All human societies are gendered, with no exceptions—but there is a huge variation in how gender functions. It is the structuring of gender relations and cultural norms that need to be looked at. Are they rigid or flexible; are they colonizing or egalitarian, voluntary or forced?…

    “We still live in a cultural setting that has long insisted on masculine deity, priesthood, and theology—and still does, within the predominant religions. But it is considered bad form to call male-dominant institutions essentialist, as they indubitably are, whether they are run by religious fundamentalists or sociobiologists or network executives. Traditional cultures, too, are rarely described in these terms, though many certainly qualify. Yet it is spiritual feminists who have been the primary target of “essentialism” accusations for the past two decades. …

    “Goddess feminists are saying that the long-devalued female must be restored, recreated, and redefined in a liberatory way. Truth and justice demand it (and yes, we affirm [contra post-modernism] that such things are possible). We embrace positive female story and symbolism as empowering to women, as a potent force in reshaping cultural values and behaviors. We reaffirm embodiment as sacred, in the face of a long history of deprecating the body—especially the female body, whose sacred symbolism has been expropriated, colonized in myriad ways, and reconfigured as “obscene.” To confuse this transformative reclamation with “essentialism” misunderstands and distorts its meaning.

    “It is not about essentialism but Essence: being, immanence, the soulful nature of things, including matter itself. This goes to the realm of Mystery: real experiences and insights that can’t be explained in words, only perceived by our right-brain consciousness. We don’t reject the rational, but wholeness demands that we learn to reintegrate it with the totality of our awareness, including its mythic and melodic aspects, the dream-consciousness.

    “The jeremiads against essentialism treat the signs of woman as merely biological and irrelevant, forcing them into a narrow theoretical defile. It’s really a Catch-22: on the one hand, the authoritarian narrative of Western Civ posits the female’s insignificance in religion, directly or by omission; but now that the female figurines and effigy vessels, the vulva stones and breastpots have surfaced to wider notice, they are being ruled inadmissible precisely because of their unequivocal femaleness, now being read as “essentialism.” The discussion has not been about the classic icons of the neolithic, and a comparative study on an international scale, but about dogma, and who has the authority to challenge it.”

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    • Right on, Max! First they called us apolitical, then a distraction from the main strategy of feminism, then essentialist. Many of us know that we need all of us, with all our different points of view and strategies, to change patriarchy. But some “theorists” fall in love with their own theory to such a degree that they need to put down everyone else. Sigh…

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    • So, here’s a curious (you might think) story. I’m currently finishing up a PhD at a rather forward thinking school in San Francisco, and they see very keen to get “beyond gender”. Example. Bathrooms on all floors have become multi-sexed. Brava! Bravo! Right? The interesting thing though, is that it’s been the women’s bathrooms that have invariably changed over. The boy’s rooms remain ever as they were. Curious, huh?

      My local gym has done a similar thing. Example. Males who are “switching” to female, as well as females who are “switching” to male are all using, (drum roll, please)…yes, the women’s bathroom! When I asked the manager why, I was told that women tend to be much more tolerant and less inconvenienced by gender fluidity. Can anyone say “pandering?” Can anyone say, “fucking OUTRAGE?” Though I didn’t quite say “outrage” to said manager, I did say that this might be a good opportunity to teach the fellas a thing or two about what it means to accommodate. “Too risky,” was his reply. Ah yes, the “might-is-right” argument. Familiar with that…

      Of course, there’s something touching, if not liberating about wanting to move “beyond gender”. Word on the (progressive) street is that it’s not quite kosher to use the term “woman” or “women” anymore. I hear some are even insulted by it. The thing is though, how does it allow us to name the systemic violence against “she” who cannot be named? (Anyone else feeling like we’re in a Harry Potter movie?). How will we, for example, talk about the planet’s 160 million disappeared girls/women, murdered because they weren’t born male?

      Last week, I noticed that official rape stats (a la RAINN) now say, “a US citizen is raped every 2 minutes,” followed by “90% of them are women.” All very politically correct. But it feels like window dressing. More, it feels like fucking oblivion. For women only, of course.

      God bless America.

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