The 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.
Despite 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.
A 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.