In my Ecofeminism class we have been discussing essentialism because some feminists have alleged that other feminists, particularly ecofeminists and Goddess feminists, are “essentialists.” They argue that essentialist views reinforce traditional stereotypes including those that designate men as rational and women as emotional. I too find essentialism problematic, but I do not agree that Goddess feminism and ecofeminism are intrinsically essentialist.
Goddess feminists and ecofeminists criticize classical dualism: the traditions of thinking that value reason over emotion and feeling, male over female, man over nature. We argued that the western rational tradition sowed the seeds of the environmental crisis when it separated “man” from “nature.”
Goddess feminists and ecofeminists affirm the connections between women and nature in an environmental worldview that acknowledges the interconnection of all beings in the web of life.
This view has been criticized as essentialist. Is it?
Essentialism is the view that “essence precedes existence.” Essentialists (who are Platonists or crypto-Platonists) say that the “idea” or “essential qualities” of a thing (a table, a horse, a woman, or a man) precede the “existence” of any individual in the group to which it belongs; these qualities are universally—always and everywhere—expressed by members of the group.
Goddess feminists and ecofeminists have been read as saying that it is in the nature of men to be separated from nature and that it is in the nature of women to be connected to nature. What we were actually saying was something more subtle: that men, especially dominant and powerful men, have imagined that they are separate from nature; and that women, who have been identified with nature, are more likely than men to recognize the human connection to nature.
Goddess feminists and ecofeminists also said that emotions and relationships are valuable. We argued that rationality was wrongly defined to exclude feeling. We suggested that feelings for human beings, animals, and all of nature should inform our worldviews and ethics. We have sometimes spoken of a way of thinking that includes feeling as more likely to be practiced by women.
Goddess feminists and some ecofeminists have argued that women need the Goddess as a positive image of female power and have suggested that the image of Mother Earth be included alongside other images.
Still operating within binary dualisms, critics read Goddess feminists and ecofeminists as repeating the “old story” that men are rational and women are not. They fail to see that Goddess feminists and ecofeminists are calling for a reintegration of reason and emotion, mind and body, humanity and nature–and that we find “intelligence” in nature. While many of us wish to celebrate the powers of the female body and the positive values associated with mothering, few of us have argued that women are only bodies or should be restricted to nurturing roles.
Most Goddess feminists and ecofeminists reject the binary dualisms that characterize essentialist thinking—even when the tables are turned to benefit women. Thus we are puzzled to be categorized as essentialists. Like others, I had to turn to the dictionary to make sense of the charge that was being leveled.
I don’t think there are any “essential differences” between women and men or between males and females. There may be some small differences between those with male and those with female DNA. Testosterone has been associated with slightly more aggressive behaviors than those produced by estrogen. These differences are statistical, but not true for every individual. Male and female bodies are different, but then so are small bodies and tall bodies.
However, I would not consider these differences to create an “essential difference” between women and men. An “essential difference” is one that inevitably determines the way we experience and respond to the world. Studies of traditional and matriarchal cultures suggest that cultures can override whatever tendencies are found in our genetic makeup. Men don’t have to be aggressive or violent–they can be as loving and generous as their own mothers. In nonhuman nature too there are nurturing males: some male birds sit on eggs; bonobo males are not as aggressive as chimp males.
While I think that the (blanket) anti-essentialist critique of ecofeminism and Goddess feminism is wrong, I am suspicious of terms like “the feminine,” “the divine feminine,” and the “sacred feminine” that are widely used in new age thinking and in some parts of the women’s spirituality movement. I suspect these terms are chosen in order to avoid the “affont” to systems of male dominance provoked by the “f” word (feminist) and the “G” word (Goddess).
“The feminine” is associated with an often not clearly defined set of qualities that include “more emotional and intuitive, more loving and nurturing.” “The masculine,” again often without clear definition, is understood to be “more rational, assertive, and sometimes aggressive.” Most of those who use these terms acknowledge a debt to Carl Jung.
Jung defined “the masculine” as rational and conscious and “the feminine” as unconscious. Jung had great respect for the unconscious, and he believed that western culture had devalued “the feminine.” However, this does not make his thinking feminist. Jung was personally uncomfortable with women who got into rational arguments with him or other men. He and his followers called such women “animus ridden,” a code term for unfeminine.
The notion that “we all have our masculine and feminine sides” does not resolve the problems inherent in these terms. That Jung and his followers could speak of strong women as animus ridden suggests that his theories were inherently patriarchal. When he identified the feminine with the unconscious, Jung was reaffirming (though perhaps in a more palatable way) the traditional view that women are less rational than men.
I am a woman who is highly rational and highly emotional. (I have my sun in Sagittarius and my moon in Cancer.) I do not view my rational mind as my “masculine side.” To do so would be to acknowledge that it is “unfeminine” to be rational. My mind is as much me as my emotions. And both are part of my female self. Similarly, I would not want to tell a nurturing man that he is “feminine”; this would suggest that caring is not “masculine.”
There are other problems. Jung viewed Goddesses as reflecting the unconscious and Gods rational consciousness. His follower Erich Neumann stated that it was necessary for Goddess cultures to be overthrown in order to the rational individual to emerge.
I think that this whole way of thinking about “masculine” and “feminine” qualities and behaviors is essentialist; and I agree that essentialist thinking should be rejected by feminists.
At the same time, I think it is important to elevate the qualities that have been associated with the female in order to provoke a re-thinking of the dualisms that have shaped western (and other) cultures–to the detriment of women and those considered “other” by “rational man.” Symbols of Goddess and Mother Earth can have “metaphoric power” to upset familiar stereotypes, transforming of the way we think about the world.
We also need to affirm that all individuals are intelligent (rationality being only a part of that) and that individuals have the capacity to feel the feelings of others and to care about others. This applies to female and male human beings, as well as to all other individuals in the web of life on this planet and in the universe as a whole.
Process philosophy states that “feeling and feeling the feelings of others” is fundamental in all of life: human, animal, cell, atomic, and divine. From this perspective we can see that when it divorced rationality from feeling, and designated women and a whole host of others as deficient in rationality, western philosophy took a massive wrong turn. This wrong turn that has been used to justify great injustices and threatens the future of life on this earth. Goddess feminists and ecofeminists are among those who see this clearly.
Carol is looking forward to the fall Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete–$150 discount for anyone who signs up for the fall 2014 tour–www.goddessariadne.org. Carol can be heard in a recent interviews on Voices of the Sacred Feminine, Goddess Alive Radio, and Voices of Women. Carol is a founding voice in feminism and religion and Goddess spirituality. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. Follow Carol on GoddessCrete on Twitter.