Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ecofeminism and Treating Women Seriously


I just received another anthology of readings prepared for use in an environmental philosophy class--this one is Environmental Ethics: The Big Questions, David R. Keller, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

I'm going to pick on it. But don't get me wrong: the same points could apply to just about any environmental ethics text on the market. (And similar points go for philosophy of science. Just substitute "feminist approaches" for "ecofeminism.")

The first part of the book consists of short, approximately 1-page answers to the question "Why study environmental ethics?" by prominent writers in the field. This group includes journal editors, authors of important books in environmental ethics, and some of the people who shaped the field in its early days. In this group of 20 authors, 6 are women--and of those 6 women only one writes predominantly about ecofeminism.

The rest of the book consists of 72 selections. 72! Some are historical but the vast majority are contemporary. Out of those 72 selections, only four (4!) are written by women. Oh, but it's worse than it looks.

Of those four selections, three are filed under the heading "Ecofeminism." Ecofeminism is worth studying, and it's certainly worth including in such a collection, but there is a troublesome problem here.

First, there is the inexplicable erasure of what women have written in this field. In the first section of the book, the one that includes short commentaries written specifically for the book, a significant number of prominent women are included. But when it comes to examining the work that brought them to their position--they are not there.

Second, the inclusion of 75% of the women under the heading "ecofeminism" runs the risk of bringing a stereotype effect to bear. When a social group is perceived to be a minority and in a given setting they are vastly underrepresented, then they tend to be judged harsher and more in keeping with established stereotypes than when they are well-represented in the group.

Thus, the inclusion of women as authors of ecofeminism but not as authors in other areas of environmental philosophy makes it more likely that ecofeminism will be perceived as...well, as having all the harsh qualities that are (mis)understood to be part and parcel of feminism. Radical, shrill, marginal... It also indicates that women have no part in environmental philosophy except to speak about feminist issues, which is simply not the case. Thus, it characterizes women as working only in a tiny subfield, and a subfield that is easily read as marginal through stereotype effect.

So, if the goal of including ecofeminism is to be more gender inclusive, then this goal is probably ill-conceived. Within a broader context which is so extremely exclusive, the inclusion of ecofeminism may be more harmful to women and produce more unfair criticism of ecofeminism than should be the case. It tends to exacerbate and reproduce exclusionary gendered practices rather than remedy them.

Finally, I can't help but wonder how such an exclusionary edited text is produced. Even by chance, could I construct a list of 69 readings (not counting those that are ecofeminist) and come up with only one female author (Mary Midgley, in case you were wondering)?

Although the men that I meet in the field of environmental ethics (like the men in pragmatism) tend to have solid liberal values, and profess support for women and minorities, what's sinister about implicit bias is that it need not be intentional. It can be built out of habits and mental shortcuts that give preference to people most "like us." And in areas where "like us" means "white and male," it can take careful attention to counter these tendencies. Thus, I conclude that it is not coincidental that the male editor thanks the following people for their help (by first name):
Michael, James, Holmes, Andrew, Mark, Chip, Clark, Bryan, and Jeff. Plus editorial assistants: Tiffany and Sarah.

1 comment:

gapingwhole said...

Or maybe because ecofeminism is a theory with almost no clout. And that is based on its logic, not the gender of its bearers.