Can socialists, radical environmentalists and feminists from other traditions safely dismiss ecofeminism? In this paper I offer both a critique of ecofeminism and a modified defence. On the one hand, I argue, ecofeminism is riddled with essentialism, and open to all the philosophical critiques levelled at any position which attributes timeless natures to women and men. I shall show that even ‘social’ ecofeminists, in Mellor’s terminology,footnote1 who steadfastly denounce essentialism and dualism, frequently fall back on their own versions of these. Yet I shall also argue that ecofeminism must be taken seriously, both theoretically and strategically. I begin with that embodiment of dualism, Greenham Common.

At Greenham Common armed men guarded nuclear missiles behind three high perimeter fences topped with barbed wire. While men drove round in camouflaged vehicles and radioed to each other across the bare and muddy ground of the camp, peace-camp women slept on the ground, under canvas or plastic, attached images of their children to the wire, picnicked among the trees, built fires to sit round, holes to crap in, sat in front of the lorries carrying the weapons, cut the wires to enter the base and danced on the silos. Global splits between men and women, between militarized states and the homes women make, between North and South, between authoritarian–hierarchical and cooperative ways of living, all seemed condensed in this powerful symbol.

For me, Greenham Common was my first meeting with ecofeminism. I was shocked, both by the place and the arguments. I used to visit with a friend and stay up all night on guard to relieve the women who lived there. I was surprised to notice that policemen and soldiers were now young enough to be my sons. One night some of the young soldiers threw live coals and a dead rabbit at the sleeping women. I ran to the wire and told them off, and realized in their shame-faced response that I now had a mother’s authority. This was also the first time I really listened to the argument that women, as a sex, by virtue of our actual or potential motherhood, have a particular interest in saving the planet and are particularly well-equipped to do it. It was the first time that I heard, and pondered on, Frankie Armstrong singing ‘Will there be womanly times, or must we die?’

The reason for taking ecofeminism seriously, even away from the visual spell of Greenham Common, is well expressed by Joni Seagar in her book Earth Follie:

Militaries, multinationals, governments, the eco-establishment. When I write down this list of institutions on a piece of paper, the first thing that I notice, as a feminist, is that these are all. . .controlled by men (and a mere smattering of women). The culture of these institutions is shaped by power relations between men and women, and between groups of men in cooperation or in conflict. Institutional behaviour is informed by presumptions of appropriate and necessary behaviour for men and for women. Their actions, their interactions and the often catastrophic results of their policies cannot be separated from the social context that frames them.footnote2

I shall argue that Seagar falls into essentialism in her dependence on the concept of ‘male culture’. But she is right, I think, to insist that the social reproduction of male domination and of ecologically destructive social practices are inseparable. We cannot explain environmental destruction simply by referring to capitalism’s institutionalized greed, true as this is: such a schematic approach only begins the search for mechanisms producing this systematically blinkered agency. Ecofeminism points to a deep source of such mechanisms in gendered subjectivity. In other words, our ideas of ourselves as male or female, gender differences in feelings and habitual responses to the world, our gendered conceptions of our interests can all be seen as central to our participation in environmentally destructive practices.

In Plumwood’s important book, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, she asserts the need for ‘a cultural ecological feminism’ which involves ‘a great cultural revaluation of the status of women, the feminine and the natural’, without falling into the trap of seeking in women the salvation-bringing ‘angel in the ecosystem’.footnote3 If Seagar and Plumwood are right to see these concerns of ecofeminism as strategically central to environmentalism in general, a ‘critical ecological feminism’ would have to give up the claim to represent only gendered interests, and I come back to this issue at the end of the paper. I begin, though, by explaining what I mean by essentialism and why, if environmentalists are to be ecofeminists, we should seek a non-essentialist, non-dualistic variant.