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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

What to Know About Ecofeminism, According to Dr. Heidi Hutner

Halting climate change can’t be done without understanding how the environment and feminism exist congruently.

A certain type of power can be extracted in the nuanced nature of ecofeminism. That is, ecofeminism combines feminist practice with environmental concerns in a way that highlights the interconnectedness of environmental turmoil and the oppression of women, resulting in activism and resistance. Historically, Black, Indigenous, and other women of color face the most impacts of climate change.

That means that liberating the planet from climate change must be done by understanding how the environment intersects with both race and gender. Though BIPOC women remain disproportionately impacted by climate change, they have historically led movements that advocate for both the environment and feminism. One of the earliest recognized ecofeminist movements was the Chipko Movement; an Indigenous-led movement in India to prevent deforestation, that consisted mostly of women fighting for the protection of their environment.

For Heidi Hutner, her journey with ecofeminism began with a diagnosis of cancer at age 35. The impacts of climate change can be seen and felt everywhere. For example, take microplastics, which are small particles of plastic that can be found in oceans, rivers, and lakes. But eventually, microplastics make their way into food and water. On average, Americans consume at least 74,000 particles of microplastic per year. On her blog, Hutner writes, “Inspired by strong women scientists and writers, including Rachel Carson and Sandra Steingraber, I took action—through teaching, activism, and writing. As I describe in my [Ted] talk, as a result of my cancer and my parents’ cancers, I began learning more about the environment and its problems, especially focusing on problems related to women and the environment—an area of study called “ecofeminism.”

Photo of Dr. Heidi Hutner.

What are misconceptions about ecofeminism that you have run to in your work? 

“People aren’t comfortable with it [ecofeminism]. Ecofeminism is about equal rights, equal access, and doing away with power structures; and the misconception comes from the way that people think in a patriarchal framework. Ecofeminism is not about looking for more power, just equal amounts of power. But misunderstandings can happen when people are comfortable in a patriarchal power system. Ecofeminism advocates for the way in which we have to shift the system and end all forms of oppression; and some people don’t want that. [Ecofeminism is about] Doing away with power systems and being in a partnership with all biotic life. That’s really how I see it.” 


How would you define ecofeminism as a practice?

“Ecofeminism as a practice looks for a history in which both women and the environment have been exploited and dominated by patriarchal systems. In practice, there are all kinds of ways to see how women, specifically BIPOC, are impacted by the environment, and how they take action. Oppression of women and BIPOC communities cannot be separated from how we harm nature. I became interested in this work through my mother and her activism, but also generationally as both my parents had cancer. I started investigating why, and that’s what pushed me into this work. I studied it, but I was active on it, introducing it to my daughrter. ”  


Throughout your journey with ecofeminism, what have you learned about the importance of intersectionality?

What is often left out of the conversation is how underprivileged communities are not seen. Like, with nuclear issues there is no discussion with the communities about the harm being done to them, or who these practices are safe for. Safety measures are based on a white male body, even though girls are 7x more likely to be harmed from radiation exposure. Or, how the Global South is exploited through western countries without their permission. There is no communication with local people. Women bear the brunt of all kinds of climate issues and end up suffering the most. That’s where my ecofeminism work comes through, because of the silencing of women. Alice Stewart discovered the x-rays dangers to a human fetus, but her science was initially silenced. This is a bigger thing than just the individual woman, it’s preventing information from entering the general public. It’s a  public policy problem and cultural problem, and women are at the frontlines over and over, doing the duty work to protect their families and kids. It’s important to hear the voices of women, as there are layers to an accident.” 


Culturally, and historically how would you say Western countries interact with the land? How do these interactions impact our relationship to the land? Why is this relationship important? 

“Colonization altered the relationship between the land and people, as it looked at Indigenous people and the land as needing to be tamed. The American landscape was represented as women and the land wrapped up in a pathogen of needing to be domesticated and Christianized. 

We overconsume. Part of our American culture is that there is endless space to take, and Indigenous women are impacted the most.

Carol Adams argues that ecofeminism is about an ethic of care and a partnership with all biotic life, human and nonhuman. But we see ourselves on top of nature and having more rights than it. These are exploitative, patriarchal binaries that need to go away within the ecosystem.” 


There is a disconnect between the disciplines of both science and feminism, and your work as an ecofeminist highlights the power that is produced when science and feminism are discussed together. As you have studied both Environmental History and Feminism, how would you describe the relationship between the two? What is the importance of applying different disciplines, such as history and women studies, in the context of the environment? 

“You should know your history, how Europeans looked at the natural world and how science evolved. There is an importance of looking back to literary texts, and understanding how media is constructed. We need to learn how to deconstruct media, use critical thinking, and not perceive it blindly. A good interdisciplinary approach should be taught young, as the way we learn is patriarchal. Chemists aren’t trained to think about the impact of their work on health and the environment, but it’s important to work together. I need them and they need me. [The relationship with science and humanities] brings an important piece, kind of like storytelling, by teaching scientists how to communicate. There’s an issue with the accessibility of information, but writers and journalists regularly contact scientists to render information to the public. So we do it more than we realize, and it can be utilized more if we do it in a conscious way.” 

Hutner is presently working on the environmental narrative nonfiction book, “ACCIDENTS CAN HAPPEN: Women and Nuclear and Disaster Stories”, along with being in production for a documentary film series based upon the book. To learn more, visit the website: Accidents Can Happen, the Film, or visit Hutner’s website.

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