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Meet the French feminist behind the theory of ecofeminism

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Karin Mack, Zerstörung einer Illusion, 1977

Caroline Goldblum, with Ruth Hottell, looks back at the history of the pioneering work of French feminist theory that put the term eco-feminism on the map.

Feminism or Death: How the Women’s Movement Can Save the Planet by Françoise d’Eaubonne, is now available in English for the first time.
 

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It’s a real satisfaction for me to know that Feminism or Death will finally be published in the United States almost fifty years after its first publication in France in 1974. Thanks to a new wave of feminism and a greater awareness of climate issues highlighted by a young generation like Greta Thunberg, Françoise d’Eaubonne and her ecofeminist theory benefit from a new interest and eradicate her from the oblivion into which she had fallen. Born in 1920 in Paris, Françoise d’Eaubonne revealed herself at a very young age in writing: she won the contest for the best short story from writers under thirteen years of age, organized by the Editions Denoël. Spotted by a young publisher, she received the Readers’ Award from a new publishing house (René Julliard) in 1947 for her historical novel Comme un vol de gerfauts. Françoise d´Eaubonne was then a young author confirmed in her vocation for writing. During her life she published more than one hundred books in some forty different publishing houses and in all literary fields: essays, novels, theater, youth, detective, science-fiction, poetry, biographies....  

Although she always declared herself a feminist, the publication of Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex in 1949 was a major event for Françoise d'Eaubonne, who then decided to write her first feminist essay, "The Diane Complex." This literary essay is the first in a series devoted to themes concerning gender that followed and were written before Feminism or Death. Indeed, in the 1960s, Françoise d'Eaubonne was one of the rare intellectuals to claim her feminism and question French sexual puritanism. May 1968 was the great turning point that brought these subjects to the fore and marked d’Eaubonne’s great militant awakening. It was not until 1970, however, that the feminist groups that emerged from May 1968 were structured and organized around the Women's Liberation Movement (WLM). The activism of Françoise d'Eaubonne was above all expressed in the spring of 1971 around a movement that she helped to found and which would be significant for the history of homosexual liberation in France: The Homosexual Front of Revolutionary Action (FHAR).  

It is in this context of activist effervescence that Françoise d'Eaubonne became aware of the ecological question. This awareness was made possible thanks to several international events–ecological disasters on the one hand, such as the petrochemical dumping of pollutants in Minamata Bay in Japan, but also thanks to the American bestseller Silent Spring published by Rachel Carson in 1962. The 1972 Meadows report, The Limits to Growth, acted also as a detonator by laying out the dramatic ecological consequences of exponential economic and population growth in a finite world. The year of publication of Feminism or Death was also that of the presidential elections in France, when René Dumont represented political ecology for the first time. This French agronomist proposed a change of society in his essay "Utopia or Death" published in 1973. Françoise d'Eaubonne was inspired by Dumont and published Feminism or Death a year later.  

In this work, d'Eaubonne noted the universality of the “misogynist fact” throughout history, pointing toward the culpability of all men. This observation was painful because, according to her, we are all victims of the patriarchy—of the "male culture"—having grown up and apprehended the world through the prism of this system. Françoise d'Eaubonne made the interesting comparison between the responsibility of all men in the patriarchy and that of all Westerners in the domination of the Third World. She militated for a universalist and anti-colonialist feminism.  

From her ecological awareness came her synthesis of the exploitation of nature by man and the exploitation of woman by man, the first milestone of her ecofeminist theory. The foundation of ecofeminism is the control of reproduction by women, claiming the right to abortion and access to contraception. In France, it was in 1974 that the Veil law legalized abortion and that the contraceptive pill was reimbursed by social security. Françoise d'Eaubonne went further by proposing that the management of birth is part of a survival instinct of humanity, and linked this argument to fears of her contemporaries about overpopulation and ecological collapse.

Drawn from Paul R. Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, published in 1968 in the United States and translated in France by the Friends of the Earth in 1972, this American neo-Malthusian biologist advocated sterilization to avoid the catastrophe of overpopulation. However, d’Eaubonne’s solution was different: to fight against the overpopulation induced by what she calls “phallocratic rabbitism”—or male desires for continuous population growth—the first necessity for women is to take control of reproduction by universally democratizing methods of contraception. This takeover of fertility, she argued, is the first foundation of ecofeminism. D’Eaubonne explained this ecofeminist theory in an essay published in 1978 under the title “Ecology-Feminism, revolution or mutation.” She defended her theses until the end of her life in 2005.  

A certain revival of interest has been felt in recent years for Françoise d'Eaubonne and her theories. The dangers that she warned us of at the dawn of the 1970s—deforestation, nuclear danger, pollution, resource exhaustion—is of burning topicality. The current militant demands of youth around ecology or around feminisms can only contribute to rediscovering the thought of a decrementist, a pioneer of ecofeminism.


Caroline Goldblum is an historian, and author of Françoise d'Eaubonne et l'écoféminisme.  

Ruth Hottell is the translator and editor of Verso’s new edition of Françoise d’Eaubonne’s Feminism or Death and a Professor Emerita of French at the University of Toledo. She was recently named to the Order of Academic Palms by the French government.