What Ecofeminist Françoise d’Eaubonne Can Teach Us in the Face of the Climate Emergency
Where did the idea of ecofeminism come from?
Ecofeminist activist, scholar, and writer Julie Gorecki, co-writer of the new introduction to Feminism or Death, explores the origins of ecofeminism and what ecological feminisms look like today.
Feminism or Death. This is the ultimatum given by French feminist writer and activist Françoise d'Eaubonne in her 1974 book of the same title. Here, d’Eaubonne argued that the global environmental crisis, unmasked, is in fact an age-old hegemonic “male society,” or what today we could call patriarchy. Further, d’Eaubonne argued that this was a worldwide societal structure that has put us on the path to deadly destruction for people and the planet. Her remedy was ecofeminism—and in fact, Feminism or Death is where the term “ecofeminism” was published for the first time.
D’Eaubonne determined that an interlinked subordination of women and the earth, developing throughout history, was at the root of both the environmental crisis and women’s systemic oppression around the world. Ancient man’s control of agricultural technologies resulted in an androcentric society, where the appropriation of women’s bodies, labor and power was paired with exploitative agricultural methods and industrialization. In short, for d’Eaubonne gendered systems of oppression are embedded in a man-made industrial world fueled by environmental degradation.
After filling two hundred pages with descriptions of women’s domination across the globe, including the brutal refusal of abortion rights, unbridled violence against women, and a spectrum of gendered discrimination, d’Eaubonne declared, now is “the time for ecofeminism.”
An era of ecofeminism would begin with what d’Eaubonne called a global “mutation,” the author’s term for an ecofeminist revolution. D’Eaubonne was critical of the masculinist connotations surrounding the term “revolution” in the 1970s, what she called “our daddy’s” revolution. A mutation on the other hand, would enact a “great reversal” of man-centered power. Yet, this grand reversal of power would not mean a simple transfer of power from men to women. Instead, it would mean the “destruction of power” by women—the only group capable of executing a successful systemic change, one that could liberate women as well as the planet.
According to d’Eaubonne, the destruction of patriarchal power by women should result in something called “non-power.” In her later 1978 work Écologie / Féminisme: révolution ou mutation? d’Eaubonne elaborated on this idea, arguing that non-power meant “the destruction of power by the confiscation of all our powers ever exercised,” meaning the power over each person’s time and body.1
In Feminism or Death she describes the realization of non-power as the transformation of society and the planet into the feminine: A planet where “the human-being will finally be treated first as a person, and not above all else as a male or a female.”
For most of the almost five decades since Feminism or Death’s first publication, despite d’Eaubonne’s canonical place in ecofeminist history, her work gained little traction in France, and in recent decades was relatively inaccessible in French until the republication by Le passager clandestin in 2020. Yet, in the English-speaking world, d’Eaubonne has widely been cited as the originator of the term “ecofeminism” since the 1980s (though, as Myriam Bahaffou and I discuss in the introduction to the new edition of Feminism or Death, the idea of one originator of ecofeminism has been problematized on many levels). So her name is known but very few have actually read Feminism or Death, because in its almost half a century of existence only very small excerpts and one chapter of the book have been translated into English. These republications and new translations bring with them a long overdue recognition of d’Eaubonne’s groundbreaking ecofeminist contributions.
Verso’s English translation of the book comes at a time when the global systems crisis that Feminism or Death prophesied is front and center. In 2022 we’re facing unprecedented global warming, the global refugee crisis, a global trend of rising right-wing populism and fascism, and the ongoing global pandemic of Covid-19. And all of this takes place within a global capitalist economy fueled by extractivist industries rooted in patriarchal, colonial, and white supremacist histories.
From a feminist perspective, we have seen an escalation of attacks on reproductive rights and health worldwide, a cross-border crisis of femicide, and continuing world-wide subordination of all women’s (cis and trans) bodies and power. These are current forms of gendered domination which strikingly resemble what d’Eaubonne denounced in 1974.
More specifically, from an ecologically feminist perspective we know that women, especially Indigenous women and those from the global south, are disproportionately impacted by climate change. Women of color and trans and gender non-conforming people are also unequally impacted in the global north. The transnational Women and Feminists for Climate Justice movement shows us that these women are, as movement activists put it, not victims of climate change but its targets.
D’Eaubonne’s Feminism or Death is a historical text that is invaluable to our theorizing and movement building today. It is also of use to us today because of its shortcomings. Like many books of its day, there are some very problematic parts of Feminism or Death. Its analysis is at times essentialist (especially in its use of the terms “phallocracy” and “male”), ethnocentric, and universalist, with moments that play into racist tropes. For example, one of d’Eaubonne’s central premises is that overpopulation, rooted in “male society’s” appropriation of women’s reproductive capacities, is the cause of environmental destruction. Although d’Eaubonne does specify that the “third world,” as it was once called, is not to blame, she does somewhat rely on deeply problematic Malthusian logic, embedded in racist and colonial legacies, to make her point. Moreover, today we know overpopulation is not the root cause of climate change, especially when looking at the overconsumption and overproduction of greenhouse gas emissions overwhelmingly generated by and for the Global North. It is useful for us to critique d’Eaubonne’s work as a way of learning from it. Today we can say we are fighting the same international system but its impacts burden women differently depending on their race, gender, class, specific geographical location, and material history.
From this perspective Feminism or Death not only gives us a platform to build on one of the first and few revolutionary international ecofeminist theories, but also acts as a feminist project of critique that can move us toward the ecofeminism we want to see in the world today. In the introduction to the new edition, Myriam Bahaffou and I advocate for an ecofeminism that embodies the insights of varying feminisms from the last several decades. We suggest a radical, intersectional, and decolonial ecofeminism that is nuanced, non-monolithic, and LGBTQIA2S+ centered. We also highlight the Indigenous, global southern, and decolonial feminists that have been intersecting land and gender for decades. Paula Gunn Allen, Wangari Maathai, Gloria Anzaldúa, Octavia Butler, Arundhati Roy are additional authors who continued to work in this tradition.
It is no coincidence that Feminism or Death and its international analysis has been released on International Women’s Day. Today feminists around the globe come together to resist neoliberalism’s borderless attacks on all of us. Grounding such action in honesty and clarity about the difficulties of building solidarity across the North-South Divide is fundamental, as transnational feminists and activist scholars Linda E. Carty and Chandra T. Mohanty have explained.2 There is a system we are collectively resisting but that impacts all of us in markedly different ways.
Although Women and Feminists for Climate Justice are amongst the “first and worst” impacted by climate change they are also spearheading the most viable climate solutions while simultaneously challenging transnational racial capitalist patriarchal structures. For example, the Indigenous women water protectors of Standing Rock Sacred Stone Camp and their victory against the XL Dakota Access Pipeline have become emblematic of the countless localized fights against extractive mining projects led by Indigenous women across the globe. The peasant women of La Via Campesina’s (the International Peasants’ Movement) community campaigns to confront and dismantle household patriarchal structures are foundational to their internationalist activism against global industrial agriculture. Then there is the African Eco-Feminist Collective, advocating for a reclaiming of the commons while resisting multi-national corporatism and global neoliberalism. And the Kurdish Women’s Movement, who are strengthening cross-border ecological feminist alliances rooted in their home-based construction of an ecofeminist society in Rojava. There is also the Queer Pink bloc at the German anti-coal action Ende Gelände, challenging the cis-heteronormative structure of a transnational climate destroying patriarchal system.
These are just some extremely inspiring examples of what ecological feminisms look like today. A constellation of transnational movements and solidarities working towards a “feminist system change not climate change,” as one of the movement’s slogans goes.
Julie Gorecki is an ecofeminist activist, scholar, and writer. She works on new ecological feminisms towards a “feminist system change not climate change.” She is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley and is also part of the transnational Women and Feminists for Climate Justice movement. With Myriam Bahaffou, she co-wrote the new introduction to Feminism or Death. Follow Julie on twitter: @JulieGorecki
1. Françoise d’Eaubonne, Écologie / Féminisme: révolution ou mutation?, Les Editions A.T.P. 1978, p. 214.
2. Linda E. Carty and Chandra T. Mohanty, “Mapping Transnational Feminist Engagements” in Rawwida Baksh and Wendy Harcourt, The Oxford Handbook of Transnational Feminist Movements, Oxford University Press, 2015, p. 82-116