Environmentalism’s Gender Problem
June 6, 2018
As the Trump administration moves in multiple ways to remake U.S. environmental policy, the Gender Policy Report’s Debra Fitzpatrick talked with Jennifer Bernstein about her recent piece “On Mother Earth and Earth Mothers: Why Environmentalism Has a Gender Problem” that sparked an important conversation about feminism and environmentalism.
Debra: Welcome to a Gender Policy Report Podcast with Jennifer Bernstein, a researcher and lecturer with the Spatial Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California. This is Debra Fitzpatrick.
So, Jennifer, you have ignited a really important conversation about the modern environmental movement and feminism. Can you summarize your key arguments for us?
Jennifer: Yeah, sure. First of all, thank you so much, Debra, for having me on the podcast. I love the work that you do and am really honored to be here. So, you know, I came to this space sort of from a personal perspective. Being a mom working in academia, studying environmental issues and also sort of having a feminist identity and also having young kids. And another thing I guess I want to say kind of from the onset was that environmentalism and feminism have been intertwined for a very long time. I think we all know that women have featured very prominently within the environmental movement for a long time. We’ve got Lois Gibbs, we’ve got Erin Brockovich, we’ve got Karen Silkwood. Women are traditionally making up the vast majority of mainstream environmental group membership. And yet, at the same time we have the role of men in environmental movements. And, it’s been traditionally different. One of the things I talk about in my piece a lot is the way in which this is socially constructed. This is not based on any sort of biological determinism. But because of these ways in which we have thought about gender culturally, we have men kind of discovering wilderness. Lewis and Clark, Daniel Boone, these folks are so big in our United States cultural narrative. Then we’ve got Henry Thoreau, and Edward Abbey, an Yvon Chouinard, and Dave Foreman. These are all folks who I respect and who have influenced me a lot growing up as an environmentalist, but really it’s the men who go out into the wilderness, whereas, and again, this is not prescriptive, this is trying to sort of speak about how these things are characterized rhetorically. Women are at home and the environmental problems find them, right? So, it’s the problems that come into the home and affect one’s children, and at the same time women’s perceptions about the way in which environmental problems have affected them have been discounted a lot of times by experts. So, if you look at Love Canal, the subdivision in New York that was affected by a chemical waste site, it was really trivialized because women were seen as these hysterical housewives getting crazy about something when it was actually quantifiable. And, this whole idea of women being at home receiving environmental degradation versus men going out and aggressively addressing environmental problems, it kind of dovetails in respect to this sort of long-time gendering between the garden and the home as feminine, domesticated spaces, and the workplace, which is typically gendered as a masculine space. This is really something that I saw that influenced me to write this piece, where women were seen as being responsible for fixing that everything capitalism wasn’t.
Debra: Alright, so Michael Finewood and Teresa Llora-Bidart furthered the conversation by adding an intersectional lens. And I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how does intersectionality as described by them add to your analysis?
Jennifer: I’d love to. So, I really appreciated Mike and Teresa commenting on my piece. There were a few different comments also, Felisa Rogers, Lindsay Meisel, because, again, this is one of those things. You never know how well what you write will resonate with people. To me, this is something I was writing from the heart, from both my intellect and also my experience. But it really resonated with a lot of women, who, I think, we’re sort of trying to have one foot in the environmental camp and also the feminist camp, and feeling like the environmental camp wasn’t really understanding the day to day life of women and the way in which many of these sorts of lifestyle prescriptions were falling explicitly on one gender. Some of the things I talk about in the piece, one of the biggest ones is this idea of cooking. I love Michael Pollen’s work. I feel like one of his best books was Second Nature, which I read 10 to 15 years ago at this point. It was just really about, he does a great job at looking at the way in which we humans engage with the natural environment. So I want to say that I respect Pollen. But, I will also say that he and I kind of, he didn’t actually know that we broke up, but we did break up [laughs]. A few years ago, I was reading an article in Cooking Light magazine, and this was also when I had a one-year old with some serious health problems and a three year old and was also trying to move forward professionally, and I read his article in Cooking Light, and he was being interviewed about home cooking. This is when his book, I think Cooked, came out, and he said, no one should caramelize onions for less than 30 minutes. And, that first statement kind of struck me, because I’m thinking, thirty minutes for what now? But, I read further and the interviewer pushed him back on that. The interviewer said, well what about a family for whom only have 20 or 30 minutes to put together a meal, and he said, well, that same family, that same person, again, not necessarily female, but according to the global statistics, largely female, they have the ability to, I think the quote was to do yoga or surf the internet. At that point in time was when I said, I felt very alienated by environmentalism and what they were telling me to do. And, I alluded to this earlier, but one thing I wanted to say was that this was not necessarily a male-female thing. There’s nothing about, and this was something I tried to bring up in the piece, that there’s nothing about our physical bodies that make it so that men can do certain things and women can do other things. But there’s a concept that I love that I heard from Alex Trembath, which is this idea of the proximate possible. So, where are we now and where can we get in small incremental steps. And when you look at the world, and I cite these statistics in my paper, there is no country in the world where men and women do anything close to the same amount of unpaid labor. And in every country around the world, the vast majority of unpaid labor is household chores. So, given that that’s our circumstance, what do we do? Where do we go?
And, I kind of felt like the paper I wrote let a little bit of steam off. You know, it’s kind of like one of these that’s like a pressure cooker, and I let a little bit of steam off for women who were trying to be a good feminist, a good environmentalist, are working, and again, I’m a part of the group that I think is most able to deal with accommodating these environmental demands. I’m middle upper class, I’m white, I’m educated, all these things. If you look at other groups who are working shifts where they don’t know the schedule ahead of time, have long commute times on public transportation, two working family members, caramelizing onions for a half an hour is the furthest thing from their mind. That was sort of what drove me to write this. The way in which the prescriptions that my group, environmentalists, were giving, were actionable in very different ways depending on the socioeconomic and ethnic group that one was a part of. And I kind of didn’t feel like the prescriptions were fair. And I do think that what I wrote was not necessarily the best exemplar of the ways in which gender is complicated. What about families in which where it wasn’t male-female traditional, or ways in which the traditional gender roles were not what were being actualized, and what they really challenged me to think about was the way in which everyone experiences life differently. What I’ve learned about intersectionality is it’s this idea that we all live in the world with various identities in ways in which we interact. Many of the ways in which I wrote the piece as being about upper class women and middle class and so and so, it really didn’t encompass the whole way in which people were engaging in the environment. And another thing that they brought up in their piece which I thought was excellent was that, I didn’t really leave the space to make it so that there are women who want to engage with the environment in a certain way, and regardless of one’s class status or whatever, they should be respected and not discounted for engaging in the way that they do. Because I think that some of the assumptions that I put in there were that women wanted to be liberated by working, and here they were trapped in a system where environmentalists were telling them they’re cooking. I don’t mean to be pejorative in assuming that for many women, getting back to this sort of basic cooking from scratch and gardening and cloth diapering and breastfeeding, that can mean very different things for different people. And if I was essentializing it, I think they brought up some really good points as to why it possibly shouldn’t be reduced or essentialized in that way.
Debra: So, I wonder at this point if you could think a little bit with us about the implications of this way of thinking about feminism, intersectional or otherwise, and environmental policy at the state and federal level.
Jennifer: That’s a really good question, and like I said, I wasn’t going to female-splain myself [laughs] and say that this isn’t really my expertise. I mean, it’s not, but I do have a lot of ties with ecomodernism, and I started out in my teens as an Earth-firster, defending ancient redwoods from being cut down, and I have since grown into feeling like the world is a complicated place. But, in terms of policy, or even in terms of smaller scale initiatives, what I’ve seen as successful are initiatives that really address multiple concerns simultaneously. So, the green belt movement in Kenya is often discussed as this great way of preserving forests. But, when you delve a little bit deeper, you realize that it simultaneously addressed deforestation, which is being caused by fuel gathering, also, women’s empowerment insofar as by doing less fuel gathering people have more time to do other things, and also these health concerns. Insofar as when you burn fuel wood inside the home, it is really, really problematic from a health perspective for both women and children. So, again, this is as an armchair observer, I’m more of a psychologist, sociologist, geographer, than I am a policy expert, but from what I’ve seen as being appealing are these initiatives that address multiple concerns simultaneously, and don’t automatically assume that environmental concerns are most important. This is something that environmentalism has had a problem with for a long time, and as I think as environmentalism has made really good inroads into the social justice space, I think they’ve done a really good job at this if you look at the Harlem Children’s Project, there were a lot of environmental groups saying asthma is the most problematic thing because of buses and inner cities. And actually, programs like the Harlem Children’s Project, they go in and they say lets’ just deal with the most important problem. And if it happens to be environmental, that’s great, if it happens to be something else, that’s fine too. So, I think the degree to which environmentalists, and again, i consider myself a lifelong environmentalist, can recognize the degree that environmental concerns often come after basic needs are satisfied, the degree to which someone is hungry and not well-fed or not having shelter, if you look at the very basic Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, those things are going to come first. Obviously, environmental degradation affects different groups differently, it depends where you are around the world and what you’re doing, but I will say that if we can see environmental concerns especially, mostly in the developed world as something that comes after being very materially satiated, I think we can get a little bit more compassionate and understanding of what other groups are going for and the degree to which we can make environmentalism accommodate a different set of needs.
Debra: Great, thank you so much Jennifer. This is really, really insightful and we really appreciate you taking time to share your work with the Gender Policy Report.