Removing Patriarchal History, Metaphor, and Gender from “Mother Earth”

 Though I avowed to take a three-week hiatus from the blogosphere in order to devote myself to my end-of-semester studies, I discovered enough time in my work-filled schedule to share with you, dear readers, a recent essay that I wrote for my previously mentioned Women’s Studies course entitled “Gender and Nature.” The course has primarily illuminated the connections between subjugated others (animals, women, people of color), challenged the nature/culture binary, and prompted us to ponder how to best cultivate a symbiotic relationship between human and non-human worlds. Led by the brilliant feminist vegetarian geologist Jill Schneiderman, the course never fails to prompt in me deep thought regarding my sense of self in relation to the broader context of Earth, and it saddens me to think that this Wednesday marks my last session of the course. Needless to say, I plan to visit Professor Schneiderman’s office hours quite often.

The essay I’d like to offer ruminates upon the implications of the use of the term “Mother Earth.” Though perhaps not directly related to veganism or animal rights, it certainly contains intriguing notions about how we as humans might come to envision a more mutually beneficial relationship with the planet and all of its inhabitants. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the piece.

Removing Patriarchal History, Metaphor, and Gender from “Mother Earth”

From infancy to young adulthood, I prepared for bed each night by reading alongside my mother. The books that I preferred her to read aloud included an illustrated tome of Greek myths which first introduced me to Gaia—the earth goddess, great mother of all life, Mother Earth. Smitten with the vibrant photos and mythology, my toddler-aged self could not have fathomed the current controversy surrounding the naked green woman who graced the first page of my beloved collection of bedtime stories. Many feminist scholars today insist that, in our patriarchal society, the term “Mother Earth” prompts humankind to exploit the earth while assuming that she, as our mother, will forever nurture and sustain us. Others assert that conceptualizing the earth as a family member inspires humans to honor and care for the natural world. While over a decade ago I would have abandoned consideration of these opposing views in favor of building Hogwarts Castle out of Legos, I’ve now come to regard an analysis of the mother-earth relationship as integral to the cultivation of a non-oppressive environmental ethos.

Tracing the male-dominated history of western modernization highlights the exploitative coupling of women and nature that persists in the contemporary western use of the “Mother Earth” metaphor, robbing both parties of agency and perpetuating the harmful dualisms of man versus woman, man versus nature. Ultimately, we must cease to envision the earth as both inherently female and cared for only by women, instead cultivating compassion and respect toward all life in non-gendered terms in order to embolden the health of the planet and the societal role of women.

            In chapter seven of A Companion to American Environmental History, history professors Susan Schrepfer and Douglas Sackman follow the development of American male and female identities as conditioned by their relationships with the natural environment. Beginning with the colonization of the New World and the Western Frontier, Schrepfer and Sackman showcase the link between “ecological imperialism and sexual subordination”—the basis for the notion of both women and the earth as passive and ideal for domination (119). As men conquered the land and native peoples—often sexually abusing local women, as did planter William Byrd II—women “br[ed] new colonists and nurture[d] [the] English constitutions in their children,” thereby becoming relegated to the domestic sphere and cementing their societal role as mothers (Schrepfer and Sackman 119, 118). In claiming this newly American land and its original female inhabitants, male colonists fostered a “righteous sense of ownership” that exploded with the scientific revolution (Schrepfer and Sackman 123). The male-gendered machine came to encapsulate post-colonial understandings of development, devaluing both women and nature as hindrances to societal progress and therefore appropriately managed by men (Schrepfer and Sackman 123). While expanding commerce and industrializing through the conquering of nature, men encouraged women “to use nature as a resource and a model with which to nurture children,” thus bolstering the idea of “Mother Earth” by advocating for the act of mothering with the earth (Schrepfer and Sackman 124). This patriarchal legacy of western development cemented the role of females as mothers, the earth as female, and all such parties as exploited by men.

Understanding the historical context in which western use of the term “Mother Earth” became rooted underscores how “[m]etaphors used to describe nature as mother […] reflect and reinforce social divisions […] [and] relations of dominance” between men, women, and nature (Schrepfer and Sackman 117). Indeed, because modern conceptions of mothers and the earth assume them as inherently associated, both parties have lost their agency—mothers exist only as representations of the earth, the earth exists only as a representation of mothers, and neither have value in their own right. As such, in the term “Mother Earth,” mothers and the earth become what ecofeminist Carol J. Adams describes as absent referents—subjects whose meaning “derive[…] from [their] application or reference to something else,” so that “[w]e fail to accord [them their] own existence[s]” (53). Because in western society neither mothers nor the earth can exist without the other, we cannot conceptualize their individual meanings, and thus must rely on their connectedness in order to understand them. Unfortunately, the historical context of western development has defined such connectedness based upon assumptions of mothers and nature as inherently passive, subservient, female-bodied, and inferior to men. The utterance of “Mother Earth” in the western world therefore invokes this exploitative historical framework so that “patriarchal values become institutionalized” in societal treatment of both mothers and nature (Adams 53). In order to understand mothers and the earth in their own rights, to afford them agency, and to combat their exploitation, we must separate the two parties from the oppressive context in which they became linked.

Disassociating mothers and the earth from their pairing in patriarchal society means understanding both “mothering” as a non-gendered term and caring for the earth and its inhabitants as a non-gendered role. As writer Julia Martin asserts, the West assumes that autonomy denotes progress, and thus discredits “caring and a relational style of identity” (189). This in turn contributes to “the devaluation of motherhood, and the requirement that boys, as they grow into men, distance themselves from the kindness and relatedness that feminine identity tends to imply” (Martin 189). Socialized into a framework of masculine superiority and dualism, young men in western society come to regard acts of care, compassion, and selflessness toward others as emasculating and appropriate only when enacted by women. As such, “femininity is ideologically constructed as everything that is not masculine and must be subjected to domination,” thus dooming the historically female earth to have its resources depleted, its atmosphere polluted, and its species endangered, all in the name of patriarchal development (Shiva 47).

However, the act of mothering and the relational care it implies is not inherently female. Indeed, such non-western worldviews as Indian cosmology conceptualize masculinity and femininity as fluid energies present in all forms of life, rather than qualities inscribed into the bodies of men, women, and the earth. Prominent environmental activist Vandana Shiva explains that Shakti—“the feminine and creative principle of the cosmos”—and Purusha—“the masculine principle” of destruction—intermingle to create a “primordial energy that is the substance of everything, pervading everything” (37). Shiva further classifies this energy as Prakriti, otherwise known as nature (37). In this analysis of being, all life contains aspects of masculinity, femininity, and the natural world, implying a symbiotic universe in which “there is no divide between man and nature, or between man and woman” (Shiva 39). Thus, when Shiva advocates for a widespread embrace of the “feminine principle” in dictating our treatment of the planet, she insists not upon reinforcing the problematic association between women and the earth, but upon understanding development and progress as non-violent, harmonious, and life-enhancing processes undertaken by individuals of all genders.

In welcoming the feminine principle, all humans become equal as mothers, caretakers of each other and of the planet. As mothers, we have a responsibility to nurture the earth, but also “to listen to what [it] may have to teach us,” remembering Martin’s call to parents (192). This symbiotic relationship between humans of all genders and the earth bestows agency upon all parties involved—it grants women equal weight in dictating what constitutes “development,” men freedom from the confines of a stereotypically masculinized identity, and the earth a say in how humans treat it. Instead of reinforcing the patriarchal, gendered term “Mother Earth,” we can reframe humankind’s relationship with nature in the life-giving, non-gendered term “Mothers of the Earth.”

Works Cited

Adams, Carol. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist Vegetarian Critical Theory. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010. Print.

Martin, Julia. “As Big as the World: Imagination, Kindness, and Our Little Boys.” Eco-Man: New Perspectives on Masculinity and Nature. Ed. Mark Allister. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004. 181-192. Print.

Schrepfer, Susan R. and Douglas Cazaux Sackman. “Chapter Seven: Gender.” A Companion to American Environmental History. Ed. Douglas C. Sackman. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 116-139. Print.

Shiva, Vandana. Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development. London: Zed Books, 1989. Print.

Until next time, Ali.


2 thoughts on “Removing Patriarchal History, Metaphor, and Gender from “Mother Earth”

  1. Laura says:

    I never thought about the different ways our treatment of the earth reflected attitudes about women in society. I’m saddened because I think it is symbolic of how women everywhere are exploited, demeaned or valued just for aesthetics. I’d like to think that as treatment of women improves, so will our treatment of the earth – but it requires that we all make that vow to each other and the future beneath our feet.

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