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Last Updated: 12/02/2011
Re-Valuating Gender and the Environment: Paradigm Shifting toward a Human Rights Based Approach to Development
Ani Colekessian

In her highly nuanced academic analysis, UPeace alumna Ani Colekessian delves into the historical-theoretical links between concepts of gender and the environment. She calls for a gendered, human rights based approach to development as the means to overcome the dangers of relegating both women and the environment to the misplaced patriarchal construct of an undervalued "feminine" at the disposal of the dominant "masculine".

This paper begins with a curiosity regarding the connection between gender and the environment. A growing number of international policies, such as the Philippines-initiated Resolution on Women and Climate Change passed by consensus at the closing session of the 55th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (2011), and leading environmental organizations have taken on gender justice initiatives within their strategic line of work. Additionally, numerous organizations and programmes are engaged specifically in environmental issues from a gender perspective. Both environmental sustainability and gender equality (as well as maternal health) are among the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and women’s groups and environmental groups alike are lobbying governments for the upcoming Rio+20. The increasing attention that gender and the environment have received in past decades at the national and international policy level, as well as within social movements, expresses the importance of both areas in addition to the need to address the root cause of environmental and gender injustices.

image:Daily Green

Policies and analyses have rightfully addressed women’s exclusion from decision-making and the invisibility of their positive contributions to the environment; however, women’s integration into environmental frameworks often support women’s inclusion based upon a position of subjugation compared to men and an often essentialist perception of women’s connection to nature. Women’s social roles have impacted their ability to cope with environmental degradation; however, it is imperative to understand the root cause of women’s vulnerabilities as a result of the under-value of the “feminine” and resulting outcomes such as the feminization of poverty and environmental vulnerabilities. My understanding is that not only do gender inequalities and environmental injustices contribute to one another, but that both are comparable on a theoretical level. Understanding equality and the environment from the framework of a gender paradigm exposes the root cause of environmental degradation and gender injustice and provides a framework upon which to address both environmental and gender injustices.

The paper suggests that the link between women and nature is formed through their mutual exclusion from the valued “masculine” within social conceptions. I will argue that the existing Cartesian system of thinking[1] allows for a gender paradigm in which women and the environment are confined to the feminine (private, cooperative, non-hierarchical/horizontal, nurturing and emotional) spectrum and men to the masculine (public, competitive, hierarchical/vertical, individualist and rational) spectrum. The association of women and the environment, then, is founded in their mutual exclusion to the “feminine.” This is particularly important within the guise of the current social model as the value of the “masculine” over the “feminine” enables the assertion of control over what is defined as “feminine” by what is defined as “masculine.” In order to achieve substantial progress within the areas of environmental and gender justice, a shift from the current system of thinking to a holistic approach is necessary, in which masculine and feminine are interwoven and valued equally.

Conceptualizing the Feminine: Women and Nature

Within the Cartesian model of thinking and the capitalist market system, women and the environment are defined under an undervalued categorization of the feminine. The connection is founded in a misleading conception of women’s biological reproductive role. In this case, physiology is used to suggest that women have a stronger connection than men to the environment. Both the environment and women are understood as nurturing organisms because of their productive capabilities, while men, by definition of the dominant “male” gender norm, are confined to the masculine and conceived of as having control over their production. Such an understanding of masculine/male authority as fundamental is established and confirmed with the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, significant influences in Western thought.

In Plato’s Republic, Plato associates the unvalued feminine role with women and the environment through the notion of production. Only through the rejection of women’s biology can Plato abandon the idea of women’s characterization as the feminine nurturer. Within his Republic, he argues that it is necessary to “convince the rulers themselves and the military, and secondarily the rest of the community, that…they were…formed and nurtured deep inside the earth” (Plato, 118). As a result, by re-allocating women’s reproductive role to the Earth, Plato dismantles the association between women and femininity and reinforces the feminization of nature. Plato’s reinvention of procreation removes women’s distinct affiliation with production, thus enabling the dismissal of woman and nurturer as a natural arrangement. Consequently, women are no longer excluded from the masculine. Because Plato’s citizen “has to dedicate himself [or herself] to the single job for which he [or she] is naturally suited,” (Plato, 127) and women are no longer confined to the role of caretaker enforced by her reproductive nature, women “can join in every occupation just as much as men” (Plato, 167). Once women are masculinized by virtue of being disassociated with reproduction, they obtain access into both the masculinized “guardian” and “philosopher” classes.

Reversely, the Earth’s productive capabilities and consequent association with the essentialism of women’s biology allows for its conscription to the less-valued feminine class. This is exemplified by Heidegger’s understanding of Plato’s condoning of the Earth as raw material for human production and consumption (Partenie). Plato’s feminization of the Earth allows for its exploitation by the masculine. In this regard, it is the conception of the feminine within the patriarchal understanding of the world and the association of women and nature with the feminine that places both under the control of the masculine.

Likewise, Aristotle’s patriarchal framework for the association of the feminine with nature and woman, also allows for the devaluation of women and the environment. Just as women are considered passive actors in biological reproduction for Aristotle, Merchant explains how this idea is transferred into the physical world as follows: “the marriage and impregnation of the female earth by the higher celestial masculine heavens was a stock description of biological generation in nature” (Merchant, 16). In this regard, Merchant demonstrates how our physical environments are understood within the gender paradigm. As women are proscribed as passive, once the Earth is understood as feminine, it is recognized as a resource for the use of the dominating masculine actor. Both grant the masculine actor access to control, exploitative practice and authority over the feminine. Within the hierarchical framework of patriarchy in which masculinity is prioritized, the feminization of women and the environment enables their loss of control to the masculine power relation. Just as Birkeland suggests, “because it is identified with the feminine, nature is regarded as existing to serve Man’s physical needs” (Birkeland, 24). It is the association of nature and women with the feminine within the patriarchal gender framework that allows for this exploitation.

Masculinity and Power

As nature and women are understood as submissive in the dualist model, under the masculine framework, privileged men and certain women who fit into the rigid conception of masculinity assume the responsibility of controlling the feminine. In Dismantling Oppression: An Analysis of the Connection Between Women and Animals, Lori Gruen explains men’s dominant power relation over nature and women through The Myth of Man the Hunter. She suggests that andro-centric origin-stories have enabled masculinized control over our natural environments through man’s ability to systematically destroy animals (Gruen, 62). Unlike women who remain within the natural realm of the environment within such origin-stories, men gain access into the world of culture through their ability to rule over nature and consequently, by gendered association, over women. This enforces a clear, though problematic, distinction between man and nature and man and woman.

The power relation is further exemplified within the Madonna/Whore complex, to which both women and nature subscribe under the gender duality. Nature and women are first depicted as nurturing and giving under the label of the virtuous Madonna. For example, the Roman philosophers Ovid, Seneca, Pliny and the Stoics deplored mining as an abuse of their mother, the Earth (Merchant, 3). As the nurturing mother figure and creator of life, the environment is valued for its giving nature. Similarly, because of their biological role, women are identified as innate nurturers despite the fact that little evidence exists to suggest that women’s strong identification with the emotional aspects of caring is connected to the way women’s bodies or minds are physiologically constructed (Armstrong & Armstrong, 149). Just as women and nature are connected with the nurturing Madonna, they are also identified as the unpredictable Whore, which necessitates her control by the masculine. Though nature is giving, it also threatens man through its cycles of natural hazards. Likewise, from an anthropological perspective, man must control woman to ensure his paternity. Both remain excluded from the masculine realm because of their unpredictability as a symbol of the irrational and wild (Kheel, 244). The arguable volatility of the feminized characters of the Earth and women is conceived by a historical foundation for the masculine domination over both.

The Economy of Value

The dualist model also endorses the hierarchy within the sexual division of labour. While the public paid economy is associated with the masculine, women are relegated to the feminine, private, unpaid household unless they are able to transgress gender roles and submit to the masculine character, with associated visible and invisible challenges. As a hierarchy that values the masculine over the feminine, the gender paradigm prioritizes economic capital gain and the masculine control of the feminine realm of domesticity and nature. Thus, the connection between women and the environment is perpetuated through their exclusion from and exploitation by the paid masculine understanding of the economy. As Marilyn Waring suggests in Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women are Worth, since “nature itself is not considered ‘economic’…it is no accident that our much loved and much pillaged and raped planet is often called Mother Earth” (Waring, 9). As symbols of femininity, the environment and women are rendered sub-par and left to the control of a prioritized, economically-driven masculine world.

This is evidenced very clearly with the exploitation of women or the “feminine” by “development” schemes, as Arturo Escobar details in Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World, while the Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) of the World Bank and the IMF have most significantly and negatively affected poor women. He suggests that within development programmes, “young women ended up being the optimal, and preferred, ‘docile, cheap labor force’” and attributes this exploitation of women as an intentional scheme on the part of “male planners and [masculine] Third World elites” (Escobar, 175-176). Escobar explicitly identifies the gendered-power dynamic.[2]

The World Bank has similarly been able to exploit the environment; on the grounds of World Bank policy, the government of India has endorsed monocrop plantations of lumber trees that are not only useless to the local population, but also destructive to local ecologies (Waring, 212).The example is one of many: “exponential growth is continuously pursued, at the cost of considerable damage to the natural environment and the diminishing of nonrenewable resources (Li, 287). It is the feminization of the environment and of women in the dualist and hierarchical understanding of the gender paradigm that allows for the mistreatment of both as resources for the benefit of the masculine. Just as the dualist understanding of the gender paradigm facilitates the exploitation of women, identifying nature as “valueless” allows for it to be destroyed at will (Waring, 204). Without a re-evaluation of our current approach to value, the “valueless” feminine will continue to be exploited for masculinized values of self-interested, economic-based, aggressive politics.

Conclusion: From Dualisms to a Human Rights Approach

The current approach to knowledge creates significant problems from both the gender and the environmental perspectives. The hierarchal approach to gender and the feminization of women and nature frames both as valueless and submits women and nature to the control of the masculine capitalist[3] understanding of value. Through the prioritization of masculinity, the dualist approach removes the value of femininity and accordingly, the feminized woman and environment. Gender and environmental approaches to development are challenged within the current system, in which masculinized notions of capital gain are prioritized. The overemphasis of the masculinized, scientific, “rational” methods of analytic thinking enables anti-ecological thinking (Capra, 41), as well as undermines a human, justice approach toward development, challenging actual gender equality and environmental justice. A re-evaluation of our current approach to thinking in development is necessary as a means for achieving progress within both the gender and environmental fields. Existing attempts toward development within these fields will remain superficial and ineffective unless there is a significant shift toward an approach to knowledge that understands the shift between a dualist model and an integrated, human rights based model that emphasizes systemic thinking.

[1] The Cartesian model of thinking is a dualist understanding of knowledge in which knowledge is approached as a piecemeal in which subjects are rigidly categorized into separate, independent matter. This is contrary to the holistic structure in which subjects are interrelated and knowledge is understood as a combination of subjects (including varying notions of truth, value and perspectives).

[2] The emphasis on young women is another example of exploiting the “young”, more “vulnerable” and thus, more “feminine.” Development schemes in and of themselves are expressions of the gender power-dynamic of what is assumed as the weak, vulnerable, irrational feminine as governments and bodies seen as “powerful” and “aggressive,” “rational” and economically strong – the masculine – are able to determine the politics of less “powerful,” more “feminine” nations and groups.

[3] Note that this is not necessarily a critique of capitalism, but a critique of the masculinization of capitalism.


Armstrong, Hugh and Pat Armstrong (2005). Thinking It Through: Women, Work and Caring in the New Millenium. In Barbara A. Crow and Lise Gotell (Eds). Open Bounderies (pp. 145-153). Toronto: Pearson Education Incorporated.

Capra, Fridjof (1982). The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture. New York: Bantam.

Escobar, Arturo. (1995). Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Gruen, Lori (1993). Dismantling Opression: An Analysis of the Connection Between Women and Animals. In Greta Gaard (Ed). Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature (pp. 60-117). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Kheel, Marti (1993). From Heroic to Holistic Ethics: The Ecofeminist Challenge. In Greta Gaard (Ed). Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature (pp.272-294). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Merchant, Carolyn (1980). The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers.

Partenie, Catalin. Blame it on Plato: Heidegger Environmental Ethics. Retrieved March 31, 2009, from

Plato (1993). Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Waring, Marilyn. (2004). Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women are Worth (2nd Ed). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Ani Colekessian is an alumna of the University for Peace Masters Programme in Gender and Peacebuilding.