Ecofeminism and Nineteenth-Century Literature
Ecologically centered discipline that critiques the dominant male practices and discourses relating to nature.
Ecological feminism, or ecofeminism, is an interdisciplinary movement that calls for a new way of thinking about nature, politics, and spirituality. Ecofeminist theory questions or rejects previously held patriarchal paradigms and holds that the domination of women by men is intimately linked to the destruction of the environment. Ecofeminists argue that traditional male-centered approaches involving exploitation of and supremacy over women are echoed in patriarchal practices and discourse with respect to the environment. Ecofeminism came into being in the early 1970s in the United States, when a number of women became disillusioned with the mainstream environmental movement and sought to create more awareness among feminists about environmental concerns. Feminists before this had seen it as important to deemphasize the differences between men and women, but ecofeminists embarked on a study of particularly female ways of being and thinking about nature throughout history. Thinkers in various fields, from science to anthropology, sociology, history, and politics began to critique traditional attitudes toward the environment from a feminist perspective. In the 1990s, a field of study called ecocriticism—an earth-centered approach to literary studies—began to emerge in literature departments in the United States. Ecocriticism studies the relationship between literature and the physical environment, asking how nature is represented in literary works. While ecofeminist literary criticism is similarly concerned with the depiction of nature, it emphasizes how traditional representations often see the land as innocent, female, and ripe for exploitation.
While ecofeminist literary critics examine literature from all cultures and throughout history to explore female perspectives on nature, nineteenth-century English and American literature is seen as a particularly rich area of study. As ecofeminist literary critics have shown, nature writing by women in both England and the United States flourished in the nineteenth century. The study of flora and fauna, which could be done relatively close to home, was seen as a respectable occupation for middle- and upper-class women; thus, a number of them took an interest in writing about their natural environment. Few of these female nature writers are well-known outside scholarly circles, but they are seen as important because they offer radically different perspectives on the study of plants and animals than do their male contemporaries. Also significant is that many of these women regarded nature as a liberating force, especially in contrast to their confining domestic existences.
For many nineteenth-century women, the sense of place was an important aspect of their writing and many wrote about the local landscape that was often an integral part of their daily life. One of the best-known writers who made place a central element in her fiction was the American novelist Sarah Orne Jewett. The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), for example, is set in the fictional town of Dunnett Landing on the coast of Maine, and the action of the novel revolves around the town and surrounding islands. The story is of a young woman writer who spends a summer in the small town, where she falls in with a group of women who weave a web of stories about the place and its people. Jewett also portrays this circle of women as a manifestation of nature that seems to arise from the rugged landscape. Another important, but neglected, work about place is Rural Hours (1850) by Susan Fenimore Cooper, the daughter of the novelist James Fenimore Cooper. Rural Hours is one of the earliest examples of American nature writing and the first by a woman. In this work, Cooper describes an ideal rural society based on her experiences during her excursions in the local countryside. She also shows how that society is changing as the wilderness recedes and industrialization looms. Cooper suggests that knowledge of place encourages people to respect the land, and she discusses the moral obligation of human beings to create a society that is aware of the natural history of the environment and lives in harmony with the natural world.
Other female writers wrote about place not because it was familiar but because it was new and different from what they left behind as they sought a better life in new and distant regions. Many American frontierswomen left accounts of their travel experiences in diaries and letters which have been collected and studied by feminist scholars. These documents show how different their perspectives were from their male contemporaries. For many women, life on the frontier meant further drudgery and hard work doing domestic chores, and consequently they had a different sense of the possibilities of the landscape than did their husbands and sons. Other women travelers noted in their writings that despite the promise of untouched landscapes, women's domestic captivity prevented them from enjoying what the land had to offer. This is, for example, one of the themes of Margaret Fuller's Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 (1844), which chronicles the travels of Fuller and her companions as they visit Niagara Falls, the Great Lakes, Chicago, and the Wisconsin Territory.
Nineteenth-century nature writing by women took various forms, but one theme that is seen in most of these works is the importance of the link between human beings and their natural surroundings. For most female writers, concern with the environment is not tied to a romantic longing for the openness of the rugged landscape or the withdrawal from society, which are common themes in men's nature writing. Rather, the earth is seen as the sustainer of human life and relationships, and the fragile boundary between nature and humanity is emphasized. Critics who study these women's writings have been particularly interested to show how the “gendered” female landscape that is central to nineteenth-century male writing about the environment is given more complex expression in works by women. They also show how female writing about the environment weaves together concerns about ordinary life and explores questions of community, gender, domination, and exploitation.