Women and the Environment

Words by Helena (she/her), 20 QLD 

Feminist philosophy offers intriguing perspectives on a possible construction of gender relations in Western society.

These viewpoints ultimately pose the observation that our patriarchal society treats women and the environment in the same way. In this framework, women, especially mothers, are often equated with nature – both relegated to the role of silent pillars supporting Western culture.

Philosopher Luce Irigaray determines that our culture currently possesses a mono-symbolic order of man and ‘not man’ that uses patriarchal ideology to naturalise women as inferior and object.

This symbolic distribution equates man with culture, rationality, and transcendence, and conversely equates woman with nature, disorder, and immanence.

Western metaphysics founds this duality of masculine rationality and feminine disorder, where feminine immanence – bodily existence and nature – is seen as a maternal prison man must escape from in order to achieve rationality.

As such, masculine transcendence is the desire and strive to move neurotically away from corporeality and the natural world, towards a place of culture and rationality. Transcendence is the process of denying and refusing a state of feminine immanence, as rationality is seen as the transcendence of the feminine – it is what leaves the feminine behind.

Success in Western culture is to move away from the womb and the natural, to move away from the mother as far and as quickly as possible.

This is the metaphysical justification upon which the matricide occurs, relegating the mother to a place of silent non-subjectivity.

The mother acts as the silent foundation of Western culture, as culture is built over the repressed and silenced body of the mother through the process of matricide. In this role, the woman acts as a support for man on his journey to transcendence and culture from which she is excluded.

Women’s exclusion from transcendental functions is justified through making this deprivation of worth ascribable to women’s ‘natural’ characteristics, which are, in fact, not natural at all. They succeed through the belief that women lack reason, a quality naturalised as pertaining most obviously to the Western white human male, which provides account for their subordination and relegation to resource.

The mother is forced to take up a role of nourishment and shelter, by which process her subjectivity and selfhood ultimately disappears.  This process sacrifices the mother as a subject, person, or active being, and instead relegates her to a role as placeholder and silent reproducer of culture. She is natural productivity with no voice.

As explored by Irigaray, when the mother is not a subject but rather simply a resource, this is when she is ‘devoured’. The son and father plunder the resources of the mother’s body whilst refusing to acknowledge her, while the daughter is compelled to devour her mother in a vain attempt at securing substance for herself and in a sense forming her own protective skin, driven by the fear of her newly experienced lack of subjectivity.

This journey of transcendence is reflected in psychoanalysis. Throughout Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic scripts, the silent woman acts as an object or prop in the developmental story of man. The unacknowledged mother serves as the silent foundation of both Freud’s and Lacan’s theories, from which she is all but excluded in a subjective sense. Psychoanalysis is reliant upon the silent maternal body that is pushed away from, but whose resources are continuously drained without acknowledgement.

Through Lacan’s mirror stage, a narcissistic masculine subject emerges. The masculine subject projects his own ego onto the world, and the world acts as mirror, enabling himself to see his own reflection wherever he looks. This space of self-reflection hides the subject’s debt to his mother, to the body, and to nature.

The mother’s place is then taken up by a genealogy of men that permeates through all of Western philosophy and ideology.

As a society, we have developed a mythology that men give birth to ideas, concepts, literature, and are influenced by the men who came before them, expressing no input historically from mothers or women. Over time, this founds the idea that culture has only been given to us through a conception of men birthing other men though their ideas – this is furthered by fantasies of self-birth, i.e. the self-made man.

Each of these conceptions can be extrapolated to our treatment of the environment as a society, highlighting links between patriarchal violence and both environmental destruction and colonisation.

Patriarchal society uses the environment as a resource to draw from and a foundation to move away from in order to ‘progress’ towards a society of culture and civilisation, as opposed to a state of nature.

Both women and nature are treated as objects of use and possession under patriarchal systems of control and in line with the ideology of transcendent dualism. This connection must be explored and unveiled in order to protect both women and the environment.


Illustration by Aileen. You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenngstudio

Posted in