By Beatrice Tridimas
‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’
Shakespeare’s famous opening line proposes one of the most common metaphors in art and literature – the comparison of nature and women. The metaphor, here, posed to the female lover (if we go for traditional heterosexual readings of Shakespeare) intends to woo and charm, yet, throughout history, has been used to justify women’s subordination.
The relationship between women and nature has long been ingrained in Western culture as something innate and something which confirms each’s inferiority.
Associations between nature and women
We see in art, language and the various tools we use to understand the world constant associations between women and the natural environment. Think in mythology of Gaia the goddess of earth, or of nymphs, the ethereal, sensual creatures associated with trees or water or mountains.
Think of the very language we use to talk about the world around us. We have fertile land; a blooming, sweet earth; we expect nature to reproduce. Women share this language also.
Animals and women
Let’s start with cats. Feline, sensual, slinky. Cats are often thought of as mysterious, alluring creatures. Lions, on the other hand, are kings of the jungle, the top of the food chain.
Whilst men are ennobled, women are sexualised.
Nymphs, similarly, are characterised by ethereality, a connection to nature that is other worldly, alluring but alien. Women and nature share in a language of sexualisation which acts to confirm their inferiority and reject them from the realm of civilisation.
Or hens. The associations between our favourite Sunday roast and women are rather ominous. Hens traditionally have two uses – laying eggs and being slaughtered.
Why make the connection between women and nature in the first place?
Thus, all that is defined as close to nature is done so in a derogatory manner.
Philosopher Val Plumwood says
‘[t]o be defined as ‘nature’ in this context is to be defined as passive, as non-agent and non-subject, as the ‘environment’ or invisible background conditions against which the ‘foreground’ achievements of reason or culture […] take place […] a resource empty of its own purposes or meanings, and hence available to be annexed for the purposes of those supposedly identified with reason or intellect, and to be conceived and moulded in relation to these purposes.’
The urge for change
The inferiority of nature has been long engrained in our culture such that we have normalised its exploitation.
Constructing a connection between women and nature functions to justify acts of exploitation and domination.
It’s not just in ideological terms that disrespect towards nature translates as a disrespect towards women. Failures to protect the environment lead to disproportionate disadvantages for certain socioeconomic groups, one of those being women.
This is partly because climate change affects poorer areas more dramatically, women constituting 70% of those living below the poverty line, and partly due to women being responsible for working in and with nature. Women make up over 50% of the world’s agricultural workforce, producing more than 60% of food in the global south. Anything that affects crop growth, such as drought or flooding, will affect women’s income, access to food and survival.
The adverse effects of climate change are complex
A woman may need to plant a tree when she’s short of fire wood, yet she will then inevitably cut that tree down. For women, having to work harder to collect water or fuel, impacts their education. Missing school to collect water, women continue to forgo access to the opportunities which would empower them.
Viewing the environment as a socioeconomic problem just as much as a scientific one, we draw attention to the fact that social justice is vital in the fight to save the planet.
We won’t ever be able to reach our climate goals unless we accept that certain groups are affected more by climate change. If we no longer see the environment as mere ‘background,’ we honour it’s worth and redefine the value of those we associate with it.