Even today, with the numerous changes that have occurred with regards to gender norms and the dramatic increase in opportunities available to women, only a fraction of the world’s women have the ability to achieve transcendence#. This fact is due to the various situations in which many women find themselves, situations that often involve poverty and lack of education. Where women do have access to education and material wealth, they have been able to pursue projects into which they pour their time, energy, intellect and creativity and by which they transcend their given situation. While these projects vary widely and showcase remarkable capabilities on the parts of women all over the world, the increased opportunity for women to transcend through these projects brings with it the increased possibility for inauthenticity and bad faith. In this paper, I will explore possibilities for transcendence as well as the potential dangers of inauthenticity in light of the lived experience# of the eco-feminist.
As Beauvoir explains, the girl, in her early childhood, “grasped herself as an autonomous individual… [who] saw herself in the present as a transcendence” (341). Today, more so than when Beauvoir was writing, the small child, whose body has not yet undergone puberty, sees herself as the same as her male playmates. She envisions a future similar to theirs, and her family may reinforce this vision of the future that demonstrates equality between boys and girls. Only as she grows older and hits puberty does her changing body reveal the ways in which she is different from boys. Her physique changes, she begins to menstruate, and her body acquires a new monthly rhythm over which she has no control. She no longer believes that she is the same as the boys around her.
It is only as the girl grows older that she begins to pay attention to the adults around her, and she now realizes in an articulable manner that despite the espoused equality of men and women, women face more obstacles in pursuing their projects and achieving their aims than men do. While, in our society one can point toward individual women and make the claim that women have won equality with men, the girl learns that the general condition of women stands in stark contrast to this claim. In fact, the girl learns, many women around the world have little hope for transcendence; they continue to experience oppression, objectification and violence at the hands of men (and sometimes other women).
This comes as a shock to the young girl, and she feels profoundly deceived. She feels the double alienation of first discovering that because she is a woman, she will sometimes be deemed inessential and treated as an object (despite positing herself as essential and exerting herself as a subject) and secondly the alienation of being deceived. The realization of being deceived by those whom she trusted may lead the girl to a state of general suspicion. Unless the girl has already established a solid foundation of confidence in herself and her ability to succeed in her projects and thus to achieve transcendence, this suspicion may take on existential qualities. If this happens, instead of simply doubting the world around her, the girl directs her doubts inwards, doubting herself, her own value as a subject, and her essential quality. She faces the danger of otherizing herself as she sees women being otherized by the wider society. In defiance of being cast as inessential by society for being a woman, the girl may further turn to a narcissistic point of view in which she posits her own essentiality as a unique object to be admired by herself and others. However, if the adolescent girl succeeds in this existential suspicion caused by deceit, or if she can maintain a strong sense of her authentic selfhood, she may respond with action. She may champion the issue of girls and women and make it her project to establish women as essential the world over. Thus, having become a feminist, she makes the transcendence of herself and all women a worthwhile and meaningful pursuit, and in so doing finds justification for her experience and existence.
At the same time that she is discovering the hypocrisies of the people and world around her regarding women, the adolescent girl becomes aware of the hypocrisy of people around her regarding the natural environment. She hears people speak of saving the polar bears, conserving energy or caring for the earth, yet what she witnesses in her own life largely displays a seemingly insatiable lust for consumption. The adolescent sees a media that sells and sells and sells to the detriment of the natural world which must provide the raw materials with which to produce these goods; she witnesses oil spills that devastate ocean ecosystems yet little accountability for the companies responsible for such a disaster and a continually increasing demand for oil; she hears talk of water conservation in semi-arid communities’ and walks past people’s lush green lawns. The adolescent reacts to this hypocrisy with anger and indignation. The deception that the young woman has discovered regarding her place as a woman parallels the deception she is discovering regarding care for nature – people’s claims to value women and nature are lived out in a persistent devaluation and exploitation of what men (and women) continue to posit as inessential. Not only do the deception and hypocrisy seem to bear resemblance to each other, but so does language about nature and women. The young woman hears nature spoken of as ‘Mother Nature’ and referred to as ‘she’, and the young woman begins to draw parallels between the treatment of the earth and the treatment of women. Both are deemed as passive, mysterious procreators, nurturers, sustainers, endless sources of pleasure and produce. Having already claimed the project of uplifting women, the young eco-feminist sees a deep connection between the oppression of women and the oppression of nature.
By means of an education, either institutional or experiential, the young woman’s knowledge of the oppression of women across the globe and of the unchecked ecological crisis become central to her understanding of the world. She has experienced the profound double alienation of first having been deceived and second of being deemed inessential as per her womanhood. If she is able to overcome this double alienation, if she is able to transcend the immanence to which society condemns so many women, the eco-feminist sets out to achieve transcendence through her project of working for freedom and justice for women and for the earth. As we have seen, to the eco-feminist these projects (justice for women and for the earth) are intrinsically connected. She has found that the mythical association between woman and nature continues to hold weight, that “Man seeks the Other in woman as Nature and as his peer. But nature inspires ambivalent feelings in man” (163). The ambivalent feelings that men hold for nature are linked, not simply analogically but also bicausally, with the ambivalent feelings that men hold for women. Thus, for the eco-feminist, the two struggles represent two manifestations of the single struggle to recognize authentic value, and the effort to negate the long-held view that the environment and women exist as the mysterious Other to be conquered, stripped of resources, shaped into useful tools, and exploited indiscriminately by men. In light of this, the eco-feminist exerts “the fundamental claim of every subject, which always posits itself as essential” (17), but she is exerting this claim not only for herself and for all women, but for nature as well.
While the connection between the cause of women and the cause of the earth has a strong foundation, as explicated above, it also involves inherent risks. In intertwining the cause of women and the cause of the earth, the eco-feminist reinforces the mythical connections drawn between the two. Reinforcing these connections means that a continued understanding of one as inessential may lead to the other also being thought of as inessential. What if we refuse to curb our exploitation of the earth and its resources and continue to associate women with our raped earth? I want to suggest that this association may contribute to treating women in the same way that we treat the earth – as an inessential object which is to be used until it is used up.
Nature, wholly material and earthly, with neither freedom nor agency, exists as an object that cannot exert its subjecthood. As such it is wholly imminent, without projects, goals or freedom with which to pursue transcendence or justification of its existence. The very existence of nature is its justification. A woman, on the other hand, is first a human being, and as Beauvoir explains, “humanity puts itself into question in its being – that is, values reasons for living over life” (75). Thus woman seeks meaning in her existence. In poor faith, the eco-feminist, or those whom she seeks to influence, may through her project, conflate nature with woman and in so doing relegate herself to the world of imminence, forgetting that as human beings, women seek meaning beyond the mere fulfillment of the requirements of survival. Woman, who is first a human being, has the freedom and agency to claim and project her subjecthood in ways that she and others (men) can understand. Nature, as I have said, cannot do this. It receives exploitation and destruction passively. If, in combining her own cause with the cause of nature, the eco-feminist alienates herself onto nature, understanding herself and her own cause through nature and its cause, she runs the risk of objectifying herself and dooming herself to passivity, like nature. Avoiding, this pitfall, the eco-feminist remembers that her project involves not positing nature as subject but expressing its essential quality. Here, nature provides a helpful correlate to women’s experience, for it is clear that nature is essential, not only in and of itself but also for the well-being and survival of all humanity. The destruction of nature is eventually analogous with the destruction of humanity, and thus recognition of nature as essential is critical to the survival and flourishing of humanity.
The project of the eco-feminist is an important one, for nature and women are both essential, and humanity as a whole would do well to recognize that the flourishing of humanity is inextricably bound up in the flourishing of both nature and the flourishing of women. In pursuing justice for women and the earth, the eco-feminist promotes mutual relationships between men and women and between humans and the environment. These relationships must involve a reciprocity of give and take, they must respect the limitations and exhaustibility as well as the value and generosity of the other in the relationship. However, she must be careful to avoid traps of narcissism in which she alienates herself in a perfect nature. She must also beware of conflating nature and women, as myth has tended to do, turning both into Eternal Mystery, unfathomable to men, for this would prove detrimental to both nature and women. Reciprocity is the final aim to which the eco-feminist’s project extends. She reaches for reciprocity between men and women in which men will recognize women’s freedom and their capability and see individual women as unique, of their situation, yet transcending their situation. The reciprocity between human beings and nature takes a different form since nature does not exhibit freedom or subjecthood, but it must be sought after none the less. This reciprocity involves a recognition that nature is essential and that it cannot give indefinitely. Thus our relationship with it must include some give as well as some taking. The eco-feminist recognizes that the projects carry some parallels and that progress in one arena is closely linked to progress in the other. She herself achieves transcendence in reaching beyond her own situation to understand and attempt to make a difference in the situation of the earth, other women, and by way of those, men as well.