It's Not Helpful To Think Of Saving The Earth As Woman's Maternal Duty

I hope that everyone is enjoying Earth Day while they still can — please take a moment to appreciate the glories of nature before climate change reduces our planet to a desolate Water World littered with the bloated corpses of drowned polar bears. This is an issue about which it's easy to feel despondent, seeing as basically every scientist thinks that we're doing irreversible damage to the earth but no one wants to listen because we're either too greedy or too lazy (unplugging your phone charger when it's not in use is so hard).

We have a cultural tendency to associate women with nature (i.e., we personify the earth as a woman to with an all-giving womb and have been known to think that women are connected to the moon because of periods). Accordingly, there's a historical precedent for conceptualizing conservation as woman's work, which Nancy Unger explored today in an op-ed published on CNN's website. She brings up a few salient points — it is important for women to exercise political and social agency in affecting change that they believe in, especially since women are especially vulnerable to the effects of environmental degradation, and it's essential that we find a nonpartisan solution to climate change. However, the majority of the article embodies antiquated and regressive views about gender (which makes sense because every piece of literature that she quotes was penned before the year 1913). It's fine as a walk down memory lane, but she bills it as "a model of how people with opposing social views can come together in support of the environment that we all share." Er, no, not really.

Unger quotes The General Federation of Women's Clubs, a leader in the fight for resource conservation that was founded in 1890. The members were mostly devout anti-feminists. Although they did find that "conversation in its material and ethical sense" is womankind's highest calling (that's pretty sweet, I guess?), their reasoning was that "woman's supreme function as mother of the race gives her a special claim to protection, not so much individually as for unborn generations." As Unger puts it:

Their innate maternal qualities left them uniquely qualified — and obligated — to conserve, protect and defend parks and forests... This notion that women's natural role as homemakers and mothers gave them a responsibility to act as nature's housekeepers led many socially conservative women to take up environmental activism.

Oh, great, we can get conservative women and liberal women to agree on the necessity of environmental conservation if we just remind them of the fact that it's their job to clean up after men! Men are so messy — they're getting CO2 all over the atmosphere just like they always get Cheetoh dust all over the couch.

While it's wonderful that female environmentalists have such a substantial and impressive history, framing women as "nature's housekeepers" weirdly de-politicizes the environmentalist movement even while professing to serve as a model for political action. It's likely that this is why the movement was able to gain so much traction at a time during which American women weren't even allowed to vote. This line of thinking should be seen as a relic of when the patriarchy was much more explicit in its inability to take women seriously, not as a solution to bipartisanship. We should agree on climate change, not because it's woman's role to make sure the earth looks nice for her future children, but because it's one of the defining political issues of our time.

"When helping Earth was women's work" [CNN]

Image via mangostock/Shutterstock.