(Un)Natural Identities: Unearthing Gender in Environmental History

(Un)Natural Identities: Unearthing Gender in Environmental History (2016) edited by Tina Adcock

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Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of posts considering the intersection between environmental history and gender history. Subsequent posts are available here.

These days I find myself immersed in the intersections of North American environmental and gender scholarship both professionally and personally. As a scholar, my enthusiasm reaches its zenith when I critically evaluate the feminine in nature. As a soon-to-be mother, I feel a deep appreciation for the ideas written by ecological feminists and women naturalists. Labels such as “scholar” and “mother” position me in a particular relationship to my surroundings. They describe what I give and what I receive. As we assume such identities, we also use them as lenses through which to view the world. Gender categories shape the ways in which we understand and interact with human and non-human environments, as when we say that Mother Earth should be protected. As a critical framework, gender analysis enables us to construct more complex narratives about humanity’s material and imaginative engagements with the natural world. Why, then, is this analytical lens only intermittently applied in environmental historical scholarship?

This post introduces readers to works of environmental history that employ gender as a framework. In so doing, they unearth aspects of human-environment relations that are otherwise hidden or ignored, or would be simply unavailable through any other means. The interdisciplinary strength of environmental history is no secret; here I argue that gender is indispensable for a multilayered analysis. Its power rested originally in its integration of feminism into environmental history, but gender scholarship is now expanding to include many facets of gender performance outside of the feminine.

In 1990, scholar of environment and gender Carolyn Merchant responded to Donald Worster [1] by insisting on the inclusion of gender analysis in environmental history. By placing gender in the field’s critical toolbox, Merchant argued for a “more balanced and complete picture of past human interactions with nature,” and one that “advances the theoretical frameworks” of environmental history. [2] She wrote this article at the peak of ecological feminist thinking and as a “founder” of ecofeminism, a movement that materialized out of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s.

Joseph Werner, “Diana of Ephesus as allegory of Nature,” ca. 1680, Art Institute of Chicago, Pen and black ink and brush and gray wash, white and blue gouache, on blue laid paper (discolored to light brown), mounted to laid card, 250 x 193 mm.
Joseph Werner, “Diana of Ephesus as allegory of Nature,” ca. 1680, Art Institute of Chicago, Pen and black ink and brush and gray wash, white and blue gouache, on blue laid paper (discolored to light brown), mounted to laid card, 250 x 193 mm.

The term “ecofeminism” was coined by French activist Françoise d’Eaubonne in Le Féminisme ou la Mort. [3] Other feminist scholars outside of France quickly borrowed the concept. They demonstrated that the acts of dominating women and dominating the land within a Western patriarchal system had many similarities. From the late 1970s into the 1980s, feminist historians were also seeking women’s voices in the historical record. Merchant’s The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution [4] ties these concepts together. It asks how Western culture transformed from one that, before the sixteenth century, venerated a “female” organic earth to one that understood nature as “dead and passive, to be dominated and controlled by humans” [5] in the post-Enlightenment era. Concerned by men’s tendency to place the masculine in the realm of “culture” and the feminine in the realm of “nature,” Merchant and others looked to history for an explanation. Ecofeminist Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her [6] used creative prose and poetics instead of strictly academic language to place this question front and center. Both Merchant and Griffin encouraged a generation of feminist theorists, historians, and environmental scholars to develop a full theoretical framework that simultaneously used analyses of gender and the environment to combat ecological crises and investigate the history of women.

By the 1990s, feminist theory as a method of interdisciplinary study had been incorporated into most humanities disciplines. Answering the call of Merchant’s essay, some environmental historians found gender to be a rewarding framework, though not always in ecofeminist form. Historian Glenda Riley investigated women’s roles in the formation of the American conservation movement and the trans-Mississippi frontier in Women and Nature: Saving the “Wild” West[7] upending the narrative that the conservation movement was solely the realm of masculine efficiency experts. [8] Historian Nancy C. Unger also tackled this question more recently and with more complexity. She uses an intersectional lens to analyze gender, sexuality, race, and class in Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History[9] Specifically noting Merchant’s essay of 1990 as the impetus for subsequent research, she laments the self-imposed limitations that scholars place on themselves by sequestering the history of the environment from the history of gender, sex, and sexuality.

Biographies are an important subgenre within environmental history, and one would be careless to overlook the renewed interest in naturalist-writers like eccentric Mary Hunter Austin, formidable scientist Rachel Carson, and spiritualist Annie Dillard. In Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, Linda Lear reinvestigated the woman who had played such an important role in changing the environmental status quo. [10] Inspired by Lear’s work, historians like Robert K. Musil drew attention to others in this lineage, such as Ellen Swallow Richards and Terry Tempest Williams, in Rachel Carson and Her Sisters: Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped America’s Environment[11]

Much environmental historical work about North American women illuminates their places alongside prominent men in the conservation and environmental movements. The final two books noted here are brilliant exceptions to this rule. Both are collections of essays that showcase a variety of emerging scholars’ work. Seeing Nature Through Gender [12] and This Elusive Land: Women and the Canadian Environment [13] bring the study of masculinity, sexuality, and gender identity to the fore in their analytical frameworks. They ask how this broadened view of gender might impact our understanding of the natural world and our actions toward the environment. In Seeing Nature, Virginia Scharff writes, “Humans have in common the curious practice of knowing nature though the categories by which we know ourselves.” [14] Contributors to this text challenge traditional assumptions about the narrative of “heterosexuality” in the creation of national landscapes. They reflect on the performance of gender in the masculine heroic firefighter, for example, and tackle issues of consumption and politics through a gendered and environmental framework. This Elusive Land employs a specifically feminist approach to ask how gender applies to environmental perspectives and interactions, including the embodiment of the natural and the way the physical world affects social and political climates. [15] This work’s strengths are its focus on questions specific to the Canadian experience and its incorporation of ethnicity and class into the discussion. This Elusive Land uncovers explicitly female interactions and reactions with the natural world and brings them into the narrative of Canadian environmental history.

Since the 1970s, gender historians have sought to denaturalize representations of women as embodiments of the natural world. They have revealed the cultural constructions that enabled and propped up such representations. Ecofeminists are the primary group of scholars to perceive environmental subjects through a gendered lens, albeit one that focuses specifically on women’s experiences. Many embraced the feminine connection to nature as a source of power and an alternative to patriarchal society. Often inspired by ecofeminist thought, subsequent gender historians exposed the important roles that women played in the histories of conservationism and environmentalism. Since the late twentieth century, scholars have devoted more attention to masculinities, both hegemonic and alternative, and queer studies. These aspects of gender analysis must also be incorporated in future gendered critiques of environmental history. To assume that environmental history is the history of men and the environment is to perpetuate the nature/culture divide that ecofeminists sought to dismantle. Additionally, there is no one hegemonic male culture; we must consider the ways the performance of masculinity affects, and is affected by the environment. Finally, some scholars have explored the integration of queer studies and the environment. The history of the 1970s lesbian counterculture movement and environmentalism is examined in both Unger and Scharff, [16] and Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson bring queer studies to the forefront in Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire[17] Yet more work is needed in this area to broaden gender’s gaze and impact upon environmental historical scholarship.


[1] Donald Worster, “Transformations of the Earth: Toward an Agroecological Perspective in History,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 76, No. 4 (March 1990): 1087-1106.

[2] Carolyn Merchant, “Gender and Environmental History,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 76, No. 4 (March 1990): 1121.

[3] Françoise d’Eaubonne, Le Féminisme ou la Mort (Paris: P. Horay, 1974).

[4] Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1990).

[5] Ibid, xvi.

[6] Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1978).

[7] Glenda Riley, Women and Nature: Saving the “Wild” West (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999).

[8] As seen in Samuel P. Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement, 1890-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959), Brett Wallach, At Odds with Progress: Americans and Conservation (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991), Shen Hou, The City Natural: Garden and Forest Magazine and the Rise of American Environmentalism (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013), and a slew of other books emphasizing men’s roles in environmentalism.

[9] Nancy C. Unger, Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[10] Linda Lear, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (New York: Henry Holt, 1997).

[11] Robert K. Musil, Rachel Carson and Her Sisters: Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped America’s Environment (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2014).

[12] Virginia J. Scharff, ed., Seeing Nature Through Gender (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2003).

[13] Melody Hessing, Rebecca Raglon, and Catriona Sandilands, eds., This Elusive Land: Women and the Canadian Environment (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2005).

[14] Scharff, Seeing Nature, xiii.

[15] Hessing, Raglon, and Sandilands, This Elusive Land, viii.

[16] Unger, “Women’s Alternative Environments: Fostering Gender Identity by Striving to Remake the World,” in Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers, 163-186; Catherine Kleiner, “Nature’s Lovers: The Erotics of Lesbian Land Communities in Oregon, 1974-1984,” in Scharff, Seeing Nature Through Gender, 242-262.

[17] Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson, Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010).

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Sarah Ruth Wilson is pursuing a Ph.D. in American Studies at Pennsylvania State University, specializing in environmental history and the intersections of gender, race, and ethnicity. Her current work focuses on the landscape idea in American culture and its significant connection with gender performance, identity formation, and entertainment. She holds a B.A. in art history from Wilson College and therefore continues to write about American art, particularly landscape painting and the changing concept of the sublime. Sarah also blogs on these topics at www.theamericanistdiversion.com.

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