Thoreau's Laundry

by Shaker Rana

Today is Earth Day. It is therefore a good time to think about the environmental movement, and its younger sibling, the green movement. In particular, I wish to call attention to the ways that it intersects with the gendered structure of our society. Odd as it may seem, gender influences how we frame our goals, the techniques we use to "save the planet," who speaks, and who bears the burdens of environmental action.

(Warning: this is long. Also, note that gender and people are not the same thing.)

Environmentalism may not seem to be gendered, but gender has been embedded in it from the very beginning. The outspoken advocates for Nature—Thoreau, Emerson, John Muir, Ed Abbey, David Brower—even the Lorax—are male. They argue for the need to defend wild environments from human development, to protect "Mother Earth" from "rape" by greedy corporations.

The female voices—Rachel Carson, Erin Brockovich, Sandra Steingraber, Terry Tempest Williams—speak of environmental problems as well, but they are problems that are less about endangered Nature, wildness, or wilderness, than they are ones about the interference of chemicals with human bodies, particularly female bodies, manifesting as breast cancer, stillbirths, tainted milk, and birth defects.

Those who speak of Mother Earth as being the victim of rape tend not to put themselves in the position of fellow victims, but as those who would protect or defend this vulnerable feminine planet from its despoilers. Even when articulated by women, the language of the defense of Nature is an essentially male one, and that defense is associated with stereotypically masculine action—blowing up bulldozers, aggressively challenging whalers, confronting loggers and seal pup hunters—actions that demonstrate commitment to a cause through physical, confrontational action.

The response to the issue of pollution, on the other hand, is articulated in stereotypically feminine ways—by pointing to personal experiences, emphasizing collaborative actions such as class action suits, invoking the sacred space of home and family as threatened by the predations of aggressive (masculine) corporations. If masculine activism emphasizes the need to protect wild spaces, where men like Thoreau retreat to escape the stresses and corruption of modern society, feminine activism calls attention to the way that the home and one's body—the original safe space—have been invaded by toxins and greed.

In other words, masculine environmentalism is, when reduced to its most basic, about defending a vulnerable earth from "rapists" in order to ensure that (male) human beings continue to have access to it. Feminine environmentalism, on the other hand, is about protecting one’s body, family, and home from outside attacks by (male) corporations.

This gendering of the movement shapes the way that we think about environmental issues, and the way that we address environmental problems, in ways that are subtle, but significant.

We can see this when we shift our attention to the modern "green" movement, where similar dynamics are at work.

Women are expected to go green by changing their shopping choices and altering their domestic behavior—buying "green" clothing made out of bamboo or organic cotton, using cloth diapers, using clotheslines instead of driers, replacing toxic household cleaners with green alternatives, shopping at farmers' markets (bringing their own bags, of course) rather than chain groceries, cooking using locally grown organic ingredients, filtering their water, and so on. The representatives of this approach are predominantly female—Barbara Kingsolver, for example, or Alice Waters.

What does "green" look like for men? Well, if you look at Al Gore as an example, or Bill McKibben, it either involves withdrawing from society a la Thoreau, or turning to technology and government. Most of the people espousing "green" architecture are men, as are those who emphasize technological solutions such as hybrid cars, solar panels, bicycle commuting, green electronics, fluorescent lights, and so on.

Now, this division of labor would be one thing if it were only rhetorical, if it were people drawing on their gender's stereotypical strengths to argue for greener actions.

The problem is that it is not simply a rhetorical division of labor; it is an actual division of labor, and it falls more heavily on women. The bulk of the suggestions concerning individual "green" behavior are directed towards tasks that are performed predominantly by women—shopping, cleaning, and childcare. (Cooking, too, but there is a space now for men who cook as a skilled hobby—home chefs—that is not the same as the unglamorous daily feed-the-family cooking that is traditionally the lot of women. Michael Pollan offers a good example of this.)

In these areas going green entails sacrifice and increased workload—cloth diapers add to the laundry load (which is now supposed to be line-dried); making time to attend the farmers' market requires a schedule that is accommodating to the restricted hours most such markets have (not to mention the challenge of finding and getting to such markets, for many parts of the country) and creative cooking to make use of unfamiliar seasonal harvests; looking for food that is organic or local requires a much more careful and time-consuming form of shopping than just grabbing the regular Cheerios and Kraft Mac-N-Cheez off the shelf; cleaning the house using "green" products often involves a tradeoff between products that are toxic but time and labor consuming and those that are safer, but achieve their results through lots of elbow grease and/or time.

The only feminine green activity that doesn't noticeably increase the labor of women, and which is pleasurable, is green fashion—and that is in fact more about greenwashing than an actual environmental act—the more "green" option is to not buy unnecessary new things in the first place.

Compare this to the "green" solutions directed at men. Choosing to drive a hybrid car is perhaps a financial sacrifice, but that’s where the labor ends—it is no more challenging to drive a hybrid than a regular car. The decision to switch to a bicycle based commute, on the other hand, does require sacrifice on the part of the doer—but it is a sacrifice that is perceived as a sacrifice, and as one that confirms the green cyclist's commitment. We are supposed to buy organic—it doesn’t warrant special praise—but we get applause if we ride bicycles instead of cars (note too that more affordable options, such as walking, or ones which require governmental support, like public transit, are not as "cool" nor as "virtuous"). Riding a bike to work gives you public street cred in a way that line-drying at home does not. Similarly, technology-based solutions tend impose little personal cost on individuals beyond the financial (which, yes, can be considerable)—once you have installed your solar panels, you do not have to think about them on a daily basis unless you are a gadget geek. Indeed, many of the technology solutions are in reality extensions of a fascination with "toys"—a sort of gee-whiz, who’s got the latest cool thing mentality that, again, favors men over women.

(It is worth noting that many of these "toys" are no more "green" than green fashion, because, again, they tweak the problem of over-consumption rather than challenging it. But while the idiocies of green fashion are frequently challenged or easy to see, technological "solutions" are more generally received positively.)

In other words, to go green in practice tends to entail additional work for women, while going green for men largely involves getting to play with cool toys.

The reason why this is important to note is that (a) it reminds us that in a society that is arranged into a gender-based hierarchy, nothing is gender-free, and (b) when we make decisions about environmental issues, or going green, it is important to ask who bears the burden of those decisions when put into practice, and who is at the decision-making table. If these are not the same, even something as wonderful in theory as a green society may prove to be just a different shade of inequality. Saving the planet is a worthy goal—but not if it replicates and reinforces the sorts of privilege and hierarchies that got us into this mess in the first place.

References and Comments

First, a disclaimer. This is not intended to be the final say on this issue. Further conversation is desirable. So if you post on it, let me know so I can link to you!

Second, note that I am talking about both gender (social identities and roles) and about men and women. They are NOT the same thing. I have taken pains to distinguish between the two—so if you want to take issue with my interpretation, PLEASE read the section that's bothering you again before commenting, to make sure that I am in fact saying what you think I said. I am also writing in broad terms here; I am aware that there are individual exceptions to the rule—but the rules do exist, and those individuals are still exceptional.

The title is a reference to the fact that Henry David Thoreau's retreat to Walden Pond was made possible by the labor of his neighbors, including the women who did his laundry. (There is also a book by this title, by Ann Harleman. I have not read it.)

While I have focused on gender here, there are similar, equally important arguments that can be—and have been—made about the intersections of environmentalism with class and with race.

I commented indirectly on this in an earlier post ("Dog-Paddling Upstream") that was a response to Janisse Ray's "Altar Call to True Believers" which appeared in Orion. Chris Clarke's piece, looking at the human costs entailed in right-to-die advocacy, is also worth looking at.

If you are aware of any other pieces along these lines that would be of interest, please let me know.


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