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The Problem With Gendering Nature

At climate marches, environmental conferences, and on social media, we hear and see the phrase “protect our mother.” Mother in this case refers to earth, or Mother Earth. But why do we assign earth and the environment a gender, especially amid a global conversation about gendering and misgendering? 

While there is no concrete answer as to why we give the earth feminine connotations, we can assume that it is partly due to the nurturing and life-giving nature of planet earth.1 We can trace this femininity of earth back to ancient mythology, where Goddesses were given traits to connect them to earth and nature, in contrast to the physical power the male Gods had.2 Associating femininity and nature has become commonplace, so much so that many of us are unconsciously assigning nature a gender and reinforcing it. We even find feminine references beyond straightforward gender assignments. In environmental science, agriculture, forestry, and beyond, we often hear the land referred to as “fertile” or “barren.” 2 These terms are associated with those who can bear children. Yet, as we know, gender isn’t just male and female, and assigning nature a gender can have repercussions for people and the environment. 

Environmentally speaking, forcing nature and the environment into a certain gendered category can provide a false sense of security.1 When we think of earth as our mother, or a guardian figure, we expect them to care and provide for us, even in the midst of destruction. We are the ones responsible for earth’s degradation, yet we expect our “mother” to fix the problems we created. As Brach notes in their article, “how can a mother effectively protect and provide for a child that is actively destroying her?”1 

Moreover, attaching gender to nature might just be another attempt to put labels on earth so that we can restrict, confine, and engineer nature.3 In many ways, gendering nature is a way to objectify it, similar to the way women are objectified. Objectification of earth suggests that it is in need of fixing or engineering to improve it, when in actuality nature’s systems are quite complex and work wonderfully assuming there is no human interference to begin with. Earth itself is self-regulating, but human influences disturbs natural processes Earth uses to maintain itself, thus requiring human interference with the intention to fix problems.4 Yet, we continue to meddle with earth’s systems in pursuit of dominance, which is glorified through our economic system and patriarchal society.5 This subsequently can lead to climate denialism, stemming from gender assignments and stereotypes. 

When we teach our children that nature is inherently feminine, we unconsciously reinforce gender stereotypes, patriarchy, and damaging environmental worldviews.6 It also teaches them that there are only two genders, which has consequences for young people trying to figure out who they are, and overlooks those who identify on the spectrum. Moreover, teaching young children that earth is feminine figure, or our mother, reinforces the notion that humans do not have responsibility towards nature, since mothers typically nurture us. This then ties back to the patriarchal idea of a mother/gender connotations, in the environmental field and beyond, have repercussions for all humans and non-humans, and are more harmful than helpful.  

We are living in a defining moment in history, and we cannot let past stereotypes and norms define our future. Once we acknowledge our contributions to gendering and misgendering the earth, we can take measures to relearn. Throughout our trails, forests and educational programs, CFPA strives to acknowledge and welcome all gender identities. We understand that this is a lifelong learning process that will not change overnight, as it has been embedded in our society. However, it can be remediated through learning, relearning, empathy, and support. 

Claire Nichols (she/her) studies Environmental Resource Management and Geographic Information Science at Arizona State University. She is a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar at Yale University and is passionate about policy, transit oriented development, and environmental justice.

References

[1] Brach, G. (2021). The Paradox of Gendering Nature. Medium. 

[2] Tiwari, A. (2020). ‘Mother Earth’ - Is Nature Gendered To Make Men Feel Superior? Feminism in India.

[3] Christina, L. (2012). Gendering Nature and the Importance of Ecofeminism. Referencing Eco.

[4] --. (n.d.). Gaia hypothesis. Harvard University. 

[5] --. (2020). Reframing ‘Mother Nature’ in the Wake of Misogynistic Climate Denialism. Lady Science. 

[6] Criqui, C. (2017). The Gendering of Nature. The Outdoor Teacher. 

Resources:
Reading:

Martin, A. (2018). What Happens When We Give Everything a Gender. Behavioral Scientist. 

Milstein, T. & Dickinson, E. (2012). Gynocentric Greenwashing: The Discursive Gendering of Nature. Communication, Culture, and Critique, 5(4), 510-532. 

Taylor, D. (2018). The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: 

Mainstream NGOs, Foundations, Government Agencies. University of Michigan. 

The Trevor Project. (n.d.). Trans + Gender Identity. 

Listening:

Woodstock, T. (Host). (n.d.). Gender Reveal. [Podcast].