As featured in Synthesis/Regeneration #3 (Spring 1992)

For too long, feminism has lacked a global, ecological focus. In the 90’s, as reproductive technologies, fundamentalists, and ecological poisoning are on the rise, women’s health and self-determination around the world are on a steady decline. Thinking globally about women’s health is vital if feminism is to transform women’s liberation into a collective, international movement toward self-determination.

The environmental movement in the U.S. has not shown a tremendous interest in women’s health or self-determination. In fact, it is often rightfully accused of being a mostly white, male, middle-class movement. Many involved in women’s liberation movements describe environmentalists as being concerned only with protecting the “bourgeois beauty” of the landscape, while feminists are committed to fighting women’s oppression in society. Particularly, second wave feminists in the West have historically taken a back seat in environmental movements, keeping our feminist concerns “out of the way” of the environmental agenda. For too long these women have waited for the “right moment” or the “right movement” in which to fight for self-determination. In the New Left of the U.S., women were told that our sexual and social liberation would accompany the liberation of humanity. As it turned out, women waited patiently,lingering in the background, completing mailings and making coffee while humanity’s agenda was mapped out and prioritized by men. In the current environmental movements in the U.S., women are also asked to focus on larger ecological and social issues in order to avoid distracting the movement from the urgent goal of saving the planet.

For many poor and Third World women, “environmental issues” have always had a direct, social, visceral meaning. Poor women have always struggled with ecological issues such as poisoned water and poisoned work places where women are exposed to toxic chemicals, over work, and under-pay which perpetuates a state of stress and poverty. When women’s health is viewed from an ecological perspective, issues of gender, class, race, colonialism, and capitalism come together, illuminating a global mosaic of women’s dis-ease and survival. We see that our self-determination is inextricably linked to our demand for “health’ in its most radical sense. In this way, feminism uses the issue of health as a point of departure for transforming “bourgeois environmentalism” into a social ecological feminism; making explicit the connections between the destruction of nature and the domination of women all over the world.

The ecology of women’s health has radical implications for feminist theory and action. By recognizing the relationships between women’s social oppression and ecological degradation, feminism scrambles the neat filing system of western patriarchy by combining the domination of nature and the domination of women into one file labeled “dis-ease.” In doing this, the very categories which alienate culture from nature are blurred. Every time we make connection between things that are portrayed as dualistically opposed, we throw a wrench in the rigid hierarchy of male domination by disrupting the compartments which “organize” and control women and nature.

By showing how the domination of women and the poisoning of nature intersects in women’s bodies, the concept of eco-cide takes on a social dimension which brings racism, classism, colonialism and capitalism into one clear focus- health. Bringing together these issues into the category of health transforms the overwhelming disunity of the social and ecological crisis into an understandable whole. The issue of women’s health brings women’s emotional, sexual, and physical issues together, so we can examine the conditions of women’s bodies, labor, relationships, and community life from a global perspective. We must uncover the connections between women being injured by all forms of violence, including labor, and women being viscerally poisoned by toxins in food, water, and air.

The exposure of these relationships redefines health in the original Greek sense of the word—it becomes a measure of justice and balance as opposed to the existing understanding of health as merely an absence of acute illness. Health becomes a form of self-determination in which we control not only justice in our bodies, but in our communities and in our relationship to the natural world. Health becomes a passionate, creative state which is possible only in societies in which women and all people are free.

Unity in Diversity

An ecological feminist politics of health encompasses the entire landscape of women’s oppression, as we go beyond other feminisms by looking at women’s health and liberation from a global perspective. The ecology of women’s health reflects concern for our own and each other’s health which leads us to explore the social and ecological conditions of our own and each other’s lives. A global, ecological feminism comprehends that women cannot fight to strengthen only one part of a web. The strength and elegance of a web depends on the symmetry and tension of each thread. In order for all women to move toward a collective, global self-determination, each women’s voice must be heard. We need to know each women’s insights into the conditions of her own oppression and liberation. We need to know the conditions of women’s lives in order to understand the scope and shape of our collective struggle.

Many people involved in ecological and social justice movements talk about “unity in diversity.” This means that unity occurs in an ecosystem or social group only if diversity is allowed to flourish. The phrase “unity in diversity” conveys that “sameness” is not true unity, but is uniformity. Instead, true unity emerges out of a dynamic dance between affinities and differences. Unity, then can be understood as a larger pattern or symmetry which embraces the diversity of life itself. Particularly within social groups, the concept “unity in diversity” refers to the need for both a common sense of identity as well as respect for diversity. It calls for a celebration of our common insights and goals, as well as our individual visions and histories.

Furthermore, the concept of diversity does not just mean mixing a bit of difference into the homogeneous pot of the dominant group. An international feminist politics of health, which honors women’s diversity, should see unity as something we earn from the constant work of unlearning the ideologies which keep us apart. The solution to achieving a diverse and unified group is not simply structural—meaning that a group is restructured to embody the right amount of women of color. Unity is not something white women achieve by recruiting “diverse” women into organizations or panels at a conference. Unity is a mutual bridging of women of diverse cultures, earned through our commitment to engage in a struggle to confront such oppressions as racism and classism as they inevitably surface in our work, together with the goal of eliminating the objectification and tokenization of certain women within our movements.

As a Jewish lesbian, I can recall several experiences being tokenized by a group of people. In one situation, I was working at a mental health center in Vermont, when I was asked to enhance the center’s Christmas party by bringing in a menorah and teaching the staff about the meaning of Hannukah. At no other time was the staff interested in learning about Jewish culture or in understanding how anti-semitism surfaced in my work with clients and within the agency. I was also asked once a year to conduct workshops for the other therapists concerning lesbian and gay issues relevant to their work with clients.

At first, I was excited by the invitation, interpreting it as an affirmation of the center’s commitment to fighting lesbian and gay oppression. However, I soon realized that my workshops did not change the agency’s policy of hiring only one feminist-oriented therapist to deal with “these issues.” The workshops I led did not challenge the staff’s heterosexual norms. In short, these two contributions that I made to address the agency’s concern with diversity and representation served only to satisfy the agency’s image of being up on these issues. These experiences are both examples of tokenization and objectification—as those in a dominant group reduce those representing different experiences and perspectives into objects which can be used for education or enhancement. Just like my experiences with the mental health agency, certain women are often reduced to a cultural art object used to enhance the unity of other women’s political projects in the feminist movement.

The Complexity of Complicity

These issues are extremely important to resolve as we are faced with the ever increasing need to build international women’s networks to fight for women’s health and self-determination. Thinking globally about these issues entails that feminism does not become a “for myself” movement which works in isolation from other liberation struggles. All women are caught in the net of common and different oppressions based on race, class, age, sexual identity, and physical ability. I call this net the “complexity of complicity”; a complex tangle of women who knowingly and unknowingly are complicit in each other’s oppression. If we do not look at the whole picture, one woman’s triumph can be another woman’s disaster. Toxic chemicals that women in the U.S. anti-toxic movement fight to keep out of their middle-class neighborhoods get dumped in African-American communities. As infertile, rich women in the U.S. fight for access to reproductive technologies, poor women all over the world are resisting their government’s agenda for enforced sterilization.

In her book, Feminism and Critical Theory, Gayatri Spivak cites a case in Seoul, Korea, where 237 women had called a strike for higher wages at a U.S.-owned multi-national corporation called Data Control. Six of the union leaders were brutally injured and imprisoned, while Data Control simply watched. Later, Ms. magazine published a quotation by Kit Ketchum, former treasurer of NOW, who had worked for Data Control in the U.S., and was pleased by the maternity leave and other social services provided to her by the corporation. “I commend Data Control,” she wrote, “for their commitment to employing and promoting women … why not suggest this to your employer?” (p.89). These ironies result from the failure of feminism to think globally about interconnecting systems of oppression.

As women, we can neither assume that our struggles are the same, nor that we all have access to the same tools of liberation. In order to become a truly global feminist movement, committed to fighting for the health of all women, we must realize the centrality of creating forums in which women from all over the world are able to reflect and share their insights and stories of resistance and liberation. We must create a global women’s health movement which undermines all systems of domination that poison women’s psyches and bodies with poverty, racism, sexism, economic exploitation, toxic chemicals, and radiation. As we strive for an authentic unity of women, we will begin to hear the brilliant and intricate diversity of women’s voices everywhere. In this way, women can bring the values of health and global responsibility into the understanding of our own liberatory processes, creating a new, revolutionary, ecological politics.