By Leila A. McNeill
The summer of 2015 blessed us with Mad Max: Fury Road, the first feminist action film. Fury Road was not just created with a critical feminist perspective, but an eco-feminist one. Eco-feminism, at its core, is a philosophical movement that connects both ecological concerns and feminist concerns in arguing that the patriarchal systems of power that oppress women are the same as those that exploit nature. Set in a post-apocalyptic hellscape of high-stakes Mario Kart, Fury Road clearly and straightforwardly illustrates this foundational concept of eco-feminist thought. The world of Fury Road is one of “fire and blood,” according to Max himself, but more literally, it is a world where the natural resources of oil and water are controlled by a warlord, Immortan Joe. The only people who ask the obvious question-- “Who killed the world?”-- are the women, specifically the wives forced to bear Immortan’s children. The answer is clear: the out-of-control masculinity that Immortan inherited has killed the world. Immortan exploits what little water and oil is left in order to control a population desperately in need of them. Similarly, he perceives women as a mere resource to be used for reproducing more men for his Warboy army. In a world where nature and women are oppressed and exploited in the service of men, everyone ends up losing.
Long before we had Fury Road, though, women writers brought issues of nature conservation, animal rights, and women’s rights into the purview of the public. British writer Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the most well-known early women’s rights writers, was instrumental in laying the groundwork for a feminist discourse about nature that connected the concerns of women and the destruction of nature. In her book Original Stories from Real Life, woman serves as a mouthpiece for nature.The teacher, Mrs. Mason, cultivates sympathy for the suffering of animals by drawing her students’ attention to a bird who had been stoned by a young boy, and tells them that the bird’s suffering is greater than that of a child who has smallpox. In the same story, Mrs. Mason tells her students the story of a boy who, never having learned gentleness, grew up to be a harsh man who tormented guinea pigs and eventually died alone in a ditch. In these stories, a woman speaks for nature in an attempt to teach children empathy with animals, and boys are the characters responsible for the animals’ suffering. She goes further to imply that callousness toward animals as a young boy creates harsh, cruel men.
Also writing in the 18th century, prominent English poet and writer Anna Laeticia Barbauld built a reputation among the Romantic poets for fostering a public empathy toward animals. In her 1773 poem “The Mouse’s Petition,” Barbauld wrote specifically to Joseph Priestley after Priestley showed her a mouse that he intended to use in an experiment with air the next day. In the poem, Barbauld writes from the first person perspective of the mouse who protests its oppression for the sake of scientific progress and argues that destruction of nature is not worth the prize science gives us. Barbauld’s poem works to challenge many types of social oppressions that were perpetuated in the name of progress in the 18th century: colonial slavery, patriarchy, and animal experimentation. For Barbauld, the attitudes and behaviors that oppressed nature were the same that oppressed humans who were deemed less-than by a scientific authority. Priestley was so moved by the poem that Barbauld wedged between the wires of the mouse’s cage that he actually set the creature free.
In the 19th century, women writers continued the tradition of speaking for nature, like Wollstonecraft and Barbauld, through fiction and poetry. Anne Brontë published the novel Agnes Grey in 1847, which illustrates how both women, specifically governesses, and animals occupied a marginal role in society, and in such an inferior position, they were treated with similar cruelty by male characters. In her 1850 poem “The Waters,” Eliza Cook first describes a nature, which she identifies female, as beautiful and wondrous when it is in a wild, unharnessed state, but which the city and urban life has tried to tame. The narrator of the poem identifies with an oppressed nature and wonders if society “fixed its shackles” to her as well. While Wollstonecraft, Barbauld, and Brontë attempt to provoke empathy for nature in the hope of saving it, Cook shows nature and woman to be unapologetically wild and rebellious against those who try to tame them.
Also in the 19th century, women began to publish critical essays in newspapers in addition to the numerous novels, short tales, and poems that advocated for the protection of nature. The rhetoric of these writings grew ever stronger. In the 1883 essay “Unscientific Science: Moral Aspects of Vivisection,” Anna Kingsford passionately argues that “men should understand that the plea of ‘science’ to be insufficient as justification of human action” and any act that destroys nature is a regression for humanity, not a progression. Frances Power Cobbe, a leader among anti-vivisection activists, explicitly compared experimentation on animals to violence against women in her 1878 essay “Wife Torture in England.” She was not alone in seeing violence against nature and women as the same; Edith Ward similarly argued in an 1892 newspaper article that if men could see that kindness and justice is the right of animals then they could see that women too were deserving of such consideration.
In the United States, women of color emerged as a strong and significant literary voice in the tradition of speaking for animals. One prominent example is the 1982 short story “Am I Blue?” in which Alice Walker finds that justice for women, people of color, and nature are interdependent. In “Am I Blue?,” the main character finds kinship with a horse named Blue, as she cultivates “a mutual feeling between me and the horses of justice, of peace.” Walker writes that those who believe that animals want to be used by humans are the same who believe that “women ‘love’ to be mutilated and raped…” At the end of the story when she is sitting down to eat steaks with a friend, she finds as they “talk of freedom and justice one day for all” that she cannot continue to eat an animal.
The eco-feminist message that Fury Road shows us is not a new one; it is a message that women writers in Europe and the United States have been cultivating for centuries. As cultural outliers, these women found affinity with a nature that was being exploited for the service of science and men. Even before the nuclear and chemical warfare of the mid 20th century that mobilized the organized movement of eco-feminism, women as far back as the 1700s have been building a brand of women’s rights that encompassed the natural world. Women writers have long served as a mouthpiece for a silent nature, and they have continued to use metaphors of nature’s exploitation to illuminate the experience of women in a patriarchal society.
Sylvia Bowerbank, Speaking for Nature: Women and Ecologies of Early Modern England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).
Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (New York: Bloomsbury, 1990).