Contextualizing Labor and Environmental Justice through a Transnational Feminist Frame
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Hamilton College’s Women’s and Gender Studies Department was launched in 1987 as an interdisciplinary program primarily rooted in analysis of US experiences, systems, structures, and activism. Like so many departments, over the years we have moved toward an increasingly intersectional, transnational feminist heuristic. Our goal has been to develop a series of connected courses that emphasize distinct social, political, and historical contexts while simultaneously disrupting neoliberal feminisms that attempt to universalize women’s oppressions.
The course “Labor, Gender, and the Environment,” for example, draws on feminist labor studies, ecofeminism, and multispecies studies, asking students to grapple with interdependencies of life, humanity, and ecology. In this class we challenge students to:
1) recognize women’s work addressing environmental threats to poor women, Indigenous communities, and people of color (Nelleman, Verma, and Hislop 2011; Rao et al. 2017; “Meet 15 Women” 2019);
2) appreciate the utility of intersectional analysis as it reveals connections between ecological processes and relations of labor, property, and power (Akter 2021; Dhir 2017);
3) interrogate the ideology through which women’s labor is all too often discounted and made invisible, even in environmental justice activism; and
4) consider how labor connected to environmental movements is invoked in discourse, practices, and politics traversing geopolitical boundaries and disciplinary regimes.1
“Gender, Ecology, and the Science of Survival: Stories and Lessons from Kenya” (Rocheleau 1991)
Dianne Rocheleau argues that in sustainable development initiatives, the concept of “ethnoscience” allows on-the-ground knowledge to be recognized and valued, both because the practice leads to “better, more complete science” and because of the ethical imperative to serve women’s interests as the daily managers of the living environment. This 1991 case study of agroforestry in Kenya chronicles the unfolding of women’s ecological, political, and social science strategies in response to extreme drought and famine. The experiences of rural women and researchers provide lessons about competing knowledge systems, practices tied to community and environmental coalitions, and their relationship to local and national political economies.
“‘A Small Group of Thoughtful, Committed Citizens’: Women’s Activism, Environmental Justice, and the Coal River Mountain Watch” (Barry 2008)
Joyce Barry examines the Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW) in West Virginia, a grassroots group fighting the damaging effects of extractive mountaintop removal coal mining. The CRMW is organized and run for the most part by white, working-class women who have been adversely impacted by the industry, making clear that they are responding collectively and productively to threats to their homes and communities.
“‘Para el Bien Común’: Indigenous Women’s Environmental Activism and Community Care Work in Guatemala” (Hallum-Montes 2012)
Rachel Hallum-Montes adopts an "eco-intersectional" perspective to examine the motivations and strategies that guide Indigenous women’s environmental activism in Guatemala. She interviewed Kaqchikel women working with transnational organizations, revealing that gender, race, sexuality, and class figured prominently in their decisions to mobilize and become leaders.
“The Invisible Heart: Care and the Global Economy” (Folbre 2011)
Nancy Folbre documents the major role that women advocates play in environmental justice work while critiquing the practice that positions care as productive only when linked to the formal economy. This analysis illustrates how much of the labor produced by women around the world, even in the field of environmental justice, remains invisible, undervalued, and uncounted.2
In viewing and analyzing the documentaries Amazon Sisters (1992), L’Eau Est la Vie [Water is life]: From Standing Rock to the Swamp (2019), Honeyland (2019), and Feed the Green: Feminist Voices for the Earth (2015), students are further moved by a range of salient visual narratives representing the gendered labor that goes into sustaining ecosystems, often through the unrecognized and uncompensated labor of women that supports the communities facing threats to their survival.
Amazon Sisters (1992), 60 minutes
In the seminal “The Ecology of Feminism and the Feminism of Ecology” (1989) Ynestra King describes ecological science as concerning itself with the interrelationships among all forms of life, suggesting directions for reconstructing a human society in harmony with the natural environment. Soon thereafter, Stephanie Lahar’s “Ecofeminist Theory and Grassroots Politics” (1991) directly names the challenge of women protecting the environment as a question of morals, advocating for ecofeminism as moral rather than political theory. Similarly, Vandana Shiva argues compellingly that “development” taken out of the hands of local women reduces ecosystems to a commodity that sustains neither life nor life-sustaining economies, values, or social institutions (2008). Students view Amazon Sisters in just such an urgent, complex moral and political framework.
In this 1992 documentary, director Anne-Marie Sweeney traces the disastrous impact that neoliberal development policies—that were accelerated in the 1980s—has had on Indigenous women and their families, from job instability, to environmental degradation, forced displacement from homes, and declining health and well-being. The film further examines the corporatized extraction of resources from the Amazon in Brazil, the irreversible consequences that transnational corporations have on communities, and the failure of neoliberal governmental and economic policy to prioritize adequate environmental and social protections. The women in the documentary endure police brutality and survive harsh, dangerous conditions in order to achieve a semblance of land and community justice. Through collective action, they work for educational, medical, and public utilities for community members and inspire unionization in industries such as mining and transportation.
Amazon Sisters clearly shows the potential of Indigenous women’s collective labor and its impact on early ecofeminism. After viewing the film, students are able to engage with critical questions about the ways in which women’s knowledge and labor have been systematically devalued and dismissed, even as the activists worked to survive, care for their families and communities, and establish an alternate vision of social and ecological relations. Students come to see this labor as a complex, nuanced, and at times vexed moral, political, ideological, and economic struggle.
L’Eau Est la Vie [Water is life]: From Standing Rock to the Swamp (2019), 24 minutes
The film L’Eau Est la Vie is one in a series of short documentaries produced by Mutual Aid Media about women-led movements at the intersection of Indigenous sovereignty and environmental justice. L’Eau Est la Vie is a resistance movement against the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, a portion at the southern end of the Dakota Access Pipeline whose construction was completed by Energy Transfer Partners in April 2019. This documentary exemplifies the power of sustained organizing, showing what resistance to colonialism and extractivism can look like through figures such as Cherri Foytlin, a passionate and thoughtful leader and activist.
The first time we used the film in class, we had expected it to be an inspiring moment at the end of a long semester. Yet students responded with dejection, stating that the film was depressing, that it portrays violence against activists, and noting that in the end, the pipeline gets constructed. We interpret this dejection as related to many students’ inability to “read” Foytlin’s activist approach. Foytlin is brash and unconcerned about appearances; she does not live up to stereotypical notions of feminine care for the Earth. One of the reasons we insist on continuing to teach this film is to show that challenging gender norms is a key aspect of radical environmental work. Instead of dejection, then, we attempt to point students to an alternate narrative through Foytlin’s words. She explains, “This is one of the birthplaces of actual resistance,” where Indigenous people and enslaved Africans ran away to escape the structures of violence imposed on them by the white ruling class and where their descendants still live. Foytlin tells this historical narrative with excitement, setting a scene for ongoing resistance and community building. We frame this film in two ways: as a history of the interconnectedness of environmental destruction and colonial racialized gender norms and as an example of resistance to these interrelated structures. Still, our students remained largely unconvinced, which may clarify a pedagogical challenge: Foytlin was viewed as capable enough, laboring to forge a backbone of resistance, but not as a powerful, eco-superhero. She simply did not live up to students’ perhaps inflated expectations of what “successful” activism looks like.
Honeyland (2019), 89 minutes
The 2019 Macedonian documentary Honeyland follows Hatidze Muratova, a wild-honey farmer and lone caretaker for her dying mother, gently singing to and feeding honey to her bees (“half for you and half for me”) in seemingly perfect balance with a vast, untamed landscape. Conflict arises when a nomadic family of cow herders, the victims of climate crises, arrive next door and begin farming honey in an irresponsible and unsustainable manner. Muratova’s traditional knowledge and ethical and holistic practices are threatened by her neighbor’s frantic attempts to produce enough honey to meet the market’s growing demands.
The film is both somber and beautiful. Students fall in love with Muratova’s humility and authenticity, heartfelt devotion to regenerative labor, and respectful relationship with the environment. They long to fit her story into an ecological fable of an outside-of-the-Western-imaginary, an intimate and ancient connection to the mother, Mother Earth, and Mother Nature (and yes, the bees!). Yet commodification and climate change render both settled and migratory life unstable, illustrating how global markets subsume local economies and cultures within deeply entrenched capitalist cycles of production and consumption. The filmmakers capture this paradox when Muratova takes the train to a nearby city to sell her precious amber honey at an open-air market and then uses the money to select a package of “chestnut” colored hair dye even more carefully. Through scenes like these students quickly come to understand that Honeyland neither asks nor allows us to revel in an agrarian fable outside of time; instead, it reveals and upends our desire to embrace such a pastoral myth.
Feed the Green: Feminist Voices for the Earth (2015), 37 minutes
Women’s and gender studies professor and scholar Jane Caputi’s often cited Feed the Green: Feminist Voices for the Earth highlights the connections between environmental destruction, femicide, and genocide. Featuring a vibrant community of prominent ecological and social justice advocates across the world, such as Vandana Shiva, Starhawk, and Andrea Smith, the documentary emphasizes the ways in which “an environmentally destructive worldview” is woven into current and historical societal systems. It makes a compelling argument about the ongoing violence of colonialism and the ways that environmental destruction disproportionately affect marginalized populations.
Students appreciate and identify with this representation of powerful and articulate feminist eco-warriors. But with critical insight they also recognize that in positioning these women as causes célèbres, the film inadvertently neglects, or at the very least discounts, the labor of legions of unrecognized women activists. As a result, the communal aspects of organizing are replaced by an effective and yet highly orchestrated and marketable commodification of altruism, women’s activism, green spirituality, and “the social good.”
Together these essays and films complicate students’ understandings of how women’s location-specific, intersectional, anticapitalist politics and practices are lived, theorized, and represented in the world and on the ground. In addition to making vivid both the centrality and erasure of women’s labor in environmental activism, the documentaries we share represent a turn to a visual subjectivity determined by hybrid transnational identities, experiences, perspectives, and affiliations. By telling and contextualizing complex and evocative life stories, each with a specific arrangement of labor relations shaped by histories of colonial conquest, these representations challenge the politics of silencing, invisibility, fetishization, and cooptation that gendered, racialized laboring bodies most typically endure. Through collective struggle, women create a “transnational feminist subjecthood” that is shaped by and reflects shared experiences of border-crossing, contradiction, loss, and agency; that reconfigures our shared understanding of gender, labor, and the environment through both our discontinuity and connectedness to each other; and that engages a crucial feminist ethic of care.
Akter, Sonia. 2021. “Do Catastrophic Floods Change the Gender Division of Labor? Panel Data Evidence from Pakistan.” International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 60 (June).
Amazon Sisters. 1992. Directed by Anne-Marie Sweeney. New York: Women Make Movies. 60 minutes.
Barry, Joyce M. 2008. “‘A Small Group of Thoughtful, Committed Citizens’: Women’s Activism, Environmental Justice, and the Coal River Mountain Watch.” Environmental Justice 1, no. 1 (May): 25-33.
Dhir, Rishabh Kumar. 2017. Gender, Labour and a Just Transition towards Environmentally Sustainable Economies and Societies for All. Geneva: International Labour Organization.
L’Eau Est la Vie [Water is life]: From Standing Rock to the Swamp. 2019. Directed by Sam Vinal. Los Angeles: Mutual Aid Media. 24 minutes.
Feed the Green: Feminist Voices for the Earth. 2015. Directed by Jane Caputi. New York: Women Make Movies. 37 minutes.
Folbre, Nancy. 2011. “The Invisible Heart: Care and the Global Economy.” In The Women, Gender and Development Reader, 2nd ed., edited by Nalini Visvanathan, Lynn Duggan, Nan Wiegersma, and Laurie Nisonoff, 41-42. London: Zed Books.
Hallum-Montes, Rachel. 2012. “‘Para el Bien Común’: Indigenous Women’s Environmental Activism and Community Care Work in Guatemala.” Race, Gender & Class 19, no. 1-2: 104-30.
Honeyland. 2019. Directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov. Skojpe, Macedonia: Trice Films. 87 minutes.
Lahar, Stephanie. 1991. “Ecofeminist Theory and Grassroots Politics.” Hypatia 6, no. 1 (Spring): 28-45.
King, Ynestra. 1989. “The Ecology of Feminism and the Feminism of Ecology.” In Healing the Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism, edited by Judith Plant, 18-28. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.
“Meet 15 Women Leading the Fight against Climate Change.” 2019. Time, September 12.
Nelleman, Christian, Ritu Verma, and Lawrence Hislop. 2011. Women at the Frontline of Climate Change: Gender Risks and Hopes. Nairobi: United Nations Environment Development Programme.
Rao, Nitya, Elaine T. Lawson, Wapula N. Raditloaneng, Divya Solomon, and Margaret N. Angula. 2017. “Gendered Vulnerabilities to Climate Change: Insights from the Semi-arid Regions of Africa and Asia.” Climate and Development 11, no. 1 (September): 14-26.
Rocheleau, Dianne E. 1991. “Gender, Ecology, and the Science of Survival: Stories and Lessons from Kenya.” Agriculture and Human Values 8 (December): 156–65.
Salleh, Ariel. 2019. “Contribution to GTI Roundtable Planetizing the Labor Movement.” Great Transition Initiative. April.
Shiva, Vandana. 2008. Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
1 Many of our readings draw on the notion of both traditionally waged and “meta-industrial labor” undertaken by women globally. This latter term refers to the (discounted) labor needed to reproduce the conditions of life, particularly as it relates to those whose traditional knowledge practices contribute to the dynamic reproduction of ecosystems.
2 Ariel Salleh (2019) explains that “the very logic of an industrialized economy means that the wage of both proletariat and salariat relies on extractivism, drawing heavily on the exploitation and destruction of Earth-wide natural ‘resources”; on the other hand, for Salleh, reproductive labors exist outside of industrialization, including regenerative agriculture, childbirth, and cultural socialization.