Should ‘International Mother Earth Day’ be called something else?
By Joseph Clarke
Although you have probably never heard of it, International Mother Earth Day is fast approaching – falling on Monday 22nd April. With climate change arguably the biggest threat facing current society, a day devoted to environmental protection and the importance of nature should be welcomed with opened arms. However, issues may arise when we consider the name given to this day – specifically, the use of the phrase ‘Mother Earth’. Some see the use of this phrase as negative, arguing that it serves only to reinforce gender stereotypes. Others, however, think the idea of Mother Earth is a reference to very real, deep and exclusive connections between women and nature.
In an era more and more focused on gender equality, it is important to analyse concepts such as Mother Earth to determine whether they should remain, or be dropped, from our vocabulary. We frequently use phrases like this in everyday conversation without really thinking about their meaning. So, we must ask if there is a justification for the phrase Mother Earth – IE, is there genuinely a special connection between women and nature? Or is this phrase instead a product of repressive systems which is detrimental to the project of gender equality?
In the 1970s ecofeminism developed as an environmental offshoot of the feminist movement. Although the movement has made various claims, it is worth considering specifically the thought that women, by virtue of their biology, are closer to nature than men. This would suggest a certain kind of accuracy in the concept of Mother Earth. Although no one denies that both men and women play vital roles in the reproductive process, there does seem to be something significant about the fact that human life begins, grows and comes out of the body of a woman. Women can be seen as an embodiment of the entire natural life process. Thus, the idea of Mother Earth can be seen as a reflection of biological and reproductive realities.
Furthermore, the idea of Mother Earth can be justified in terms of a different connection between women and nature. It has been noted that the material practices which women engage in bring them closer to nature. In the Global South, for example, women are frequently tasked with duties such as water collection and agriculture, which are said to bring them closer to nature (Meinzen-Dick, 2014). Ultimately, however, these practices are not universal, and we must consider the millions of women living in urban areas across the world who have little contact with nature. This idea also presupposes that involvement in nature automatically leads to a connection with nature, but ultimately this boils down to individual experiences.
Others, however, have been much more critical of the use of the phrase ‘Mother Earth’. Most significant are claims that concepts such as this one lead to the subjugation of women. Since nature is subjugated through harmful activities such as deforestation (which, it can be noted, is a practice predominantly carried out by males), linking it to femininity will consequently lead to the subjugation of women. Others criticise the use of the phrase on less radical grounds, arguing that it presents a simplified and universal view of the relationship between women and nature. In reality, however, different women have different nuanced connections to the natural world, with some feeling no connection at all (Meinzen-Dick, 2014)
I do feel, to some extent, that the biological factor of reproduction does carry some weight. Women are intimately connected to the life process that is central to nature as a whole. Ultimately, however, it is up to women to decide whether they feel a special connection with nature, and this is where the use of the phrase ‘Mother Earth’ becomes problematic. Combined with more radical criticisms, that these kinds of phrases contribute to the subjugation of women, there is good argument to suggest that these phrases should be dropped from our vocabulary entirely. Regardless of the view we take, this issue highlights the importance of social science work in getting us to question everyday concepts which we may previously not have considered in much depth. Whether we view the phrase ‘Mother Earth’ as a reflection of truth or a reflection of gender inequality, the fact that these proposals have been pushed into light in the first place encourages us to think more critically when it comes to the way we interact in everyday life.