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A Feminist Exploration of Ecology

Rebecca's picture

Feminism is the constantly evolving, diverse movement that critiques and works to change the power structures that exclude and victimize groups of people. Feminist wave theory is a framework that divides feminism since the nineteenth century into three main waves. Each wave contains wide diversity within itself but all of the waves share the goal of education reform. Education is a structure in our society that can exclude groups or can empower groups. In this paper, I will discuss the field of ecology in a feminist framework. To begin I will explain ecology and the wave framework that I will be using to explore it. I will end with a creative piece inspired by Peggy McIntosh’s Interactive Phases of Curricular Re-Vision: A Feminist Perspective.

Ecology is a discipline within Biology that focuses on the interactions between the living and nonliving factors in an ecosystem. In the spectrum of the sciences, biology is considered to be one of the “softer” sciences because it is less mathematic and more observation based. Chemistry and physics are considered the “harder” sciences with Physics being placed at the extreme because it is so math heavy. In fact, math is considered to be the language of physics.

Why all this discussion about math? The goal of science is to describe nature with complete objectivity meaning describing nature as completely separate from the observer. Math is considered the most objective way of describing the universe thus physics is placed as the most objective natural science and biology as much more subjective.

What does this have to do with women? When breaking down the science fields, biology has been much more successful in recruiting women into the field. In 1997, 47% of PhDs in biology were awarded to women while only 22% of PhDs in the physical sciences were (Thom 67). Math plays a role in this difference in recruitment because women have historically been excluded from it. More women may be drawn into Biology and Ecology because theses fields are more observation than math based.

Each wave of feminism has its own beliefs about what causes exclusion and how to change the structures that support it. First wave feminists believe that accessibility is the problem and that women must be treated equally. In education this means that women should be taught the same way men are and that women should have access to the same educational resources that men are. Assuming that inequalities in math education is the problem, women would feel just as comfortable in physics as they do in ecology if they had access to the same math education that men do.

Second wave feminism differs from first wave in that it does not seek access to the same educational resources but rather challenges the value of those educational resources. A second wave feminist may challenge that math does not have to be the gatekeeper to physics. Or a second wave feminist may challenge the value and existence of objectivity in physics. A possible solution to the exclusion of women from physics may be teaching physics differently, possible without math at all.

Finally, third wave feminism notes a problem in generalizing that all women’s experiences are the same and even questions the concept of male versus female. A third wave feminist would question that the math experience of a white woman would be the same as that of a black woman or of a woman from outside the United States. To attract more women into physics they may propose that the budget should be reworked taking social problems and implications into account. For example, grants could be targeted to projects that directly benefit oppressed groups. In all fairness, ecology would also have to be criticized for not always being socially minded. They would encourage that all ecology be taught directed toward conservation and environmental equality efforts.

In her paper, Peggy McIntosh describes an evolution of education that takes place in five phases. Each phase is a snapshot of education as the waves of feminism pass over them. There is not one phase coinciding with each wave of feminism but rather each phase shows a transitional time where older educational values meet newer with ones.

Here is a brief description of the five phases as McIntosh applies them to the field of history:

1. “Womanless history”- During this phase students are taught only about the ideas and stories of the societal winners. Societal winners are the minority of people that attain power and their experiences do not represent the experience of society on the whole.

2. “Women in history”- During this phase students are taught about a few women who have achieved success by men’s standards. Again, the experiences of only a minority of the population are being valued and told. The majority of women’s experiences are not being told because they were not societal winners.

3. “Women as a problem, absence, or anomaly in history”-

“Phase 3 curriculum work involves getting angry at the fact that (women) have been seen only as an absence, an anomaly, or a problem for History, for English, for Biology, rather than as part of the world, part of whatever people have chosen to value. There is anger at the way women have been treated throughout history. We are angry that instead of being seen as part of the norm, we have been seen, if at all, as a problem for the scholar, the society, or the world of the powerful (McIntosh 10).


Phase 3 questions who decided what knowledge is important and who benefits from this decision.

4. “Women as History”- This phase teaches about the experiences of people who were not the societal winners. Their experiences are valuable and their’s are the experiences of the majority.

5. “History Redefined or Reconstructed to Include Us All”- This phase is extremely difficult to describe because its creation is just beginning.

“In (McIntosh’s) view, the reconstructed curriculum not only draws a line around the vertical and lateral functions, examining all of human life and perception. It also puts these horizontal and vertical elements in a revolutionary new relation to one another” (McIntosh 21).


It’s not exactly clear where each wave of feminism meets McIntosh’s evolution of education. Phase one (and really all of the phases) would not have happened if not for the first wave of feminism demanding that women have equal access to education. Wave two probably hits somewhere between phases two and three but its affects are felt all the way through the rest of the phases. It recognizes that women’s experiences have been different from men’s and valuable. Finally, phase five seems to be the ideal of wave three feminism which questions what is defined as the “female” experience and demands the inclusion of everyone’s experience.

To illustrate the phases of curriculum, McIntosh, at the end of her paper included a fictional piece that describes five generations of women entering into college at the different phases. In her description of each woman’s college experience she touches on the subjects of History, English, Psychology, Biology, and Art History. I am going to use her method to tell the story of the evolution of ecology through the five phases.

Mary was the first woman in her family to Bryn Mawr College. In fact, she was the first woman in her family to go to college at all. She was extremely lucky because President Thomas made sure that the college taught the most demanding curriculum. She made a point that the students would be instructed in the same subject matters in the same way as the men at other colleges. While she was there, Mary read Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and learned of Darwin’s voyages on the Beagle in the 1830’s when he noted the different sizes of finch beaks in the Galapagos. She learned about how he delayed publishing his book because his wife Emma Wedgwood was extremely religious and did not want to lose her reputation at their church. Later on, when Mary was married she collected insects, preserved them, and drew them as Darwin did.

Years later, her daughter Elizabeth attended college. She also read Origin of Species but in addition she read Air, Water, and Food from a Sanitary Standpoint by Ellen Swallow Richards. She recognized the name of the author from a book her grandmother had told her about called The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning. The book had taught her grandmother about what was then a new field “Home Economics”. Swallow’s goal was “to apply scientific principles to domestic topics—good nutrition, pure foods, proper clothing, physical fitness, sanitation, and efficient practices that would allow women more time for pursuits other than cooking and cleaning”(Human and Natural). What her grandmother did not know was that Swallow was the first woman to attend a scientific institution. She was accepted to MIT as a special student and worked to establish a woman’s laboratory there where she worked for free. Elizabeth thought it was strange that Swallow was let go because MIT began to regularly give degrees to women. Elizabeth went on to work as biology teacher. She taught about plants and animals and the Earth’s cycles.

Elizabeth’s daughter, Georgeann went to a state school where she was a biology major. She was shocked to learn that the Earth’s biomes were constantly shifting and evolving and that a climax community where an ecosystem is at equilibrium may not exist. She took a class called “American Environmental History” and read Andrew Hurley’s Environmental Inequalities. It taught her that the people that control the environment also have power over the people in it. She worked for an environmentalist group that focused on preventing industries from disposing of wastes in low- income communities.

When Georgeann’s daughter Emily was 18, she went off to college. She read a book called Flight Maps by Jennifer Price. It was then she understood that nature was not actually a place or a thing but a set of ideas that her parents and her society taught her. Understanding then that everyone’s experience of nature was different she and her friend Jessica decided to write an environmental history of a community in Philadelphia. Their sources were interviews that they conducted of the people that lived there. Emily’s senior year project was to work with the dining halls to acquire only organic food that had been grown locally. When Emily graduated she moved back home to New Jersey and worked with the superintendent of her school to establish an environmental literacy program that would teach students about native species in their area and their local watershed.

Having a strong eastern European constitution, Mary, now very old, returned to college. She still finds the Origin of Species compelling yet she now has more questions. For example, did Darwin ever consider naming his book the “Origin of Man” or the “Origin of People?” or did Darwin reject the idea that man was the culmination of natural selection?

As for Emily’s daughter, she has not gone to college yet but her experience will be quite different from the women in the generations before her.

Explanation of what I tried to do:

As the generations of women passed I tried to show the evolution of ecology. When the field began it centered on describing organisms and the landscape as separate from humans which was Mary’s experience. In the next generation, Elizabeth’s experience was still one where she was separate from the environment but she learned more about processes and relationships between organisms. As ecology evolved into Georgeann’s experience, it became clearer that human experiences were also important to the study of ecology. It also became evident that the field was not objective because the belief in climax communities was the result of people not being able to see the landscape changing in their lifetimes.

Finally, as with Emily’s experience the conservation movement is pushing towards environmental literacy. Environmental literacy teaches people about the interactions they have with their environment both in the intellectual and material sense. More and more programs are being started to teach people where the food and water comes from with the hopes that this will encourage responsible use of the Earth’s resources. In using McIntosh’s five phase framework, I tried to make these turning points in ecology coincide with the arrival of the new waves of feminism.


Works Cited


Human and Natural Environmental Concerns: Ellen Swallow Richards. 2005. Chemical Heritage Foundation. (Accessed 5/12/07).


Hurley, Andrew. Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945-1980. USA: University of North Carolina, 1995.


McIntosh, Peggy. Interactive Phases of Curricular Re-vision: A Feminist Perspective. Wellesley, MA 02181: Center for Research on Women, Wellesley College, 1982.


Price, Jennifer. Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America. New York: Basic Books, 1999.


Thom, Mary. Part 3: Academia--Graduate School and Beyond. Balancing the Equation: Where Are Women and Girls in Science, Engineering and Technology? New York: National Council for Research on Women. 2001.