Roaring and Reclaiming: Woman’s Connection to Nature

I wrote this review as an assignment for my feminist theories class, but when I posted it on the discussion board, nobody wanted to comment.  So I’m turning it over to the good people of the blogosphere.

Susan Griffin’s lyrical book Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (1978) should be required reading for any course of feminist study.  Although it intersects with ecological imagery and concerns, its concepts are broad and cover every important topic for women and the study of women’s lives.  Griffin uses nature, and man’s fighting against nature, to depict some of the most pressing problems for women in any age.

woman and nature cover

The overall problem is that women are compared to nature in an unflattering way.  This ideology places women in a subjective position; as the earth is meant to be conquered, plowed, tilled, burned, inhabited, and controlled, so is woman.  Tong (2009) taught us that this attitude is central to what ecofeminism opposes: “Similarly, nature is ‘feminized’ when ‘she’ is raped, mastered, conquered, controlled, penetrated, subdued, and mined by men, or when ‘she’ is venerated or even worshipped as the grandest mother of all” (p. 238).  This ideology is grounded in religious myths, and those are explored in Griffin’s first book, “Matter: How Man Regards and Makes Use of Woman and Nature.”  This section recounts the history of man’s dominion over nature, and therefore woman, through the repeated use of the phrases “It is decided that” and  “It is said.”  These phrases have no concrete subject, but we are to understand that men and their science are situated behind the pronoun “it” and that many problems for women come from being left out of the decision-making process.

Much of this deciding is also connected to Christian symbolism and genesis myths, meaning that part of the problem is the religious beliefs that have led to man’s belief in his dominion over earth and woman.  Griffin writes, “that though it is written that there is no wickedness to compare to the wickedness of a woman, it is also written that good women have brought ‘beatitude to men, saved nations, lands and cities,’ and that ‘Blessed is the man who has a virtuous wife’” (p. 12).  The use of religious imagery, belief, and ideology is effective in showing, not telling, readers that man’s belief in his dominion over the earth has been and always will be a catalyst for man’s belief in his dominion over women.  In conjunction, Tong wrote, “Whatever man may do to nature, he may also do to women” (p. 238).  This strongly connects nature to women and the shared problem of being pillaged, raped, and controlled by men through “divine” rights.  Interestingly, some translations of The Bible claim the word “dominion” should really be “stewardship.”

All of this lays a foundation for the binaries believed about men and women.  For instance, women are unclean and responsible for death and sin, while men are the victims of that “natural” part of women.  Women are more emotional than men.  Women should stay at home and men should be educated.  Women are weak and men are strong.  Women are naturally deceptive and men are not, therefore they have beards.  Tradition plays into these ideas as well, and “as we lift our heads we are reminded again and again of tradition” (Griffin, emphasis in original, p. 40).

All of these musings on binaries and tradition are punctuated by facts and dates about science.  Many of these advances are harsh to the earth, such as oil pipelines or power stations.  Most of the achievements belong to men, while Griffin also lists the dates and executions for women who were considered to be witches.  This juxtaposition is stark: men are rewarded for their manipulations of the natural world, while women are punished for being unnatural and using the earth’s plants and minerals for inventive purposes.  Overall, the false ideas of women throughout the ages are attributed to woman’s connection to nature and man’s determination to dominate it.  These ideas are pervasive, and Tong posits that “it will not be easy for women to disassociate themselves from nature, since virtually all societies believe women are closer to nature than men are” (p. 245).

The rest of Woman and Nature is laid out in sections that represent some type of nature: land, timber, cows, body, wind, forest, and so on.  The book begins and ends with sections on matter, and many of the sections mirror each other.  This movement suggests a sort of evolution for women and a reclaiming of her strength and her connection to nature.  In the end, Griffin does not necessarily say that the connection between woman and nature is wrong, but that the power men think this affords them is what is problematic.  She recognizes that we women “know ourselves to be made from this earth” (p. 229).  She claims bird imagery, reminding her reader that “this blackbird will not be ours. . . . this creature is free of our hands, we cannot control her” (p. 228).  The last few paragraphs of the book play with this imagery.

“[W]hen I let this bird fly to her own purpose, when this bird flies in the path of his own will, the light from this bird enters my body, and when I see the beautiful arc of her flight, I love this bird, when I see, the arc of her flight, I fly with her, enter her with my mind, leave myself, die for an instant, live in the body of this bird whom I cannot live without” (p. 229).

I see many interpretations possible of this passage, but most striking to me is the potential Griffin sees for men to accept women as equals.  She plays with his idea throughout the last few pages, recognizing that men can learn to leave nature alone and to accept nature and woman for what she is without tampering or controlling.

Griffin does not arrive at this synthesis easily, for she recognizes the many difficulties of man’s treatment of woman and nature over the course of human history.  One notable example is the use of land to make it yield.  “The land is brought under his control; he has turned waste into a garden.  Into her soil he places his plow.  He labors.  He plants.  He sows.  By the sweat of his brow, he makes her yield. . . . She conceives” (p. 54-55).  Certainly, there is allusion to sexual intercourse and reproduction, and when we see how connected it is to other forms of sustaining life, we understand how difficult it might be for men to change their thinking about women and nature and for society to change their conceptions of women and women’s work.

This agricultural and farm imagery is continued through the comparison of women to cows, mules, and show horses.  None of this is presented offensively, but instead brilliantly by juxtaposing the way we treat and groom these animals with the way women live and are treated.  This is presented through the cow’s appearance, breeding, udder, milking, birthing, and ultimately the calf.  This imagery spoke to me, because I often felt like a “cow” when nursing my children.  This section on cows ends with a subsection titled “We Are Mothers,” reminding us that “We are heavy with bodies. . . . She is a great cow.  She stands in the midst of her own soft flesh, with hips wide enough for calving; who lays open her flesh, like a drone, for the use of the world” (emphasis in original, p. 75).  This certainly relates to Griffin’s criticism of the idea that “Woman’s greatest achievement, it is declared, is to be the mother of a great man” (p. 27).

The section on mules represents another function of women, and that may be to work, but the emotions of women are also present in this chapter. “And we know we are not logical.  The mule balks for no apparent reason.  For no rhyme or reason.  We remember weeping suddenly for no good reason” (emphasis in original, p. 77).  We also learn that mules and women are “bred for domestic labor” (emphasis in original, p. 76).  It is an interesting depiction of both women’s emotions and their sphere, for Griffin might be hinting that the two are related.

The show horse is all about control.  Certainly we can recognize some of the characteristics in the way women are expected to look and act, but also in the way women buy into this control and police themselves and each other.

“It is the horse’s extreme sensitivity to pain, especially in the mouth but also all over her body which allows the rider to control her with the pressure of his own weight the movements of his legs, and with the aid of the bit, the bridle and the rein, the riding whip, the long whip and the spur” (p. 79).

This sort of treatment of a horse certainly isn’t natural, but it is another manifestation of man’s control over nature.  Women are also represented in the imagery of the show horse, showing us the painful way that they can and are controlled.  The rest of this section focuses on the show horse’s education, grooming, and dressage, “manifesting how obedient she is” (p. 81).  This chapter connects well to other feminist explorations of modern beauty culture, such as Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth.  It opened my eyes to some of the cruelty involved in horse training, and also in my own training as a makeup-wearing, high-heel donning, and hair-curling woman.  I often remember my mother saying, “Beauty is pain.”  I still say it.  It also connects to Tong’s summary of ecofeminism.  She wrote of Sherry B. Ortner’s ideas, which tell us that “societies seek to restrict women’s sexual, reproductive, educational, and occupational choices.  The more conservative women are, the more rule-following they and their children will be” (p. 246).  This highlights the human dimension of the cow, the mule, and the show horse.

From here, we fittingly learn about women’s bodies and the many expectations for her looks.  All parts of the body are explored, including sexual organs.  Griffin notes, “Our faces begin to die.  We are full of defect. . . . We find wrinkles cover our faces” (emphasis in original, p. 88).  This proceeds into a list of the creams and solutions made of chemicals that women apply to their faces without question or scrutiny.  “The face may burn or swell” (p. 88).  Without saying it directly, Griffin reminds us that we mutilate ourselves in order to look a certain way and that plastic surgery is another form of control over women’s bodies and nature.  For it is natural to have wrinkles when one ages.  This applies to hair and breasts as well.  She reminds us of the history of breast implants.  “The body rejects the material.  The body eats this material.  He finds other materials, those that are too hard; those that do not hold their shape” (p. 90).  I remembered hearing about a book on NPR that recounts the history of breast implants.  Doctors experimented with cement and other noxious materials in the breasts, killing and maiming their patients.  Yet because of the determination to have control over nature, they continued until we arrived at what Griffin aptly reminds us is gruesome: “But the least visible incision, they say, will be in the shadow of the underbreast” (p. 90).

The important phrase in that quotation is “they say.”  Griffin continues to remind us, subtly, that somebody else has decided this tampering for women and nature.  Somebody else has asserted control and expects women to go along with it.  It has not been woman’s decision to alter her breasts, rip out her hair, or surgically remove her sex organs.  Women are positioned as subjects to the victors over nature, and Griffin deftly shows us how this has been done.  The importance of her book is in the presentation, for she shows the injustice to women and nature rather than telling it.  She does not position women as lower in the hierarchy or as victims to her ideas.  Instead, she presents the facts and comes to a natural synthesis of her ideas about the intersections of women and nature.  She also posits a possible synthesis for women and men in the natural world.

Part of her idea for this synthesis is for women to reject their taming and begin to roar, as the subtitle of the book suggests.  She tells a parable of a woman who roars and the men who ask why she does.  They tell her “Be humble, trust us . . . we know what is right . . . for you” (p. 189).  Instead, this woman “devours them” (p. 189).  This devouring is metaphorical and suggests that women should speak up and find their voices.  This idea is explained further in a section called “Erosion,” in which she lists terms associated with geology alphabetically in between ideas about women finding their strength and beauty.  At the end of the section, she writes, “(There is a roaring inside us, we whisper.) WE ROAR” (emphasis in original, p. 197).

Clarity can come through this roaring and reclaiming of ourselves.  As Griffin writes, “We are told that we are unique in history.  That our history has been a history of passivity.  We are to be blamed for our passivity, they say, are our own oppressors” (emphasis in original, p. 214).  She has decisively proven this assumption false and reminds us that we can “believe in our cause” and find strength in our own power and women through our connection to nature (p. 214).  We do have a connection to nature and we do have our own ways of being natural, but that isn’t what “they say” it has been and should be.  Griffin echoes Daly’s ideas: “The problem is not that women have a closer relationship with nature than men do, but that this relationship is undervalued” (Tong, p. 247).  This relationship, argues Griffin implicitly, is what we decide it is and should be through our roaring voices.

References

Griffin, S.  (1978).  Woman and nature: The roaring inside her.  San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.

Tong, R.  (2009).  Feminist thought: A more comprehensive introduction.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

 

 

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