Revisiting Gender And Environmental Justice Work – Let’s Move Beyond Good Intentions

Nature and labour are increasingly commodified in today’s global capitalist society, reproducing deep seated gender, race and class power dynamics and inequalities. But while alternatives for a just future are discussed, do we – as a part of the transnational solidarity movement – inadvertently keep positioning ourselves within the patriarchal, colonial and capitalist structures creating these inequalities in the first place? Sofie Mortensen reflects on these themes following the 3rd International Marxist Feminist Conference in October 2018.

Responding to today’s multiple and interconnected structural issues such as widening inequality, misogyny, labour exploitation and environmental degradation, hundreds of activists and academics gathered in Lund, Sweden to discuss Marxist-Feminist strategies for transforming ourselves and the world. Much attention was dedicated to understanding the depth of the issues and exploring alternative pathways such as addressing the increasing emergence of transnational solidarity movements, including transnational feminism.

As a part of the transnational feminist movement, many of us in the conference raised the issue of whether we might be  fomenting those same structures of inequality. Keynote speaker Nikita Dhawan, University of Innsbruck, for example, brought attention to the strong divide that has been created between ‘those who give’ and ‘those who receive’ – and ‘those who speak’ and ‘those who are spoken on behalf of’. In her engaging speech, Nikita Dhawan questioned why some groups – such as the transnational feminist movement – are able to be ‘helpers’ in the first place.

The answer is to be found in historical, colonial and ongoing capitalist processes creating other unequal dualities such as men/women, white/black, production/reproduction and so on. As such, unequal historical and structural processes often means that resisting groups from the Global North are more likely to make their interests count than resisting groups such as women and men farmers from the Global South. This however, as pointed out by activist writer Ranjana Padhi, is not to obscure the fact that there are numerous examples of acts of resistance in the Global South –  for instance Indian women farmers protesting for their rights to resources.

Thus, while we have to be careful not to reinforce the vulnerability and victimisation of different groups in the Global South, are we – as transnational feminists – currently disregarding the agency of the groups  whom we try to ‘help’ as agents of transformation themselves? Do we, when speaking for them, forget to challenge the power structures that make them unable to make their interests count? And are we able to speak on behalf of them at all?

In a similar vein, conference participants also questioned whether transnational feminist movements such as Marxist Feminism understand how feminist struggles are widely shaped by location? Padhi, for instance, stressed how the multifaceted nature of women’s struggles in the Global South not necessarily makes the struggle against patriarchy the main priority, but rather the fight for resources, livelihoods and food. In this light, it would seem that transmational Marxist Feminism and other feminisms would benefit from making stronger connections between capitalism, patriarchy and environmental issues. Only one session labelled ‘Ecofeminism’ was dedicated to discussing these issues, and while the similarities of exploitation of a) women’s reproductive work and b) nature by capitalist expansion were mentioned, the discussions were less clear when it came to how they challenged gender justice in present societies. Examples of this are however, many, including land being grabbed for reforestation initiatives such as REDD+ or biofuel production that are likely to disproportionately affect different groups of women by expanding the caring burden in times of displacements.

Marxist-Feminism has traditionally adopted a class-centric approach to feminism, focusing largely on the exploitation of women’s reproductive role as subsidizing the capitalist economy. But for Marxist Feminism to really confront patriarchy and put a stop to  gender injustices in a global capitalist world, it is crucial to deepen the understanding of how intersections of identities and locations shape experiences of capitalist expansions for different gendered groups. This will include uniting struggles and exploring how the growing interest in a green economy may potentially and inadvertently build on the same patriarchal, colonial and labour-exploitative structures, thus reproducing the same gendered, raced, and classed inequalities.

But what does this mean for me as a transnational feminist? How can I, as a white gender and environment researcher confront injustices within the capitalist system and the green growth paradigm alongside queer, women and men from other cultures and geographical locations without reinforcing structures of inequality?

My take on the issues brought up during the conference is that I have to move beyond good intentions and recognise how I myself may unintendedly reinforce unjust structures in my work. This implies exploring how I as a researcher can produce knowledge in less colonising and patriarchal ways, for instance by ensuring that I cite knowledge created by women of the Global South; and by deepening my understanding of situated, embodied experiences of patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism and their linkages with environmental issues, and how these continue to carve a dualism between those who are heard and those who are not.


Sofie Mortensen works as a gender researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute.


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