Stephen Fitch

Dr. Jen Westerman

SD 3800

25 November 2014

Rachel Carson: The American Midwife of Eco-feminism

In her book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson unveils the massive epidemic of toxicity in pesticides and herbicides such as DDT in America in the 1960s.  She critiqued not only the corporations and lack of governmental regulation, but also our culture’s domination of nature over all.  The assessment of this dominative ethos, in which humans regard little to nothing of nature valuable other than what can support themselves, was core to Carson’s theses.  Similarly, patriarchy is also a dominating force which, like environmental destruction, has mutual causes and must be addressed. Thus eco-feminism, the idea that both the environment and women are related in an interconnected struggle and must have a mutual liberation, was rooted in Carson’s work. Due to the atmosphere of patriarchy in America in which she wrote, her work was highly controversial and severely criticized because she was a female academic.  Nonetheless, her writings eventually proved pivotal, accurate, and world-renowned.  As a result of Carson’s impassioned legacy for social justice and environmentalism, the philosophical movement of eco-feminism gained public momentum through her insights of emotion, subjectivity, holism, and compassion regarding Humanity and Nature.

In the past few millennia, from the pyramids, to Stonehenge, as well as mass agricultural lands, humankind has been drastically modifying the environment to better suite their preferences.  Forests have been clear-cut and resources such as rocks, water, and soil have been manipulated to suite early civilizations. Then since the Industrial Revolution, as technologies such as the coal engine and electricity emerged, so did a whole host of environmental issues: pollution, deforestation, over-population, poor air and water quality, global warming, mass-extinctions, et cetera.  As environmental degradation has continued to rise to apocalyptic proportions, many wonder how differing perspectives and epistemologies distinct from the current Western materialist and scientific world-view would provide a less dominant, more holistic and nurturing relationship with Nature.

Ultimately, feminism provides one of the key perspectives for the current Western Mind which is far too bent on the promulgation of power and greed, sacrificing solidarity and community. Alongside environmental degradation, patriarchy historically seemed to proliferate in the West, with men as often the leaders of households, villages, and whole kingdoms and nations, as well as occupying major vocational, political, and religious roles, subjugating women to places of marginality. As a result, masculine ethics of domination, competition, independence, and pride were manifested in human development over and against feminine ethics of unity, cooperation, sensitivity, and compassion (Hallen 200). Therefore, the basis of the Western civilization is one which has been limited in gender equality as well as perspective; without feminism, our way of seeing and experiencing the world is only partial and incomplete, with neither the whole of the human condition nor the human experience.

With a patriarchal grip on big business, government, academia, science, and the media, our culture is partial to a selective pool of values and perspectives from which to choose.  Without these feminine qualities, our whole society risks being overly dominative, inhumane, violent, and oppressive. Thus, women must be liberated from their oppression, equally valued, and ushered into full participation in all realms of society for dominate ideals to be balanced and ecological justice to fully take root; the salvation of the natural environment is bound in tandem with the salvation of all women in all nations.  Women must not simply occupy the scientific, governmental, or societal communities and assume current epistemologies, but rather interject their own (Hallen 201). 

Thus, as Patsy Hallen argues in “Making peace with nature: Why ecology needs feminism”, ecological crises are direct results from the oppression of women and the absence of their values from the core of society (Hallen 199). Furthermore, the overwhelmingly masculine nature of scientific occupations today renders the discipline of ecology, as well as all the sciences, extremely lacking.  Succinctly, Hallen states “ecology as a science needs feminism to balance a myopic, mechanical worldview which has fundamentally influenced scientific development; ecology as a life science needs feminism to reveal how patriarchal thinking contributes to environmental destruction; ecology as a practice needs feminism to ensure that shallow ecology is transformed into a deep ecological perspective” (200). Ecology, and Science  in general then, are therefore limited to reductionism, materialism, objectivity, and competition, missing and desperately needing the more feminine attributes of harmony, subjectivity, emotion, holism, and interconnectedness (Hallen 200). 

In the aftermath of Carson’s work, the writings of earlier and later environmental and social philosophers and writers such as Pinchot, Muir, and Berry were synthesized and this school of thought loosely emerged. It truly crystallized in the mid-1970s to 1980s, with the term “eco-feminism” being coined in Paris around 1974 (Salleh and O’Connor 132). In brief, eco-feminism is a philosophy positing, as Hallen frankly states, that “unless our science is grounded in the ‘caring labor’ articulated by feminism, science will continue to be, as Rachel Carson suggests, ‘against the earth’… feminism offers new ways of experiencing and understanding the world” (199, 200).  Carson, publishing Silent Spring some ten years prior to the establishment of this philosophy, basically laid the seeds necessary for it to sprout.

Thankfully though, through the person and work of Rachel Carson in the 1960s, this very school of thought was placed in the mainstream of American culture and challenged the status quo then and today.  Not only was Carson, as a woman, highly esteemed and successful as a scientist, which was a feat in and of itself, especially at the time, but she also utilized a different set of methods and ideals to accomplish her task of relaying scientific findings to the masses: emotion appeals, subjectivity, narrative, cooperation, integrality, empathy, and complexity.  Via Carson, these feminine qualities provided the public with a new set of ideas and ethics far separate from some of the rigid scientific methods of objectivity, materialism, reductionism, and domination, without neglecting all of them, such as rationality, deductive reasoning, quantitative analysis, et cetera.

Carson directly attacked some dominative, masculine values which wrought destruction to the environment and wildlife, naming this scientific posture towards nature as the ‘control of nature’.  Regarding this abominable view, she wrote,

“the ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.  The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from that Stone Age of science.  It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects, it has also turned them against the earth” (Carson 297).

Accordingly, to combat this detrimental ethos, Carson employed a revolutionary method to blend both humanizing emotions and feminine values with scientific facts: her non-fiction, journalistic, emotional book Silent Spring.  Therein, Carson invites the reader into a new way of reading researched scientific data in a personal way, with her writing as captivating and emotive as a collection of fictional short stories but as factual as a primer, scholarly journal article.

Firstly, as a writer, Carson beautifully interweaves highly researched scientific findings with creative, gripping, and emotional prose.  In a world that expects scientific findings to be communicated strictly ‘objectively’, passively, within the confines of the scientific method, many were shocked by her writing which elicited emotions, subjectivity, feeling, and truth through both scientific information and humanizing narrative (Corbett 729).  She constantly spoke of the horrors of the chemical industries in America through the appalling stories of common people.  For example, she tells of the frightful death of two sets of boys, one in Wisconsin and another in Florida, whom died as a result of the pesticide “parathion”.  She writes, “One had been playing in his yard when spray drifted in from an adjoining field where his father was spraying potatoes with parathion; the other had run playfully into the barn after his father had put his hand on the nozzle of the spray equipment” (Carson 28).  Here she uses words such as “father” and earlier “boys”, as well as displaying their innocence as they “run playfully into the barn”. This style of writing, well outside the realm of strict scientific analysis, humanizes the victims and experiences to the reader, creating a literary world of experientially, sensitivity, and subjectivity (Vakoch 71).

Similarly, Carson grieves the predicament of a woman from Alabama whose local bird population vanished, about which she said, “I was accustomed to rising early to care for my favorite mare that had a young filly.  There was not a sound of the song of a bird.  It was eerie, terrifying.  What was man doing to our perfect and beautiful world” (Carson 104)? Here, she specifically quotes this woman expressing her enjoyment of birdwatching and care-taking as well as her emotional attachment to them.  While she does continue to explain the problems with bird and tree health after this quotation for some seven pages rather objectively, it is clear that she employs an explicit appeal to the readers’ pathos, possibly even echoing the book’s sentimental name. Frequently drawing from different people and contexts, Carson undoubtedly woos the reader into the real and felt tragedy that individuals experienced as a result of the mounting environmental epidemic, a vitally needed revision of Nature and Humanity cast from a feminist perspective.

Bringing fresh epistemologies from the deep well of feminist thought, Carson also helped midwife ideas of interconnectedness, harmony, and holism of Humanity’s relationship to Nature and each other in the American psyche.  In the 1960s, when Carson was writing, “the word ‘ecology’ was then unknown to the public at large and ‘environment’ had few of its present connotations” (Corbett 724).  As a scientist with a Masters degree in Biology, Carson noted the intersection of scientific disciplines such as biology, chemistry, and zoology into ecology (Corbett 728).  About this emerging discipline of ecology, she wrote “we spray our elms and the following springs are silent of robin song… They [observations] reflect the web of life —or death— that scientists know as ecology.  But there is also an ecology of the world within our bodies” (Carson 189). Carson enlightened the public for one of the first times about the interconnectedness of ecosystems, biotic life, and humans, especially with regard to human health.  While controversially “sounding the alarm” about injustices, Carson’s introduction of the discipline and philosophy of ecology to the public was in fact fairly unprecedented and progressive as well (Corbett 724).

Furthermore, in an even deeper sense, Carson challenged modern presumptions about common dualisms of Humanity and Nature, and even male and female, and begged for a more holistic, unified view of Humanity, Nature, and Reality.  According to Halen, “I see feminism and ecology as sharing the same perspective, which respects a new (yet very old) way of seeing, a way of making peace with (rather than war on) Nature. Such a perspective is holistic” (204).   This holism promotes community, cooperation, and commonality, rather than competition, domination, and opposition (Halen 205). Although Carson, as we have already seen, broke down the dualities of objectivity and subjectivity, reason and emotion through her use of sensitizing narrative, she also challenged the Human and Nature duality by bestowing a reverence and honor for Nature as a “Thou”, or subject, rather than merely an object (Halen 212).

Carson makes sure to place humanity as one species among the greater animal kingdom, breaking down the failed dichotomy of Humans as above Nature.  Discussing how to manage insects, Carson wrote “only by taking account of such life forces and by cautiously seeking to guide them into channels favorable to ourselves can we hope to achieve a reasonable accommodation between the insect hordes and ourselves” (296).  Moreover, she notes “the really effective control of insects is that applied by nature, not by man.  Populations are kept in check by something the ecologists call the resistance of the environment” (247).  Here she is both recognizing the inherent value of all life forms, such as insects, as well as the inherent agency and authority of Nature as a whole living system, rather than as mere material objects to be looted.  Concisely, Linda Lear, in the introduction to Silent Spring, wrote, “Human beings, she [Carson] insisted, were not in control of nature but simply one of its parts: the survival of one part depended upon the health of all” (xvi).  Thus, as eco-feminism highlights in contrast to other feminist ideologies, there is a ‘third way’ in which women are viewed not as separate from nature nor more natural than men or other animals, but an equal member of nature (Seager 946).

Additionally, Carson challenges notions of classism and segregation, asserting an ethic of harmony, union, compassion, and cooperation. For example, she confronts the readers, stating 

“This is an era of specialists, each of whom sees his own problem and is

unaware of or intolerant of the larger frame into which it fits.  It is also an

era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever

cost is seldom challenged… We urgently need an end to these false

assurances… the public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the

present road, and it can do so only when in full possession of the facts” (13). 

Although extremely controversial, especially at the time, Carson is essentially saying that all people, regardless of status or gender, have a “right to know” about environmental and social issues.  In brief, not only white, upper class men should be knowledgable about the high scientific or academic community, but all.  Secondly, she invokes the communal “we”, stating that society, together as a collective rather than alone, must find liberation from this issue in cooperation.

Moreover, Carson further makes the case for cooperation over power and conquest. Near the end of her book, as a sort of farewell proclamation, she wrote, “If, having endured much, we have at least asserted our ‘right to know,’ and if, knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us” (278). Just as Halen describes the visions of ecology and feminism, Carson sought to empower the public with understanding, and to invite them into a broad network of partnership and solidarity (205). This non-hierarchical pursuit was central to Carson and to eco-feminists in general.  Thus, not only are women valuable in their leadership and epistemologies to modern dominative ones, but all people are valued and needed to usher in a reformed society. Science indeed assisted Carson in her findings of data, but devoid from the purposes of science, it was her human, feminine impulse for empathy and benevolence as well as communality that led her to call the public to a grassroots movement to address these catastrophic issues. 

However, despite her later positive influence and legacy, Carson’s public reception was riddled with criticism, disrespect, dismissal, and disrepute. Her book Silent Spring, which was the locus of her fame, was described by Time as an “emotional and inaccurate outburst” (Corbett 728).  Moreover, she was caricatured similarly by a myriad of other magazines such as Newsweek as emotional; thus in modernity, especially as a scientist, she was painted as biased, opinionated and lacking factual, scientific data (Corbett 728).  In only one third of articles discussing Carson or her works do they mention her Masters degree in Biology. Rather, she was often described merely as an emotional, nonscientist journalist (Corbett 729). Society at large, unacclimated to the feminine expression of science, saw Carson with surprise, condemnation, and confusion.

More than just writing a scientific exposition using pathos and narrative, her status as a woman deflated her professional scientific reputation even more. Projecting feminine stereotypes and inferiority unto Carson, such as “gentle”, “shy”, and “unmarried”, rather than more masculine qualities such as assertive, strong, or authoritative, the media portrayed her as weak and insignificant (Corbett 729).  Although these attempts were made to silence the disturbance that Carson’s work brought to the fore, the ripple she made would not so easily be domesticated. 

Eventually, Carson gained gradual acceptance, appeal, and accreditation.  Interestingly, only after her work was legitimated by the scientific community, and especially after her death, did she bear the description of a more masculine type, with words such as “rational”, “sensible”, “scientific”, “reasoned”, “wise”, “courageous”, et cetera. Thus, sadly, it was only after her acclaim and death that gender was no longer the point of criticism for Carson.  Rather, in a partial sense of appreciation, she was then accepted in almost universally masculine terms (Corbett 730).

Nevertheless, Carson’s feminine values prevailed.  Since her death, many links were made between the realms of environmental protection, feminism, public health, and social reform.  Both eco-feminism as a school of thought, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency were direct results from her research and work (Salleh and O’Connor 132). Even more, secretly, during the release and publicity of Silent Spring, she was diagnosed and suffered from breast cancer. However, as a result of her death and her work, attention to environmental hazards as well as women’s health has increased; Breast Cancer research and awareness has strongly emerged, with some organizations hailing directly from Carson’s efforts, such as “Breast Cancer Action” and “Silent Spring Institute” (Seager 962).

Ultimately, Carson changed the atmosphere of public policy, environmentalism, feminism, and environmental science forever.  Specifically, she has transformed these disciplines through her feminist values of cooperation, subjectivity, compassion, and holism.  Writing specifically in an ecological framework, Carson has proved that the modern scientific ethos is indebted to the wellspring of feminine insights.  She has shown that science needs to occupy the public sphere and implement ‘right to know’, and must promote the wellbeing and interconnectedness, compassion, and sensitivity of all people with each other and with Nature (Vakoch 75).  As Hallen beautifully writes, “ it is no accident that ecology, which etymologically means ‘a study of the household’, needs the experience of women. To see the Earth as a life-sustaining home is a vision of ecology which, I believe, is accessible to women… Life is interconnected and interdependent: we are not above Nature, we are an intimate part of it” (204, 205).  It is this very vision that Carson gave the world: alternate feminine ways to see ourselves, each other, and Nature, and a sense of communion to embrace and preserve both Nature and Humanity.


Works Cited

Carson, Rachel. Silent spring. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002.

Corbett, Julia B. “Women, Scientists, Agitators: Magazine Portrayal Of Rachel Carson And Theo Colborn.” Journal Of Communication 51.4 (2001): 720. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 Nov. 2014.

Hallen, Patsy. “Making peace with nature: Why ecology needs feminism.” The deep ecology movement: An introductory anthology 50 (1995): 198-214.

Salleh, Ariel, and Martin O’Connor. “Eco‐socialism/Eco‐feminism.” (1991): 129-137.

Seager, Joni. “Rachel Carson Died Of Breast Cancer: The Coming Of Age Of Feminist Environmentalism.” Signs: Journal Of Women In Culture & Society 28.3 (2003): 945.   Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 Nov.

Vakoch, Douglas A. Feminist Ecocriticism: Environment, Women, and Literature. Lanham, Md: Lexington Books, 2012. Print. 65-92.