Karen Warren: Keeping the Legacy of Rachel Carson Alive Through Ecofeminism

As we advocate for continuing Rachel Carson’s legacy as contemporary environmentalists, it is essential to become familiar with the female environmental leaders who came after her time. One incredibly influential leader in the ecofeminist movement, or the examination of gender and the environment, is the environmental philosopher Karen Warren. An examination of her life and work can help each of us to be genuine torchbearers of Carson’s legacy and continue to keep feminism in our environmental action.

Karen Warren

Karen J. Warren was born in Long Island, New York on September 10th, 1947, eventually moving to and growing up in Ridgefield, Connecticut with her parents and three siblings. She went on to have a fruitful academic career, receiving a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota in 1970 and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1974 and 1978, writing one of the first theses on ecofeminism. She taught at St. Olaf College until 1985 when she transferred to Macalester College to join their philosophy department. Throughout this robust academic career, Warren greatly developed her interpretation of what ecofeminism is and how it shapes our gendered experience of nature.

Mary Daly

During Warren’s emergence into the ecofeminist community, many thinkers were laying the groundwork for her ecofeminist theories. Trish Glazebrook in her biography of Warren writes “Ecofeminist writers, such as Mary Daly in Gyn/Ecology (Daly 1978) and Susan Griffin in Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (Griffin 1978), both published in 1978, wanted to take that power back from patriarchy through the “Great Goddess…” Through this work, contrary to patriarchy, an alternative understanding of life, love, and nourishing was emerging and at the same time building critical analyses of the materialist scientific worldview.” Mary Daly in Gyn/Ecology produces a piece of radical feminist literature that analyzes the female experience in tandem with Christianity. Daly writes that her work is modeled off “hagiography,” saying “Hagiography is a term employed by christians, and is defined as “the biography of saints; saints’ lives; biography of an idealizing or idolizing character.” Hagiology has a similar meaning; it is a “description of sacred writings or sacred persons.” Both of these terms are from the Greek hagios, meaning holy.” Daly wants this piece to be seen as a liberatory work from the bonds Christian culture has put on women, writing:

“For women who are on the journey of radical being, the lives of the witches, of
the Great Hags of our hidden history are deeply intertwined with our own
process. As we write/live our own story, we are uncovering their history,
creating Hag-ography and Hag-ology. Unlike the “saints” of christianity, who
must, by definition, be dead, Hags live. Women traveling into feminist
time/space are creating Hag-ocracy, the place where we govern. To govern is to
steer, to pilot. We are learning individually and together to pilot the
time/spaceships of our voyage. The vehicles of our voyage may be any creative
enterprises that further women’s process. The point is that they should be
governed by the witch within – the Hag within.”

While Daly’s analysis of patriarchy sustained through tradition and religion greatly influenced Warren’s rise into ecofeminism, her use of non-traditional, therefore non-patriarchal, language had a greater impact on Warren. Take for instance this passage from Daly’s discussion of her style used in this book: “The dilemma of the living/verbing writer is real, but much of the problem resides in the way books are perceived. If they are perceived/used/idolized as Sacred Texts (like the bible or the writings of chairman Mao), then of course the idolators are caught on a wheel that turns but does not move. They “spin” like wheels on ice – a “spinning” that in no way resembles feminist process.” Instead of forming traditionally full sentences, Daly uses a slash symbol, one way of rebellion against the patriarchal setup of our writing. She also capitalizes seemingly random words and phrases while leaving ones that should be capitalized in lowercase, like “bible.” Warren began to be an advocate for understanding the language of domination (male over female domination) used in the environmentalist movement, and Mary Daly’s piece helped formulate this.

Susan Griffin

Susan Griffin in Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her was another influential voice during Warren’s rise into ecofeminism. Griffin’s work can be split between two different sections: the way the environment has been sustained to encourage the domination of women and the hope that women have to be liberated through the earth and make it theirs. Griffin argues that men have been positioned to dominate the earth, and in return dominate women, because they have been taught to use reason and omit any emotional thought in their decision-making. “And it is stated that nature should be approached only through reason.” This is what Warren draws upon in her work; the idea that male domination of the environment goes hand in hand with the domination of women laid the groundwork for Warren’s emergence into ecofeminism. Griffin doesn’t just stop with the theory of male domination but argues that as the earth takes itself back from the male grasp, women will experience liberation as well. It is very different to consider our situation as being tied up with the environment, but the fact that Griffin includes this gives the reader hope for a liberated environment and female existence.

As Warren was positioning herself as an important philosophical thinker, she developed her theory of “transformative feminism” which she would use throughout her life’s work. Glazebrook defines transformative feminism as:

  1. expands feminism by making explicit the interconnections between all forms of oppression;
  2. provides a theoretical space for the diversity of women’s experience;
  3. rejects the logic of domination of the patriarchal conceptual framework;
  4. rethinks what it means to be human;
  5. recasts traditional ethical concerns to make a central place for value; and,
  6. challenges patriarchal bias in technology research to favor appropriate technologies that preserve rather than destroy the Earth.

This development led her to write her most famous piece, “The Power and Promise of Ecological Feminism” in 1990. Here, Warren works to analyze the dualism of man/women in tandem with man/nature; essentially the exploitation of the natural world is the same as the exploitation of women. This piece also introduced readers to the idea of emotion being put into our liberatory action- the idea of love and emotion will be a recurring theme in Warren’s work. Glazebrook writes “An important point made here is the introduction of the concept of ‘emotional intelligence’ that pushes back against the scientific demand for neutrality over bias. Warren argues instead for knowledge systems that recognize uniqueness and voice not as a bias threat, but as narrative voice that can express experience.” We need to use a “loving eye” when examining the environment rather than the dominating male gaze that we are used to using. Warren went on to publish two more influential books throughout the 1990s that expanded and developed her theories, Ecofeminism: Women, Nature, and Culture (Indiana University Press, 1997) and Ecofeminist Philosophy: A Western Perspective on What It Is and Why It Matters (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000). After a lifetime of writing, Warren was diagnosed with Multiple System Atrophy in 2016 and ultimately passed away in 2020. Warren left behind a powerful legacy of ecofeminist theory that can still be used to examine and critique environmentalist action today.

Lily Riesett – RCC National Environment Leadership Fellow – St. Mary’s College of Maryland

RCC Fellow Lily Riesett is a senior at St. Mary’s College of Maryland passionate about serving her local community through food justice and feminist action. Her RCC Fellowship project, The Resilience Garden, works to provide food-insecure women with fresh produce once grown by historical female groups in Maryland.