Gender stereotypes are considered to be bad and potentially harmful. Progressive politics suggests rejecting gender stereotypes and designating particular roles to women and men. But are they always bad? Is it possible to put gender stereotypes to good use for advancing progressive politics? We think so. And women involved in various forms of environmental action show us how to do it.
The infamous stereotypes
Societies have always had a set of ideas about how men and women should behave and present themselves. Women and girls are generally expected to be soft, accommodating, nurturing, and caring; men are required to be strong and assertive. There is nothing defensible about these assumptions, or those who employ them. To put it bluntly, gender stereotypes are harmful as they can feed into misogyny and cause unfair treatment of both women and men.
And yet, it seems very hard to overcome them and the way they affect our daily and professional lives. Jobs that require ‘emotional labour’ such as caring or nursing are typically assigned to women. Gender stereotypes are also prevalent in academia. Numerous studies have shown that female academics are expected to do more of the service work and provide more emotional labour compared to their male peers.
Nothing wrong with being nurturing or caring per se, but…
Of course, there is nothing wrong with being nurturing and caring. In fact, societies, work places and communities are not sustainable in the absence of these qualities.
However, they become problematic when seen as the manifestation of one’s ‘natural’ gender identity; an approach usually labelled as ‘essentialism’ – a belief that one’s identity has a ‘true essence’, an unchangeable core that defines who they are.
This is a problem as it locks individuals or groups in narrowly constructed identity boxes, and determines who they are or might become. Therefore, the advocates of more progressive and emancipatory politics call for the rejection of essentialism and the associated stereotypes.
It sounds paradoxical at first, but there are some areas where accepting these stereotypes may bring more benefit than harm
But is it a zero-sum game? Are all gender stereotypes by default incompatible with ideas of just society and better politics? It sounds paradoxical at first, but there are some areas where accepting these stereotypes may bring more benefit than harm. The involvement of women in environmental politics, and particularly in contemporary environmental movements, is a case in point.
Taking care of the environment
Our first example of putting gender stereotypes to good use comes from France, the birth place of the term ‘ecofeminism’, first coined by Françoise d’Eaubonne in her 1974 book Le Féminisme ou la mort (Feminism or Death).
Ecofeminists see strong parallels between the domination of nature by human beings and the suppression of women by men in a patriarchal society. They criticise the purely mechanical vision of nature that emerged during the ‘scientific revolution’ in the 15th century, and emphasise the need for caring for living beings, attachment to land, and attentive listening (to both the human and other-than-human world) as the core principles for future societies.
Furthermore, they think women are better at performing these roles than men. There is even an annual award in France, the ‘Prix des femmes Marjolaine’, which recognises and celebrates women’s care for the environment.
Isn’t this pure essentialism? Yes and no. Ecofeminists acknowledge gender stereotypes yet use them as a tool to criticise the prevailing patriarchal norms and institutions.
Nurturing women to the rescue: The modern gleaners
One recent example of how women transform the nurturing role imposed on them into a critical role can be found in the new gleaners’ movement in France. The practice of gleaning, best captured by the painter Jean-François Millet in 1848, has been traditionally done by women.
While gleaning has never fully stopped, it has changed significantly with the technological innovations in agriculture. Yet there is a new gleaning movement in France, which gained strength and visibility after the screening of the famous realist documentary ‘The Gleaners and I’ by the feminist director Agnès Varda in 2000. The movement links the solutions to various ecological concerns (such as food waste) to the ecofeminist cause and calls women to the rescue by emphasising their caring and nurturing credentials.
More recently, two women started a new gleaning project in Nantes region in France. Those involved in the project acknowledge the caring and nurturing roles assigned to them but use these roles to challenge the market economy. They are particularly critical of the major supermarkets rejecting to buy or sell edible fruits and vegetables for cosmetic reasons. With their nurturing hats on, the participants redistribute the ‘undesired’ food to local people in need.
An increasing number of women in France refuse to enter the ‘muscle competition’ against men, instead using subversion as a tactic to fight against patriarchy
An increasing number of women in France refuse to enter the ‘muscle competition’ against men, instead using subversion as a tactic to fight against patriarchy. Environmental organisations in France are keen to learn lessons from such women’s groups about new ways to look after nature and people. For instance, this year the Solidarity and Rebel Civil Society Workshop gathered over three hundred NGOs in Grenoble and dedicated a whole day for exploring the links between gender and environmentalism, and the ways women use gender stereotypes to fight and transform the market economy.
Caring women to the rescue: The witty Knitting Nannas
Women do not have to identify with ecofeminism to put gender stereotypes to good use. Our second example, the Australian group Knitting Nannas against Gas (KNAG) shows how women bring the ‘sweet’, ‘harmless’, ‘caring’ and ‘trustworthy’ nanna stereotypes to the service of disruptive politics at its best. KNAG members use this image strategically and creatively in their political action to draw attention to the environmental impacts of the gas industry.
KNAG was formed in June 2012 when a small group of ‘nannas’ from the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales began to protest against the proposed mining of coal seam gas by regularly gathering and knitting in public spaces. Today there are around 40 regional groups across Australia. Members of KNAG knit together outside of their local politicians’ offices, as well as at gas exploration sites and protest rallies.
KNAG acts as the guardians of future generations yet gives a dissident twist to this traditional maternal function. In their Nanafesto, entitled ‘Knit the Dream’, they summarise the purpose of their protest in simple terms:
“We want to leave this land no worse than we found it, for our children, grandchildren and future generations. They deserve to have a future with a clean and healthy environment, natural beauty and biodiversity“.
Subvert with care
Some might argue that linking women with traditional caring or nurturing roles may easily reinforce the view that ‘women care by nature’, or the view that because women can and have cared, they should always care no matter the cost to themselves. Yet what we see in the cases of the modern gleaners and KNAG is that one does not have to either accept or reject gender stereotypes.
Rather, these examples present nuanced and creative ways of embracing gender stereotypes to put them to good use. In both cases, women accept the roles imposed on them yet subvert them in creative ways. They turn their ‘naturally given’ nurturing and caring roles into effective political acts, and thus open up new ways of addressing some of the big issues contemporary societies face.