Forest Defense and the “Woman” in Activist Discourse

The following is the introduction and one chapter from my undergrad thesis.

As I’ve explored the relationship between women and forest defense I’ve quickly discovered the need for a distinction between women as physical beings present in a specific cultural and political context, and the symbol of “woman” which has occupied a larger cultural and political discourse in Western culture.  The symbol is both a social category which many women occupy and a collection of ideologies and images that the category implies.  I am not interested in the presence of women as a subversive “phenomena” within the male-dominated activist sphere, or in other words, the “add women and stir” version of activism; rather, I’m interested in exploring how this symbolic “woman” has influenced and been interpreted in the context of forest defense. 

Western cultures have perpetually defined nature in the language of the feminine, to what many ecofeminists claim, the mutual detriment of both (Val Plumwood, Carol Adams, Greta Gaard, Susan Griffin, Karren Warren).  The belief that nature is unwaveringly linked to and informed by femininity is so deeply engrained in this culture that most people find it “natural” as opposed to an ideological construction.

The male-dominated sphere of radical activism has shaped its identity around the construction of nature as female.  The following paragraphs aim to explore how forest defense has situated itself in relation to woman-nature associations.  How has forest defense used the feminization of nature and the naturalization of women, and how do forest defenders of all genders situate their identities within that narrative?

Woman-nature associations are a part of a system of value dualisms engrained in the world-view of Western civilization.  Ecofeminist philosopher Val Plumwood has studied key Western philosophers and considered how their uses of binary and hierarchical opposites have affected women and nature over time.  Plumwood defines these hierarchical binary opposites as dualisms: “Dualism is the process by which contrasting concepts (for example, masculine and feminine gender identities) are formed by domination and subordination and constructed as oppositional and exclusive” (Plumwood, 31).  Plumwood explains that in western culture, men are opposite and above women, and culture is opposite and above nature.  The list continues, with men, culture, rationality, whiteness, heterosexuality, all associated with each other, and seen as above their “opposites,” including intuition, color, queerness, etc.  When women are seen as more natural than men and nature is considered more female than male, the destruction of nature and the degradation of women in our culture are intimately related.

While it is easy to dislike or reject the product of a culture or civilization, it is more difficult to reject the values and beliefs that make such a product possible.  For instance, it may be easy for some people to reject excessive logging without rejecting industrial civilization and capitalism which render trees a “product.”  Others may have no problem abstractly rejecting industrial civilization and all its products, yet the philosophies and world-view that leads to those destructive results remain unquestioned.  Most forest defense stands at this location of contradiction, where it has inadvertently situated itself within the value dualisms of Western culture.  When forest defenders do not realize the interconnectedness of oppressions or the way that value dualisms inform our cultural narrative, we may not be able to see social issues as relative or imperative to forest defense.

If value dualisms were examined within the context of forest defense, a more radical understanding of nature would unfold.  Forest defense is a space for ecofeminist activism, based not on the simple celebration of “woman doing activism,” but on conscious ecoradical feminism that acknowledges how the reproduction of oppressive woman-nature associations perpetuates ecosystem destruction….

Forest defense is, no doubt, set within the context of a social reality that influences the ways women and nature are interpreted.  The dialogue around ecodefense tends to unconsciously accept the notion that nature is feminine, vulnerable, and defenseless.  This stereotype reinforces that an ecodefender is masculine, warrior-like, and separate from nature.  Furthermore, it naturalizes male dominance and perpetuates male violence.  The feminization of nature suggests that culture (man) must become warriors and defend nature (women).  Nature and women are objectified, stagnant victims as opposed to resisters and defenders in and of themselves.  Men and culture remain the unexamined protective class, while women and nature must submit to men’s/culture’s dominance/protection for their own good.  This warrior/victim paradigm is not helpful to the project of forest defense.

The warrior/victim paradigm surfaces in men’s and women’s relationships to forest defense.  While women tend to identify with the forest more than the defense, male forest defenders tend to identify with the “good guy” as a warrior, a militant protector of the vulnerable female/earth from the “bad guy” known as capitalism or corporate greed.

Forest defense has traditionally used the dominant narrative about femininity and masculinity and their relationships to nature strategically, as have many ecofeminist writers.  For instance, ecofeminist author Linda Vance writes that associating nature with the feminine will engender empathy: “Giving nature a female identity reinforces my sense of solidarity with the natural world….  Meat-eaters might be less sanguine about consuming parts of dead animals if they had to ask someone ‘pass me one of her ribs, please,’ or ‘slice off one of her wings for me, would you’” (Vance, 136)?  The unfortunate flaw in Vance’s tactic is that people already do feminize the meat that they are eating and the trees they are cutting down.  Take Carol Adam’s Sexual Politics of Meat.  Adams outlines the ways in which women are animalized and animals that are used for meat are sexualized through the male gaze.  With phrases like “Ain’t she’ a beauty” and “This restaurant sells the best legs in town,” it is not difficult to believe that the culture of meat eating is both sexist and pornographic. 

Engendering empathy through traditional stereotypes about women is problematic for two reasons.  First, the naturalization of women denaturalizes men.  The denaturalization of men gives them the “culture” status within a nature-culture binary.  The rationality for the domination and exploitation of women and nature stems from the concept that men and culture exist outside of, and above, the realm of nature.  And furthermore, the denaturalization of men blocks them from a range of emotions and experiences associated with woman and nature.  Secondly, while engendering empathy via strategic use of the dominant cultural narrative may be useful in the short term, in the long run if one is advocating real, deep rooted change, the feminization of nature will continue to rationalize domination, not advocate respect.

Given the feminization of women and nature, and the masculinization of men, culture, and forest defenders, one could argue that forest defense’s relationship to women and nature is, in part, abusive.  The feminization of nature may be strategic, but by and large it seems to be unconscious.  Labeling something strategic runs the risk of bypassing unexamined issues.  On the other hand, —for better or for worse—forest defense does have a significant liberal/mainstream appeal when it is placed with the narrative of gender.  For instance, consider the following:


The helpless female: “Your Mother Earth needs YOUR help.  Please don’t ignore her!” (Xtc forum). 

The patriarchal institutionalization of violence: “Welcome to the 2003 episode of the War in the Woods, or the Empire Strikes Back!” (Forest Ethics).

The narrative of sexual purity and chastity: “Only five percent of America’s virgin forests remain, while 70 percent of the fiber consumed by the pulp and paper industry continues to be generated from virgin wood (Native Forest Council) (emphasis mine).


After following this narrative long enough, one will gather that nature is the stereotypically disempowered, helpless, exotic, erotic, feminine woman, caught in a man’s war.  The forest defender is a soldier, saving the world and getting the girl.  It is a story of sex and violence.  It is a pornographic story.  Just like the stories of strong men rescuing helpless young women, there is absolutely nothing in the story of the helpless, victimized, feminized nature that advocates respect and autonomy for its subject.

Val Plumwood believes that domination of women and nature “can be traced far back into the intellectual traditions of the west, at least into the beginnings of rationalism in Greek culture” (Plumwood, 72).  Given that the construction of woman/ nature as reproductive, fertile, wild, erotic, nurturing, abundant, etc has been used against women and nature historically and presently (as women and nature must be controlled, quantified, tamed, and used by culture), I find it necessary to problematize women/nature essentialisms within forest defense. 

Earth First!’s slogan, “No compromise in Defense of Mother Earth,” is the epitome of an ecoradical network adopting and perpetuating the women/nature essentialism.  The slogan reveals that the EF! movement in general rejects the culture that destroys nature, yet does not reject the social constructions of culture and nature that make its destruction possible.  “No compromise in defense of Mother Earth” is a metaphor that feminizes nature and naturalizes women to the mutual detriment of both. 

One way forest defense feminizes the environment, strategically or unconsciously, is when forest defenders give female names to trees.  Whether the forest defender is male or female, co’s relationship to the tree co occupies generally fits a similar gendered narrative.  For instance, a woman named “Butterfly” occupied the famous tree “Luna” using her woman-centered connection to nature and the Christian god to justify her opposition to logging.  Audrey Vanderford writes,


“Julia ‘Butterfly’ Hill also deploys a gendered image that distinguishes her from Earth First!—both in its male-centered, ‘redneck in the woods’ origins and its later, more feminist manifestations.  Unlike Judi Bari, for example, Hill offers neither a feminist analysis of her experience in the forest campaign, nor an ecofeminist analysis of the destruction of the forests.  She relies on quite a traditional notion of femininity, perhaps most evident in her use of beauty to ‘persuade’ people of her cause.”


Vanderford goes on to explain a scene in Hill’s book in which Hill convinces a logger she’s not a dread-locked hippy tree hugger.  She fills a bag with granola and a picture of her all dressed up and feminine, attaches it to a rope and lowers it from her platform.  The logger is surprised.  But feminists are pissed.  Julia Butterfly Hill used the hegemonic, dominator model of femininity to legitimate her position on the environment.  Vanderford concluded that Hill did not make the logger receptive to her on a human level, but rather, on a heterosexual level. 

Similarly, an enthusiastic bunch of female forest defenders self proclaimed “The Stafford Sweeties,” dressed their best one fall morning in 1997, bringing donuts, coffee, cute looks and suggestive touches to loggers in order to instill in them a sense of compassion for the forest (Tree Sit).  Vanderford’s critique of Julia Butterfly Hill applies, that the Stafford Sweeties did not reach the loggers on a human level, but rather, on a heterosexual level.

Counterpart to the example of a woman in a female tree is a man in a female tree.  The movie “Tree Sit: The Art of Resistance” documents one man’s relationship with a tree named Mariah, also in the redwoods.  In this sit a male activist named Jake continues to refer to the tree as “she,” claiming the need to “protect her.”  The language he used suggested that “she,” meaning the redwood, must be feminine, vulnerable, and defenseless.  This relationship fits the traditionally male-dominated discourse of male defender, female forest, male culture, female nature.  And, consequentially, so does Julia Butterfly Hill’s narrative. 

Both Jake and Julia Butterfly chose to construct their identities as forest defenders through the dominator model of patriarchal gender norms.  While Jake adopted the manly, eco-defender identity, Hill’s narrative fits the hegemonic femininity prescribed to both nature and women.  She chose to construct her identity around the victimization of the forest: “learning about the clear-cut made me feel like a part of myself was being ripped apart and violated, just as the forests were” (Hill, 9).  Hill is not the first woman involved with an environmental project to voice this connection.  In my experience, women forest defenders associated clear-cuts to their own experiences of being raped, thus making strategic and real associations but also entering the warrior-victim dichotomy.  I do not know of any male forest defenders, with or without trauma pasts, who have made these kinds of connections.  In a ‘zine of collected writings of the Straw Devil women’s and trans’ action, a poem by “Cyndal” reads, “She holds the secrets of a thousand centuries/ and she is clear-cut, destruct the blood of each/ on our knees and hands, innards and guts pour from/ our cunts and tree stumps…” (Unit 6 zine).  This shared victimization between women and nature does not necessarily, but often perpetuates the idea that women and nature are, by nature, both feminine and victimized. 

A gendered relationship to the environment and environmentalism may seem helpful in the short term for people like Hill and the Stafford Sweeties who do not choose to critically assess the relationship of gender and the environment, but in the long term these tactics are self-defeating. In her well-known essay, “The Power and the Promise of Ecological Feminism,” Karen Warren articulates that the failure to notice the relationship between the oppression of women and the environment leaves “an incomplete, inaccurate, and partial account of what is required of a conceptually adequate environmental ethic” (Warren, 34).  An ecofeminist critique of forest defense would argue that the failure of environmentalists to realize their participation in patriarchal culture leads forest defenders to an inadequate environmental ethic.

While conceptual connections linking women to the environment are not useful when they serve the hegemonic, dominator model of gender and power, they can work as the foundation for ecofeminist activism.  When we, as activists, connect our personal experiences of oppression to an oppressive conceptual framework—as defined by Karen Warren as a set of basic beliefs that “explain, justify, and maintain relationships of domination and subordination” (20)—we are creating a non-essentialist ecofeminist praxis.  When people who have been raped connect their experiences with patriarchal violation to the violation and exploitation of the earth, they may realize that these oppressions are connected through an oppressive conceptual framework in which a single oppression is intrinsically linked to them all.  Thus, to resist one, we must resist the entire conceptual framework.  While Cyndal’s piece may be perpetuating a shared victimization between women and nature, it could also be seen as calling attention to their shared domination.

The link between patriarchy and the destruction of forests has been expressed through ecofeminist forest defense in the naming of a tree “Dworkin,” after Andrea Dworkin, a well known feminist activist and writer who focused on issues of pornography and violence against women.  In this case, naming a tree with a female name was strategic, not essentialist.  Set in an all-women and trans action camp, this tree signified both resistance to violence against women and resistance to violence against the forest.  Dworkin represented strategic connections, rather than essentialist assumptions and patriarchal leanings, as did both Luna/Butterfly and Mariah/Jake.

Forest Defense campaigns have seen both the uncritical perpetuation of essentialist notions of gender and critical analyses of how these essentialisms perpetuate the oppression of women and nature.  While the woman-nature connection arises out of lived experiential and conceptual negotiations with violence for many women, an unexamined acceptance of this paradigm leads to the perpetuation of value dualisms and a failure to radically alter the state of either women or nature within an ideological or material context.

To move beyond these gendered activisms which associate women with nature and men with culture, we must, as activists, not simply ignore or reject these connections, but critically reflect on the ways in which gender violently removes a range of experiences from our lives.  Val Plumwood explains,


“to simply repudiate the old tradition of the feminine connection with nature, and to put nothing in its place, usually amounts to the implicit endorsing of an alternative master model of the human, and of human relations to nature, and to female absorption into this model.  It does not yield, as it might seem to do at first, a gender neutral position; unless the question of relation to nature explicitly put up for consideration and renegotiation, it is already settled—and settled in an unsatisfactory way—by the dominant model of humanity into which women will be fitted” (Plumwood, 23). 


While most environmentalists are unlikely to maliciously or consciously attach patriarchal metaphors onto the environment, ignoring the roots and cultural significance of the terms and the logic they use to justify environmental protection does not lend them a pure or “gender neutral” position.  One must actively reject these norms and metaphors in order to eradicate male-dominated, hierarchical relationships with the environment, and replace these relationships with an active ecological feminist consciousnesses.

A critical evaluation of what Plumwood calls “the dominant model of humanity,” or the “Master model,” is not limited to a reconsideration of women’s relationship to nature.  Deep analysis of men and masculinity in relationship to nature and culture is also necessary for radical change to ensue.  Understanding masculinity in the context of violence and oppression should be essential to the projects of feminism, environmentalism, and anarchism.  Men have complex relationships to violence in their own lives, beyond that of doing violence onto others or protecting nature from violence by others.  In The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, bell hooks quotes Terrance Real to explain that men are not just socialized to be violent, but male socialization is violence.  Boys and men are taught by society, through violent, dehumanizing, and oppressive tactics that they must not feel, that self-expression and sensitivity are not privileged within patriarchy, and therefore must be abolished in all male bodies.

It is imperative that anyone interested in creating liberatory praxis realize that male socialization is an inherently violent process.  This acknowledgement creates a space in which men can, like many women, identify with the violence they experience against the more-than-human world.  This opens an experiential-conceptual door for men into ecofeminist critiques.  When men recognize their own oppression as men, and their own coercive relationship to the master model of hegemonic masculinity, the connection between gender oppression and nature oppression will seem less illusive.  In other words, ecofeminism as a discourse must include and radicalize its relationship to men.

Ecofeminists must acknowledge that men are constricted by gender oppression, and this affects their relationships to nature and women.  For example, male person may be socialized to believe that emotion and beauty are always and only for women, and he is coercively removed from his whole being, from what one might say, a natural state.  He has been removed from nature and pushed into culture. 

In “Toward a Queer Ecofeminism,” Greta Gaard considers a feminist argument that women are oppressed through the gender characteristics with which they are associated: emotion, irrationality, body, sexuality, etc, and she observes three responses to this problem.  The first is denying these things and associating with the male-sphere, as liberal feminists have done; the second is devaluing the male sphere and emphasizing the female, as cultural feminists have done; and the third, what ecofeminists have done, “rejects the structure of dualism and acknowledges both women and men as equal parts of culture and nature” (Gaard, 118).  Not only does forest defense perpetuate that women are closer to nature, but it inadvertently perpetuates the myth that men are of culture, of the mind, and of the rational.  Considering Greta Gaard’s overview of liberal feminism, men could choose to identify with nature and not with culture, the mind, and rationality at all, because nature is “better.”  Alternatively, men could choose to take a cultural route and rationalize their roles as minds separate from body and nature as a good thing; or they could consider what ecofeminists have concluded, that undermining such essentialisms is integral to liberating both “nature” and “culture,” as well as women and men.

Forest defense in Cascadia has exemplified both hegemonic, essentialist social constructions of gender and nature, and engaged in a critical ecofeminist consciousness.  While the earlier years were characterized by an Edward Abbey version of deep ecology, later campaigns and activist collectives have taken ecofeminism to the foundation of their actions.  Ecofeminism practiced through forest defense very often looks like feminism-meets-anarchy-among-large-trees.  Thus, active timber sales have the potential to be the birthplace of a sustained, green anarchafeminist praxis.  As best said by a forest defender herself: “We’ll be taking down patriarchy and puttin’ up tree sits” (anonymous).  While anti-oppression in forest campaigns became the site of liberation for many, forest defenders in the Eugene area who were resistant to anti-oppression found themselves isolated without the infrastructure and support that feminist forest defense organizations offered.


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