Last week, while I was preparing for my trip to the swamp, the universe burped up an object lesson to remind me of the pitfalls that await a writer interested in women’s relationship with nature, in the form of a piece by James Poulos entitled, eye-poppingly enough, What are Women For? The piece begins:
In a simpler time Sigmund Freud struggled to understand what women want. Today the significant battle is over what women are for. None of our culture warriors are anywhere close to settling the matter. The prevailing answer is the non-answer, a Newt-worthy challenge to the premise that insists the real purpose of women is nothing in particular.
Such an answer may or may not be a landmark in the progress of the human race, but it is anathema to most conservatives of any political party, and for that reason conservative folkways, prejudices, and ideals are once again on trial.
Oh, my. Every so often someone asks a question that starkly exposes the unbridgeable chasm between competing worldviews. The “what” in that question is necessarily something apart from the essential humanity of the women in question. In other words, women must have a purpose – be for something represented by that “what” — other than living our lives according to our own individual inclinations, our own individual needs, and our own individual circumstances. Poulos’ follow-up equates challenging the premise of his question with an assertion that womens’ purpose is “nothing in particular.” That’s right – those individual needs, inclinations and circumstances I just mentioned are, in this worldview, “nothing in particular.” Women’s own selves and lives, executed according to our own self-determination, are not enough to justify our existence. Men, on the other hand, are evidently just people, whose existence and purpose do not require interrogation.
Unlike Poulos, I don’t think the culture needs to engage in discussion over what I am for, because the very question presupposes I am for something or someone other than myself, without regard to whether I have chosen to devote my life to that something or someone. Needless to say, I reject that supposition.
But it’s his conclusion I’m most interested in, an oblique paragraph about women and nature that touches on what he thinks women might be for:
To the growing discomfort of many, that framework hasn’t come anywhere close to answering even the most basic questions about what women are for — despite pretty much universal recognition across the political spectrum that a civilization of men, for men, and by men is no civilization at all, a monstrously barbaric, bloody, and brutal enterprise. A few inherently meaningful implications about what women are for flow naturally from this wise and enduring consensus, but no faction of conservatives or liberals has figured out how to fully grasp, translate, and reconcile them in the context of our political life.
Ironically, one of the best places to look for a way out of the impasse is the strain of left feminism that insists an inherently unique female “voice” actually exists. That’s a claim about nature. Much good would come from a broader recognition that women have a privileged relationship with the natural world. That’s a relationship which must receive its social due — if masculinity in its inherent and imitative varieties (including imitation by quasi-feminized males of quasi-masculinized females!) is not to conquer the world.
I have long been leery of the assumption that there is a uniquely female “voice”, perspective, or approach to life or the natural world. My feminism does not admit of the notion that women are inherently superior to men in one way or another. I don’t think women ought to run the world instead of men; indeed, there is a very good case to be made that “power, not gender, determines belligerence.” I just believe women ought to have equal opportunities to lead if they so desire. But the notion that women are inherently gentler or more deeply emotional than men is little more than the flip side of the argument that men are wired to be violent, emotionally clueless sex fiends, and should therefore be excused from any higher expectations. (Writer and feminist Hugo Schwyzer calls this “the myth of male weakness.”) That’s what Poulos is up to here; in his view, what women are for is to be the opposite of men, and to civilize them, and we do this through our “privileged relationship with nature.”
I think there is value in examining how women interact with nature, not because of our biology, but because of our ages-old position in a sexist culture dominated by men. It’s that perspective, if any, that I’m interested in. That’s the perspective I believe might be characterized by greater empathy, less anthropomorphizing, and yet every bit as much courage, endurance and ambition as men might display.
But whatever commonalities women share in their relationships with nature, those relationships shouldn’t be hijacked for the benefit of anything or anyone but those who are in them.