More on Griffin’s “Woman & Nature”
Susan Griffin’s ecofeminist book Woman & Nature: The Roaring Inside Her is considered ground-breaking in the field. Written in 1978 in a poetic and then-uniquely female “voice,” it was one of the first — if not the actual first — text which traced a clear textual-historical connection between patriarchal use/abuse, and conflation, of women and nature. That section — the first half of the book — makes for oppressive reading, and I’ve already commented on the outrage and anger it aroused in me. The second half, however, attempts to be much more uplifting, exploring female intellectual, emotional, and spiritual awakening. This is, I believe, the titular “roaring inside her” as she/woman begins to realize her own strength and beauty: recognizing, valuing, and cherishing its mirror in the endless beauty and creativity of all women and nature.
Curiously, I found this section to be very much a product of its time, in that I felt in some ways Griffin went too far in (perhaps unwittingly?) conflating rather than simply beneficially linking woman and nature — especially since I don’t see either of them breaking free of oppressively hierarchical and androcentric control any time soon. In other ways I felt Griffin didn’t go far enough in possibilities and/or suggestions on how women might continue to revolutionize current social conceptions of both themselves and nature. The current joy in woman’s identification with nature makes sense to me — it’s certainly not something to be ashamed of — but shouldn’t we be working hard towards elevating social perspectives on nature as well as on women? Or are women already doing this as strongly as they are working for women’s rights, and I’ve just missed it?
Now that I’ve had a day to emotionally and intellectually “digest” the book after finishing reading it, I find myself with some uncomfortable questions as well. I cannot speak to many of the horrible things which Griffin wrote about in the androcentric first half of the book, but I can comment on two parts: zoos, and show horses. I have an AS in zoo-keeping — it was the first degree I ever received. Even way back then, the zoo- and aquarium-keepers I knew of were actively concerned with the animals for whom they were caretakers: how to give the animals (within the economic and social parameters they too lived within) the best possible housing and environments, the most interesting and highest quality lives, the healthiest diets… I remember we thought of our zoos as arks, places where we could preserve a little bit of nature even despite the encroachments of industry on the rest of the natural world. Zoos were a place where regular, everyday people could actually see wild animals in an approximation of their usual habitat; could be educated and make some connection on the value of nature — so that hopefully they too would speak out against the thoughtless, wasteful consumption of natural environments and resources.
Even before those teachings, I was raised in a family with show horses. I cannot speak for anyone else, but I know in my family we loved our horses… and our dogs and cats. To me, as well as for other family members, these animals were more than just animals — they were part of our family. When they died, or when one was sold, I grieved. When they were frightened, I tried to figure out what it was scaring them, and reassure them using their language. At shows, we (the humans) might push ourselves past common sense — but to my knowledge we never endangered our horses. I tried to make the training I did, and that I encouraged in those around me, always be gentle and encouraging to the horse. I have seen and read parts of several of Podhajsky’s books, but I cannot say he is a good example of all showing. He was a military man, writing of training styles used half a century ago; his style is certainly not how I trained, and I know there are modern trainers who do not use his methods either.
Reading those two chapters in Griffin’s book, I find myself shaking my head in disagreement — that’s not how it was for me. I am torn: does this mean she is exaggerating for effect, or am I not the norm? Do I assume she’s incorrect in other parts of the androcentric section of the book as well — or do I instead mentally include my life experiences in the second half of the book, where She is beginning to wake up to the beauty of, compassion toward, and connection with nature? I sit with this for a while, thinking back on my life… and I start to remember.
I remember crying silently as a child because I cannot protect my beloved pony — I have not the authority to stop the man “disciplining” him into terror, when I know that simply letting me be patient with Lucky, my pony, will resolve the issue. I remember seeing professional trainers at horse shows, palming syringes they’ve just used to inject something into the horse right before sending their rider-trainees out to show. I remember working as a vet tech, and having a woman send her maid to us — she was carrying the woman’s small, happy, healthy poodle and a sealed note which contained directions for us to please put the dog to sleep. The maid was horrified when she found out what the note she carried said, and bitterly mentioned that the woman had just re-decorated the house and felt the poodle no longer “matched.” I remember excitedly stopping at a “petting zoo” on the Florida tourist route — and being aghast at seeing a miserably unhappy bear with its fur falling out, sitting in a small, bare, black-iron-barred cage, rocking and rocking and rocking… I can feel tears stinging in my eyes, and I choke up a little just at the remembering of these incredibly callous, horrible things I’ve seen.
I guess that’s my answer.
I am, however, proud to say that eventually Lucky trusted me completely, even though he was left with an almost life-long terror of men. Also, complaints to the local ASPCA caused the so-called petting zoo to be closed, and the animals to be confiscated for either better homes or (for those too sick to survive) being humanely put to sleep. Also, the vet called the woman and said he could not put the dog to sleep without her there — but if she, with witnesses to the phone conversation, agreed to verbally assign ownership of the little dog to him, then he could legally do so. She did, and after he hung up the vet pointed out to the rest of us that he’d said he could put the dog to sleep after receiving ownership of it — not that he would. The maid was grimly pleased, and the vet kept the happy little poodle until we found it a new home.
I understand these are all small, localized things… but I believe if we all keep trying to make a difference in our own personal environments — if we all work towards making things just a little bit better — then eventually someday there will be enough of us to make a big difference, to change the entire world.
I think that is what I finally found lacking in the book. I wanted to say: tell us how we can make these differences, please? Tell us what we can do to make things better — for all women and for all the world! Upon reflection, though, I’m starting to believe this was not the book for that. This book was a first that would have to burst through back-breaking androcentric disdain into believability; a book that carried the ideological load of having to strongly demonstrate the ecofeminist premise that throughout male-written history, women and nature are predominantly conflated as an enemy to be conquered and controlled. That, I think, Griffin did excellently — and without falling into the intellectual trap of speaking in a dry and distanced, falsely emotionless voice. To do so, I believe, would have crippled the book’s impact, and lost her the audience she was reaching for: women struggling to awaken from the long, arid, soul-sucking desert of trying to effectively disembody according to the denigrating, misogynistic patriarchal standards for women.
It is up to the rest of us now, I believe, to write the new stories; to write texts that are, in fact, already written or are being written, in the years since Griffin’s paradigm-changing book. I speak of books and paradigms which show us how to work towards lasting, powerful, healthy ecofeminist change that is good for both the world and the humans living there; stories which tell men how they too can burst free of the stifling, damaging social roles imposed upon them by patriarchal thought. I’m enjoying the readings I have, and looking forward to future readings; it is my hope that our numbers will continue to increase as we continue to change the world.
More thoughts on this book here:
Journaling while reading Griffin’s “Woman & Nature”
Deepening thoughts on Griffin, women, & Nature
Do you think so? I’ll take your word for it, then. I’m very much looking forward to what my book club has to say about it, too! :)
Heavens knows I’ve been steeped in truly excellent and thoughtful feminist works for so long that they’ve become somewhat second nature to me. OK, I’ll keep this book in mind for recommendations to folks relatively new to the subject, and thanks!
I think it’s very possible that this book is still important for breaking through lifetimes worth of conditioning and getting people who do not understand the size and significance of the problem to see how truly large it is.
When it was written, perhaps more people needed the big hammer than might today, but there’s still a lot of misunderstanding and lack of consideration that this is a problem that really needs attention.
Sometimes, you need the big hammer.