Francoise d’Eubonne, Eco-Feminist Superhero

Françoise d’Eubonne. Feminism or Death (London: Verso 2022)

Françoise d’Eubonne is an eco-feminist superhero. I doubt many geographers, eco-activists or urban theorists will read her work but it is a provocation to thinking. However, her recently translated 1974 Feminism or Death (London: Verso 2022) was notable for its introduction of the term “ Ecofeminism ” and arguments that patriarchy is correlated with capitalism as a form of economic exploitation as well as environmental neglect and abuse, matricide and femicide. As with womens’ bodies, so for the enslaved, nature and land. Ecofeminism must be anti-capitalist. To live under such a deadly regime is a form of death itself, hence the title. Agression, war and conflict are argued to be paradigmatic elements of male “ virilism ” Modernity is “ phallocracy ” and a world system of “consumption-oppression.” (p.243) A society not built on the subordination of most humans and all of nature requires a cooperative, antipatriarchal approach. The book is a foundational text for political ecology as well as feminism.

She cites de Sade and searches for ways to prod readers out of complacency:

“Millions of women….will resolve the problems of old age, of illness and of death, and will completely invent cities and housing.” The conflict is not situated finally between women and mean but between women who have gained consciousness and those who refuse to do so…. If there is at least hope of salvation… it can only come from women” (p.238-9)

For me, as an white male colonized reader, several points leapt out of this book. First, is Carolyn Merchant’s deft Foreward with an essential history of “ecofeminism”. Next, writing in the Introduction to the 2020 French edition, Myriam Bahaffou and Julie Gorecki identify Bahaffou’s migrant identity suppressed in France’s ethnophobic culture. Then Gorecki’s links to Ontario establish the ironies that her parents, fleeing oppression in post-war Poland, would find themselves as settlers part of an equally oppressive expropriation of Indigenous lands in Canada motivates her interest in and critique of systemic oppressions. The method proposed to combat the system that elevates single individuals ideas and economies to univocal supremacy is micro-alliances, situated projects and peacemeal collaborations, much as one finds in current Canadian Indigenous practice. These are liminal positions and tactics relevant to the feminine discussed below.

In this translation of Le féminisme ou la mort, “women” are all those caught between the impossible contradiction of femininity and “feminitude” (p.55): on one hand femininity as the social demand to be an attractive body seductive to men and productive of children. On the other hand, the oppression of patriarchal morals repressing and forbidding women’s own sexuality, desires, dreams and projects. In-between these, one can only be in a state of alternating denial. The lack of a sense of the power of this liminal zone for d’Eaubonne is intriguing.

D’Eaubonne was a radical. She demanded the “ total and irreversible abolition of sexism and patriarchy .” She offers a gender analysis of pollution and ecological catastrophe in the 1970s, placing women and the marginalized at the centre of her understanding of global capitalism. Like most French feminist texts of the late twentieth century, her langage essentialises a male-female binary of cis-gender, but she hints that “ gender ” is itself a phallocratic creation, opening the door to a more fluid understanding of sexuality. This dates d’Eaubonne and leads to multiple questions about her faith that those who are, if not biologically then socially, female hold the key to solving the world’s problems and her methods to eliminate “virillism” and capitalist phallocracy. Nonetheless, in the footnotes of the book she emphasizes that gender is not “metaphysical” but a socially-constructed and arbitrary dualism that displaces other possibilities.

We could well heed her analysis of the criminalization of abortion in some American States today:

“…reconsider the marked difference male homosexuality and lesbianism received in all periods of history. The reason comes from…secular nonproductivity by women in the directly productive circuit [of the economy]. She was permitted to make of her body ….an object to sell, whereas…the male, had to right to only sell his arms or his brain. If he sells his body he is abhorred by all morals…. in all civilizations based on productivity…the man must produce…he who works sells an activity, he who prostitutes himself sells a function. The woman, reduced to an animal of function…owes society a production, her of her body. That is why the system of power is infinitely more severe regarding abortion than for lesbianism or feminine prostitution.(p.268 n5 stress added)

D’Eaubonne’s works are a bracing read and a useful corrective to modernist and Englightenment theory and criticism. However, there is little room for her own self-critique or doubt in what was at the time a brazenly critical position and career. Womens’ lateral oppression of each other is missing, womens’ resort to discursive forms of oppression and put-downs, their participation in racism and classism is little acknowledged. For her, the resort to physical violence seems to be a trait of the chromosomally-male alone. Hence my resort to the simplified image of a superhero: uncomplicated and flawed but an admirable. A figure of passage from abstract ideals to the actually real and concrete world.

This text anticipates some contemporary polemics, such as Mbembe’s discussion of the need to breathe (see ) which connects the deadly suffocation techniques used in racist policing (cf. the murder of George Floyd ) to the pollution of the atmosphere experienced in many cities and countries. D’Eaubonne cites Celestine Ware’s Women Power on air pollution: “they want to breathe in accordance with the cycle of the cosmos. No – they want to breathe, period.” (cited p. 197).

The book attacks the denials and head-in-the-sand attitudes of elites faced with evidence of climate catastrophe even in the late 1960s and early 1970s:

“Is a worldwide catastrophe really at our doorstep? Stopping short of the nobel remarks of somebody like Jean Lartéguy, who, faced with the figures I was citing on television, shrgged his shoulders and said, “Oh, specialists are always mistaken in their prections…” A lot of people say “Someone will invent something.” All this talk allows them to put the Horsemen of the Apocalypse in a bottle, like goldfish.” (p.197).

D’Eaubonne is anti-establishment She worked outside of mainstream institutions such as universities but was affiliated and drew on analyses such as Henri Lefebvre’s critique of the modernization and ratioanlization of rural peasant life in France in the 1950s. However, she broke with Lefebvre’s gender-blind analysis. Nast and Blum have even called his a “phallo-happy” approach to theory, activism and personal life (Blum, Virginia, and Heidi Nast 1996. “Where’s the Difference? The Heterosexualization of Alterity in Henri Lefebvre and Jacques Lacan.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 14: pp.559–80). Her scandallous 1960 novel Le Temps de’apprendre a vivre (Ed. Albin Michel) is a excoriating critique of patriarchy and lampoons the personal arrogance of Lefebvre, or “H.L.” in the book. By the time of this text in 1974, she has moved on, acknowledging the significance of the industrialization of agriculture and the bureaucratization of life but has found her voice and project in ecofeminism as a movement. This book is the essential feminist counterblast to Lefebvre’s Production of Space (1974). It lifts the curtain of our organized forgetting to show a bit of the radical environmentalism and struggle for more just societies and cultures of the early 70s.

Witnessing a virtual state of civil war in the US in 2023 over ecological exploitation in the name of capitalism, womens’ bodies and abortion in the name of men, against migrants in the name of culture, and against racialised women who think critically in the name of antisemitism (the well-documented attacks by Republican members of Congress, right-wing activists, varied racists and myoginists on female University Presidents), one cannot help but see Feminism or Death as a prescient text.

-Rob Shields (University of Alberta)