“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” –Australian Aboriginal Group
This piece was originally posted on June 17, 2012 on Feminist Hive Mind, a community blog which belongs to me and some of my Vassar feminist community. This (Laying Foundations) is my personal blog. Posts here may appear on Hive Mind as well.
Tomorrow, I will drive to Ohio to spend time with Gail Dunlap and Charoula Dontopoulos, two women who went to Vassar in the late 1950’s. As two of the original Vassar Wolf Girls, they would creep from their dorms in the middle of the night wearing wolf skins to howl at the moon together in secret lesbian sisterhood. They needed to skirt the wrath of the Warden, who did dismiss some of these women from the conservative Vassar of the 50’s, labeling them “unfit from campus life.” My own grandmother, asleep on the other side of campus, was oblivious to their existence until I told her a few months ago after hearing Gail speak on a panel about the lesbian experience at Vassar.
The existence of lesbians and queer women on Vassar’s campus today is far from invisible, but we’ve only come so far because of the women who came before us. I’m on my way to Ohio to learn and work with these women on their lesbian land where they live alongside the Earth, and rehabilitate land that has been deeply harmed by human impact.
Ask any of the other Hive Minders and they will say, of course Maddie is going to lesbian land. I earned my label of “ecofeminist” within a month of arriving at Vassar, quickly seeing the connections between environmentalism and feminism in my Global Geography class. The ways in which the devastation of the environment and the oppression of women intertwine are extremely apparent to me. The patriarchal instincts to dominate women and dominate nature are rooted in the same masculine* need to assert power.
By working to rehabilitate the land, we can learn how to unravel systems of patriarchy in our own lives. There are parallels: we must live alongside the land as we must live alongside each other, compromise with the land as we must compromise with each other, and understand how our survival is as entwined with the wellbeing of the land as it is with the wellbeing of other humans.
There are also direct connections between environmentalism and other movements to deconstruct systems of oppression: poor communities which lack political power and capital have more exposure to environmental hazards like urban industry and hydrofracking, and less access to open space and affordable, nutritious food. Environmental hazards also tend to have an especially large impact on women, particularly in the developing world, where women are often responsible for growing subsistence crops and fetching water. If pollution compromises their food or water source, they must find different ones, which depletes their time and money, vital bargaining chips for essential self-advocacy.
In the rapid industrialization of the planet, industries and technologies, which are responsible for harming the environment, have simultaneously erased a lot of old knowledge about agriculture and land management. Family farms are dwindling, and Native peoples which knew their land much better and for thousands of years longer have largely died out or been uprooted from their homelands. Existing memory of how to live alongside the land is limited. Thus, it is as important as ever to forge connections between the generations, share experiences, and continue to keep and pass along the knowledge that exists. I head to Ohio to spend time with Gail and Charoula, to learn what they have to teach me, and to share and build on our common experiences as lesbians – Wolf Girls – invested in the land and the Earth that is our home. We carry that shared knowledge forth with us to whomever we meet.
* I recognize that the terms “masculine and “feminine” do not inherently correspond to any particular gender. Systems of patriarchal oppression are deeply rooted in society, which only recently began to address the problematic nature of a gender binary. It is relevant to discuss the traits and characteristics associated with the tropes of “masculinity” and “femininity” in order to dismantle them both and explore how the characteristics they describe can be embodied by anyone.