This Is Susan Griffin, Hear Her Roar

The pioneering ecofeminist and Woman and Nature author discusses her book and today's discriminatory climate.

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It’s clear that though we’ve made improvements, we’re still worlds away from complete equality for both women and people of color.

One of the people who understands this well is Susan Griffin, author of Woman and Nature, a provocative must-read in any feminist’s literary canon. The book explores how the destruction of the earth and the denigration of nature are not only connected but inseparable, and it uses history, Freudian psychology, and a love of the earth we share to weave powerful prose. Lucky for us, the book, which was written in 1979 during the height of the feminist movement, just became available in digital format.

Even luckier, we got our hands on an interview with Griffin conducted by Jeanine Canty, a professor of environmental studies at Naropa University, about Griffin’s book, how we’re still struggling with discrimination against women and African Americans, and how dilemma often turns out to be one of life’s greatest gifts.

So lean in, you’re going to want to hear this.

Jeanine Canty: Susan, first off, it is an honor to once again interview you and engage in dialogue. I am so thrilled about the release of the e-book version of Woman and Nature. We are approaching 40 years since its original publication. This book was, and still is, revolutionary and should be read by anyone working to deconstruct the rise of patriarchy and a mechanistic worldview, as well as the silencing of women and the natural world. In honoring the approaching anniversary of your book, I thought we might explore the time period Woman and Nature came out of – the Civil Rights era.

Many are comparing our present era with that of the Civil Rights era. I recently read a tweet by justice activist Shaun King that said, “If you ever wondered what you would do if you were alive in the Civil Rights Movement, now is the time to find out.” As someone who was and is extremely active in both times, what similarities and differences are you seeing?

Susan Griffin: There are lots of ways in which what’s happening now is building on what happened then. An understanding of injustice on the basis of race and gender is more widely braided into our culture. Even though, of course, racism and misogyny and injustice are still plaguing our world, more people recognize inequality between women and men, and African American and other minorities and white people as injust. I think that what we were doing in the earlier period was establishing that it was injust and raising people’s consciousness and their anger over it, and challenging discriminatory policies.

We were making people think about it. In that period, I wrote an article about rape. I began with research from a sociologist, who was teaching then at UC Berkeley, Menachem Amir, who had done a very convincing study showing that men who had raped (he studied men in prison who were convicted of rape)* didn’t have difficulties with sexuality, as had been assumed before, but they did have difficulties with aggression. In that article, I redefine rape not as a sexual act but an act of aggression, using sexuality, using sex as weapon – turning sexual penetration into a weapon. It is this sort of thing that we reconfigured so that in the case of rape, we began to see it as part and parcel of a larger pattern of injustice against women or in the case discrimination again African Americans in housing, we redefined this as outside any issue of private ownership or private property, but instead as an act of discrimination that is not just and should become illegal.

That’s what we were doing in that time. Now, one movement that seems to me on a par and similar to what we were doing in the ’60s and ’70s is the movement in Ferguson. #BlackLivesMatter is making police violence against African American people visible, when, though this violence has been going on since the Civil War, this pattern has been invisible to media and the white populations in general before. I’m horrified by each story that comes up, but I’m also really happy to see that this issue is getting media attention and that people are treating it as an outrage.

Related: 10 Unapologetic Books About Race in America

But there are other ways that the current moment is quite different. For one thing, I think we’re facing a situation that, ostensibly and on the surface of it, has nothing to do with women’s rights or civil rights, and that is a whole slew of environmental issues—the most important of them being climate change, that’s threatening all of us and all lives on Earth. That’s a real and critical issue that no matter who we are, what segment of society we are coming from, what other battles we are fighting, we have to be concerned with, because nothing else happens if there isn’t an Earth. That changes everything. 

But in fact, the issue of climate change is profoundly related to misogyny and racism. Because both women and anyone who is defined as “not white” (whiteness being a construct in fact that is not real) are defined as closer to nature and thus inferior, in the distorted frame of mind that engenders both forms of prejudice and hatred. So at the base, it’s all about rejecting nature or wanting to control nature.

There’s another difference, too, that we need to be aware of. I was on a panel with Linda Burnham who was part of the early women’s movement. We spoke after the showing of the film She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry talking about women’s rights and Linda mentioned the importance of being strategic. I thought that was such an important comment. I think we have to develop different strategies now, and I think there’s a lot of confusion about strategies. I think a lot of young people now are not schooled politically. They’re not thinking deeply enough about it. Now I’m talking generally, which I shouldn’t do, because there are lots of brilliant activists, young people who are thinking very strategically. But there are also too many who do not think that way. There were constant debates in the ’60s and ’70s about what the right strategy was, and I don’t see the same level of discussion going on now.  I’d like to see it.

One other thing that was going on in the ’60s and ’70s—as feminists, we were doing it too—was to question the fundamental worldview of white patriarchal culture, a culture into which we’ve all been schooled, no matter if we’re in a category that the worldview sees as inferior. That we’re schooled in that is partly what creates internalized oppression. So we were examining the world views by which we were brought up–all of us who were in dissident movements. One of the places where I went with that was to look at the attitude that both identifies women as closer to nature–and anybody who is in a disenfranchised group–and how that connected with the damage we were doing to the environment already by the late ’60s and through the ’70s while I was writing Woman and Nature.

Jeanine Canty: How did you first connect to nature?

Susan Griffin: I was born in California. I grew up going to a Girl Scout camp in the Sierra Nevada Range, way up high in the mountains, and we would sleep in cots right out under the stars, chop wood, hike, and build fires, and cook our own meals. I was in communion with trees, the land, and stones, the night sky, and the lake. It was very profound, and it never left me. Those were my deepest spiritual experiences.

Related: 12 Nature Books to Help You See the Beauty in Every Day

Jeanine Canty: What is the origin of Woman and Nature? How was it so creatively birthed? It is not written in standard way.

Susan Griffin: There is a form in poetry that I love and loved then, particularly in French poetry, which is the prose poem. I wanted to use it. So that was part of what inspired me. As I was working on it, various pieces came to me, in no particular order at first. The first that came to me was on plutonium. While I was washing dishes one night, I heard a broadcast on the radio about plutonium, and it was very disturbing to me. I felt such a lack of control of my own world, because it was so beyond my knowledge–plutonium and the whole world of subatomic particles. What can you do about it, and how can you protect your children? I had a small child then, my daughter.

I also realized at about the same time that if I was going to do a critique of the western tradition and particularly western science, I couldn’t do it from a scientific point of view—my strength was really in my own experience as a woman—even if it was not knowing or a feeling of powerlessness—so I used that throughout. The form of the prose poem allowed me to write subjectively and allowed the subjective experience to have force—a kind of legitimacy, because that’s what we’re used to accepting and even wanting in poetry. You can’t argue with a poem. So that was the first piece—a piece about how plutonium frightened me. It served as a kind of template for the rest of Woman and Nature. The first 43 pages take you through my own interpretation of the history of science, revealing how science developed with the social construct that women are inferior and that nature is inferior, and that they are inferior in the same way, because they are wild and emotional and sensual.

Then another aspect of the book evolved out of a problem. I had been taught that in writing literature, one shouldn’t change the voice in a given work midstream. And it’s true; you shouldn’t cavalierly change the voice in a work of literature. Thank god Virginia Woolf and Faulkner had experimented with it, so it didn’t feel entirely impossible for me to incorporate both voices, but I didn’t know how to do it. I was literally in a cold sweat over it. Until I went to sleep and dreamt a solution, which was that the very conflict between these two voices gave the book a narrative structure. So the book begins with the patriarchal voice and afterwards one hears the voice of woman and nature; it’s an oppressed voice at first, but then it moves to a voice that expresses a different view of reality. So I discovered my narrative form as a result of what was really seemed like a dilemma. And when I teach writing to students, I tell them that when you have a dilemma, of course, you’re going to fret and worry about it, but don’t think that’s the end of things, because very often whatever seems to be a dilemma is going to turn into a great gift.

Jeanine Canty: What do you think the relevance of Woman and Nature is now?

Susan Griffin: There is a way in which, as a movement, we have to be careful about being only reactive. We have to be able to respond and react to injustices. But we also need something more; we need a deeper vision. And the deeper positive vision is linked in a way to our critique of the dominant, oppressive view—just the way the positive vision at the end of Woman and Nature comes out of an understanding of the negative construct. We need to understand the psychological, sociological, cosmological constructs underneath our attitudes towards nature and women and African Americans and other disenfranchised peoples. We need to get inside those and take them apart and create a transformation from them. And in so doing, we can get free of them, so that we can reclaim fresh experience, experience that is inherently regenerative and with this, we can generate vision.

Featured image via Sinetta Leunen / Unsplash