Rachel Carson: The First Ecofeminist?

Rosie Charles

Silent Spring

‘Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth’. Writing in 1957, the polymath Albert Schweitzer had one vision in mind; enact change and save the planet. Yet, despite the urgent and rather direct message contained within its structure, the statement seemingly fell on deaf ears until 1962 when Rachel Carson and the publication of Silent Spring entered the public domain. Marking a revolutionary shift in the sphere of modern environmentalism, the social impact of Silent Spring has been compared to landmark publications such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and is deemed by scholars such as Robert Downs to be one of the ‘books that changed America’. With such grand statements, the extent to which Silent Spring was successful is clear and additional time does not need to be given to reciting its sales and profits. Instead, such time is better spent exploring the controversies Silent Spring generated in both the public and private sphere. Despite the publication having no apparent connection to the issues and rights surrounding feminism, Silent Spring managed to transcend the traditional borders of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, unintentionally exposing the gendered relationship between science and the environment as Rachel Carson became subjected to brutal attacks on her role in the scientific community. Published twelve years before the formal establishment of the Ecofeminist movement by the French activist Francoise d’Eaubonne in 1974, little attention has been given to the possible connections binding Rachel Carson and Ecofeminism. Reasons for such neglect are largely due to the hesitation of many to move away from the statement made by Carson herself that she was not to be considered a feminist and that her actions and writings were not for this purpose. Yet, with the attacks charged by the scientific community against Carson demonstrating the principal tenants of the Ecofeminist movement, isn’t it time we start questioning whether such events played a greater role in the establishment of the movement than they have been given credit for and whether, as a result, Rachel Carson could, and should, be considered the first and greatest unintentional Ecofeminist. Silent Spring hit the shelves in 1962 as a book aimed at challenging the reader to visualise the dangers permeating society through the widespread application of pesticides such as DDT and, as a result, encourage the reader to campaign. In order to achieve such an objective, Carson intricately crafted historical case studies which were verified across a range of environmental settings varying from places of manufacture to intimate spaces such as the home. Such case studies worked to illustrate that human beings formed the vital missing link which connected nature to the mechanics of the twentieth century economy. A connection which, until this moment, had ignorantly assumed that nature existed solely for the purpose of man alone. Such links were demonstrated in Silent Spring through various complex relationships such as that of economic agricultural progression and the health of an unborn child via maternal DDT poisoning. The argument made here by Carson was that nature was not in a position below the wants and needs of society but that it was in fact intimately connected. Such an argument not only challenged the scientific attitude towards nature which had been heavily engulfed within the framework of ‘man over nature’ but also held the ability to potentially threaten the whole scientific community with a substantial loss of control and economic revenue. What thereby ensued was a frantic scene by which factions of scientists, data analysts and government bodies rallied to regain control and protect their interests. The method in which this was maintained was to target the position of Carson as a woman and therefore delegitimise her position as a respected scientist.
Rachel Carson: The First Ecofeminist?
Rachel Carson

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Gendered Attacks

The attacks made against Carson appeared in the hundreds as they each sought to slander her reputation and quieten the impact of her argument. With feminised language being the primary mode of action, Carson was stereotyped by the scientific community into the confines of an ‘emotional’ and ‘hysterical’ woman who had publicised her ‘inaccurate outburst’ to the public. Such suggestions maintained the image that Carson’s statements had no evidential backing and therefore no reputable recognition from the scientific community. With knowledge that Carson had maintained a substantial evidential database which allowed her to challenge the reputation of science and, by inference, a male-dominated industry, it becomes apparent that the sin committed by Carson was not just that she posed a scientific challenge which interfered with an unchecked ability to control nature, but that Carson refused to remain a silent and obedient woman and by doing so, overstepped her subordinate place in society; a position seemingly equal to that of nature. With the connection between the subordination of nature and women becoming increasingly apparent through the vicious attacks made against Carson, a growing number of individuals and institutions set out to redefine the role of gender in the sphere of environmentalism and worked to expose how the scientific community had sought to dominate both nature and women collectively. As a result, popular ecological thought became intertwined with the concepts of injustice and oppression and it is here that Silent Spring, in the process of marking the transition from First Wave to Second Wave Environmentalism, became closely intertwined with the aims of later social movements such as Ecofeminism.
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Legacy

The publication of Silent Spring in 1962 therefore marked an iconic moment as its fallout generated a revolution in the long-term role of gender in popular ecological thought. With the emergence of dual campaigns to overcome ecological and gendered oppression, there are many similarities to be found with the activities and arguments taken up by the Ecofeminist movement. While it would be unfair to relegate Carson to a category which she never meant to be placed in and equally as unfair to remove the fundamental significance of Francoise d’Eaubonne in the establishment of the Ecofeminist movement, it is about time that we begin drawing connections between the two periods and bring Carson back into the spotlight as the first and greatest unintentional Ecofeminist.
Rachel Carson: The First Ecofeminist?

Rosie Charles

Rosie Charles is a current MA History student at the University of Birmingham, UK.
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