Review: Woman and Nature

Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature is, I guarantee you, nothing quite like anything you’ve read before.

Published in 1978, it’s very much a product of second-wave feminism: a remarkable extended dialogue on how the patriarchy treats women and the natural world. The interlocutors are the Patriarchal Voice itself, which is, broadly, the voice of Rationality, of Science, of everything that seeks to measure and analyse and exploit the natural world; and the voices of woman and nature, as their lived experiences and intuitive ways of knowing overwhelm patriarchy’s narrow viewpoint.

I realise that sounds hokey and problematic and cliched, but in reality this is a complex and difficult text that’s almost impossible to reduce down to a single “argument” – deliberately so. That can be seen in its very form, which reminds me most closely of Darren Anderson’s work of “creative non-fiction” Imaginary Cities: a hodgepodge of different non-fiction sources woven together to create a single driving thread of idea. There are sections on dressage; on farming; on nuclear fission; on surgery inflicted on women (content warning here for graphic medical descriptions); all drawn from (invariably male-authored) non-fiction texts. There are notes and a bibliography at the back of the book, but no footnotes within the text. The formatting is often non-conventional, as when, for example, the female voice in italics interpolates the male voice’s impassive description of a scientific procedure.

This is all deliberate. It’s a refusal to engage with patriarchy on its home ground, in the rational debates whose terms it sets and thus always wins. This is a text interested in reclaiming, and asserting the value of, modes of emotional knowledge that the patriarchy denigrates and sees as lesser.

Of course, there’s a risk with this sort of thing that it becomes schematic, perpetuating patriarchy through rigid gender roles even as it superficially challenges them. Actually the aligning of women with nature as a tool of patriarchy – if women are closer to nature that makes them “lower”, less human, less worthy – is something the book explicitly addresses. The equivalence between woman and nature here is more like an alliance: both are exploited and used by patriarchy as things that are not Man. It is a commonality of experience, not an innate commonality; an association not a comparison. And in associating woman and nature, it makes a powerful call to action to its readers: it asks us to reevaluate what we mean by “human”, what it is to live in this world, what is worthy of our attention and our respect and our love.

A word on the book’s ideas of femininity, which are a lot less problematic and gender essential than I was expecting. Although there’s a lot about vulvas and vaginas and wombs and pregnancy here, it is mostly from the patriarchal point of view; it’s not at all clear that Griffin thinks womanhood is tied to possessing these organs. Perhaps the opposite, actually. So I think the book does leave space for trans and non-binary identities, albeit not explicitly (and with the caveat that I am cis and may be reading with that bias).

All in all, Woman and Nature stands up pretty well to a modern-day reading – and is perhaps even more of its time now than it was when it was published, given our surging awareness of the effects of the climate crisis and capitalism’s exploitation of our natural resources. I’m really glad to have read it: it’s a book I want on my shelf, to re-read at will every few years.

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