Gendered Behaviours and Environmentalism


*Disclaimer: For the sake of the argument, I speak of gender in very binary terms in this blogpost. However, I fully recognize all other forms of gender (expressions) that exist on the gender spectrum. 

This week, the parliamentary elections took place in the Netherlands. With the general shift further to the right, the third re-election of Mark Rutte as prime minister and the defeat of the green left, one cannot speak of a ‘win’ for the environment. However, small win was made by the ‘Party for the Animals’ (Partij voor de Dieren or PvdD), the party with the most radical standpoints on the climate crisis in the Dutch parliament, which landed its own record number of six parliamentary seats during this week’s elections. This party stands out from the others for its strong emphasis on animal wellbeing, environmental conservation and its campaign against livestock farming. Yet, it is also an exception to the rule for the fact that, for many years, this party has been the only party with a female leader and with a majorly female constituency (which it both still has). 

Although I find it remarkable that the FvdD mostly attracts female voters, it also does not surprise me. Even within my own ‘progressive bubble’ I can observe a similar ‘pattern’. It is most obvious in the fact that, in this bubble, most environmentally conscious vegetarians and vegans I know are female. This ‘disparity’ between female and male vegans and vegetarians is found studies in the Netherlands, where 5.9 percent of all women eats vegetarian compared to 1.8 percent of all men, and in the United States where a study showed that 79 percent of all vegans are female. 

The question that naturally rises here is: Why is this the case? Are more women vegetarian or vegan because there is something ‘feminine’ about environmental consciousness or does it work the other way around?

The logic of dualisms 

The questions above can be approached by using ecofeminist critiques on the logic of dualism. According to these critiques, the logic of dualism has an effect on the construction of what is ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ as well as on the relationship between humans and nature. An important figure in this context is Val Plumwood, who has argued that, in western culture, humans exist in a dualistic relationship with nature. Or in other words this means that, in western culture, humans and nature are seen as separate from each other. According to Plumwood, this dualism, in which humans exist outside of nature, has resulted in the damage humans are causing to the environment.

Mother Earth, print by Alex Gold

Plumwood, and other (eco)feminists with her, recognize a similar dualism between the female and male relationship, which also relates to the human (or culture)/ nature dualism. They argue that the logic of dualisms is used as a mean for the patriarchal oppression of both women and nature. In the female/ male dualism, women are constructed as being closer to nature and ascribed the characteristics that belong to nature, such as being caring and nurturing. Men, on the other hand are constructed as relating more to culture and are ascribed characteristics that are outside of nature, such as being rational. The nature/ human or the nature/ culture and the female/ male dualism mutually reinforce each other and produce a hierarchy in which men and culture are superior to women and nature.

Mother nature

Ecofeminists have pointed to the importance of language in this context and criticize how, through language, several aspects of nature are ‘feminized’. This is, for example evident in the expressions of ‘mother earth’ or ‘mother nature’, but also words like ‘chick’ or ‘bitch’ that ‘animalise’ women. 

Real man vs #soyboy

According to (eco)feminists, the logic of dualisms thus constructs a binary opposition of what is ‘feminine’ and what is ‘masculine’.  It produces truth about specific behaviours to belong to masculinity and femininity. These assumptions of truth in the female/ male binary are very much present in society, for example in patterns of consumption. This is also a result of the fact that capitalist marketing strategies have instrumentalized the logic of these dualisms. In particular the assumption that ‘real men eat meat’ –that has a prominent place in mainstream media and marketing– represents accurately the interplay between the human/ nature and female/ male dualisms, because it connects masculinity (real men) to the domination of nature (eating meat). On the other hand, dietary products such as vegetables or meat substitutes are constructed to relate to femininity or non-masculinity in this dualism. This is for example evident in the insult ‘#soyboy’ that, according to the urban dictionary, refers to “A male who lacks any masculinity whatsoever”.

Individual or systemic change? 

The difference between the number of female and male vegans and/ or vegetarians is often related to these (eco)feminist critiques on dualisms and binary gender opposition. A plant-based diet after all implies a certain connection with nature that, in the logic of dualism, relates to femininity. I also think that, to some extent, the predominantly female support for the ideals of Dutch ‘Party for the Animals’, can be explained by the use of these ecofeminist arguments. 

This has made me think of the question of individual versus systemic change. I believe that only through systemic change, such as the transformation of governments industries, real differences can be made. Yet, ecofeminist critique shows that differences are not only made through the adaptation of certain practices, but also about the unlearning of certain ideas. Therefore, I am convinced that individual change is crucial for breaking through existing stigmas around meat consumption in particular and around environmental activism in general, that stand in the way of the making of large-scale change.


6 thoughts on “Gendered Behaviours and Environmentalism

  1. This was a very interesting blog post! I’ve definitely noticed the “real men eat meat” mentality, and I know many more women who are vegan or vegetarian than men. You mention that a lot of this can be attributed to the western view of nature, which leaves me wondering whether this difference also exists in non-western cultures. Are there cultures where there is no difference, or perhaps cultures where it’s reversed, and men eat less meat than women? I’d be interested to hear if you have any insights on this!

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  2. Thank you for writing this blog post! I enjoyed reading it.
    It was interesting to realize that the Japanese slang also has a word that is equivalent to “#soyboy”. It literally means “herbivorous boy”, which can support your argument on “real men v.s. #soyboy”.
    Looking at vegetarianism/veganism in Japan, I also observed that there are more females than males. Even though I can see the similar pettern, the Japanese view of nature is quite unieque and different from the western one. There is no clear distinction between human and nature, because Shinto, a Japanese traditional religion, consideres nature a being to coexist along side of people. Moreover, Shinto is a polythesim and most of Shinto gods do not have a human form, because they are part of nature. The spiritual power can be embodied in animate/inanimate objects including human. Given this, I wonder how one can understand/explain this pattern of gendered behaviours in a place where there is a different view of nature. (I am also curious to know what Johanna mentioned earlier.)

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  3. I really enjoyed this read, very insightful, and made me reflect on gendered behaviors related to environmentalism in my own culture. Coming from a very patriarchal culture, with values and practices that, in any other northern European country, would likely be considered borderline misogynistic (to get an idea of what I mean, through a somewhat sarcastic lens, you can watch Zizek’s video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwDrHqNZ9lo) I wanted to share an observation/somewhat of a hypothesis of mine related to this topic. In my personal experience, I haven’t noticed a large difference in e.g., meat consumption between women and men in the Balkans (i.e., ex-Yugoslavian countries). Actually, if anything, I believe that the narrative of “meat = strong” is almost more often encountered in women. I think that this is precisely due to what you explained in the article, i.e., that environmentalism, and hence also e.g., a vegan/vegetarian diet is seen as feminine and somewhat “soft”. However, when contextualized in a patriarchal society, where women are already seen as weaker and less worthy compared to men, this can results in the opposite pattern, i.e., women reclaiming their “strength” by engaging in behaviors and practices that are usually associated with (toxic) masculinity. It saddens me to think that a woman’s way of reclaiming her power, her strength, of gaining the respect of a male-centered society is to “act more like a man. ” This also perhaps (partially) answeres Johanna’s question. 🙂

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  4. Hii, interesting blogpost! I would like to follow up on your disclaimer, and would like to point out how to make the language maybe a bit more transfriendly 🙂
    I think it is important to recognize that trans (including genderqueer, non-binary, agender, and binary transpeople) are often seen and understood within the binary and therefore it might be good to use terms such as “female-socialized” or “female-read”. These terms recognize that people might not identify as female, but are understood as female by society and therefore they experience these discriminations (along with transphobia).

    And some other throughts I had while reading your post:

    I would also like to point out that the human-nature binary and the gender-binary are both constructed binary that solely serve a Western society that loves binaries to impose its ideals. Neither the gender-binary exists nor the human-nature binary exists, since humans are part of nature and we are dependent on it and therefore, we cannot make a distinction between humans and non-human nature. This is a thinking that was imposed through colonialism as “modern”. Everyone who understand humans as part of nature was seen as ‘uncivilized’. Similarly, many cultures with historically non-binary genders or traditions of homosexuality were silenced and often replaced by a binary-imposing western understanding. (Of course this is quite generalizing, but there exist quite some examples of this). Understanding these binaries as constructed gives space to people outside of them.

    Thanks a lot for the blogpost!! Learned quite some new things 🙂

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  5. Thanks for your blogpost Max! In my first year I read a paper called “Petro-masculinity: Fossil Fuels and Authoritarian Desire” that dissected the intersections between masculinity, dominance and the separation from and exploitation of nature! Can really recommend, as it gives a lot of examples of very famous male philosophers and their perspective on nature (1).
    I also read about this exhibition in London some time ago called ‘Man-made Problem’ (2). The exhibition consists of a response to toxic masculinity and environmental destruction by 30 women and non-binary artists. It deals with sexism in the climate crisis, the gender gap in climate action, the patriarchy’s influence on exploiting resources historically… In one of the descriptions of the exhibition it is said that “while men disproportionately contribute to climate change, women and girls are disproportionately affected by its negative impacts.” Again, this is a very binary language, so my apologies, but it is a good opportunity to bring up that UN figures indicate that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women. So while I really appreciate Augi’s points and what we can learn from them (especially the link between the “modern” colonialist binary thought and binarism) it may be important to rightfully acknowledge the most vulnerable groups in the global south countries that are affected by the climate crisis already and will be in the future (3). At the same time, I think we can also agree that our current perception of gender is highly problematic and part of the system that encourages unnecessary consumption and the separation from nature, thus, in the long-term I believe it would be very beneficial to deconstruct our current views on it.

    1.https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0305829818775817
    2.https://manmadedisaster.art/about
    3.https://www.un.org/womenwatch/feature/climate_change/downloads/Women_and_Climate_Change_Factsheet.pdf

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  6. > I would also like to point out that the human-nature binary and the gender-binary are both constructed binary that solely serves a Western society that loves binaries to impose its ideals. Neither the gender-binary exists nor the human-nature binary exists since humans are part of nature and we are dependent on it and therefore, we cannot make a distinction between humans and non-human nature

    This is not entirely accurate. I know, for example, my tribe among others personify natural phenomena in religions and other practices. Typically, these are gendered. So, it is not just Western. Also, there is a gender binary in nature. There are male and female plants. I am not disputing that in humanity there is an issue with labels and there is a gender spectrum. However, stating that there are no binaries in nature is just not accurate. There are many species in which the female and male animals will play different roles and it is literally natural. Again, I am not discrediting what you are saying about oversimplifying binaries in humanity.

    As for the post overall, I must say I am a bit taken aback. I did not expect it to be an issue that women are more linked to nature. I think that is one of the very few positives given to femininity culturally. Nature is life and bio cis women ‘give’ life. I think it is a rather natural connection to make based on our conceptualization of nature as ‘life’ and ‘sustenance’ given that our original source of both is bio cis women. I had never even come close to thinking about it this way. I am really fascinated by this because of how much truth there is to it. The idea of nature being subservient being linked to groups that have called prey to the Western patriarchy is a linkage I would have never made. I had never boiled it down to a male-female dichotomy but rather a racial or western vs non-western one. It probably is still more influenced by race and western (self-proclaimed) superiority. However, I still find this idea intriguing.

    It has even made me think of how dowry is carried out. That a woman is exchanged for x amount of animals (cows, camels, goats, chickens). I mean, these days there is also money but the majority is still done with animals. Now, I do believe dowry should stay because I am completely against Westernization and it is a cultural practice that served purposes other than ‘selling’ your daughter. I want to make clear that this does not mean I stand by every tradition some tribes practise. That being said, it is still part of patriarchal culture because it is the fathers and elders (mostly men) who officiate these deals. In this example, you see the literal worth of a woman being quantified by ‘nature’ to be owned (the animals not the woman). It is extremely interesting. Thank you for the read! I will definitely be reading more on this!

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