In this series of interviews our volunteer interviewer and writer Louise Turner has been speaking with leading voices in climate activism, discussing why climate justice is a feminist issue.
Feminists have been thinking about the relationship between nature and people, and between gender inequality and the environment, for decades. There are many different feminist perspectives on the environment — including but not limited to ecofeminism, Black feminism, feminist political ecology, postcolonial feminism and intersectional feminism. Wen is guided by feminist values, and welcomes a range of feminist viewpoints. This blog is part of a series exploring the diverse feminist perspectives of different activists and theorists on environmental issues.
Genevieve Vaughan is an ecofeminist theorist-activist, philanthropist and writer who has worked for over five decades to reimagine socio-ecological relations. Starting from an application of Marx’s analysis of the commodity and money to language in her early twenties, Genevieve developed a theoretical framework for understanding language structure and human and ecological relations. Her argument is based on the observation that the first relationship of every human is one of receiving unconditional caregiving from our mothers.
Without this first relationship we would not survive. As such giving and receiving as a result is our first and foremost way of knowing how to relate to one another.
Genevieve has written and edited over ten books challenging the foundation of societal-relations based on quid pro quo exchange. She is part of the Maternal Gift Economy Movement fortnightly salon of international speakers, academics and activists discussing feminist-environmental change online, and the International Feminists for a Gift Economy who advocate a “market-free not free-market society”.
A (M)OTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE- ECOFEMINIST ECONOMICS AND A RETURN TO GIVING
Can you describe your journey which led you to the work you do today?
I was born in Texas in a well-to-do family and I married an Italian philosophy professor and moved to Italy when I was twenty three. There I got a political education I never would have gotten in Texas. It was the beginning of the sixties; there was a progressive intellectual current, part of a whole radical movement. The first year I was with him, he was invited to be part of a group that was going to apply Marx’s analysis of the commodity and money to language. The group never materialized but he began to write books about the subject and I thought it was the most fascinating thing I had ever heard! So, I also studied it – very intensely. After some years I began to write about it as well but from a feminist-maternalist point of view. And it’s been the most transformative thing I’ve ever encountered, it’s been with me my whole life.
“Without Marx’s clear analysis of exchange, it would not be possible to see that gifting is there in its shadow”
Can you briefly outline this analysis of Marx in layman’s terms?
Marx talks about money as a general equivalent. You have one item that you compare many items to. That’s the way philosophers thought for centuries that concepts are formed. In Marx, the one item is money. You take each commodity, and compare it to money and give it up for it. I believe this is actually acting out in real life, a thought process we use to form concepts and I think this must have a very strange effect on us.
Marx really didn’t talk about what we as feminists can now see as a women’s contribution to the world. But, in the first book of Capital, he analysed in slow motion the interaction of buying and selling. His painstaking explanation of the everyday interaction of exchange let me see how strange it is and how it leads to exploitation and alienation.
Alfred Sohn-Rethel (1899-1990) showed that the interaction of exchange for money has influenced philosophical thought from the Pre-Socratics to modern times, saying that abstract thinking comes from the exchange abstraction of real life, citing its effects on . thinkers like Newton and Kant. He calls what we do every day in exchange our ‘social nexus’.
We don’t pay any attention to it – it seems to be just ‘reality’ but it is full of ‘metaphysical subtleties’ as Marx says. I believe, and I think Sohn-Rethel also did, that it is not only Capitalism and the exploitation of labor for the market that is the problem, but exchange itself. Exchange is what divides the so called domestic sphere from the market and it also has a completely different logic of quid pro quo rather than the logic of directly satisfying needs.
Market exchange allows capitalists to take gifts of free work and Nature and rename them as their ‘deserved profit.’ It also allows Capitalism to take over the lands and lives of Indigenous and colonised peoples practising gift economies.
Reading Marx I began to see that there is another economy; I could see how exploitation works and what the alternative is. Gifting is real communication that brings people together, while exchange in the market separates us. It is ego oriented and each one wants to get more out of the transaction if possible. Without Marx’s clear analysis of exchange, it would not be possible to see that gifting is there in its shadow.
How did you first start to see this alternative in the shadow as you describe it?
So profit is made of gifts everybody is giving without knowing it. The capitalist takes from the workers by not paying the whole amount that the work is worth. So that is a gift from the workers to the capitalist. It’s not recognised as a gift. It’s extracted like so many of the gifts of the world are extracted. Women’s work in the home, unpaid women’s work – that also nurtures workers, the woman herself and children. I realised that I was doing gift work myself.
We don’t value gifts. We don’t even think gifts are very important. They say a gift is a ‘failed exchange’. You couldn’t get somebody to pay for it so you give it away but gifting is actually the force of humanity. What we are meant to do is give, give directly, as Indigenous societies did (and some still do) within a tribe or community where people give and nurture each other without expecting a return so the gifts go around.
Your theory is directly connected to mothering, how did this develop?
After thinking about it for a long time, I did try to apply it [Marx] to language, but I realised it wasn’t the market that language was derived from – it was a gift economy, like Indigenous people had and some still have – and that it came also from mothering.
I had little children and during that period I was talking to them and nurturing them and being their mother. They didn’t know how to exchange. They didn’t know what the market was. But they were learning to talk! So I thought, language comes before the market and so does nurturing. We don’t usually consider nurturing as gift giving – as economic – but it really is. It’s the economy that’s the basis of everything. So, I began to develop a perspective based on that and it’s just continued all my life.
There’s the theory of Marcel Mauss who talks about Indigenous gifts being three steps: giving, receiving, and giving back. Well, in mothering you don’t ask for somebody to give you something back. You don’t ask your child to give back to you because they can’t when they’re little.
Giving and receiving is the first and the main structure of giving. That person can give again to somebody else, and again to somebody else and even back to you, but they’re not required to, there’s no constraint, it’s not quid pro quo. So, gifts go around in a community.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to prove that our thinking is based on giving and receiving and not on exchange. We need to have a completely different perspective of who we are as human beings in order to save ourselves from the disaster we’ve been creating through a relational way of dominance, competition and war formed by the exchange economy and capitalism. We need to step back from that and find a totally different road. The perspective that comes from patriarchy, capitalism and even the market itself is a major problem for all of society and it is destroying the Earth. I’m eighty-two now. I started this when I was twenty four! So, it’s taken me many years to develop this perspective that’s really radically different.
“We don’t usually consider nurturing as gift giving”
How did you begin to mobilise your theory once it had come together?
I came back to the United States in 1983, I got a divorce and various things happened with my family so I came back to the United States and decided to try to do whatever I could to change things for the better. I’d become a feminist around 1978. In Italy, there was a great feminist movement and I got to be part of a consciousness raising group that was international. There were a lot of women there from many different countries and it was the basis for everything I was able to do afterwards. Even now we’re having zoom calls of international women that are very much like the same meetings we used to have – there’s even one woman from that consciousness raising group back in Rome in 1980s in one of our Zoom groups now!
I had some money from my family and a cousin who was in politics, a woman who was a well-known feminist that had ran for governor of Texas back in those days when that didn’t happen very often! Her name is Sissy Fahrenthold. She and I together, tried to find different projects that would be good to support and we did. I started a foundation called the Foundation for a Compassionate Society. We had a lot of different projects for social change based on the gift economy idea and on women. We did this for about nineteen years until 2005. I ended up closing all of that because basically I ran out of money to do it.
Where did this lead you to next after the foundation had run its course?
In 2003, I met a German woman, Heide Goettner-Abendroth who invented the field of what she calls ‘modern matriarchal studies’. She started a movement about re-visioning what matriarchies were and are: not mirror images of patriarchy but women-led societies with motherly values of altruism and appreciation for everyone, gifting, consensus and so on. So, that’s been a good collaboration.
Lots of women have joined in a group that we called International Feminists for a Gift Economy. It was started in 2001 with some people I met in Norway at the women’s university where there was a meeting of “ wise women” from many different countries. Some from that group and some I knew from before in the foundation have all joined together and we made ‘International Feminists for a Gift Economy’. We’ve been going around doing presentations and talks and groups about the gift economy and social change now for twenty years. Since I had done all of that work from 1980 to 2005 trying to practice the gift economy, at a certain point I decided I really needed to do the theory more.
The idea is really to change the perspective away from the market and patriarchy onto a panhuman one of everybody that has been mothered. Everybody had to have a mother in order to survive. Those values that you learned are the human values that go across all the different human categories. Those are the values that we need to use now, because the ones of the market and patriarchy are destroying the planet and everybody on it. They’ve led us to the end of the world.
How can we as the ordinary person try to embody some of these values or at least move towards them?
We have to realise that we’re gifting all the time. As you breathe in and breathe out, the breath nurtures the plants, and we get nurtured from the oxygen. In our bodies, our blood takes the oxygen to our cells and then comes back and gets reoxygenated. A cycle of giving within ourselves.
Often people call giving ‘exchange’. It’s an interaction we call an exchange but it’s not. We give and receive in conversation, each satisfies the other’s cognitive and communication needs. We are so used to private property that we can’t even see the gifts. Everything is encased in gifting but we’ve distorted it so everything is owned. We have to re-organise our cognitive approach, our approach to the way we think about the world in order to be able to see the gifts that are really there.
“We have to re-organise our cognitive approach, in order to be able to see the gifts that are really there.”
What can this mean for climate justice and feminism?
You know – the whole idea of mother earth, how the earth is gifting all the time, is really important.. The whole ecosystem is a system of interconnected gifts. The maternal economy is connected with the economy of the earth. Patriarchy and capitalism exploit the maternal way, which can be practiced either by women or by men who do nurturing, or people that are outside the exchange economy. As you step out of the exchange economy, you realise commonality with the earth. I say we are homo donans, the giving and receiving being, not homo sapiens or homo economicus.
If we can reconnect our concept of ourselves with our concept of nature and the earth, we can understand how our aggression against the earth is an aggression against mothering. It’s like matricide. There’s a violence that’s connected with patriarchy and capitalism. Hitting, you know, goes between one person and the other, and you’re ‘teaching them a lesson’ or ‘giving them what they deserve’ and that kind of a thing. So, there’s a perversion of gifting.
Men too are gifting beings, but they’ve been deluded to think that they are something else. We’ve just created a totally wrong system of thought, a paradigm of the patriarchal market and capitalism that doesn’t work and is really harmful. We’ve got to step out of it, both women and men, to start working towards a complete paradigm shift from what people know.
Thank you so much for distilling your theories for us here, Genevieve, are there any last words you’d like to share with the readers at Wen?
When Eisenhower talked about the military industrial complex, he meant to put in military industrial academic complex. He didn’t because he was advised not to. We also need to realise that the academic world is not always right. They have been promoting capitalist and patriarchal mentality though some possibly without realising it and well intentioned. They have led us astray because they haven’t included women and the maternal point of view for all these centuries. We have to be careful and think with our own heads.
We can change the values and emphasise the life-oriented values that we already have, in order to propose and promote those. Disbelieve the other ones, the values of capitalism and patriarchy and really realise those are not human. Those are not the way humanity is underneath. I think a really radically different worldview is possible.
Thank you so much again Genevieve! For anyone who would like to attend the maternal gift economy salons or learn more please find the website here
Louise Turner is a PhD student at The University of Manchester and volunteer at Wen. Her PhD title is: ‘Achieving Net Zero in the Water System: diverse pathways to low-carbon demand’. The research is using a social practice perspective to examine how net zero plans in the water sector connect to people’s daily patterns of water -use. This seeks to inform how we can collectively use and live with water differently and more sustainably in the future in response to climate change.