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Study Notes

Carolyn Merchant (1936- )

AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 30 Dec 2018

American eco-feminist Carolyn Merchant is best known for her famous work "The Death of Nature".

Carolyn Merchant takes inspiration from Horkheimer and Adorno's argument that the Enlightenment was characterised by men dominating nature, and how human power relations form a part of that domination. For Merchant, she was particularly interested in how patriarchal power - men dominating women - is a feature of man's dominance over nature and the natural world.

Merchant argues that the pre-modern concept of nature was a feminine concept: nature was seen as organic, a living thing that humans were a part of and co-existed with, but that this was replaced by a masculine scientific and mechanistic view, where the natural world could be ordered and manipulated to serve human needs. The great metaphors that humans use to talk about nature have changed from one of nurturing Mother Nature to one of domination and dominion: from the feminine to the masculine.

From this analysis, Merchant argues that there is a clear and inextricable link between the oppression and death of nature and gender oppression, or patriarchy. As such, in order to save the planet there also has to be a radical restructuring of the gender relations in society.

She argues that too much environmentalism and ecologism is founded on that mechanistic, male view of science and nature: for the environment to truly be protected, and the interests of women in society to be furthered, this has to change.

Not all feminists approve of Merchant's analysis, with some seeing the concept of Mother Nature and particularly the idea of science and reason being masculine traits, as patriarchal in themselves. However, the idea that industrialisation and capitalism removed people from nature is quite compelling, and the historical account of how these changes mirrored changes in the role of women in society is made effectively.

Merchant has contributed a great deal to the History of Science, and is a particularly useful thinker for considering connections between environmentalism and feminism.

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