Ainslie Boe

I found the presentation on Nature as Female to be very interesting, because the topic asks as many questions as it answers. The question of why nature is gendered, I believe, is inextricably rooted in language. Language determines everything our experiences, our perceptions, our beliefs, and our desires. In a class I took last term we spoke about Lacan and his theory about language determining our desires, and it made sense to me, because you cannot desire what you cannot name. In the same way, language determines our beliefs about the world. In an anthropology course I took, there was a study about this Navajo tribe that demonstrated a profound understanding of quantum physics, without ever having been taught it. The linguists believed that this was because of their language. Their language determined their perception of the world, and thus allowed them to understand it in a vastly different way then people who speak English or French, for example. The example that was given to try to explain the difference was that instead of calling grass "grass", the Navajos would call it "growing green that reaches up to the sky". In their process of naming it as such, their concept of grass is different than our concept of grass.

Do you understand the difference that language can make, just in how things are named and described? Another example that was given was how Chinese children displayed far greater mathematical understanding compared to English speaking children, and the disparity was traced back to language.

The argument here is that language determines our conceptualization of numbers. In English, we say ten, twenty, thirty…etc. The word "twenty" gives no indication that it means "two tens". In Chinese, however, the words do give this indication (one-ten, two-ten, three-ten…etc).

Language is so innate in us that we forget its power. But realizing how language exerts itself over everything, it is easy to understand how our conceptualization of nature as female has come to be. Our concept is a result of our language, which determines our understanding of the world. In the English language there are gendered words, which necessarily influence our belief about what they signify. Thus we say "mother nature" and without a second thought we understand nature to be female. In just that one word "mother", nature becomes conceptualized for us as female. Thus, our understanding about nature is based on this belief. It is as if we suddenly see nature through a filter that is Female. The English understanding of nature therefore, will be drastically different from non-English speakers who did not see nature through this filter. It is a dangerous assumption to think that things can only be seen or understood in one way. Understanding is fixed in language.

Now that I am aware of the language-filter through which we perceive the world, the question remains 'why is our language gendered?' The answer goes back farther than simply because English came out of the romance languages that had gendered nouns. We must look back to the time when language first came into being. This is an anthropological question, and one that I cannot tackle with any authority, but Group 2 proposed some interesting hypotheses. Firstly, that the male gaze on nature conceptualized it into a feminized space. But as many women as men were gazing upon nature, so this argument only works if we are assuming that men had authority over language. If they did, then Woman could have stood in as a signifier for the male Other, as Group 2 suggested, as the bearer of meaning, and not the maker. This conceptualized passive role of woman would translate to a passive role of nature. This would explain the rhetoric of 'conquering', 'controlling' and 'ruling' over nature. Nature becomes conceptualized as a womb-like space that, like the woman, is fertile and reproductive, and can be penetrated by the man. This is why in our language and literature there are so many images that point to the reproductive power of nature. In mythology there are the goddesses of fertility. Earth is portrayed as a mother figure that nourishes us and houses us. But like women are conceptualized as both passive and destructive, so too is nature. Nature's duality as giver and taker has been conceptualized in women such as Eve. Eve has always been aligned with Nature, and since this biblical story supposes that she was the first woman, Nature as Female assumes biblical authority.