Thursday, June 7, 2007

SWARM Herstory....

Near the end of May, I was invited to give a keynote address at the Denman Island Women's Outreach Society AGM. It's coupled with a fun and empowering ceremony known as the Difficult Women's Tea, and the rest as they say, is herstory....
You'll find nothing about bees until the very end of my presentation, so you'll have to scroll down if you'd rather skip the preamble! Blessed Bee, Fireweed

May 27th, 2007
Honorary Difficult Woman's Queen Bee Rant!

Well, it certainly isn't every day I get honored for being a difficult woman. And I'm delighted! So I thought I'd start out by saying I have little doubt the main reason I've been crowned with this dubious distinction is because I'm an outspoken feminist.

For me, identifying as a feminist means I'm committed to challenging the existing dominant paradigm.  And naturally, that's bound to piss off anyone who doesn't appreciate the disruption. But I've always enjoyed referencing the words of early suffragette, Rebecca West, who in 1913 put it this way, "I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat."

This is of course all it takes for a woman to be labeled 'difficult'. We stand up, speak out, name the personal as political, refuse to be rendered invisible, and resist. How dare we?! According to the Oxford dictionary, to be difficult is to be: problematic.

A hinderance. Demanding. Troublesome. Perplexing. So says the standard dictionary definition.

Mary Daly was a radical feminist theologian whom I count among the Queen Bees of difficult women.  She invested considerable time and energy in boldly reclaiming the English language on women's terms. Mary came up with such apt descriptives for us as "Positively Revolting Hags," "Nag-Gnostic Crones"…. and who here doesn't resonate with "the Metapatriarchal Movement of Wayfaring Wayward Women"?! So…brazen hussy that I am, I'd like to use this opportunity to declare my allegiance with all women who find the courage to turn patriarchy on its head.

My own version of this meta-movement is eco-feminism. It's long been described as a kind of meta-feminism because we want more than equality with men. We're not simply interested in claiming our rightful piece of the pie. In fact, as eco-feminist writer Ynestra King has succinctly put it about patriarchy, we don't want anything to do with "their rotten, carcinogenic pie!" In fact, we're interested in a whole new recipe.

But before I get too far ahead of myself, I must confess that I'm also here in part due to mistaken identity. Yes, I was confused with someone else by the woman who invited me! On Earth Day I sent around by e-mail a diatribe I really resonated with. Ana, like other recipients of the piece, found the article moving. She also missed the name of the author at the bottom of the piece- mistakenly atributing it to me, the sender.

The actual author, Captain Paul Watson, head of the rebel Sea Shephard Society, is no eco-feminist. One of the founders of Greenpeace who abandoned that organization early on for 'selling out' (in his opinion), has been known to fly the Jolly Roger while at sea, hunting down illegal whaling ships and defending marine mammals in the face of what is sometimes violent opposition. Now eco-feminism doesn't subscribe to the machismo Paul is famous for in his particular style of confrontation sometimes, but I do identify with his passion as a defender of animals and the environment.

I agree with Paul that setting aside one day of the year as Earth Day is a joke, and that one of the most critical responses to global warming - one almost everyone I know could embrace on a daily basis if they chose to- wasn't even mentioned in Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. Paul, and other environmentalists disappointed with this grave omission, are right when they emphasize there is not only no time to waste in weaning ourselves off of our addiction to oil, but off of the even bigger contributor to ozone depletion: animal agribusiness.

Paul knows that focusing on curbing CO2 emissions simply isn't enough. He knows about the under-reported fact that non-CO2 emissions are actually among the biggest contributors to global warming we're seeing now, and the global warming we are going to see for the next fifty years. By far the most important non-CO2 greenhouse gas is methane, which is some 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas, molecule for molecule, than CO2. And that the number one source of methane worldwide is animal agriculture. Not transportation, and not power generation. Animal agriculture. Finally, the UN is sitting up and taking note of this fact. If we wish to curb global warming over the coming half century, we must look much more seriously at strategies that address non-CO2 emissions. More and more studies are coming forward stressing that the strategy with the most impact is going vegetarian.

Now I try to keep the Vegan Potluck Series I organize here a really positive experience for food lovers of every persuasion. Once a month we model veganism as an inclusive, living alternative culture -very easy to experience when everyone brings 100% plant-based foods that all may comfortably share. We simply extend veganism as an invitation. Information about the very real impact of our individual and accumulative food choices is occasionally shared through films and guest presenters, but in general books, magazines and articles (including the various controversies we hear about involving studies almost exclusively funded by the beef and dairy conglomerates) are simply made available on the information table and website for people to view at their own pace and interest level. Please look there for more details. Because I don't have the luxury of bending your ear all day, I want to come back to how the political nature of food plays out as deeply personal for me, as an eco-feminist.

As many of you know, I've been an animal rights advocate and proponent of plant-based dietary choices for those with the privilege of choice for far longer than I've lived on Denman. The Community Vegan Potluck Series is as much an affirmation of my commitment to the eco-feminist principles of community equality and non-violence, as the Garden Party Series I also co-ordinate is a means of showing support for our local organic farmers, taking responsibility for local food security, helping ensure that future generations are afforded the same right to healthy biodiversity, gmo-free, conscientiously produced organic food void of poison, exploited labor, and cruelty to animals. These are all eco-feminist concerns on a number of levels.

But the single most difficult/demanding/troublesome/perplexing thing about me as an activist it seems, is my refusal to stop advocating for the voiceless. And I won't stop drawing attention to the animals we often aren't even aware we are turning a blind eye to as long as their lives continue to be rendered worth-less, insignificant, and invisible.

Apparently this annoys a lot of people. I've been threatened for fighting the fishing industry's illegal slaughter of marine mammals with gunshots left on my voice mail and animal body parts in my yard.

I've been ignored by members of our community while protesting the use of exotic animals in entertainment acts here on Denman even though my advocacy work helped push through a ban adopted by the City of Courtenay to prohibit them there. Those efforts succeeded, incidentally, after our protests against tiger act promoter Kim Carlton. This man has been back in the news just recently because his girl friend was tragically killed by one of the animals we had expressed concern about.

And I'll be back at the Norwood Rodeo this summer, in spite of the fact that I have been deliberately linked in the press by rodeo organizers to covert protests I actually had nothing to do with. Some time ago, radio announcements apparently went out stating that the rodeo had been cancelled due to fire. This wasn't true, but reporters hadn't bothered to check the source of their information. Because I organize protests that are out in the open, I became an easy target for suspicion and backlash meant to eliminate my opposition.

In short, I've experienced backlash on a variety of activist fronts, but that doesn't mean I've developed a thick skin. Being difficult doesn't make any of us immune to scorn, or rejection -  especially on the home front where we all need to feel part of a supportive community.

And women have unique ways of coping with dissent among our ranks. Recently, I winced my way through Rachel Simmon's book, Odd Girl Out: the Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. I found a lot of it resonating as true for me.

Simmons addresses the reality that boys aren't the only bullies. We've devised different tactics however she says, because girls perceive 'isolation' as danger. Simmons' studies reveal that because girls often find themselves unable to talk about conflicts directly, they can become quite subversive and manipulative. They commit what she calls "relational aggression" - acts that harm others by excluding them, giving silent treatment, and spreading rumors. Simmons says that since relationships are girls' area of expertise, they take out their conflicts with each other by using the threat of loss of relationship as a weapon.

Much as I hate to admit it I know she's on to something, because girls grow up to be women and I've not only been on the receiving end of what she's talking about, I'm sure I've been complicit myself subconsciously and otherwise.

So I don't want to miss this opportunity to strive for openness and understanding around something I know some of you find particularly difficult about me. Identifying as a eco-feminist, I reserve the right not to participate on principle in green, feminist or women-centric gatherings where animals are being used or consumed as food.

When I inquire about whether or not a womens meeting of one kind or another is serving flesh, or encourage it to consider abstaining from doing so, it is not my intention to offend or alienate those who choose to eat animals. That choice is culturally and socially complex. However the personal IS political. And so I advocate for the consideration of eco-feminist principles that I know definitely challenge the norm. I deliberately represent a disruption of the status quo by opting not to participate in the marginalization, or rendering invisible of animals lives.

 For animal advocates who embrace eco-feminism's ethic of care and compassion towards animals as well as each other, the presence of meat at women's gatherings is a symbol of patriarchal dominance we reserve the right to reject in our own commitments to zero tolerance for violence. I can't take away anyone else's right to choose what's right for them, but I believe I do have an obligation to choose what is right for me, to act on my convictions, and to ask for allies.

As eco-feminist activist and author Marti Kheel explains in "Toppling Patriarchy with a Fork: the Feminist Debate Over Meat", meat is widely recognized around the world as a food eaten predominantly by those who have greater power and prestige. In most countries, people with higher incomes eat proportionately greater amounts of flesh foods. In patriarchal cultures it is stereotypically associated with virility, strength, and aggression, as well as with sexual potency.

Men are typically given a disproportionate share of meat, and men who do not eat meat are often viewed as effeminate. Because vegetarian foods have been femininized- they are still often stereotypically and erroneously regarded as weak and incomplete. Like a woman without a man?! By association, 'woman the gatherer' has been regarded as the 'lesser sex', passive, subservient ….a mere 'side dish' if you will.

Marti Kheel, Carol Adams, Josephine Donovan and other eco-feminists have made clear through cogent analysis that the patriarchal paradigm supporting meat dominance and male dominance, is not an abstract ideology. "It is inextricably bound to the construct of masculine self-identity and privilege, with a long history of association with violence." To this day hunting is still seen as a rite of passage into manhood for people who have no need to depend on killing animals for their survival, and animal sacrifice remains the almost exclusive domain of men in most areas of the world, according to cultural anthropologists.

As Kheel points out, "While first-wave feminists saw a connection between the exploitation of women and nonhuman animals, many modern-day feminists have pointed to the interconnection between the abuse of women and that of nonhuman animals, as well as other forms of abuse based on race, class, and sexual orientation." We see all forms of domination and oppression as interconnected.

Just as a woman's right to choose control over her own body is a feminist precept, vegetarian sympathizing eco-feminists challenge the male prerogative to exercise control over nonhuman animals and to reduce their bodies to "flesh."

Because we see meat eating as both an expression of a patriarchal worldview and one of its central supports, a symbol of dominance over the natural world that has been intimately tied to the domination of women, we want it to be apparent that vegetarianism is a non-violent act of resistance… and "not one freely chosen", Kheel elaborates. "It exists in the context of radical opposition to patriarchal forms of dominance and control that receive widespread government and industry support."

So much has been explored by eco-feminists about privilege, class, ethnicity, race and gender in regards to the sexual politics of meat, it's just not possible for me to do justice to this issue in a few simple sound bites…but I do hope I have shed a little light on where I'm coming from, and maybe even sparked a desire to strive for greater understanding of what I know many consider my 'difficult' position on the subject. "Toppling Patriarchy with a Fork: the Feminist Debate over Meat". is available on line, or if you're interested in borrowing a paper copy, just let me know.

Basically, I embrace eco-feminism because it is all about interdependence. As an ethic of care and compassion it seeks to foster co-operation, not separation. It aims to build on the awareness that what we do to one strand of the web of creation affects every other, with the understanding that natural systems do not sustain hierarchies…the smallest creatures play intricate roles in the well being of the whole - the web of life.

And that brings me back briefly to Paul Watson. In the conclusion of the article he wrote, he warned that among all the signs of ecosystem breakdown we had better pay attention to and fast, is what scientists have described as 'colony collapse disorder'. Bees, in unprecedented numbers, have been in such serious and allegedly mysterious decline (most dramatically over just the past year) that the pollination of plants upon which all other life depends, could be in serious jeopardy.

When we fall out of relationship with the natural systems which sustains us, we risk colony collapse disorder of our own. Whether it's mad cow disease, e-coli, avian flu, discovering that the melamine that killed thousands of beloved companion animals has also ended up in our own food chain, our ignorance of how these things could come to be makes us not only extremely vulnerable, it makes us inadvertently complicit.

Years ago I organized conferences in Vancouver under the Women and the Earth banner. They were created to raise consciousness as a celebration of women's collective empowerment on behalf of the earth. The wisdom of the indigenous elders who spoke still rings true for me… one of the most important things any of us can do to help the planet is to find a place and stay there. 'Know thyself', is an ancient guiding spiritual principle. I interpret it to include who we are in relationship to the place we inhabit. All earth-based cultures originated from that self-knowledge.

When I began creating herbal products way back when, I was motivated by the desire to inspire others to develop intimate relationships with the plants that grow right here where we live in the Pacific Northwest. To marvel at the healing properties of our green allies, and to reclaim our natural, rightful kinship with their world.

I believe more strongly than ever today that collectively we need to re-member, to re-embody the wisdom that plants, insects, animals, including we two-leggeds, are all connected in one magical weave of community.

When I learned that as keynote Difficult Woman I would be crowned as a Queen Bee today, I recognized the obligation of my token hierarchical position immediately. While still holding court in these last few moments of glory I believe it is my sacred duty to invite each one of you to reclaim your own inner queen bee, and get on with the task of furthering pollination!

So today I introduce, and invite your honorary membership in SWARM. Sagacious Women Advocating Re-membering of the Mother!

To be sage, is to demonstrate wisdom, and besides that, bees love sage! It has a long legacy among women healers as a cleansing herb, useful for eliminating toxins, purifying the air, strengthening memory, and promoting wisdom.

Sage is the perfect emblem for SWARM so I hereby decree it be grown in every sister Queen Bee's garden, as both reminder of our kinship with the plant world and a devotional offering to the Mother.

The Mother who manifests through the divine dance of pollination. The Mother who extends care and compassion to all beings!

And here's some good news.What the mainstream news has not been reporting about the alarming disappearance of bees is that it isn't happening where people are tending to things organically.

So in closing, I want to encourage each of you to SWARM with me and urgently oppose the patriarchal institutions of poisonous power over, domination and submission of nature, and decree that we will not stand for any more of their stinkin' carcinogenic pie! It is in fact up to ALL Queen Bees to awaken, rise up and reclaim our rightful role in the cosmos. And the foxglove. And the rose!

So buzzzzz on dear sisters…please join me in the fertile garden of revolution!


With thanks to Mary Daly, Cathleen and Colleen McGuire, Paul Watson, Rachel Simmons, Josephine Donovan, Carol Adams, Marti Kheel, Greta Gaard, Dave Steele, Ana Miriam Leigh and the Denman Island Women's Outreach Society