A few years ago, my former professor and superb enviro Rob Verchick was gracious enough to deliver a continuing legal education (CLE) hour at my first Food for Thought: A Food Law CLE event. Prof. Verchick, co-author of Feminist Theory and Environmental Justice, spoke on the topic of ecofeminism. And without exaggeration, I was riveted.
Ecofeminism is the study of the connection between women and nature. It may seem obvious, but because of that connection, women experience the first and most prolonged exposure to environmental changes, degradations, and fluctuations. Whether she personally develops disease or experiences harm as caretaker, a woman bears a disproportionate burden. Prof. Verchick suggests the reason is that environmental policy is (1) crafted by white men and (2) rarely accounts for the “women and marginalized communities, mainly people of color, [who] are harmed by [those] environmental polic[ies]”. I could not agree more.
Think Flint, Michigan. The crisis began in 2014 when the city was 57% black, 37% white, and 42% below the poverty line. It was a mom who alerted the authorities of her children’s issues. From skin rashes to missed developmental milestones, she believed the source of the problem was literally in the water. Her raised voice called others to action, energized a movement, and helped expose the Flint water crisis. Her attachment to the environment in which she lived made it easy for her to see the impacts on her kids and herself. In fact, the story of the Flint Water crisis was indeed the story of women – mothers caring for sick children, women with decreased fertility, high fetal deaths, and women fighting the System with other women.
So though we may not have used the term “ecofeminism”, we know it is true. And I believe that though feminists understand how problematic feminism can be, we are encouraged by this Third Wave of Feminism. We are witnessing women move beyond simply advocating for themselves into the expansion and acceptance of womanhood that had historically been left out – meaning “women of color, lesbians, immigrants, and religious minorities”.
But it was that leaving out that Prof. Verchick highlighted in his talk. To paraphrase, despite our moral evolution, women are complicit in the oppression, if not endangerment, of other women at Nail Shops.
And this conversation seems all the more important now that we are deciding as a nation whether we risk economic collapse by continuing to shelter in place or salvage what of the economy we can by opening the country up again. What seems to be the driving force? Haircuts – or more accurately the vanity that demands service industry labor. And the service industry includes nail shops.
In a series of now seemingly forgotten articles, authors penned how Ameriasian women with limited options for employment were being exposed to toxins regularly for the sake of flawlessly manicured nails. Almost no one seems to remember the exposés that suggested many of these women were being trafficked. In a return to the same selective inclusion and acceptance of womanhood, poor women are no longer seen as women.
Still it seems almost silly that we argue to reopen when we barely have control of the virus’ death toll. It is deeply concerning that our economy continues to diminish the value of the service industry workers while elevating the work they do. And it is shameful that protestors are railing against stay-at-home orders and wrongly equating masking mandates with slavery. I somberly admit that there is a correlation between being able to get your nails done and enslavement. I simply disagree as to which party is enslaved.