Eco-Feminism Thesis Pushes for Activist Focus
The woman of the green grass, imbued with the green grass’s charm. The woman who, like a field sowed in the fallow of a Jane Eyre summer, carries her fertility within her. The woman who is a bird, a fig leaf, our idea of hard seeds and each of the hard-sunned seasons. Entrenched in the Victorian English tradition, we find these associations: women as the natural embodiments of nature; associations that seem as natural as the venerability of the Victorian literary tradition itself.
In starting her thesis, senior Elizabeth George (T’17) found herself writing against this Victorian tradition. George—who in seventh grade laid in bed with strep throat and almost cried herself out of tears reading Wuthering Heights for the first time (“I sobbed. Uncontrollably sobbed,” she says)—is part of a skinny but growing niche of women who consider themselves eco-feminists.
Eco-feminists emerged from eco-criticism, yet where eco-critics look to unpack the relationship between literature and nature as a whole, eco-feminists are more specific: they look to skirt back through old texts to label and problematize the ways these texts hyper-feminize women, particularly in and around the themes of nature.
In this vein George’s thesis is an eco-feminist analysis of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles and Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, where George investigates how the authors of these novels problematize hyper-feminine portrayals of women. George pays particular concern to authorial agency—how the authors choose and construct their characters’ perspectives and how the authors acknowledge their characters’ bias. In such a close argument, one section hangs around an analysis of the word “charm,” as it is used to describe a woman laboring in a field in Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles.
George shows that when Hardy uses the word “charm,” he writes it as coming from a confident male character who imposes the word upon the woman—a fully textual imposition of the male gaze. When Woolf uses the word, on the other hand, she writes it as coming from an uncertain male character, who says that a woman’s charm has made “civilization impossible.” In this way, Woolf’s male character does not impose the word on the woman—it is her charm that keeps her from imposition, that maintains her as an unbridled form away from him. Thus, George shows how although both authors may start with similar images of women—embedded in and physically informed by nature—the images become different models of femininity. In a larger arc, George shows how the differences in these models may be calibrated to Hardy’s position as a late Victorian (some would argue an early Modernist) and Wolfe’s position as a sure, snug-and-set Modernist.
In these types of negotiations, George is ready to admit that her thesis is paying close attention. George’s analysis is focused on parsing through important nuances of gender equity, which often slip through the lines of literary criticism. It’s an ambitious premise, and thus a perfect culmination of George’s rigorous studies in the Department of English at Duke.
“My adviser Kathy Psomiades, who is a woman, was incredible in that she warned me ahead of time how this experience was going to be,” George says, “She said ‘there’s going to be a point you won’t feel smart enough. You’ll feel dumb. Like all these people have done all this work.” In the face of this—the intimidation of a weighty and already-established field of scholarship—Psomiades offered support; she pushed George to make her feminist critiques confidently.
George, who also works for the Rubenstein Library Archive Team and has researched women’s history for Duke History Revisited, has found this confidence in other sources as well.
At Duke, she funneled through courses featuring Katherine McKinnon’s Feminism and Marxism, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and various volumes of Victorian poetry, before concentrating in feminist literature. George describes this path as inevitable. “Where did this come from? You know, you’re in college, you come into your feminism,” she explains. “I wanted to find it in whatever I was doing. And climate change was just hanging out, and we had just had a women’s march. And I was thinking, oh, are we still dealing with this, when people were problematizing this in the 19th century?”
Indeed, George traces her work back to the activist tradition in the 19th century.
“My thesis is a type of criticism that is active—really, a scholarship that is a form of activism. It’s a type of criticism that intends to change something outside of the literary world, by looking at the way we have portrayed women historically in literature. Really, eco-feminism is a way for me to discuss how the human relationship—and particularly women’s relationship—with our environment has gotten completely, completely messed up, and to discuss how we can think of that relationship differently.”
In this ambitious tradition, George’s fellow feminists remind her to write with authority, to make the claims she is compelled to make. “My advisor is always telling me something along the lines of, if it’s a smart argument and you have contextual evidence, it doesn’t matter how many years of experience you have, make the argument. She’s always taking the approach of, I like your argument, how can we make it better?”
Within her work, George holds space in turn for herself and for her fellow feminists; in this way, the process of her thesis is just as important as the content itself. George is in motion: taking on process-based principles of nourishment, appreciation, and acknowledgement that are critical in activism, and applying these principles to the critical points of her work.
“When I get excited about some small detail that a scholar picked up on, that I also picked up on—they don’t know that that happened, they don’t know in the library some 22-year-old at Duke just thought ‘Oh my gosh!’ But I hope they get some little alert in their subconscious, that someone appreciated the time they took to write that. And I hope that comes out in the writing.”
In her full-shouldered challenge for feminist thought, George’s niche of eco-feminism is small, but the feminist scholars that fill this niche—and the tradition they venture forth in as they investigate women’s representation in Victorian literature—makes larger claims, for women’s representation in Victorian literature and beyond.
“When I sit in the library, and I have several stacks of books that are on this very, very specific topic that I’m doing, there is some sort of community. There is a community going on in my locker in Perkins. We all feel like this is important enough to spend our time doing—because it is.”