Forging New Paths with Old Skills

Exploring the intersections between domesticity and ecofeminism

by Lily Ferguson / Garnet & Black

Life has been presented to us as a series of mutually exclusive binaries: women versus men, black versus white, gay versus straight, domestic versus wild. None of these things can exist without the other, but it seems that none of these things can exist with the other either. When it comes to domesticity and ecofeminism, it seems that the two schools of thought are opposites. Domesticity must be about a women’s role within the house, and ecofeminism must be about a women’s role outside of it. While this is true to an extent, the relationship between domesticity and ecofeminism is much more complex than “house versus not house.” In order to effectively forge their paths in society, women must explore and embrace the ways in which gender roles within the house and outside of the house intersect and build upon one another instead of deeming the two spheres as binaries.  

Ecofeminism is the examination of the ways in which the goals of feminists and ecologists overlap. This is done by exploring how the natural world, or the wild, affects women and how society has coded certain natural elements and actions as feminine. To put it more simply, the goal of ecofeminism is to better understand the relationship between nature and culture.

Domesticity, on the other hand, is often presented as the antithesis of the ecological sphere. The domestic sphere is the space in which women are confined, and their tasks are heavily regulated. For centuries, women have borne the burden of the household as a result of oppressive gender stereotypes and a deeply-rooted patriarchal social structure. It has been taught that the sphere of domesticity is where women belong, and that the outside world is a place for men.

Isn’t it ironic, though, that women are not allowed to pioneer “Mother Nature,” even though its namesake is feminine?

Christina Xan, a PhD student, English teacher and Graduate Teaching Assistant for the introductory Honors Women's and Gender Studies course, WGST 112, believes that in order to collapse the boundaries dictating where a woman can and can’t exist, we must identify how these seemingly separate spheres relate.

“I don’t actually believe that these things are binaries, I think they’re more mutually constitutive,” said Xan. “If you have one aspect somewhere, the other aspect is also there, existing at the same time because they’re defined by the other.” 

Furthermore, Xan emphasizes that the key to a woman finding or creating her place in society lies within her ability to wield domestic skills in order to carve out her niche in a space that is unfamiliar.

“I think it’s like a double-edged sword, where on one hand, women have to perform that labor of the house even outside the house in new environments in order to find belonging,” she said. “And yet also I think there is a way to wield that power by being able to push back against those systems and use what we were forced to do in the home to create spaces for ourselves.” 

As is characteristic of all minorities, women are revolutionary in their ability to transform what was designed to keep them down into tools that propel them forward. Living in a society with roots in the cult of domesticity has taught women to be self-sufficient and empowered in their work, qualities that are particularly useful to women seeking to find their place within university environments. 

College and university settings are unique in that they are both domestic and "wilderness." This means that women have to get creative and figure out how to marry their domestic knowledge with their courage to explore the unknown.

“In general, there’s this onus on women to create community for themselves, because whether we like it or not the systems that mean everything, colleges too, were made for men first and are never going to not be looking, at least subconsciously, at some part of their roots, are looking to serve men,” Xan said. 

Just because institutions of higher education were designed to accommodate men does not mean that women can’t create spaces within them to be their own; it just means that they have to work a little harder to do so. Fortunately, hard work usually makes the results all the more special.

Ellison Van Scoy, a first-year international business major, has been making valuable social and academic connections through her involvement in her sorority and the Women in Business Council. 

“Women in Business has been nice because it’s allowed me to connect with other women who are in my major,” Van Scoy said. “And I’m in this mentorship program for them, so every so often we’ll do little events and it’s been really helpful to connect with upperclassmen who are also in the business school.” 

Beyond building an academic and career-oriented network through Women in Business, Van Scoy has expanded her social circle by joining Phi Mu.

“I was definitely nervous coming here because no one from my high school came. I think going through recruitment and coming here early to do that kind of helped with the transition because it was so busy and it forced you to meet so many new people,” she said. “Even if I decided that I wanted to drop the process, it was nice because I feel like it forced me to walk around and get my bearings.” 

Van Scoy’s experience rushing a sorority is a testimony to the benefits of women pushing the boundaries of their comfort zones. Like she says, even if one community isn’t the right fit, the attempt is a stepping stone to finding one that does.

Maggie Richardson is a first-year pharmacy major who did not think that her path would lead her to a sorority but is pleasantly surprised with the community she has created because of it.

“My mom’s kind of anti-sorority, because she’s very like ‘You’re an independent woman. You don’t need to go do all of these things and party and dress in pretty dresses.’ But I did it so I could bond with my roommate and move in at the same time that she did,” Richardson said. 

Richardson was straightforward about her hesitations to rush, which she recognizes come from internalized bias against sorority culture. These preconceived notions are the direct manifestation of the patriarchy and the ideas ingrained in society that keep women confined to particular spheres of life. However, contrary to the messages of these biases, sororities deserve some kudos for being institutions explicitly designed to help women connect with one another and find community.

There is a myriad of opportunities for women at USC to plant their roots beyond sororities and academic organizations, too. Romiya Kelly is a first-year biomedical engineering major who has found her home away from home within the religious organization InterVarsity.

“I do believe InterVarsity has helped me a lot as a person. [I’ve been] opening myself up more, I’ve been meeting new friends and stepping out of my comfort zone,” Kelly said. “A couple weeks ago we did a proxy where I had to talk to random strangers. I’m so quiet–I’m an introvert–so it really helped me step up my character, make new connections, new friends and helped me really feel like I’m home again with a family.” 

Navigating unfamiliar spaces is no easy feat. It is an especially difficult task for women, who have been shoved into oppressive, unyielding boxes for hundreds of years. However, women are nothing if not powerful enough to dismantle those boxes and reconstruct them in order to accurately reflect their unique identities. This ability to challenge and deconstruct misogynistic norms is the nature of the relationship between domestic and ecofeminism.

Xan put it best, “Those who create new communities when they don’t see a community that reflects them and they kind of make their own are willing to take that step to say, ‘I don’t see something for people like me here, I’m gonna make it’–that’s an act of collapsing [binaries].”

The boundaries between nature and culture are permeable and porous, meaning that they are subject to evolve alongside women. Discovering the spaces that represent oneself is a never-ending battle for women, but the relationships that they form with people and their surroundings make it worthwhile. Next time you see a group of women studying together on the Horseshoe or having a business meeting at Russell House, consider the variety of perspectives and skills they had to combine to get where they are.