Petrofeminism: Has oil produced feminism? This is a question I’ve thought about a lot. And, I’ll admit: energy is finite. There is only so much of it in a day. And today I have none left, so, I’m posting an piece on petrofeminism, parts of which were presented in 2011 and added to in January 2013: ideas which have lead to me to my current research and which link well to the events of my day and to a talk I gave this evening on Feminist Energy Futures: Power Shift and Environmental Social Justice.

I’m often asked what oil has to do with feminism? But the question I’ve often wondered to myself is this one actually: “Has oil produced feminism?” There is a noteworthy intersection[i] between feminist advances in the West and the use of oil as an energy source. The Seneca Falls women’s rights convention was held in New York in 1848[ii]. Ten years later, in 1858, the first commercial oil well was established in Oil Springs Ontario, Canada.[iii] The following year, in 1859, a rig in Pennsylvania struck oil.[iv] By the early twentieth century, photography—also an innovation of the age of oil[v]—was being used as a tool to construct new feminine identities for the public imaginary that have promoted gendered relationships to industrialization and the machine.[vi] And, the culturally constructed relationships between women and things—many of them either products of the petrochemical industry and/or powered by oil—have had a direct impact on definitions of domesticity and housewifery, motherhood, personal feminine and family hygiene, and women’s autonomy, not to mention definitions of beauty. Certainly, oil has been a contributing factor in transformations to women’s work and social cultural roles, but contrary to popular perceptions about how surplus energy and new technologies have freed women from domestic work and provide them leisure time and energy to work outside the home, the reality is that these changes have not always furthered the cause of women’s emancipation nor reduced their workload. As Ruth Schwartz Cowan has argued in her book More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Houshold Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (1983), the social cultural ideologies guiding the creation of technology have, in many cases, increased Western women’s workload. The age of oil is rife with these types of inconsistencies: it is a period that has seen both feminist advances and, by contrast, the reinforcement of long-standing patriarchal conceptualizations of woman’s work and their roles, as well as women as objects and as property.

Perhaps the question to be asking is “How do fetishized notions of oil and its relationship to women function to maintain the status-quo, both in terms of women’s lived realities and the perpetuation of our oil-consuming lifestyles?” Reading petro-discourses through a feminist lens by “follow[ing] the oil” and tracing “the webs of relations and cultural meanings through which oil is imagined as a ‘vital’ and ‘strategic’ resource”,[vii] raises fundamental questions about the relationship between issues of human rights, and gender, and racial equality, that must be conceptualized as part of power discourses as they are newly orienting themselves around ecology at this historical moment. Women’s relationship to oil and the environment, especially any suggestion of divergence or active resistance against existing Western petro-discourses internationally and domestically, is in many instances rhetorically managed through the visual and rhetorical strategies of embedded feminism and the marketing of petro-violence; and pseudo-activist narratives of eco-consumerism further this agenda by creating a spectacle of political engagement.

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To attribute feminism directly to oil is to fetishize oil.[viii] Our gendered relationships to petroleum-powered and petroleum-derived consumer products have been fetishized as the natural outcome of oil and progress, when in fact, oil as a major energy source is part of a complex series of social-cultural developments in the West over the last two centuries, not the least of which is the move toward neoliberal economics and politics, grounded in patriarchal history. To succumb to fetishistic notions of oil as the source of feminist advances has the potential to inspire false associations and fear discourses that suggest the end of cheap oil might mean the end of feminism.[ix] And by contrast, to uncritically accept discourses that correlate other ‘brands’ of female identity with a savvy petroleum-free consumer is to fall pretty to market discourses that equate a move away from fossil fuels with social innovations in gender and race relations.

In 2011, for example, the EthicalOil.org billboard campaign and associated television advertisement in Canada, co-opted both foreign and domestic women’s images in numerous ways, not the least polemical of which invoked women’s death by stoning in foreign Middle Eastern oil producing nations.[x] In Ethical Oil’s associated television commercial, driving, shopping, and working outside the home are the three foci of the critique against Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women. Saudi women’s inability to hold a driver’s license becomes evidence of oppression. And while western discourses have naturalized neoliberal female identity constructions and mythologized women’s relationship to the automobile as a symbol of personal independence, in practical terms a Western woman’s car, particularly a mother’s SUV or family van, functions as an extension of the domestic space used to perform consumer-oriented tasks such as shopping and chauffeuring children. These are just two examples in a campaign that relies heavily on embedded feminism: a rhetorical strategy used by the mediatic arm of Western governments and corporate petroleum interests to suggest foreign intervention by the West as a generalized solution to gender inequality elsewhere in the world, without providing any reasonable stratagem to address the originally identified disparity.[xi] The Ethical Oil campaign promoted an embargo on foreign oil that could not possibly correlate to an improvement in women’s conditions in the various countries alluded to throughout its campaign. Furthermore, the TV commercial promoted a specific gendered petro-identity that holds the promise of new female consumer markets, should Eastern women seriously pursue auto-mobility and consumer-oriented female identity tropes on their road to emancipation. Ultimately, embedded feminism not only focuses criticism on women’s situations internationally but it plays an important role in diverting attention away from contextually different albeit comparable conditions of inequality and instances of silencing ongoing in the West. One such example is the treatment of Aboriginal women and their communities who have become part of the fall out of oil extraction and petro-politics in Canada and around the world. As activists these women are silenced through a criminalizing discourse of petro-violence that constructs them, and particularly their male counterparts, as terrorists.[xii] This is what feminist scholar Heather M. Turcotte has already identified in the Niger Delta context as the slippages within “academic and state representations of petro-terrorists, petro-gangs, and victims of gender violence . . . that produce the figure of the petro-terrorist-gang-member” for public consumption and foreign policy.[xiii]

The Idle No More movement, inspired by Chief Theresa Spence, went public at a November 10, 2012 Saskatoon teach-in organized by four women activists—Nina Wilson, Sheelah McLean, Sylvia McAdam and Jessica Gordon—who were all concerned about the effects of the Harper government’s proposed omnibus bill C-45 that infringed on Aboriginal rights.[xiv] Nonviolent political events proliferated across the country and around the world. Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat band in northern Ontario, whose protests had been in the media for some time, intensified public attention when she endured a forty-four-day hunger strike between December 11, 2012, and January 24, 2013. These two resistance movements, often conflated, orchestrated broad public discussion on environmental and Aboriginal issues. They were also both managed by forms of rhetorical strategies that limited the impact of these protests. In short, Spence’s demands were never fully explained by the media. Instead, the focus was on the health and dietary ramifications of her politically-motivated hunger-strike on her female body: a tactic that functioned to depoliticize her. Another practice was to question the validity of the hunger-strike, as such, given that Spence consumed tea and fish-broth and to use this as a foray into discussions of her ethics, and any suggestions of past corruption. Furthermore, the media also chose to publicize suggestions that she refocus on her family and community—rhetorically banishing her to the private sphere by reinvoking her status as mother-grandmother, which Turcotte identifies as a means to rationalize women “as unpolitical and external to the political economy.”[xv] She argues that women’s protests are rearticulated “in ways that omit deeper histories of interconnected state violence and women’s anti-imperialist engagements with state power.”[xvi] Meanwhile, the mainstream Canadian media provided space for male Aboriginal leaders to declare that, “It’s time for the men to step up.”[xvii] And the political discord within the Aboriginal movement and its leadership was provided significant attention, reinforcing classic notions of ethno-cultural communities turning in on themselves as a manifestation of petro-discord/conflict, rather than the typical leadership struggles common to any community.[xviii] Furthermore, Aboriginal leadership strategies are referred to using terminology such as “tactical,” “aggressive,” “extreme,” and “angry.”[xix] These practices in combination with changes in Canadian legislation that have criminalized certain forms of environmental protest, sets the stage for what Turcotte has identified as the construction of racialized men as “terrorists” when active in these same petro-resistance movements that are often initiated or led by women.[xx]

Meanwhile, the Idle no More youth-movement that Spence inspired was also being undermined through reports of inadequate leadership and media reports that increasingly that linked it to violence:[xxi] either violence initiated by “aggressive elements within the existing [A]boriginal leadership structure” or as violence against Aboriginals that rhetorically blames the victims for causing racist reaction. The gang-rape of an Aboriginal woman in Thunder Bay Ontario, for instance, was reported to have allegedly been motivated by the Idle no More movement[xxii]. The crime took place on December 27, 2012. In a CBC broadcast aired on January 25, however, it was contextualized by an introduction that suggested that Idle no More was stirring up tensions and inspiring violence.[xxiii] The violated female body and other attacks linked to Idle no More[xxiv] are part of a long history of violence against Aboriginal women and men. However, these events are being used to insinuate petro-violence as somehow endemic to these resistance efforts, and to discourage Aboriginal youth and their communities from participating. These discourses functions to spectacularize and market petro-violence to the media-consuming public as a reaction to Idle No More rather than as the legacies of colonial logic, human rights abuses, and gender-sexual violence on which Western petro-states are founded.

Serious and engaged resistance to fossil/petro-extraction projects on the part of women—especially women of colour in both the domestic and international sphere—is regularly managed by the dominant discourses through visual and rhetorical strategies of embedded feminism and petro-violence. By contrast, middle and upper class (white) women’s relationship to oil-resistance is condoned as a consumer matter. “Ecofeminism” in mainstream popular media comes to be signified by reductive and trivial issues. Magazine and new-media headlines ask questions such as “Are you a Green Beauty?” and “What’s your clothing’s footprint?”[xxv] “Are you an eco-fashionista?” And advice is doled out about “How to Green: Fashion and Beauty”[xxvi], all linked to the idea of buying organic—whether it is a cotton t-shirt, mineral makeup or locally grown strawberries. It is in this historical Western cultural practice of reducing women’s social engagement to consumerism, the neoliberal practice of Starbucks logic, as Žižek has called it, whereby consumerism and social justice are collapsed into one act.[xxvii] And this logic in relationship to petroleum and oil seemingly functions to reinforce patriarchal social, political, and economic norms. These trends disguise consumption as political awareness or even activism and elide more complex discussion of the systemic and infrastructural processes that imbricate oil, our capitalist economy, and the ensuing culture(s).

 

Conclusion

On the one hand, the answer is “No”: oil has not produced feminism. But this answer comes with  a caveat. It has not produced feminism any more than it has produced anything else. But,”Yes”, oil has fuelled the network of relations that have produced certain feminisms: the conditions for specific petro-feminisms, and petro-intersectionalities, two terms that I have been working through over the past decade. The important take away is this: oil is a gender issue and a women’s issue. It is clear that women’s relationships to oil have been established within a complex cultural web in ways that are liberating and limiting. And understanding how women’s resistance to petro-politics is strategically managed by the discourses of power provides insights into how to maneuver rhetorical gender-traps that sustain the status-quo. Rather than imagining that the end of cheap oil will foretell the end of feminism, it is more productive to imagine what new forms of energy might mean for transformations to women’s roles and lives and to associated definitions of feminism.

However, as we make the necessary moves toward alternative energy sources in the twenty-first century, it is imperative to avoid fetishizing these energies, as we have done with oil, in ways that perpetuate female identities and definitions of feminism that naturalize women’s relationship to oil through embedded feminism and consumerism in spectacularized ways that sustain colonial, imperial, patriarchal, and capitalist aims: not to mention the ways this fetishization sustains existing definitions of gender, race, ethnicity, and class. Reliance on wind and solar energy will not, in and of themselves, reconfigure power relations, nor eliminate racism, sexism, and class disparity, any more than oil in and of itself causes wealth or poverty or war or militarism. If in moving beyond oil we also aim to move beyond existing social configurations that have been intrinsic to the age of oil, then we must avoid fetishizing new energy sources as having the power to either maintain or reconfigure cultural relationships. Energy, after all, is only one factor in a complex web of power dynamics, but transformation of any sort—and certainly one as fundamental to our social configurations as energy sources—does provide women and feminist movements around the globe with new opportunities to reboot and empower ourselves.

(Photo Credit: Janice Williamson)

 

 

[i] There is a longer version of this paper published in Oil Culture (University of Minnesota Press), where I take up in more detail the intersectionality between race, class and gender.

[ii] See “Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY,” The Susan B. Anthony Center for Women’s Leadership, n.d., http://www.rochester.edu/sba/suffragewomensrights.html

[iii] See “Black Gold: Canada’s Oil Heritage,” County of Lambton Libraries Museums Galleries, n.d., http://www.lclmg.org/lclmg/Museums/OilMuseumofCanada/BlackGold2/OilHeritage/OilSprings/tabid/208/Default.aspx.

[iv] See “The Story of Oil in Pennsylvania,” Petroleum Education: History of Oil, The Paleontological Research Institution, n.d. http://www.priweb.org/ed/pgws/history/pennsylvania/pennsylvania.html.

[v] The first successful photograph was the produced with a bitumen solution, and while photography technologies have changes repeatedly, using petroleum products to greater and lesser degrees in the various stages of photographic and cinematographic history, the image/moving-image is one of the hallmarks of the age of oil. According to Rebecca Stefoff, in her book The Camera, “By 1922, [Joseph-Nicéphore] Niépce had found a photosensitive substance that seemed promising. Called bitumen of Judea, it is a naturally occurring form of asphalt, or tar, that turns hard and pale when exposed to sunlight.” (Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish, 2007), 35.

[vi] According to Ruth Schwartz Cowan, work that had historically been the purview of men and children—leather clothing, cobbling, specific aspects of food preparation such as grain milling, wood chopping or energy production, etc.—was almost always industrialized. By contrast, women’s work—the completion aspects of tasks such as daily cooking and cleaning—were transformed by technology but still required at least the same amount of labour, and sometimes more; more, because the very mechanization of appliances that made certain tasks, such as laundry, physically easier and since technology in textiles meant that more types of clothing could be regularly washed instead of worn until they fell apart, meant that hygiene standard were raised and women were expected to wash more types of clothing more often. Appliances designed to assist women in their domestic labour still require one person to man the household on an almost full-time basis. Furthermore, domestic work is designed to be repeated in each individual household: a very inefficient labour model when considered over and against the way male labour was industrialized and freed men to pursue radically transformed types of work, in locations more remote from the family home, which also has numerous ramifications on division of labour, since he is home less.   “The end result is that, although the work is more productive (more services are performed, and more goods are produced, for every hour of work) and less laborious than it used to be, for most housewives it is just as time consuming and just as demanding (Cowan 201). Add to that the percentage of women who also work outside the home, and women are working now more than ever before.

[vii] Matthew T. Huber, “Oil, Life, and the Fetishism of Geopolitics,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 22, no. 3 (2011): 32-48, doi: 10.1080/10455752.2011.593883.

[vii]. Ibid, 36.

[viii] Here I am applying Matthew T. Huber’s theories about oil fetishization to issues of feminism. Huber, drawing on a Marx’s definition of fetishism and a methodology of historical materialism, explains how an “imaginary of oil” has been constructed by the “critical literature surrounding the political economy of oil” in ways that fetishize oil as a “thing” that we are helpless to control (35); he argues that it is more accurate and productive to understand oil as “a contingent and historically situated socioecological relationship that is prone to contestation and transformation toward a post-petroleum future” (44). See Huber “Oil, Life, and the Fetishism of Geopolitics,” 32-48.

[ix] Sharon Astyk has written and blogged about how “the women’s movement has never fully acknowledged the degree to which women’s social roles have changed not just due to activism, but due to energy resources. This comparative blind spot means that we have also failed to grasp how vulnerable those gains are.” I’d agree with Astyk when she rightly indicates women’s lives have been transformed by the petroleum derived energy sources. Likewise, I share her concerns that energy depletion could potentially have disproportionately negative impacts on women and that it is up to us, as a culture, to determine how this transition beyond reliance on oil might be imagined in ways that do not undermine women and their contributions. However, I’d warn against too directly drawing and accepting a cause and effect relationship between oil depletion and the erasure of women’s rights, which only serves to fetishize the power of oil and fails to acknowledge the many other socio-economic and political power relations that have played a role in the feminist advances of the last two centuries. See “Peak Oil Is Still a Women’s Issue and Other Reflections on Sex, Gender and the Long Emergency” (blog post), Casaubon’s Book, Scienceblogs.com, January 31, 2010, http://scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook/2010/01/31/peak-oil-is-still-a-womens-iss/.

[x] In one particular billboard, a red-banner message reads “Conflict Oil Countries: Women Stoned to Death,” superimposed over the black and white image of a burqa-clad woman being buried alive in preparation for stoning. This woman is not identified and simply stands in as a synecdoche for the perceived oppression of women in Muslim areas of the world. The use of this image is part of a larger rhetorical practice that fails to read and understand exceptional moments of gender violence in other contexts as such. Instead, these images of violence against women are invoked because they appeal to the Western narratives of foreign-woman-as-victim, while denying violence against women in Western cultures.

[xi] For a more specific discussion and definition of “embedded feminism”, albeit in a different context, see the following: Helmut W. Ganser, “‘Embedded Feminism’: Women’s rights as justification for military intervention?” (Presentation at “Coping with Crises, Ending Armed Conflict: Peace promiting Strategies of Women and Men,” the international conference presented by the Gunda Werner Institute of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Berlin, November 15, 2011), Gunda Werner Institute, n.d., http://www.gwi-boell.de/web/un-resolutions-helmut-ganser-embedded-feminism-presentation-2953.html.

[xii] In Canada, on February 9, 2012, the federal government released a report in which it responded to left-leaning environmental movements resisting oil sands through a sliding semantics that identifies environmentalist and anti-capitalist groups as extremist organizations, and the members as terrorists. As Aboriginal communities are mounting more organized protests against the infringement of their treaty rights that are linked to issues of environmental protection and that include barricades and other forms of demonstration, these laws make them vulnerable to arrest and incarceration—exacerbating an already evident criminalization of the behavior of this Canadian demographic, given the startlingly disproportionate percentages of Aboriginals in Canadian prisons. “Building Resilience Against Terrorism: Canada’s Counter-terrorism Strategy,” Public Safety Canada, last modified December 4, 2012, http://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/prg/ns/2012-cts-eng.aspx#s3.

[xiii] Heather M. Turcotte, “Contextualizing Petro-Sexual Politics” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political. 36 (3), 213.

[xiv] “Idle No More: How it began,” The Province, January 7, 2013, http://www.theprovince.com/news/bc/Idle+More+began/7780924/story.html.

[xv] Turcotte, Petro-Sexual Politics, 208.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Bruce Campion-Smith, “Idle No More: Spence urged by fellow chiefs to abandon her fast,” The Toronto Star, January 18, 2013, http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2013/01/18/idle_no_more_spence_urged_by_fellow_chiefs_to_abandon_her_fast.html.

[xviii] “The movement, or at least the Idle No More “brand,” has been co-opted by aggressive elements within the existing aboriginal leadership structure, which appears intent on settling old scores with leadership rivals, re-fighting lost battles and advancing their own interests. They are too busy sniping at each other, making threats and blockading traffic and trains to realize they are losing ground with the people they need on their side.” Deveryn Ross, “Idle No More’s real challenge,” Winnipeg Free Press, January 24, 2013, http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/westview/idle-no-mores-real-challenge-188173011.html.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Turcotte, Petro-Sexual Politics, 208.

[xxi] Deveryn Ross, “Idle No More’s real challenge,” Winnipeg Free Press, January 24, 2013, http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/westview/idle-no-mores-real-challenge-188173011.html.

[xxii] The attackers said this wasn’t the first or last time they had committed this type of crime and they made reference to the Idle no more events, telling the victim that, “‘You Indians deserve to lose your treaty rights’”. Valerie Taliman, “Rape, Kidnapping Being Investigated as Hate Crime in Thunder Bay,” Indian Country Today Media Network, January 7, 2013, http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/article/rape-kidnapping-being-investigated-hate-crime-thunder-bay-146797.

[xxiii] “Idle No More is inflaming long-standing tensions between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities. In Thunder Bay, police investigate a possible hate crime and the mayor regrets that his plan to keep people safe has failed.” Duncan McCue, “Idle No More and tensions in Thunder Bay,” Special edition of The Current, CBC Radio, January 25, 2013, http://www.cbc.ca/player/News/Canada/Audio/ID/2329105939/.

[xxiv] On January 7, 2013 CBC Radio ran a report about a local man who was driven to the edge of town—taken on a ‘starlight tour’—by police in Thunder Bay, Ontario. See “Starlight Tours,”Superior Morning, CBC Radio, January 7, 2013, http://www.cbc.ca/superiormorning/episodes/2013/01/07/starlight-tours/.

And, on January 21, 2013, a young First Nations man in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan was reportedly driven outside the city limits and told by officers to “Idle No More.” See David Giles, “Saskatoon police investigating alleged ‘starlight tour,’” Global News, January 22, 2013, http://www.globalnews.ca/saskatoon+police+investigating+alleged+starlight+tour/6442793549/story.html.

[xxv] “Quizzes: Fashion & Beauty,” Planetgreen.com, n.d., http://planetgreen.discovery.com/games-quizzes/quizzes-fashion-beauty.html.

[xxv]. “How to Go Green: Fashion & Beauty,” Planetgreen.com, n.d., http://planetgreen.discovery.com/go-green/green-index/fashion-beauty-guides.html.

[xxvi] “How to Go Green: Fashion & Beauty,” Planetgreen.com, n.d., http://planetgreen.discovery.com/go-green/green-index/fashion-beauty-guides.html.

[xxvii] Zizek explains the Starbucks logic as “products that contain the claim of being politically progressive acts in and of themselves. . . . [and in which] political action and consumption become fully merged. Slavoj Žižek, “Censorship Today: Violence, or Ecology as a New Opium for the Masses, part 1,” Lacan.com, n.d., http://www.lacan.com/zizecology1.htm.


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© 2022 Sheena Wilson, Associate Professor, University of Alberta
Principal Investigator: Feminist Energy Futures; Future Energy Systems’ Energy Humanities: Speculative Energy Futures and iDoc Projects
Co-founder and co-director of Petrocultures Research Group
Editor-in-chief, Imaginations Journal



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