Ecological Homes: Making Women, Men, and Nature

In September of 1976, members of the New Alchemy Institute (NAI) danced long into the night to celebrate the opening of the Prince Edward Island “Ark,” a “bioshelter.” Earlier that year they had opened the Cape Cod bioshelter in Massachusetts with an impromptu gathering after a summer work day. Inspired by the desire “to sustain human populations in ecologically viable ways rather than with … capital-intensive, exploitative, wasteful and polluting methods,” New Alchemists experimented with a number of green technologies as they designed these ecological homes. The buildings contained garden plots for food and aquaponics tanks that also served as passive solar heat collectors. Windmills generated their electricity. For New Alchemists, bioshelters were one answer to the question of how humans might live better, less destructive lives.

Co-founders Nancy Jack Todd, John Todd, and William McLarney intended their designs to stem both ecological devastation and social inequities. “For women and other segments of society who are resentful of the control exercised over their lives by the dictates of our present economic and political systems,” Nancy Todd wrote, “the bioshelter has a potential for self-sufficiency that could relieve their exploitation.” Although Todd referred to the exploitation of all marginalized peoples, she continued on to emphasize the potential to alleviate gender inequities in household labor: “there would be less pressure for specialized sex roles as most of the work associated with the bioshelter has no a priori delegation into categories of men’s and women’s work.”

A child sits surrounded by plants in a greenhouse.

Living collaboratively with the natural world. Photo by Hilde Maingay. Image courtesy of The Green Center, Inc

Hilde Maingay, who worked as chief gardener, also embraced the potential that ecological living held for women’s empowerment. She found in NAI new possibilities for social change. In one telling anecdote, she described the smell of the compost she was turning as “the new perfume.” One of the men jokingly replied, “If this is the new perfume, then women’s liberation has gone far enough.” Hilde, still at work with the compost, said: “It’s just beginning.”

Many historians, such as Henry Trim, use bioshelters to exemplify a 1970s desire to transcend the human-nature divide through technological innovations. A different story emerges if we listen to Maingay and Todd. For the women of New Alchemy Institute, ecological living and social change required physical, mundane labor. They also insisted that new visions of nature could refashion what it meant to be a woman or a man, and that inviting nature into homes required remaking not only our relationship to nature but our relationships with one another.

To fully understand Todd and Maingay’s stories, we must trace the ways NAI depicted its ecological technologies and the specific labor that made ecological living a reality. We have to be ready to tread lightly, with an eye to unintended consequences, as symbolism and tangible, material work remade men, women, and nature in sometimes contradictory ways.

Holistic Ecology

NAI depicted its science as a radical alternative to conventional science by using gendered imagery of communities and nature. If science-as-usual required a man observing a subservient nature, as Donna Haraway has argued, NAI’s ecological holism rested on a view of the world in which all beings, in a non-hierarchical, “tightly knit concert,” produced a living world, Gaia. Their ecological view connected human consciousness to the biological world: “We are part of [the world] in a way we only dimly comprehend … There is a continuum of being in a hillside brook which extends outward to encompass the world while reading inward into ourselves.”

Their ecological holism also included a desire to remove social hierarchies, a vision that aligned with the 1970s feminist vision of mutual cooperation. NAI imagined all people as “vital, contributing individuals” within a cohesive community.

Playing at New Alchemy. Image courtesy of The Green Center, Inc.

The images in The Journal of the New Alchemists imply social revolution not only because plants inhabit houses and humans coexist with and within nature, but also because men, women, and children fill unexpected roles: men play with children; children run wild; women harvest wheat.

This vision of social equality relied upon a feminization of ecology and social relations in an attempt to undercut the patriarchy the New Alchemists saw within both conventional science and traditional kinship networks. Nancy Todd’s narrative of the Institute’s beginning exemplifies this gendered re-framing:

On a Friday evening that was the twelfth of September, 1969, I sat reading an article in Ramparts by Paul Ehrlich entitled “Ecocatastrophe” … I finished the article, lowered the magazine and gasped, ‘John, we must do something.’ With that, I felt a familiar twinge, and the preliminary labor contractions that heralded the birth of our third child, Susannah, began. I was momentarily distracted from my other mission, but since then I have come to think of it as something of a twin birth.

By depicting a literal and figurative birth, Todd made the New Alchemists’ designs as essential as the reproduction of the species, dissolved the mind-body dualism, and insisted on the centrality of women’s labor.

If we only look at the New Alchemy Institute’s depictions of femininity, we lose sight of the physical and political labor women undertook within ecological homes.

NAI’s gendered imagery valorized femininity and women’s place in a scientific community. In doing so, it empowered women and gave them access to scientific knowledge production. It enjoined men to be more feminine and presented humans and nature as one.

At the same time, these images re-fashioned men, women, and nature by reifying a universal woman: a caring, nurturing mother who is white and middle-class and closer to nature than men. Such imagery sets womanhood beyond the vicissitudes of time and place, subsumes the myriad differences between women across race, class, culture, and time. By celebrating traditional cultural symbols of femininity in their ecological holism, NAI reinstated, rather than reformed, what a woman could be. But symbols do not echo the material world precisely. If we only look at NAI’s depictions of femininity, we lose sight of the physical and political labor women undertook within ecological homes.

Women’s work 

Women’s labor was central to NAI. Women cultivated, weeded, harvested, and preserved the food grown at New Alchemy. They were also scientists, as they conducted trials of crop yields under various fertilization and pest management treatments.

However, despite the assurance that there were no “a priori” roles in bioshelters, women came to realize that gendered divisions of labor had not changed when faced with traditionally “feminine” domestic work like kitchen duties. Nancy Jack Todd described their realization in an article titled “Preservation of food; Preservation of self”:

The food-processing, and predictably the housekeeping, are the areas where the difficulties of sex roles are most readily apparent, and equally predictably, it is the women who are least pleased with their lot. . . . The solution . . . I think must be to work with men whose consciousness has been sufficiently raised to understand how thoroughly sexist has been all of our backgrounds. . . . I do see a transition, perhaps on the slow side for our taste, coming about in which the jobs, particularly those that we as women find most psychically oppressive, are being shared on an equal basis . . . yet I still have a memory of a hot afternoon, a sticky kitchen, stacks of vegetables threatening to molder and an all-female and very resentful crew.

Women unwillingly undertook the labor necessary to deal with the demands made by rotting produce. Once vegetables came into the kitchen, the ecological processes praised for facilitating social change became vehicles for continued inequality.

What bothered the women was not the “dreariness of the work” but rather the men’s tendency to assume that “whatever mess ensues in the wake his activities… will sooner or later be dealt with by someone other than himself. And the odds are pretty high that someone will be female.” By 1975, women had brought their dissatisfaction to the attention of the men, and in response the Institute instated weekly chore rotations. As Todd explained, “This is not much of problem for us any more. What began to turn the tide was our (the women) realizing the necessity for articulating our frustration.” Note that the social norms changed not because a feminized ecological vision of harmonious collaboration leads necessarily to more equitable gender relations, but because women “articulated their frustration” and insisted upon it.

Women in the New Alchemy Kitchen tackle rotten vegetables and dirty dishes. Image courtesy of The Green Center, Inc.

The story of housework represents just one instance of women’s political organizing within NAI. In A Safe and Sustainable World,  Todd recounted, “Women’s caucuses and workshops became an integrated segment of our overall reality…although not always with overwhelming enthusiasm on the part of everyone.” She recalled at least one man who was “spotted crawling behind some conveniently located bushes to avoid encountering an empowerment workshop composed entirely of women.”

Despite some initial resistance, the Institute’s governance structure facilitated new social relationships between men and women. Members made decisions at consensus-based, non-hierarchical weekly meetings. This practice provided a place for women to voice their desire for change.  Along with these institutional structures, NAI’s holistic ethos supported individual creativity, independence, and self-actualization. As Maingay said to me in a conversation recently, “And that is why we had such a diversity of people coming in here. English majors that started doing stuff on composting or whatever. It didn’t matter, you had a good idea, you’re smart, you can figure it out, you can read up on it, you can write, then you proceed. It didn’t matter if you were young or old, female or male.”

The economic structure of NAI also opened avenues for women to alter their traditional roles. All staff received the same salary no matter their professional degree or job at the Institute. Individuals received an extra stipend for dependents. Women like Hilde Maingay benefited from this, as they were raising children on their own.

The importance of economic equality to women’s roles at the Institute became clear in 1981 when the Institute faced both John Todd’s resignation as director and the reduction in funding opportunities due to the Reagan administration’s drastic cuts to environmental programs. Economic uncertainty led to members hotly debating the future of the Institute. In response to people who advocated for more hierarchical governance and personalized grant funding, Susan Ervin wrote,

I predict we will be a hierarchical institute of professional males with a few lower-salaried females, and I’m not normally given to heavy feminist statements. If they’ve got to go out and get it themselves, who’s going to get funded in our biased society – Kathi Ryan or John Wolfe? Easy. But Kathi’s contribution to this place was totally unique. John T. generated funds for her work and she did things he couldn’t have done. Many of our most important jobs fall through the cracks.1

For Ervin, abandoning NAI’s social ideals to gain funding for ecological research would undermine its radical potential. She insisted that the group’s adherence to political and economic equality made NAI a place for social change and a pocket of resistance to larger economic structures that still valued men’s work above women’s. Her critique highlights again that feminizing ecology alone could not undo gendered inequities.

Ecological living today

Today, we live alongside technologies advocated by NAI. Green roofs and green walls, aquaponics, and hoophouses that extend the growing season all have their roots in NAI’s technological experiments. Just as NAI did, we envision renewable energy and organic gardening as ways to integrate nature into our daily lives and as tools that can ameliorate environmental degradation. However, we also live with the legacy of the ways New Alchemy depicted what it meant to be a man or a woman.

A feminine figure advertises “natural” living at the Orono Farmers’ Market. Photograph by author.

We still use images of women in nature to mark ecologically responsible living as a radical alternative to conventional ways of life. A coffee bag tells me that women in Africa will be empowered by solar stoves; the sign for my town’s farmers’ market displays a woman leisurely walking with a basket on one arm and a flower in the other; a carton of organic milk displays a woman, her child, and a cow happily romping in a pasture.

These representations are troubling in several ways. First, they suggest women have an essential essence that transcends place or time. Universalizing “women” subsumes the different relationships women have to food, to energy, to domestic spaces. The women who grow coffee certainly have different ideas of femininity and a different relation to the ways coffee plantations affect their environment than all who drink coffee. As Patricia Allen and Carolyn Sachs have shown, where a woman stands in relation to food production depends on race, class, geography, and culture.

Second, these images invite us to imagine that conventional gender relationships may facilitate more ecologically sound lifestyles. Why is it, for instance, that the presence of gay male farmers made the news in Maine?  Images of ecological living usually depict a traditional, nuclear family. Indeed, Sachs has argued that the concept of a family farm–one closely related to current ideals of “small scale” farms–gains meaning through traditional gender roles with a women-as-homemaker.

Finally, such depictions hide the mundane, daily work necessary to live in ways responsive and responsible to beings beyond ourselves. Women’s tangible labor becomes an ahistoric category, something women “naturally” undertake in their care for family and communities. But as the story of NAI women shows, this labor does not exist outside of economic structures that value men and women differently or beyond the demands of rotting vegetables, decomposing compost, or dirty dishes. It, too, has a history.

Like the women at NAI, we should perhaps begin to take seriously that when we invite nature into our homes and gardens we open the possibility of remaking what it means to be a man or a woman. We should consider that fulfilling the promise of new gender relationships cannot depend on representations of femininity that reinscribe traditional gender roles. Rather, we must acknowledge that we exist in relation to one another; that difference, rather than similarity, is the essence of equality; and that ecological living and social change require constant political work.

Featured image: Nancy Jack Todd harvests wheat.  Image courtesy of The Green Center, Inc.

Emma Schroeder is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Maine. Her work focuses on women’s involvement in the 1970’s appropriate technology movement and the ways people began envisioning homes as ecological places. She holds an MS in Geography from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has also spent countless hours turning compost in gardens and on farms in Wisconsin and throughout New England. Contact.

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  1. Susan Ervin, “To everybody from Susan,” unpublished memo, MS 254, Box 38, folder 12, Special Collections and University Archives, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 

1 Comment

  1. Robert S. Emmett

    I’m reminded reading this of the scenes in de Beauvoir’s novel <> where the main character expresses total frustration with peeling vegetables. It’s part of the book’s feminist epiphany, second wave style. But it still feels contemporary. It strikes me we have a long way to go to flesh out alternative masculine identities and ways of taking responsibility for ecological inequalities–even in the “experimental” conditions of campus and community gardens. Thanks for writing this piece and I look forward to finding more of your writing out there.

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