Lorde’s Theory of Difference: Ecofeminism and the Feminisation of Politics

By Grace Dunn

Audre Lorde’s activism, poetry, and theory remains some of the most influential feminist work in history. Much of Lorde’s work was formed on her experiences of racism, homophobia, and oppression throughout her life in the United States of America. These experiences formed her theory of difference, which will be the focus of this essay:

The future of our earth may depend upon the ability of all women to identify and develop new definitions of power and new patterns of relating across difference. The old definitions have not served us, nor the earth that supports us. [1]

I will critically engage with this notion to ultimately argue that Audre Lorde’s theory of difference is still contemporarily relevant. Despite the emergence of challenges to power such as the feminisation of politics, and recognition of difference through intersectionality and ecofeminism, patriarchal oppression is still pertinent today. To make this argument, I will firstly pinpoint how Lorde theorises difference and identify why it is still relevant to engage with. Then, I will consider the triumphs of intersectional feminism, feminist politics, and ecofeminism, in displaying women recognising difference and shifting power.

Audre Lorde documented her theory of difference in 1984 in her book of speeches and essays, ‘Sister Outsider’. In this piece, Audre identifies herself as a “forty-nine-year-old Black lesbian feminist socialist mother of two, including one boy, and a member of an interracial couple”. [2] ­­­She proposes that human differences are positioned in oppositional means, resulting in oppressed groups being treated as excess. [3] Audre defines these inferior groups to be people of colour, people of the global south, working-class people, older people, and women. [4] Because of the ‘differences’ her identity encompasses, Audre explains how she is frequently placed as deviant. The connection between human differences and oppression is not theorised to be because of the differences themselves.

Lorde argues that human differences are problematic because they are not explicitly acknowledged, and their reality thus becomes distorted. It is argued that the rejection of difference is institutionalised and is evident in the form of ignorance, replication, or destruction. Further, this rejection is theorised to create distortions in society and drive a wedge between women in the struggle for equality. [5] Lorde proposes then, that the only hope to mobilise change is to shift power through recognition and reimagine human difference. Though this call out is still relevant, progress is evident in areas of the feminist movement.

Lorde places strong emphasis on her engagement with every facet of her identity as essential to battling her and other’s oppressions. She recounts that as a person who is comfortable with her many identities, there is a push to draw one of them to the front above all else. Instead, she argues that her identity, including her commitment to racial and sexual freedom from oppression, is the most powerful in its entirety. To engage with Lorde’s theory of difference, I considered the aspects of my identity and my commitments. As a queer feminist environmentalist woman, who is committed to justice for the human and non-human environment, I chose to exemplify Lorde’s call to shift power and recognise difference as I am most familiar with it. I have selected examples of ecofeminism and the feminisation of politics as they relate to my position and conviction. I chose to engage with intersectionality because of its contemporary relevance to the broader feminist movement.

I am also compelled by Lorde to acknowledge my position as white woman living in a country with a colonial history. Lorde suggests that it is ‘easier’ for white women, than for women of colour, to co-exist within the patriarchal system. While I do not necessarily disagree with this notion, it is important to note that while white women are afforded many luxuries due to their racial standing, including the ability to co-exist within the patriarchal system, I do not believe it is easy for any woman to be complacent with any form of oppression. I engaged with the feminisation of politics distinctly because of its exemplification of a diversity of women, including white women, who are compelled to reject patriarchy.

The emergence of intersectionality in mainstream feminism gives rise to the recognition of difference. Intersectionality analyses the relationship between mutually existing oppressions of gender, race, class, sexuality and age. [6] The concept is not exclusive to, the Third Wave feminist movement, though it was popularised by it. The mainstreaming of intersectionality brought the recognition of difference among women to a broader demographic. The analysis considers how the existence of multiple oppressions coincides and affects women’s overall experience. [7] Intersectionality acknowledges difference in a way that does not position any identity as inferior to another. Many theorists have criticised the rise of intersectional feminism by claiming it has been adapted by white feminists with racist underpinnings, who seek to legitimate their own identities through self-exoneration. [8] Despite critiques, intersectionality does adhere to Lorde’s call by offering an identification of difference and how it affects the experience of oppression to mainstream discourse. However, there are more specific feminist movements that do this which actively challenge the patriarchal construct of society.

The feminisation of politics is a considerable step towards restructuring patriarchal dominance. Political systems, historically, have been constructed around the parameters of masculinity. [9] The competition, hierarchy, and aggression evident in politics are afforded to hegemonic men, and determine all others as deviant. [10] Some have argued that the continuation of hegemonic-masculinity practiced in politics can be altered through representation of women. [11] This notion relies on an increased female presence in the political sphere to disrupt the masculine behaviours that are oppressive and violent. However, this does not challenge or provide a restructure of the system at large. Rather, it places the responsibility on women to alter the behaviour of men in politics by entering the domain. However, as Lorde argues, increased representation and presence alone is ineffective; it allows oppressors to maintain their privileged position.[12] The adoption of the masculine and patriarchal political system by women creates the illusion of protection that will not alter the former structure of oppression. [13] As Lorde writes, “For the mater’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” [14] Feminist scholars since have gone beyond the subject of representation and are recognising and redefining difference as was once envisioned by Lorde.

In some locations around the world the political order is being challenged by a feminine, feminist restructure of politics. Citizen platforms active in towns of Spain, the United Kingdom, and Kurdistan are devising a more democratic system from the local level, up. [15] The movement goes beyond the representation of women and seeks to unhinge the masculine behaviours that underpin politics, by practicing feminie modes of democracy. [16] Spokes people of the movement acknowledge that the feminie construct is a product of patriarchy itself. However, the inclusion of ‘feminine’ practices such as collaboration, dialogue, and horizontality are considered necessary to draw women into the political arena and restructure patriarchy at its source. [17] Considering political oppression is a dominant exercise of hetero-patriarchy, racism, classism and sexism, the feminisation of politics is a contemporary way, women, as a collective are developing new definitions of power.

Audre Lorde’s call for the restructure of power and recognition of difference has eventuated within the ecofeminist movement. Ecological consequences have been considered an addition to women’s burden. [18] Ecofeminism, broadly, proposes that the oppression of women and the exploitation of nature are interconnected. [19] The basis of this notion relies on the premise that our experiences of gender and nature are socially, culturally, and historically constructed. Consequently, constructions of gender influence one’s experience with nature, and vice versa. [20] Dominant expressions of masculinity—such as irrationality and emotion-removed intuition—when applied to nature become problematic for the environment. [21] In the same way, hegemonic exertion of masculinity actively oppresses women. [22] Ecofeminism aims to restructure the masculine dominance, which underpins the environmental and women’s movement, and recreate alternatives to patriarchy. [23] Despite the lesser engagement Lorde made with environmental issues, her theory of difference has been used in ecofeminist discourse. Lorde’s notion of destroying patriarchy by redevising its oppressive systems, rather than adapting to them, is of contemporary relevance for the ecofeminist movement. [24] This movement is derived from theory regarding difference and the interrelation of oppressive systems.

Ecofeminism considers sexism as interconnected with other forms of oppression, such as racism and classism. [25] The movement suggests that through shared oppression of being a woman, there are shared experiences and ideology. [26] This suggestion does not come without the acknowledgement and reiteration of human differences, and their consequences. Ecofeminism recognises difference between experience due to race, nationality, and class. [27] This identification does not exist as an oppressive notion; rather, it identifies how differences between realities have uneven affects. Ecofeminist’s recognise that indigenous women and people of colour bare extensive impacts of environmental violation due to oppressive structures. [28] Considering the way human differences influence experience, definitions and ambitions of ecofeminism are diverse. [29] Ecofeminism includes the recognition of difference, and a vision and need for the restructure of power present in Audre Lorde’s proposal. As well as this, ecofeminism engages with the underlying environmentalist rhetoric that identifies the need to “serve the earth that supports us”. [30]

An extension of the recognition of difference in experience as an inclusion of ecofeminism is the acknowledgement of biopiracy. Though not through direct means, Lorde touches on this concept within her theorisation of difference. Influential ecofeminist Vandana Shiva explains biopiracy as the colonisation and privatisation of seeds, plants, human and non-human animals, and their culturally significant knowledge, by transnational organisations. [31] This process is a similarly oppressive system rooted in patriarchy, racism, and the positioning of ‘deviant’ identities as surplus. [32] The theft of objects belonging to indigenous people of the global south, particularly women, is a prominent issue. [33] Lorde recounts a similar exertion of oppression in the way colonisers call on people of colour, and on the global south, to share knowledge for their profit. [34] Biopiracy exploits indigenous and female art, which in turn is destructive to the creative capabilities of those it affects. [35] Such differences in class, race and gender affects who has access to create and produce art. Biopiracy’s effects are rooted in the distortions of unacknowledged difference; though it is a phenomenon premised on an acknowledgement of the way differences affect oppression. Hence, biopiracy is a relevant example of why Lorde’s theory of difference is contemporarily relevant.

Lorde has contributed substantially to the feminist discipline through her activism, poetry, and theory. Her engagement with the self provides an intimate understanding of her complex experiences of multiple identities, which in turn determine her social positioning and experience of multiple oppressions. Lorde’s theory of difference, formed from these experiences, calls out the necessity to recognise and examine human differences of race, age, gender, and class. Furthermore, she calls on the responsibility of all women to shift power structures and redefine patterns of difference for a just and sustainable future. Throughout this essay I have engaged with Audre Lorde’s theory of difference to argue for its contemporary relevance. To make this argument I firstly defined Audre’s theory of difference. Then, the emergence of intersectionality was discussed to identify the recognition of difference among mainstream feminism. And finally, the feminization of politics and the ecofeminist movement were elaborated on for their deconstruction of patriarchy and recognition of collective oppressions. These examples were chosen for how they relate to my personal, and multiple identities, and to represent the new patterns of shifts in power.

Grace has recently graduated from a Bachelor of Arts with an Extended Major in Sociology and a Minor in Gender Studies at the University of Queensland. Throughout her studies in the field of social science and humanities, she has incorporated issues surrounding distributions of power, gender, development, and the human and non-human environment, into my research and thought. She is specifically interested in neo-capitalist modes of production and consumption in regards to the global fashion industry, and the way ethical dilemmas both emerge and are conceptualised (or aren’t) within consumer nations.


[1] Lorde, Age, Race, Class, and Sex, 123.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Lorde, Age, Race, Class, and Sex.

[6] L. Roth and K. Baird, “Municipalism and the Feminization of Politics,” ROAR, 2017.

[7] Roth and Baird, “Municipalism and the Feminization of Politics”.

[8] A. Carastathis, Intersectionality: Origins, Contestations, Horizons (Lincoln: Project Muse, 2016).

[9] J. Lovenduski, “Feminising Politics,” Women: a cultural review 13, no. 2 (2002).

[10] Roth and Baird, “Municipalism and the Feminization of Politics”.

[11] Lovenduski, “Feminising Politics”.

[12] Lorde, Age, Race, Class, and Sex.

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid.

[15] Roth and Baird, “Municipalism and the Feminization of Politics”.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Mellor, “Ecofeminist Economics: Women, Work and the Environment,” Women & Environments International Magazine, 2002.

[19] L. Vance, “Ecofeminism and the Politics of Reality, 118-145,” in Ecofeminism, ed. G. Gaard (Philadelphia: Project MUSE, 1993).

[20] J. Birkeland, “Ecofeminism: Linking Theory and Practice, 13-59,” in Ecofeminsim, ed G. Gaard (Philadelphia: Project MUSE, 1993).

[21] Birkeland, “Ecofeminsim: Linking Theory and Practice”.

[22] H. L. Li, “A Cross-Cultural Critique of Ecofeminism, 272-294,” in Ecofeminism, ed. G. Gaard (Philadelphia: Project MUSE, 1993).

[23] Birkeland, “Ecofeminism: Linking Theory and Practice”.; Li, “A Cross-Cultural Critique of Ecofeminism”.

[24] Mellor, “Ecofeminist Economics: Women, Work and the Environment”.

[25] Li, “A Cross-Cultural Critique of Ecofeminism”.

[26] Birkeland, “Ecofeminism: Linking Theory and Practice”.

[27] Ibid.

[28] V. Tauli-Corpuz, “Is Biopiracy an Issue for Feminists in the Philippines?” Journal of Women in Culture and Society 32, no. 2 (2007).

[29] Vance, “Ecofeminism and the Politics of Reality”.

[30] Lorde, Age, Race, Class, and Sex.

[31] N. Sharma and A. Campbell, “Vandana Shiva on Sexual Economics, Biopiracy and Women’s Ongoing Resistance to Colonialism,” Atlantis 32, no. 2 (1999).

[32] Sharma and Campbell, “Vandana Shiva on Sexual Econoimcs, Biopiracy and Women’s Ongoing Resistance to Colonialism”.

[33] Tauli-Corpuz, “Is Biopiracy an Issue for Feminists in the Philippines?”.

[34] Lorde, Age, Race, Class, and Sex.

[35] Sharma and Campbell, “Vandana Shiva on Sexual Economics, Biopiracy and Women’s Ongoing Resistance to Colonialism”.

Works Cited

Birkeland, J. “Ecofeminism: Linking Theory and Practice, 13-59.” in Ecofeminsim, ed G. Gaard (Philadelphia: Project MUSE, 1993).

Carastathis, A. Intersectionality: Origins, Contestations, Horizons. (Lincoln: Project Muse, 2016).

Li, H. L. “A Cross-Cultural Critique of Ecofeminism, 272-294.” in Ecofeminism, ed. G. Gaard (Philadelphia: Project MUSE, 1993).

Lorde, A. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference, 114-123.” In Sister Outsider. (Freedom CA: Crossing Press, 1984), 123.

Mellor. “Ecofeminist Economics: Women, Work and the Environment.” Women & Environments International Magazine, 2002.

Lovenduski, J. “Feminising Politics.” Women: a cultural review 13, no. 2 (2002).

 Roth, L. and Baird, K. “Municipalism and the Feminization of Politics.” ROAR, 2017.

Sharma, N. and Campbell, A. “Vandana Shiva on Sexual Economics, Biopiracy and Women’s Ongoing Resistance to Colonialism.” Atlantis 32, no. 2 (1999).

Tauli-Corpuz, V. “Is Biopiracy an Issue for Feminists in the Philippines?” Journal of Women in Culture and Society 32, no. 2 (2007).

Vance, L. “Ecofeminism and the Politics of Reality, 118-145.” in Ecofeminism, ed. G. Gaard (Philadelphia: Project MUSE, 1993).

Featured image by Bayron Alfaro Jopia via flickr


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