On Mother Earth and Earth Mothers

Why Environmentalism Has a Gender Problem

Not so long ago, technologies like microwaves and frozen foods were understood to be liberatory. Along with washing machines, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, and a host of other inventions, these household innovations allowed women to unshackle themselves from many of the demands of domestic labor. It didn’t all work out as hoped. With labor-saving technology at hand, cleanliness and other domestic standards rose. Today, women still perform the lion’s share of domestic work, even among affluent couples, and even within a rising share of dual-income households.1

But it is also true that domestic labor demands upon women in affluent economies have declined dramatically. In the 1960s, women spent an average of 28 hours per week on housework; by 2011, they averaged 15.2 These gains are all the more important as wages in the United States stagnate and the number of single-parent households have grown.3 With many women taking on more than one job, facing longer commutes, and working irregular hours to make ends meet,4 the technological progress that has enabled something so handy as a 30-minute meal only eases the burden of the “second shift,” those unpaid post-work chores that still fall overwhelmingly to women.

And yet, today, a growing chorus of voices argues that to be proper environmentalists and nurturing parents, each night should involve a home-cooked meal of fresh, organic, unprocessed ingredients. “We’re doing so little home cooking now,” food guru Michael Pollan says, “the family meal is truly endangered.”5 Chastising the typical household for spending a mere 27 minutes a day preparing food, Pollan champions increasingly time-consuming methods of food production in defense of the allegedly life-enriching experience of cooking he fears is rapidly being lost.6

The juxtaposition is jarring, if not much remarked upon. At a moment in our history when increasing numbers of women have liberated themselves from many of the demands of unpaid domestic labor, prominent environmental thinkers are advocating a return to the very domestic labor that stubbornly remains the domain of women.

For women of lower socioeconomic status, the demands of a time-intensive, low-technology approach to food preparation are even more onerous. In a critique of this return-to-the-kitchen narrative, authors Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott, and Joslyn Brenton describe interviews they conducted with mothers from a variety of ethnic and socioeconomic groups, whose experiences could not have been more unlike the idealized vision offered up by Pollan—in which the cook finds herself “in that sweet spot where the frontier between work and play disappears in a cloud of bread flour or fragrant steam rising from a boiling kettle of wort.”7 Rather, they were juggling tight schedules, picky children, and the cost of fresh ingredients.4

The idea of a languorous, technology-free, larger-than-life cooking experience is consistent with the longstanding characterization of the kitchen (and the associated garden and farm) as a premodern oasis disconnected from the broader forces of technology and industrialization.8 Like the household, the smallholder farm idealized as pastoral fantasy disconnected from the capitalist system is contingent upon free labor. In most parts of the world, smallholder farms are economically viable only because women (and often children) provide their labor at no cost.9

This raises the question — what would an environmentalism that takes feminism seriously look like?

Many of those beckoning women back to the kitchen and the smallholder farm have tried, clumsily, to integrate women’s issues and environmental concerns. Too often, however, they fall back on tired tropes that conflate the two, characterizing both women and nature as disenfranchised, marginalized entities subject to the much stronger force of patriarchal capitalism. Ecofeminists like Vandana Shiva argue that the low status and exploitation of poor women on smallholder farms are a function of capitalism and Western science and technology, not low-intensity, low-input agriculture that requires uncompensated labor to be viable.10 Pollan argues that the solution to heavy domestic burdens that women still bear is to simply urge men to take on more responsibilities, not to forgo time-consuming food preparation.11

Both defenses are blind to the class implications of eschewing technology in favor of more labor-intensive, “earth-friendly” practices, and implicit in both are gendered ideas about caretaking and nature that are antithetical to feminism. The earth becomes another dependent that women must find time and energy to care for.

This raises the question — what would an environmentalism that takes feminism seriously look like?

Rather than naturalize the connection between women and the environment, or push pseudo-environmental practices that result in further gender inequity, there must be a way for women of all classes and ethnicities to actualize their personal and professional goals without having to perform a set of time-intensive activities that constrain them to traditional gender roles.


Modern environmentalism has had a complicated relationship with gender. From Rachel Carson onward, strong, independent women have featured prominently. Iconic figures like Lois Gibbs, Erin Brockovich, and Karen Silkwood demanded corporate accountability in the face of efforts to silence them, and were among the first to bring environmental issues into the public sphere.12

But in a variety of other ways, environmental discourse remains heavily gendered. Wilderness was first “discovered” and then conquered by strapping white men like Lewis and Clark and Daniel Boone.13 From Henry David Thoreau to Edward Abbey to Yvon Chouinard, wilderness has remained, in the environmental imagination, a place where men retreat in search of solace and themselves. The polemicized claims of contemporary conservation discourse, from monkeywrenching to biocentrism, have tended to further inscribe wilderness as a place that men discover, describe, decamp to, and defend.

Women, by contrast, are cast as caretakers and nurturers, of their families, their communities, and by extension, the earth. The role is passive and reactive. Women don’t seek out nature; environmental degradation finds them. Rachel Carson watches the birds die. Lois Gibbs learns that her subdivision was built atop a toxic waste dump. The women of India who would inspire the Chipko movement hug trees to keep a timber concessionaire from cutting them down.

The conflation between women and nature has concrete implications for how women are positioned within the environmental movement.

From the 1970s onwards, ecofeminist theorists like Carolyn Merchant and Karen Warren have attempted to recast gendered roles within the environmental movement in a more positive light,14 suggesting that women, because they are more likely to have been subject to other forms of oppression, are more aware of environmental injustice; that because they are more likely to be poor and disenfranchised, are more likely to be on the receiving end of environmental impacts; and that because they are more likely to be caretakers, are more sensitized to environmental health concerns.12

There is some evidence for all of these claims. But too often, those arguments suggest an implicit, and in some cases explicit, biological determinism that would leave most feminists aghast. Many ecofeminists have argued that women are more connected to nature on account of their biological systems (menstruation and reproductive capacity) and “mystical” connectedness with the earth.15 Characterized in this way, women lack agency over their bodies, at the mercy of preordained systems (in this case, biological) beyond their control. Gender, in popular ecofeminist discourse, and too often in the scholarly literature as well, is portrayed as essentialist and deterministic rather than a social construction.

The gendering of environmental discourse is further projected onto the earth, which is cast in the feminine, subject to the rapacious exploitation of masculine techno-industrial society. “Mother Earth” is always nurturing, there to provide, cleaning up when humans make a mess, even acting out dramatically when humans err too much.

The conflation between women and nature has concrete implications for how women are positioned within the environmental movement. Women are cast as closer to the earth and thus biologically possessing different priorities. The market, technology, capitalism, and the modern world are for men. Women are tasked with manifesting all that capitalist culture isn’t. In both the developed and developing world, women are expected to eschew time-saving technological solutions and the petty world of wage-based labor in favor of actions that prioritize the environment at the expense of their own priorities and objectives. The problem is that this increases women’s economic vulnerability, excludes middle- and lower-class women, and perpetuates existing power differentials.


Since the birth of the women’s movement, feminists have struggled to navigate the complex relationships between sex, biology, social and cultural norms, and social and economic power. These questions have revolved not around whether biological differences are real but rather to what degree they can account for differences in roles, attitudes, and status between men and women.

Biological differences between men and women have long been used by defenders of the status quo to defend male privilege and power and to justify the second-class status of women. More recently, many of those arguments have been repurposed by some feminist thinkers as their own, to argue that female biology, and the cultures and mindsets that come with it, are superior. Women may not be stronger or more aggressive than men. But due to their capacity as caretakers, they are more emotionally intelligent and more peace-loving, prone to compromise and collaboration, not bellicosity and conflict. Singularly among the post-’60s identity-based movements, some feminists positioned women not only as victims of patriarchal male oppression, deserving of justice and protection, but as possessed of special knowledge accessible only to them, derived not from experience but from biology.14

More than one generation of feminist scholars have rejected this sort of biological determinism broadly, from Simone de Beauvoir’s publication of The Second Sex in 1949, and her now-famous claim that one is not born but rather becomes a woman, through to Donna Haraway and Judith Butler’s work on the ways that gender is performed and constructed at the end of the 20th century.16 Latter-day ecofeminism, too, in response to the numerous charges of gender essentialism leveled against it, has attempted to absorb some of these critiques.17 But the uncritical assumption of an “ethic of care” in response to environmental ills continues.18

French feminist theorist Elisabeth Badinter takes sharp exception to this new naturalism, and what she sees as the reinscription of maternalism in modern society and ecological consciousness. In her book Le Conflit: La Femme et la Mère, Badinter attacks “motherhood fundamentalism” for being “a movement dressed in the guise of a modern, moral cause that worships all things natural.” To Badinter, “feminism of victimhood” represents the surrendering of women to the inevitable tasks of one’s gender, which she sees as an attempt by conspirators to drive women out of the workplace and thus out of power. She chastises practices that rob women of their agency, pitting women and the environment against one another in a zero-sum game. “Between the protection of trees and the liberty of women, my choice is clear,” Badinter says, “powdered milk, jars of baby food, and disposable nappies were all stages in the liberation of women.” She sees the unabashed elevation of breastfeeding, one of the few acts that remain solely “women’s work,” and the rest of the attachment parenting formula as onerous demands that detract from a woman’s ability to pursue personal and professional ends, and thus as anathema to the feminist cause.19

While family meals of wholesome, home-cooked foods are increasingly romanticized, it’s likely that they are romanticized by those on the receiving end of those meals.

The same, of course, could be said of the unpaid labor that comes with “all-natural,” home-cooked meals. The first line of defense to this sort of critique has been to argue that domestic labor should not fall to women alone. Anticipating criticism to his call for home cooking, Michael Pollan argues in Cooked that “by now it should be possible to make a case for the importance of cooking without defending the traditional division of domestic labor. Indeed, that argument will probably get nowhere unless it challenges the traditional arrangements of domesticity — and assumes a prominent role for men in the kitchen, as well as children.”7 And perhaps, in stable, two-parent families, that is the case. But for many households, even in an affluent nation like the United States, that sort of stable and equitable domesticity is not an option. Bowen, Elliott, and Brenton interviewed one working-class African-American couple who were employed by two different fast-food restaurants 45 minutes apart, and rarely knew their schedules ahead of time. The lack of reliable public transportation, compounded by uncertain work hours, made meal planning and cooking a challenge. Other middle-class women, even those with relatively egalitarian household arrangements, would arrive home at six in the evening and attempt to balance spending time with their children and cooking a meal from unprocessed ingredients, as they had been told was best for their family and the environment.4 For poorer families, the cost of plant-focused meals advocated by lifestyle environmentalists was often another barrier,20 as was the difficulty of accommodating various food preferences, which made trying new foods a financially risky venture.

While family meals of wholesome, home-cooked foods are increasingly romanticized, it’s likely that they are romanticized by those on the receiving end of those meals. Historically, once a family improves its socioeconomic status, it outsources labor-intensive activities to lower-class workers. According to a 1937 survey conducted by Fortune magazine, “70 percent of the rich, 42 percent of the upper middle class, 14 percent of the lower middle class, and 6 percent of the poor reported hiring some.”21 Today, upper-class women who appear to be “doing it all” are likely reliant on at least some domestic help, who clean, cook, watch the children, and then disappear from sight.22

For the women interviewed by Bowen and her colleagues, shopping and cooking occasionally added joy but just as often added stress, burdens, and trade-offs. Ironically, the practices advocated by Pollan, Mark Bittman,23 and other popular food and lifestyle gurus in the name of sustainability and a rich and fulfilling home life turn out to be practical only for women who have benefited the most from industrial society.

But the demands that contemporary environmental ethics place upon women do not end with Pollanesque gatherings around the family table. Young mothers are told to forgo processed baby food, relying as it does on far-flung commodity chains and nonlocal ingredients. Instead, they should make their own,24 reject formula in favor of breastfeeding,25 and replace disposable diapers with cloth.26 All, women are told, are necessary to raise healthy babies on a healthy planet. Each prescription combines claims of environmental benefit, however minor (given the water- and chemical-intensive processes associated with producing and reusing cloth diapers, for instance, they are only marginally better for the environment), with increased domestic demands.

Upon leaving the home, women face another series of charges from lifestyle greens. The choice to ride a bike instead of drive,27 for instance, isn’t so simple for women disproportionately tasked with shopping and transporting children from place to place.28 Little wonder that women ride bicycles as transportation at less than one-third the rate of men.29

In these and a variety of other ways, green ideology tells women that tasks that can be automated should be rejected in the name of processes that are closer to nature, without any recognition of the broader social and structural context in which these activities occur. Women perform the bulk of unpaid labor while being beseeched to perform that labor in ways that are more difficult and time-intensive and bring at best minor benefits to the environment or the well-being of their families. The “natural is better” formula and the romanticization of domesticity as untainted by capitalism allow the larger systems in which women and the environment are embedded to escape scrutiny.


The utopian vision of the small farm as pastoral ideal outside the realm of capitalism, largely conjured up by those far removed from the realities of agrarian life, is even more problematic for the status of women in the developing world than is the proliferation of environmental demands upon women in affluent economies. Small farms in the developing world are indeed outside the realm of capitalism. Despite the fact that small farms produce up to 80 percent of the food supply in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, their share of the formal market is marginal, and very few farmers earn enough to escape poverty.30 In sub-Saharan Africa, three-quarters of malnourished children live on small farms.31 And women, who are disproportionally employed in farm-based labor, are likely to suffer as advocates of smallholder farms ignore the economic realities of small-farm production capacities.32

None of this has prevented ecofeminists like Vandana Shiva from rhapsodizing about the ways in which rural agrarian life allows women to live in harmony with nature. “Nature,” as Shiva writes in Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development, is “the creator and source of wealth, and rural women, peasants and tribals who live in, and derive sustenance from nature, have a systematic and deep knowledge of nature’s processes.” These “Third World women,” in their resurgence, “are laying the foundations for the recovery of the feminine principle in nature and society, and through it the recovery of the earth as sustainer and provider.”10

But these sorts of idealizations misrepresent the realities of rural life in developing economies. Seventy percent of the world’s poor live and work in rural areas, mostly in subsistence agriculture.33 Women, in turn, by some estimates constitute as much as 70 percent of the global poor and two-thirds of the world’s adult nonliterate.34 Nearly 70 percent of employed women in southern Asia and over 60 percent of employed women in sub-Saharan Africa work in agriculture, primarily as unpaid or contributing family workers.35 In these contexts, women are also excessively responsible for unpaid caregiving, including running the household and providing food for family members. The International Fund for Agricultural Development’s 2011 Rural Poverty Report indicates that these responsibilities often require a 16-hour workday for rural women in developing countries, with “important consequences for women’s time-poverty and health.”33

Small farms in the developing world are indeed outside the realm of capitalism.

Some have suggested that with sufficient policy support, smallholder farms might be able to generate higher incomes while reducing the demands for uncompensated labor from women and children.36 But the more likely path for women and children out of agrarian poverty is the one that most have followed historically — leaving agriculture altogether.37 While still imperfect, the gender equity and expanded personal and professional horizons that women have attained in Western developed economies are simply not possible in subsistence agrarian economies.

Of course, it is also true that women have not been liberated from subservient roles in subsistence agriculture all at once. Incremental approaches that marshal technology in service of empowering women socially and economically while also addressing environmental and resource challenges can help support a virtuous cycle of income growth, education, empowerment, and environmental protection.

Take the much-publicized Green Belt Movement, established by Wangari Maathai. Women in rural Kenya are traditionally responsible for the gathering of fuelwood for cooking, a time-consuming activity that reduces native forest cover, adversely affects women’s health due to smoke inhalation and back pain, and inhibits the pursuit of more economically viable livelihoods. In response, the introduction of biogas digesters, which process livestock manure anaerobically to generate gas, has led to a marked reduction in fuelwood use and positive health impacts.38 The solution simultaneously addresses female empowerment, deforestation, and economic agency.

In contrast to efforts that focus centrally on environmental conservation, conservation in this context comes as a cobenefit of technological progress and political economic change that enable societies to intensify production, address poverty, and empower women, while reducing pressure on biological systems. What is critical about these solutions is that they are not contingent on the contribution of free labor by women, the conflation of women and nature, or the sacrifice of female economic empowerment. Rather, female empowerment — not what is “natural” — is seen as a critical component of environmental problem solving.


So what does environmentalism look like when it takes women’s realities seriously? To start, it will need to finally come to terms with modernization. From a feminist perspective, this would hardly be a radical departure. At least since Virginia Woolf identified “a room of her own and five hundred a year” as the necessary preconditions for a woman to achieve personal and professional empowerment,39 feminists have advocated for those fruits of modernization — individuation, privacy, education, and civil rights — that have enabled the relative gender equality that the majority of the developed world experiences today. Modern technologies like oral birth control, for instance, have further served to relieve women of the burdens of unwanted pregnancy, the health risks of multiple pregnancies, and abortion; and indeed, today the pill is widely heralded for allowing women control over their reproductive cycles, and subsequently their lives.

In the developing world, it is also modernization, and in particular the transition from agrarian to urban livelihoods, that has the most potential to transform women’s realities. Moving to cities enables women to work for an income outside of the home, to escape discrimination more rampant in rural regions, to access education and health care, and to participate in the public sphere. Smaller gains like access to piped water and public transportation can also have an outsized impact on women’s ability to pursue opportunities beyond their domestic responsibilities. Fertility rates, finally, tend to fall with urbanization and the access to education, paid work, modern values, and other means of empowerment that go along with it, further relieving women of domestic burdens and granting them greater options, opportunities, and financial stability.40

At bottom, feminist thought and action are incompatible with poverty, agrarianism, and neoprimitivism.

Women’s liberation has always had a dual and linked meaning, referring to both liberation from patriarchal male oppression and from the physical and psychological demands of domestic labor. In the developed world, the household devices of the 19th and 20th centuries — refrigerators, washing machines, cake mixers — reduced the amount of labor needed to run a household, which in turn decreased the weekly workload of the average American woman.41 Peg Bracken’s irreverent The I Hate to Cook Book, a celebration of the canned, powdered, and store-bought published in 1960, stands as a reminder of this legacy.42 While domestic responsibilities still burden women disproportionately, these conveniences have undoubtedly left women with more time for other pursuits — including environmental advocacy.

In the developing world, the intensification of agriculture leads to greater yields on smaller amounts of land with less labor, enabling women to pursue nonagricultural employment while also freeing up land for wildlife habitat.43 In both cases, technology is practically required to address environmental concerns without doing so on the backs of women.

Many greens will not embrace technology overnight, as it is seen as inextricably bound up with a capitalist system culpable for environmental degradation. But conflating technological innovations with the social and political context in which they were deployed forecloses possibilities for problem solving.

At bottom, feminist thought and action are incompatible with poverty, agrarianism, and neoprimitivism. Modern notions of rights, identity, and agency cannot be reconciled with premodern social, economic, and political arrangements. Female empowerment, in the long term, requires modern agriculture, energy, and infrastructure. Environmental ethics that reject those prerequisites in the name of the natural and pastoral are, simply put, irreconcilable with feminism.

The glorification of nature and farming and the romanticizing of the home, domestic life, and the woman at the center of it are ultimately nostalgias that cover up the brutality of rural life and drudgery of domestic labor in a perfume of freshly cut hay and caramelizing onions. While the new domestics advocating home brewing, fermenting kombucha, and churning butter are likely aware of their irony in an era of unprecedented technological progress, this nostalgia does little to further the goals of middle- and lower-class women in the developed world.

However fervently Pollan may argue that cooking is selfless, nonalienated, and leisurely, his ideals stand in stark contrast to the lived experience of women, wherein cooking, while often satisfying, is equally often frustrating, rushed, and increasingly moralized. The popularity of the 30-minute meals Pollan lambasts does not represent laziness, but rather a desire to still cook in the context of the social and economic realities of the modern world.

An environmentalism that makes daily life harder for a certain segment of the population is not ethical. Romanticizing unpaid labor disregards the burdens on the populations that perform it. Ultimately, environmental change will require far more than the calls of charismatic men (and occasionally women) to return to the kitchen, or to the farm. Instead, it will be those structural and technological changes that alter the lived realities of women in developed and developing countries alike that will succeed in meaningfully, and equitably, addressing both environmental and feminist concerns.

Read more from Breakthrough Journal, No. 7
Democracy in the Anthropocene
Featuring pieces by Erle Ellis, Emma Marris,
Calestous Juma, and Siddhartha Shome

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