Flint, Michigan and the Intersectionality of Ecofeminism

Maddie O’Connell | contributing officer

For the last two decades, Flint, Michigan has struggled economically — basically, the city is broke. Half of its population left in search of new employment after the downfall of Michigan’s auto industry in the 1990s, and remaining residents struggled to pay for services like local police and clean water.

On April 25, 2014, in an historic money-saving measure, former Mayor Dayne Walling switched the source of Flint’s tap water from Lake Huron — which the Detroit Water and Sewer Department provided — to the local Flint River.

Flint residents said they were unanimously disgusted by the brown pigment and dirty smell of their new water, according to Vox.

The Vox documentary also states that over the course of 18 months, residents repeatedly demanded their government to admit that the water was contaminated.

Nearly two years later, Flint’s outcry echoes nationally as activists, politicians and the press have taken notice.

An August 2015 study from Virginia Polytechnical Institute revealed the alarming truth about Flint’s water — the water from Flint River is 12 times more corrosive than water in Detroit, meaning Flint’s water is chemically more prone to leaching lead from water pipes. This leaves lead in the water that goes straight to Flint homeowners’ faucets, which, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, can increase blood lead levels and cause  negative health effects, especially in infants, if consumed.

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality neglected to treat the Flint River water with an appropriate amount of anti-corrosive agents, by the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards. This put thousands at risk for developing serious health issues, according to the Virginia Tech study.

Still, state regulators continued denying the validity of these results, among other tests that the government clearly knew about or even conducted themselves, insisting the water was safe to drink until October 2015.

In the 18 months that Mayor Walling, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and other higher-ups belittled Flint’s uproar and jeopardized their health and safety, how much did the government actually know about the quality of Flint’s water? There was almost no state or local government efforts to rectify such a massive mistake, and the government failed its constituents.

Framing this issue is the fact that access to clean water is both an environmental and social concern: “ecofeminism” marks the location where these two concepts meet.

Ecofeminism is a green political movement that ties feminism to ecology. Through a global and intersectional feminist lens, ecofeminists examine why environmental issues, like climate change and fracking, are women’s issues.

The exploitation of women and the destruction of the environment are inextricably linked by patriarchy. We socially attribute “feminine” characteristics, like nurture and cooperation, with planet Earth—maternalistic language like “Mother Nature”—which justifies patriarchal domination and ownership of both.

Ecofeminist scholarship lingers behind the politics of all environmental issues. Feminists and all Flint residents have stakes in this situation: having access to clean water is an issue of reproductive justice.

“Reproductive justice includes a person’s right to decide if, when, and how to have a child and ensuring that mothers are able to raise children in a healthy and safe environment,” according to the Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan. The situation in Flint violates this ideology. In fact, Planned Parenthood partnered with the Genesee County Health Department to offer a limited supply of free water filters to Flint residents, and the Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan held rallies on behalf of Flint families who were poisoned by the tainted water supply.

According to a class-action lawsuit filed against Flint and state government officials, residents have reported skin lesions, hair loss, chemical-induced hypertension, autoimmune disorder, E. coli and seizures, along with high levels of lead and copper in bloodstream, brains, bones and other organs. County commissioner Brenda Clack urged pregnant women, as well as infants and young children, to not drink the water.

These ecofeminist concerns are especially harrowing from an intersectional lens. As a result of the aforementioned auto industry collapse, 40 percent of Flint’s 100,000 residents fall below the poverty line, and the median household income for Flint residents was just $23,131 in 2013.

About two-thirds of the Flint community is non-white — 55.4 percent of the Flint community identifies as black. If Flint were a middle-to-upper class, primarily white community, state officials would not have exposed Flint residents to toxic water for over a year and a half. They would have responded more quickly to complaints, and they would not have introduced this cost-saving measure in the first place.

Activist and writer Shaun King argues that Flint’s access to clean water has everything to do with the town’s racial demographics.

John Eligon for the New York Times links the Flint crisis to environmental racism, a “term [that] refers to the disproportionate exposure of blacks to polluted air, water and soil. It is considered the result of poverty and segregation that has relegated many blacks and other racial minorities to some of the most industrialized or dilapidated environments.” Injustices committed by state officials—mostly white and male—against Flint citizens slid by because of the institutional biases against poor minority communities.

Genosee County, which includes Flint, was one of 13 counties who voted for Governor Rick Snyder’s opponent in the last gubernatorial election. Snyder’s administration did not owe much to the black community, or the poor community or the families of Flint, and it perpetuated oppression against these marginalized groups. Snyder’s administration continued to let the people of Flint drink contaminated water only until the issue emerged in the national public eye.

Considering the recent history of the U.S. government’s role in the forced sterilization of racial minorities, it is not so far-fetched for Flint residents, the press and activists alike to consider the intersectional ecofeminist implications of their water crisis.

Flint’s situation sheds an unflattering light on the relationship between environmentalism, feminism, racism, classism and politics in the United States, and they will undoubtedly become an example of the way institutional neglect of human rights perpetuates aggression in our country.

Photo licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Maddie is a junior sociology major and the Vice President of The Fourth Wave.

Check out more from our February 2016 issue!