This contribution offers a response to Melissa Leach's paper ‘Earth Mothers and Other Ecofeminist Fables: How a Strategic Notion Rose and Fell’, published in an earlier issue of Development and Change. Leach's article examined the rise and fall of the figure of ‘woman as natural environmental carer’ in environment and development discourses. Specifically, it appeared concerned with the role of ‘the northern ecofeminist’ in popularizing this figure, and the notion that women have a special relationship with the environment. This response points to the reliance on the figure of the ‘northern ecofeminist’ as a foil to gender and development (GAD) discourses, and situates this anxiety over the figure of ‘woman as natural environmental carer’ in the context of some key feminist debates of the 1990s. Conflicts between GAD scholars and ecofeminists can be understood as one manifestation of tensions over essentialism in feminism. Attending to how conflicts over essentialism have been worked through in feminism could productively inform efforts to think through the nexus of gender, environment and development.