Women and the Environment

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By Jacquelyn Potter, Sierra Club Prairie Group

About a month ago I had the “great” idea to write an article in honor of Women’s History Month about women in the environmental movement. I soon realized the futility of this. Writing mini-biographies about even the most famous champions of a particular era exceeds my word limit, and, most importantly, the role of women as environmental caretakers goes back much further than the 21st and 20th centuries, and should be validated. Well … here goes.

It Goes Way, Way Back

Placing value on our natural world is not a recent phenomenon born out of the troubles we’ve found ourselves in the mid-20th/early 21st century. The precedent for valuing nature reaches back millennia to the ancient hunter-gatherer cultures made keenly aware that respect for nature was required for survival. It was in these ancient cultures that women were respected as nurturers and protectors of the natural world, and where the status of men and women was more equal than in post-agricultural periods. However, the role of women in nurturing and protecting the environment remained intact even during time periods when it was not recognized and women were considered inferior. This is primarily because women and the environment have always been closely interconnected, as women are the bearers and conservers of life who traditionally have cared for family and home, interacting at a very basic level with the surrounding natural environment, and as a consequence are also the ones (along with children) usually the most vulnerable to environmental degradation in and surrounding the home. Furthermore, women traditionally have had the role, alongside men, as farmers who must understand natural cycles and respect the natural limits of the land in order to sustain survival. Herein is a solid foundation for why women have long served as environmental caretakers, and therefore also for our present-day participation at local, regional, national and international levels on environmental issues.

The Green Thumb

There is a vivid herstory that connects women with the environment not only in terms of traditional domestic and agricultural life, but also as preservationists of nature even in times we tend to stereotype as being male-dominated. For instance, it is commonly thought that Western women didn’t have a role with regard to the environment before the 19th century. However, there is perhaps one niche that’s been overlooked: that of horticulture and the landscape garden. The landscape garden differs from the agricultural or subsistence garden grown for food. A landscape garden was a concept originally promoted by the wealthy as a means of displaying status, and although early on it drove the influx of exotic plants into native terrain, it also ended up sowing the seeds of a long-term, widespread preservation ethic for the native landscape, which gave rise to the concept of the larger preserve or park. Although the landscape garden was mostly a male creation, women had already rolled up their collective sleeves and involved themselves. Two notables of this era were Mistress Thomasin Tunstall, a well-known avid gardener in Lancashire in the early 17th century, and Lady Anne Monson, who in the 18th century was such a gardener extraordinaire that Linnaeus named the rare geranium relative Monsonia speciose after her. The European landscape garden movement proved a great influence on American colonial gardens and landscape design.

Champion Conservationists

From roughly the same period through the 19th century, explorers of the American frontier returned with epic stories and beautiful pictures of the wild. From this, an appreciation grew for our wilderness areas and wildlife, which, along with many disasters and lessons hard-learned, served to turn the tide toward a sensibility of protection rather than continual unchecked exploitation. This gave birth to the conservation movement. Also during this time, cities became more crowded, and the consequence of this growth was the threat to health via pollution, which gave rise to anti-pollution activism as well as the search for peaceful retreat and outdoor recreation, bringing leisure activities and conservation ideals together. The conservation movement greatly affected government policy and laws were passed establishing national parks, national forests, and policies for protecting fish and wildlife. One of the earliest female conservationists was Harriet Hemenway, who began the movement to end the feather trade (via the Weeks-McLean Bill), saving countless birds from being killed to extinction for their plumes. Further legislation during this period established Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks. The subsequent Progressive era ushered in environmental protection via the conservation movement, women’s suffrage, and food and drug safety regulation. Women became involved in spreading awareness about their rights, and launched a movement protecting natural resources. One notable woman working in conservation during that time was Hallie Daggett, who worked for the U.S. Forest Service and, in 1913, became the first woman hired as a fire lookout, at Eddy’s Gulch Station on Klamath Peak in the Klamath National Forest of California.  The American conservation movement, with its sense of public responsibility for the protection of wild areas and wildlife, reflected the social consciousness of the Progressive Era. Middle- and upper-class women who participated in the reform efforts were important to the movement. Through women’s clubs and conservation organizations, women became involved in conservation campaigns ranging from planting trees to creating national parks.

Fierce Green Protectors

By the mid-20th century, increasing awareness about pollution and other changes post-WWII caused a growing wave of public outcry about environmental issues, ushering in the modern environmental movement and landmark legislation (e.g. the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act). Although there were more women in the workforce after World War II, it was often the time and energy of housewives that provided the backbone of local environmental activism. Since that period women’s’ involvement in environmental issues has grown exponentially. Just a tiny sample of the women who’ve made significant contributions includes Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, who wrote the book The Everglades: River of Grass, representing a twenty-year effort to educate the public and politicians about the importance of the unique ecosystem and bringing about the establishment of Everglades National Park. In 1962, Rachel Carson published her seminal Silent Spring, which exposed the impact of pesticide use and radioactive fallout from atomic bomb testing on humans and the environment. The book launched a new era of growth in environmental awareness and activism. From 1973 to 2000, Margie Richard fought and won a battle with Shell Oil over a refinery whose emissions were slowly killing community members in Norco, Louisiana, and became the first African-American to win the esteemed Goldman Environmental Prize. In 1978, Lois Gibbs and other Niagara Falls residents formed the Love Canal Homeowners’ Association, fighting against toxic contamination by the Hooker Chemical Corporation, ultimately winning a clean-up and compensation for area residents and inspiring grassroots environmental activism across the country. From the 1970s to the 1990s, JoAnn Tall, a Lakota environmental activist who founded the Native Resource Coalition, worked to end nuclear weapons testing in the Black Hills, prevent uranium mining in the Pine Ridge Reservation and stop the creation of landfills for hazardous material on Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations. And in 1993 Erin Brockovich helped build a successful landmark case against Pacific Gas and Electric Company of California for contaminating the drinking water of Hinkley, CA with the carcinogen hexavalent chromium.

It is easy to see that throughout herstory, women have played significant roles in caring for the environment. The champions mentioned here are just a few of the thousands of women who have devoted, and currently are devoting, their all to environmental causes.  Look no further than our own Urbana-Champaign to celebrate the many women involved as environmental caretakers and fierce green protectors.

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