Women Have Been At The Heart Of Environmentalism For 50 Years

women in india photo

photo: McKaySavage/Creative Commons

On this 100th anniversary of International Women's Day let's all remember the integral, essential and driving role played by women from the early days of the environmental movement to the present and consider why women will necessarily be leading the way down the path towards a more social and ecological sustainable future.

Sylvia Earle & Jane Goodall Win Person of the Year

Let's start out simply, with some of the environmental heroines TreeHugger really thinks are tops--starting with Sylvia Earle, who was named TreeHugger's Person of the Year for 2010, by the editors.

Earle's record of exploration, innovation, and dedication to oceanography is nothing short of staggering. Among the highlights: leading the first team of women aquanauts, holding the record for deepest dive in a JIM suit (1250 feet), holding the women's record for a solo dive in a submersible (3280 feet). She was chief scientist at NOAA in the early 1990s; and in 2009 won the TED Prize.

Read more about Sylvia Earle's accomplishments.

At the same time the editors of TreeHugger picked Earle for Person of the Year, the readers of TreeHugger picked Jane Goodall for the same honor in 2010.

In touting her award, we wrote back in December:

The reason for Goodall's popularity is simple: For 50 years, she has been researching chimpanzees and apes...2010 in particular was a notable year in Goodall's career, after the Jane Goodall Institute won two major grants and a theatrical about her life documentary is poised to hit theaters...it is Jane Goodall's lifelong devotion to defending the environment, clearly, that resonates with TreeHugger readers.

women in africa photo

photo: HDPTCAR/Creative Commons

From the 60s to Today Women's Voices Have Been Crucial to Environmentalism

But that's just the tip of things. Women currently comprise, and certainly have done so since the beginning, some of the most powerful voices in the environmental movement. Consider Rachel Carson and her seminal book Silent Spring, to Vandana Shiva's now three decades-plus work, Wangari Maathai's equally long commitment. More recently Majora Carter of Sustainable South Bronx, Julia Butterfly Hill and her 738 day redwood occupation, the humanitarian design of Emily Pilloton, the very much hands-on activism and direct action of Daryl Hannah, have all grabbed headlines.

Beyond the headlines and heroines, beyond the public faces and public voices, a growing body of evidence shows both how women are affected disproportionately by environmental problems and will be at the forefront of solutions, at the most basic level.

women working in china photo

photo: Lori Ann via Flickr/Creative Commons

Empowering Women, Embracing Empathy, Key to Greener Future

As the Earth's human population passes 7 billion people this year and will likely hit at least 9 billion by 2050, the intersection of environmentalism, development, reproductive rights, and women's education, empowerment and rights will only become clearer and clearer.

Consistently, and for some time now, it has been clear that access to family planning options and the ability to act on these, access to healthcare, plus access to greater educational opportunities both benefits women's lives around the globe on a personal level and a group level. When all of those things are supported, women have fewer children on average and better lives. With that both population growth and the resultant resource consumption slows. That's a win-win for women and the environment.

All of which sounds emotionally and intellectually heavy, and in a way it is, no doubt. But let's broaden our perspective a bit and think about masculinity and femininity as ways of viewing the world and acting within it. Both have direct environmental implications, regardless of the whether men or women are acting from these perspectives.

Illustrative of that: A study from last September shows that in the United States women are more likely than men to accept climate change science--all due to gender socialization.

Boys in the United States learn that masculinity emphasizes detachment, control and mastery. A feminine identity, on the other hand, stresses attachment, empathy and care--traits that may make it easier to feel concern about the potential dire consequences of global warming.

Extend that out to environmental issues other than global warming. There isn't an issue that TreeHugger covers which couldn't benefit by all participants tapping into their compassion, empathy and care for other people, and all other forms of life, to a greater degree.

More on Women & The Environment:
'Untouchable' Certified Organic Seed Bank: Combatting Climate Change & Empowering Women
New UN Climate Financing Group Is Another All-Boys Club