9 Women You've Probably Never Heard of Who've Made Conservation History

Women have played key roles in all aspects of conservation and the environmental movement. . Photodiem/Shutterstock

Women around the world have always played a significant role in environmental conservation. There have been so many throughout time that some of them tend to slip through the cracks of history and mainstream media. During Women's History Month, we want to push some of those names into the spotlight.

These are just a few of the thousands of women who have, and currently are, making big strides in environmental science, indigenous peoples' rights, conservation of our planet's natural resources, preservation of biodiversity and so much more. Let's take a moment to celebrate women who have dedicated their lives to both Earth and humanity, who have crafted and continue to craft how we use and care for this planet.

Minerva Hamilton Hoyt

Sunrise in Joshua Tree National Park, a place preserved thanks to the dedicated advocacy of Minerva Hamilton-Hoyt.
Sunrise in Joshua Tree National Park, a place preserved thanks to the dedicated advocacy of Minerva Hamilton-Hoyt. Sierralara/Shutterstock
Minerva Hamilton-Hoyt
Minerva Hamilton-Hoyt. American Historical Society/Wikipedia

The wonders of Joshua Tree National Park draw in millions of visitors every year. But without the efforts of Minerva Hamilton Hoyt, the park — and more importantly, the diversity of cacti species within it such as the odd and endearing Joshua tree — might not exist today.

Hoyt moved from the Deep South to Pasadena, California, in the early 1900s, where she developed a passion for gardening and the native plants found in California’s deserts. Unfortunately, the population boom of Los Angeles in the 1920s, the rise in popularity of gardening with cacti, and the increase in accessibility and interest in desert flora meant the destruction of desert plants. “By 1930, Devil's Garden, south of Joshua Tree, home to thousands of cacti and yuccas, was picked bare. The area has never recovered. Another popular trend of that time was to set fire to Joshua trees to use as torches to guide drivers motoring at night,” writes Allison Johnson.

Hoyt recognized the need to protect and preserve these desert environments, and her work included exhibitions of desert plants, founding the International Deserts Conservation League, and serving on a California state commission where she recommend proposals for new state parks including Death Valley, the Anza-Borrego Desert, and Joshua Tree. Her tireless campaigning on behalf of stoic and fragile desert landscapes led to President Roosevelt’s administration to designate more than 800,000 acres in the area as the Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936.

Margie Richard

Margie Richard is the first African-American to win the esteemed Goldman Environmental Prize. She earned it through a long and difficult but brilliantly won battle with Shell over a refinery whose emissions were slowly killing her community members in Old Diamond, a neighborhood in Norco, Louisiana. The moment she knew she had to act was when a Shell pipeline exploded in 1973, killing an elderly woman and teenage boy. Then in 1988, an accident killed seven workers and released 158 million pounds of toxins into the air. She decided to make Shell accountable for the damage the company was doing to the air, water and the health of her community.

Thanks to Richard’s incredible advocacy and savvy acts of political theater, including broadcasting live feeds of the refinery releasing petrochemical byproducts into the environment, Shell Chemical agreed in 2000 to reduce its toxic emissions by 30 percent, contribute $5 million to a community development fund, and voluntarily finance the relocation of Old Diamond residents away from the refinery by buying the 225 lots at a minimum price of $80,000 per lot.

Richard’s work is about more than just environmental justice but social justice as well. According to Goldman Prize:

People of color are more likely than whites to live near areas polluted by industrial plants; seventy-one percent of African-Americans live in counties that don’t meet federal air pollution standards. As a consequence, studies show that Black people suffer disproportionately from respiratory and other environmental ailments. Community protest against these conditions produced a uniquely American brand of activism that is equal parts civil rights and environmentalism. Richard stood at the forefront of this important social justice movement.

Laurie Marker

Dr. Marker has advanced both the science and conservation of wild cheetahs.
Laurie Marker has advanced both the science and conservation of wild cheetahs. Lenka Gondova/Shutterstock

The cheetah is a rapidly disappearing species, with their global population dropping by 90 percent in the last century. But they have a best friend in Laurie Marker, Ph.D. who has worked for decades to slow their decline and create coexistence plans between farmers and these big cats. Marker’s dedication is giving cheetahs a fighting chance.

Marker has worked with cheetahs since 1974, and has been at the forefront of groundbreaking research on the species including studying the lack of genetic diversity in cheetahs, the causes of human-cheetah conflicts and their solutions, and studying captive breeding of cheetahs. She began what has become one of the most successful captive breeding programs for cheetahs in the U.S.

In 1991, she founded the Cheetah Conservation Fund, a leading organization in both on-the-ground work and global awareness for protecting cheetahs. She began the Livestock Guardian Dog program, which raises shepherding dogs to protect livestock from cheetahs to reduce conflicts between ranchers and cats, and has placed more than 500 dogs with ranchers in the last two decades. She also started Future Farmers of Africa in 2006, to help promote sustainable farming and non-lethal wildlife management. Her approach is one that can inspire conservation closer to home. Writes the SF Gate:

The 90 employees at her Namibian ranch work not just on wildlife conservation, but farming and ranching assistance programs, economic development and ecosystem protection... Her solutions to the cheetah crisis in Africa are helping transform Namibian culture and values and may also provide the answer to the clashes in the American west between ranchers and wildlife conservationists who seek to return big predators, including the gray wolf and grizzly bear, to the native lands they once roamed.

Harriet Hemenway

We risked losing the snowy egret and other bird species forever due to the plume trade. Hemenway helped to save them.
We risked losing the snowy egret and other bird species forever due to the plume trade. Hemenway helped to save them. Phil Reid/Shutterstock
Harriet Hemenway
Harriet Hemenway. Public Domain

Harriet Hemenway was one of the nation’s earliest female conservationists. In response to a fashion demand for fancy plumes to decorate women’s hats, thousands of birds — from songbirds to raptors, herons to woodpeckers — were killed every year for their feathers. The extent of the industry at its height was mind-boggling, and New York and London were main hubs for the trade. Smithsonian's director of the New York Zoo­logical Society and formerly chief taxidermist, William Hornaday "calculated that in a single nine-month period the London market had consumed feathers from nearly 130,000 egrets. And egrets were not the only species under threat. In 1886, it was estimated, 50 North American species were being slaughtered for their feathers."

Hemenway, along with her cousin Minna Hall, began a movement that would end the feather trade and save countless birds from being killed for their plumes. The Boston socialites began by hosting tea parties where they asked attendees to stop wearing feathers. Their social circles were made up of influential people, and between the gatherings and founding the Massachusetts Audubon Society which roughly 900 women joined (and would later help create the National Audubon Society), the women’s political power and reach became strong enough to push Massachusetts to pass a law banning the trade in wild bird feathers. Other states followed Massachusetts’ lead, and finally in 1913, the plume trade was ended through a federal law known as the Weeks-McLean Bill. Thanks to a fashionable lady, birds were spared the demands of ladies’ fashion.

JoAnn Tall

The Black Hills were protected from nuclear testing and uranium mining thanks to JoAnn Tall's activism.
The Black Hills were protected from nuclear testing and uranium mining thanks to JoAnn Tall's activism. Wollertz/Shutterstock

JoAnn Tall is a Lakota environmental activist who worked to end nuclear weapons testing in the Black Hills, prevent uranium mining near her home in the Pine Ridge Reservation, and helped stop the creation of landfills for hazardous material on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations. She also founded the Native Resource Coalition to educate the Lakota about health and environmental issues.

Tall also was part of the Black Hills Alliance, which worked to ensure that energy development projects proposed for the region have to be approved by voters and not just state legislators. Her organization of protests, including a resistance camp of tipis at the proposed nuclear testing site that successfully ended the plans by Honeywell, earned her the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1993.

The United Nations Environmental Programme writes, “Tall now serves on the board of directors of the Seventh Generation Fund. She has increasingly taken on the role of an elder, acting as an adviser and educator. She focuses on providing spiritual guidance to youth while continuing to inspire both native and non-native people around the world to protect the environment.”

Hallie M. Daggett

Hallie M. Daggett and her pack horse ready to leave the Eddy Gulch Station in the fall.
Hallie M. Daggett and her pack horse ready to leave the Eddy Gulch Station in the fall. U. S. Forest Service

Hallie M. Daggett broke ground for women in the U.S. Forest Service by becoming the first woman hired as a fire lookout way back in 1913. She was stationed at Eddy's Gulch Lookout Station at the top of California’s Klamath Peak on the Klamath National Forest, and she worked there for 15 summers.

Her love of the great outdoors started in childhood. The daughter of pioneering and mining parents, she grew up at the Black Bear Mine learning skills like hunting, fishing and trapping. Her father rose in success and went from miner to California's lieutenant governor and superintendent of the U.S. Mint in San Francisco. It was in San Francisco that Daggett received her formal education. But it that childhood outdoor education served her well when she went on to open doors for women in the Forest Service.

From American Forestry published in 1914:

Some of the Service men predicted that after a few days of life on the peak she would telephone that she was frightened by the loneliness and the danger, but she was full of pluck and high spirit...[and] she grew more and more in love with the work. Even when the telephone wires were broken and when for a long time she was cut off from communication with the world below she did not lose heart. She not only filled the place with all the skill which a trained man could have shown but she desires to be reappointed when the fire season opens this year.

Gloria Hollister

During her expedition to Kaieteur Falls, Hollister was the first to document over 40 other falls.
During her expedition to Kaieteur Falls, Gloria Hollister was the first to document more than 40 other falls. Gail Johnson/Shutterstock

Gloria Hollister is a record-setter in many ways not just for conservation but also for women in science. After graduating from Connecticut College for Women in 1924, Hollister went on to receive a masters degree in zoology at Columbia in just one year. She chose a career direction that was both unusual and difficult for women at this time in history, but achieved incredible success. She worked on cancer research at the Rockefeller Institute and went on to work at the Department for Tropical Research at the New York Zoological Society, where she became a leading expert in fish osteology and developed a new method for preparing fish specimens.

In 1934, she set the record for the deepest underwater dive by a woman in a bathysphere, descending to 1,208 feet. After that record, she led an expedition through Guyana to Kaieteur Falls, discovering 43 waterfalls previously known only to indigenous people, all while studying the golden frog and hoatzin bird along the way.

She married Tony Anable in 1941, and the couple worked together to preserve Mianus River Gorge in Connecticut, which was under threat of flooding by a proposed dam. They along with other conservationists created the Mianus River Gorge Preserve, and also founded the Mianus River Gorge Conservation Committee which was the first land project of The Nature Conservancy. From her life as a scientist and adventurer in a field dominated by men to her work as a conservation activist, the life of Gloria Hollister is a reminder to everyone of what can be achieved despite difficult odds.

Celia Hunter

Hunter's hard worked helped create the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Celia Hunter's hard worked helped create the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock

Always a daring individual, Celia Hunter was a pilot in the Air Force during World War II. That was before the military would allow women to deliver planes to Alaska, but she decided to do it anyway. After the war, she and friend Ginny Wood piloted two planes in a harrowing 27-day trip from Seattle to Fairbanks. Upon arriving in this incredible and wild place, the adventurer decided to stay — and everyone who now enjoys the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should be cheering that decision.

Hunter and Wood founded Alaska’s first statewide environmental group, the Alaskan Conservation Society, which played a role in creating ANWR, defeating Project Chariot which would have set off a nuclear bomb in Alaska’s northwest, and defeating a dam project that would have created a 300-mile long lake from Alaska into the Yukon Territories of Canada. Hunter served as the executive director of the Wilderness Society and she helped push Congress to pass the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. This act, which doubled the size of the national refuge system, has been called “the most significant land conservation measure in the history of our nation.”

Hunter also helped found the Alaska Conservation Foundation. Up until her death in 2001 at age 82, Hunter remained a vocal environmentalist advocating for the preservation of Alaska’s wilderness. Indeed, the night before she passed, she was busy writing letters to Congress asking to protect the ANWR from oil drilling. Her legacy continues through every person fighting to keep the incredible Alaskan wilderness pristine.

Berta Cáceres

Berta Cáceres has been in the news lately but for an incredibly tragic reason. The 2015 Goldman Price winner was recently assassinated in her home in Honduras.

Cáceres, a Lenca woman, learned from a young age the value of social activism, living up to the example her mother set as she took in refugees from El Salvador during the 1980s. In 1993, she cofounded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), which advocated for the rights of indigenous people and pushed back against threats to their livelihood. So in 2013 when a new dam project called Agua Zarca was pushed through the approval process without consulting indigenous groups, a violation of international treaties, she was well-prepared to act.

The dam would have cut off water, food and medicinal supplies for hundreds of Lenca people. In response, Cáceres created a campaign against the Agua Zarca Dam project, protesting both locally and internationally. The opposition was fierce, with national and local government officials doctoring documents and paying off local people to create the appearance of support for the project. Cáceres organized a peaceful road blockade that lasted more than a year, enduring violent attacks. Eventually, the protests won out, with contractors and funders backing out of the project after seeing the resistance by local people.

Sadly, Cáceres endured continued death threats. Indeed, when she accepted the Goldman Award in 2015, her profile read, “Her murder would not surprise her colleagues, who keep a eulogy—but hope to never have to use it. Despite these risks, she maintains a public presence in order to continue her work. In a country with some of the highest murder rates in the world, Cáceres hopes the victory in Agua Zarca will bring hope to activists fighting irresponsible development in Honduras and throughout Latin America.”

The worst fears of Cáceres’s supporters played out. News broke on March 3 that Cáceres had been killed in her home by a group of gunmen. From the New York Times:

Since a 2009 coup in Honduras, journalists, judges, labor leaders, human rights defenders and environmental activists have been assassinated in targeted killings, with their murders often going unsolved. Twelve environmental defenders were killed in Honduras in 2014, according to research by Global Witness, which makes it the most dangerous country in the world, relative to its size, for activists protecting forests and rivers.

Cáceres gave her life in support of our planet and the rights of indigenous people. With Cáceres’s story we are reminded that we must not only protect the environment, but also the environmental activists who dedicate their lives to protecting our planet, who inspire us all to do more, to do better, and to do right.