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Women in the Environmental Movement

From the thoughtful discoveries of Jane Goodall to the insistent calls to action of Greta Thunberg, women have been at the forefront of the environmental movement for generations. Every step of the way there have been influential and inspiring women who push the boundaries of knowledge and progress, yet receive little recognition for their work. Three of these impactful female environmentalists include: Rachel Carson, Wangari Maathai, and Winona LaDuke.

Rachel Carson with her book Silent Spring. Image Credits: Library of Congress

Rachel Carson, born 1907 in Pennsylvania, USA, was a marine biologist, conservationist, and author who fought to change public opinion about the environment. Carson was the second woman ever hired by the US Bureau of Fisheries and rose to be the Editor-in-Chief of all publications for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Meanwhile, she wrote several notable books about the natural world, including: Under the Sea-Wind, The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea. Her most influential book, Silent Spring, challenged the use of synthetic pesticides and highlighted the negative effects they have on ecosystems, wildlife, and humans. She stood up to the government and chemical companies who tried to discredit her, insisting on changes to benefit the environment. Eventually, her campaign against pesticides inspired the banning of the harmful pesticide, DDT. It was seen as the perfect solution to any pest problem until Silent Spring revealed its hidden impacts on human health including increased risk of cancer as well as on animals, most notably the bald eagle.

Carson testifying in 1963 before a Senate subcommittee tasked with studying pesticide spraying.

Through her work, Carson increased public awareness of environmental issues and set the modern environmental movement in motion. Influenced by her and other environmentalists, President Nixon formed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the country celebrated the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, and a number of important environmental laws were passed including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Because of the national change she provoked, Rachel Carson’s legacy continues to inspire the environmental movement today.


Wangari Maathai planting with the Green Belt Movement. Image Credits: Green Belt Movement

Wangari Maathai, born 1940 in Nyeri, Kenya, fought to give women in Africa, especially in her home country of Kenya, more control over their lives, all while protecting the environment. After obtaining her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology, she received a PhD in the same subject, becoming the first woman in East and Central Africa to get a doctorate degree. While serving in the National Council of Women of Kenya and working as the first female professor ever in the country, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement. It taught and encouraged women to plant trees in an effort to combat deforestation and poverty. The movement spread to other African countries and has helped plant over 50 million trees since its beginning in 1977.

Maathai holding her Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Image Credits: Nobel Committee

In 2004, Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize after being recognized for her contribution to “sustainable development, democracy and peace”. She spoke several times at the UN, was elected to Kenya’s parliament and appointed Assistant Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, in addition to writing four books about her life’s work. In 2011, Maathai succumbed to a long battle with ovarian cancer. Throughout her life, Wangari Maathai pioneered women’s roles in the environmental movement in her home country and across the globe.


Winona LaDuke protesting a pipeline through Ojibwe Territory. Image Credits: Keri Pickett

Winona LaDuke, born 1959 in Los Angeles, California, has worked to promote sustainable development and raise awareness for Native American concerns across the nation. She attended Harvard University, majoring in economics, before moving to the White Earth reservation in Minnesota, where her father was born. While working as the principal of the local high school, LaDuke became involved in the fight to regain land stolen from the Anishinaabe tribe. This led her to found the White Earth Land Recovery Project in 1989. The nonprofit works to recover Anishinaabe lands as well as promote traditional, sustainable practices including renewable energy sources and sustainable food systems.

Winona LaDuke addresses a U.N. conference on discrimination against Indigenous populations in 1977. Image Credits: Reuters

She went on to co-found Honor the Earth, which raises awareness, support, and funds for native environmental groups. Many of the organization’s members, including LaDuke, were involved in the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests. In addition to all of her activism, LaDuke was a two time Green Party Vice Presidential candidate alongside Ralph Nader in 1996 and 2000. She is the author of 5 nonfiction books including All our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life and a novel titled Last Standing Woman. In 2007, LaDuke was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. To this day, Winona LaDuke has championed not only conservation and sustainability, but also the causes of environmental equity and justice that are essential to the movement.


In addition to these three notable women, there are countless more who have contributed greatly to the environmental movement, including: Margaret Murie, Rosalie Edge, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Hilda Lucia Solis, Berta Cáceres, and Isatou Ceesay. For decades, the groundbreaking, eye opening, and trendsetting work of such women has shaped and propelled the environmental movement into what it is today. The work ahead of us provides an opportunity for even more historic women who will continue to discover, fight, and inspire until we are brought into the environmentally sustainable age that we are striving for. For more information on women leaders in the environment click here, here, or here.

Stay tuned for our next blog article which will feature notable environmentalists in our very own Orange County!

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