How Women Shaped the American Environmental Movement (1950s-1970s)
The earliest American experience in connection with the natural world — the environment in which he now found himself living — was one of exploitation. “Americans are geographically located in an area where there is an abundance of renewable and nonrenewable resources…The earliest interest in the land was purely in the amount and speed with which it could be harvested” (Kuzmiak, 1991, p. 268). In the late 1800s, man’s relationship with his environment underwent a paradigm shift, one of uncontrollable spoils to controlling wilderness landscapes for recreational leisure and the pursuit of (manly) outdoorsmen activities (i.e. hunting, fishing). National Parks and wildlife refuge areas had support from acclaimed environmentalists of the time: John Muir, George Bird Grinnell, Aldo Leopold, and even President Theodore Roosevelt (Kuzmiak, 1991, p. 269).
But the early American Environmental Movement of the 20th century largely ignores a feminine approach to preserving and protecting the environment, albeit for a few noteworthy women awarded national acclaim in the mid-1900s, such as Silent Spring author Rachel Carson. This gendered history of America’s early environmental movement mostly remembers “the myth of the masculine hero conquering the virginal landscape…Women’s responses to nature have been given attention only very recently” (Norwood, 1984, p. 35). Between the 1950s-1970s — and into the remainder of the century — American women redefined American environmentalism through their actions and advocacy in the Modern Environmental Movement (1960s-present). Much of this continuation of early American environmentalism has its origins in all-women ‘housewives’ groups, such as the League of Women Voters and Women Strike for Peace.
Acting on behalf of the natural world, these ‘citizen experts’ championed greater protection for environmental ecosystems, insisting environmental concerns were also all-human concerns. By transcending the rigid gender roles thrust upon post-World War II America, these women rebuked the old “Wilderness is waste” masculine view of nature and reintroduced nature as a gender-neutral concern every American should hold (Unger, 2008, p. 117).
Before Silent Spring (1962), “cultural ideologies of gender were polarized into distinct categories of masculine and feminine” (Hazlett, 2004, p. 702). “Men’s world of profit, power, and control extended into nature through activities that included developing bigger and more deadly chemical weapons, controlling pests and weeds through poisons, and making the desert boom by implementing massive water projects throughout the arid west” (Unger, 2008, p. 118). Consequently, “[i]ntimate issues such as body, children, and health traditionally belonged to the province of women, the subordinate private sphere” (Hazlett, 2004, p. 702).
Through this masculine view of the natural world, the environment was seen as separate from man, civilization and culture — and thus its exploitation and the unintended consequences of such domination were not of particular concern for Americans in the early Industrial Era. Women in the middle of the 20th century were some of the first Americans to assert this “missing ecological link that joined humans and nature” (Hazlett, 2004, p. 703) and called for an increased sensitivity to the harmful effects of environmental degradation on the human body.
Because of strict post-war gender roles, women were largely confined to the household space and in effect were “uniquely exposed” to many harmful chemicals created (by man) for purposes of environmental control in the private sphere (Unger, 2008, p. 118). A “gendering of consumption” left these mostly suburban women vulnerable to environmentally harmful practices disguised as consumer products (i.e. pesticides, insecticides) (Unger, 2008, p. 118). “The result was serious health problems in humans, including disruption in the endocrine system, cancer, infertility, and mutagenic effects” (Unger, 2008, p. 118).
Once harmful environment-human linkages were made, these so-called “citizen experts” — mostly middle-class, white women — began promoting “civic activism and education while acting as a communication and information bridge between government officials and concerned citizens” on various public health and environmental issues (Schulte, 2009, p. 2). Lois Gibbs, grassroots organizer and environmental health advocate, is most famously remembered as ‘The Mother of Superfund’ and one of the first women to voice health and safety concerns over toxic waste dumping in the Love Canal, New York, community during the late 1970s (Gibbs & Konrad, 2011, p. 1558).
And yet, women like Lois were seen as “emotional and inaccurate” because their fearful assertions of environment and human harm originated outside academic credentials (Hazlett, 2004, p. 706). The victory of Lois at Love Canal — successful relocation of residents and compensation by the federal government — is just one housewife initiative that altered the landscape of environmentalism and environmental justice in America. Understanding this role of gender in American environmental history may help explain “why women are disproportionately drawn to environmental justice activism” (Unger, 2008, p. 115).
Grassroots Activism: League of Women Voters Case Study
The League of Women Voters is one example of a successful housewives coalition with a profound — yet often forgotten — environmental conservation legacy in America. Founded in 1920, the League of Women Voters played an “integral role in fueling the rise of the environmental movement in the United States” (Schulte, 2009, p. 1). This middle-class (mostly white) women’s club embraced Progressive tactics of “investigation, education, and persuasion” as well as building grassroots activism and lobbying officials on various environmental issues, including waste reduction, pollution, and water quality restoration and management (Schulte, 2009, p. 3).
In a “highly gendered environment during the height of the Cold War era,” these women prided themselves on remaining “gender-neutral” and “nonpartisan” (Schulte, 2009, p. 4), though were later labelled as “elitist, self-important, and old-fashioned” (p. 8). Instead of shying away from the stereotypical, women-as-weak stigma, the League embraced the “nonthreatening image” of mother and protector as “a convenient buffer” in the highly contested political arena (Schulte, 2009, p. 4). League members saw themselves as “citizen experts” (p. 2) and “unpaid professionals” (p. 14) working a “thankless job” (p. 13) for greater environmental health and safety protections for all Americans. Although the League “did not see themselves as feminists” (Schulte, 2009, p. 6), its members “directly challenged the conventional image of women as driven by emotions rather than reason” (p. 18) with their convincing testimonies and powerful membership base in the 1950s-1970s.
The rise of new, more radical environmental groups in the 1970s, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and Environmental Action, led the League of Women Voters, seen as part of the established political order, to wither in its political power. However, “[t]he success of the new environmental groups was rooted in their ability to build on an existing network of conservation organizations, civic groups, and women’s clubs–like the League” (Schulte, 2009, p. 20).
Rachel Carson and Silent Spring: The Shot Heard ‘Round The World
Rachel Carson, perhaps the leading voice of the Modern Environmental Movement, is “best remembered for her indictment of the life-destroying pesticides in her classic Silent Spring” (Norwood, 1984, p. 44). Carson recognized “an organic, interactive connection between humans and the rest of the biosphere” and sought to elevate this connection throughout all of her life’s works, not just in Silent Spring (Norwood, 1984, p. 45). Instead of capitalizing on man’s domination of environment through resource management or wilderness preservation, Carson — like her fellow women environmentalists — “used ecology to define people’s homes, gardens, and health as part of the natural world” (Hazlett, 2004, p. 701).
Silent Spring (1962) stirred the consciousness of nearly every American who read it, much to the ire of the chemical corporations and Congressional lobbyists profiting from rampant pesticide production in the 1960s. “They rejected Carson’s argument that laboratory knowledge about pesticides was not perfect or comprehensive…[and] reacted strongly to Carson’s charge that their ‘Stone Age’ science was destroying human health and the natural world” (Hazlett, 2004, p. 706). Carson buffeted gender-based attacks from these irate economic entomologists and USDA employees, who claimed that she possessed a “mystical attachment to the balance of nature” making her assertions “unfair, one-sided, and hysterically overemphatic” (Hazlett, 2004, p. 706). “Her detractors equated the defense of power and pesticides a scientist’s antithesis — a hysterical woman” (Hazlett, 2004, p. 706).
The science fell on Carson’s side, however, and her ability to withstand the “anti-feminine language” coming from the scientific “masculine superiority” at the time to prevail is remarkable (Hazlett, 2004, p. 708). Rachel Carson “blurred the categories of humans and nature” and exposed the pesticide debate as one not of science but as one of “masculine-identified power to … decry or exclude ecological concerns” (Hazlett, 2004, p. 710).
Conclusion: Gender and the Modern Environmental Movement (A Way Forward)
America’s earliest environmental movement — the Preservationist Era (1900s-1960s) — is ubiquitous with male figureheads, painted in history as heroes of wilderness. Arguably, the increased role of gender in the Modern Environmental Movement (1960s-present), spearheaded by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and grassroots activism organizations led largely by middle-class (white) women, transformed popular ecological thought that continues to feed the environmental movement today (Hazlett, 2004, p. 719). Historically, the American society’s perception of what is means to be a man or a woman “has played a significant role in their environmental consciousness and actions” (Unger, 2008, p. 115).
By transcending traditional gender roles, women environmentalists living in America in the mid-1900s were able to elevate the status of nature — or perhaps decrease the status of man — and frame the environment as an issue for all humans. Increased environmental consciousness has also contributed to social change movements in America, especially the ongoing fight for environmental justice in poorer communities and in communities of color. It took a women-led grassroots shift in the mid-1900s to begin to alter how Americans observe and protect their common environment. The Modern Environmental Movement remains a prominent social justice movement in the 21st century, and women leaders continue to lead the charge for environmental protection and justice for all U.S. citizens.
Gibbs, L. & Konrad, K. (2011). Housewife’s data. American Journal of Public Health, 101(9), 1556–1559.
Hazlett, M. (2004). ‘Woman vs. man vs. bugs’: Gender and popular ecology in early reactions to Silent Spring. Environmental History, 9(4), 701–729.
Kuzmiak, D. (1991). The American environmental movement. The Geographical Journal, 157(3), 265–278.
Norwood, V. (1984). Heroines of nature: Four women respond to the American landscape. Environmental Review, 8(1), 34–56.
Schulte, T. K. (2009). Citizen experts: The League of Women Voters and environmental conservation. Frontiers: A Journal Of Women Studies, 30(3), 1–29.
Unger, N. C. (2008). The role of gender in environmental justice. Environmental Justice, 1(3), 115–119.