How Women Shaped the American Environmental Movement (1950s-1970s)

Introduction

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).

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Rachel Carson | https://flic.kr/p/b2j4Sx orionpozo

“Housewife’s Data”

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).

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).

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).

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).

References

Gibbs, L. & Konrad, K. (2011). Housewife’s data. American Journal of Public Health, 101(9), 1556–1559.

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