March 1, 2022
Throughout history, women have been central to the environmental movement. They are activists, pioneers, and champions of change at local, national, and international levels. They question the status quo, educate and mobilize their communities, and persevere despite opposition.
This year, in honor of International Women’s Day, we’re exploring the monumental role women of all backgrounds have played in spurring environmental progress and shaping policy.
The Unique Role Women Play in Environmental Movements
Many of the people consistently speaking out against environmental dangers—and suggesting solutions—are women. Conventional wisdom suggests that women get involved in environmental movements because of an innate connection to the earth. Though this is often true, and many cultures value spiritual relationships with the natural world, there is more to the story. The overarching reason for women’s involvement in environmental issues is often more practical and immediate.
Women have been gatherers, primary caregivers, and household managers throughout most of history. They’ve been responsible for providing food and water for their families, making clothes and medicine from natural resources, caring for the sick, and keeping their children and communities healthy. As a result, women are usually the first to notice—and suffer from—environmental problems such as desertification, deforestation, severe weather, and natural disasters related to climate change.
According to data from the United Nations, women are disproportionately affected by climate change: a whopping 80% of the people currently displaced due to climate change are women. Women living in poverty or marginalized communities—such as women of color and Indigenous women—are even more at risk of environmental hazards. Because of these risks associated with daily life, many women have had to develop pragmatic responses as a matter of survival. With their lives and livelihoods on the line, women have been forced to speak up and advocate for the environment—and for themselves.
Driven by the need to protect their homes and communities—and to gain equal access to the decision-making processes behind environmental policy—countless women have propelled major environmental movements. Let’s take a look at some of the women who’ve led the way for today’s leaders.
Early Environmental Leaders
There are dozens of female advocates who have driven environmental change throughout history, but here are just a handful of prominent figures.
- Dr. Rebecca Cole, a Black physician born in Philadelphia in 1848, was one of the first people to connect poor health with environmental problems. When she noticed that Black communities were suffering from diseases at higher rates because of their poor living conditions, she advocated for “Cubic Air Space Laws” to prevent overcrowding in impoverished neighborhoods.
- Hoticulturalist Kate Sessions, the “Mother of Balboa Park,” wanted to create more green space in Southern California, so in 1892 she asked the city of San Diego to let her lease 30 acres of barren land in exchange for planting 100 trees a year.
- Naturalist Margaret Thomas Murie started a conservation campaign in 1956 that eventually resulted in the establishment of the
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, which remains the largest wildlife refuge in the United States. Goldman Prize winner Sarah James (United States, 2002) has continued to protect the refuge from oil drilling and other threats.
- Inaugural Goldman Prize winner Lois Gibbs (United States, 1990) mobilized her community to protest the chemical waste contaminating her community in Niagara Falls, New York. Her work resulted in the creation of the EPA’s Superfund program and inspired countless people to embrace grassroots environmental activism.
- Ecologist Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962, a book that exposed the dangers of chemical pesticides to wildlife and the environment. Her work helped shape public opinion and launch the start of the US environmental revolution in the 1960s.
- Professor Wangari Maathai (Kenya, 1991) started Kenya’s Green Belt Movement in 1977 to fight against deforestation and desertification. Her lifelong environmental and human rights advocacy has inspired people worldwide to launch similar tree-planting and poverty-reduction initiatives.
Women Leading Environmental Movements Today
Today, there are more women than ever before spearheading environmental causes—and advocating for gender equity and social justice along the way. In fact, 19 out of the 25 Goldman Prize recipients since 2018 are women, and 12 of them are women of color. Here are just a few notable women environmental leaders today:
- Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who first gained attention by conducting climate strikes at school, has become a household name by urging people across the globe to educate themselves about the dangers of climate change and take action to stop it.
- Phyllis Omido (Kenya, 2015) led her community in Mombasa, Kenya, to oppose a battery smelter that was causing lead poisoning. She founded the Center for Justice, Governance, and Environmental Action (CJGEA) and campaigned tirelessly until the smelter shut down in 2014.
- Nemonte Nenquimo (Ecuador, 2020) galvanized her Indigenous community in Ecuador and launched a global campaign to protect half a million acres of Amazon rainforest from oil drilling. Her efforts have inspired other Indigenous communities to take legal action to preserve their land and wildlife.
Celebrating Women Environmental Activists
Women are central drivers of the global environmental movement today. Not only are more women stepping into political and governmental roles in which they have decision-making power, but they’re also empowering disenfranchised communities and inspiring younger generations to consider what’s possible.
To celebrate and honor the women—past and present—behind environmental change, consider getting involved in local environmental campaigns where you live and supporting people and organizations on the frontlines.
Learn about other women who have won the Goldman Environmental Prize here.
About the author
Paige Smith is a content marketing writer who covers everything from culture and health to business and finance.