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Women Environmental Leaders throughout History

March 7, 2024

Women are critical defenders of their communities and environments. Join us in learning about some of their stories.

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson and Bob Hines conducting marine biology research in Florida (Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service)

Perhaps the mother of the American environmental movement, Rachel Carson (1907-1964) set into motion a global awakening to the dangers of chemical pesticides (she, of course, preceded the Goldman Prize). A marine biologist and nature writer, Carson’s landmark book, Silent Spring (1962), exposed pesticides’ negative effects on nature, wildlife, and human health. The book led to a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides. In 1980, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Lois Gibbs

Inaugural Goldman Prize winner Lois Gibbs (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

In the late 1970s, Lois Gibbs discovered that her neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, was sitting next-door to 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals. In a multi-year struggle known as the Love Canal Disaster, Gibbs led a grassroots movement to successfully relocate more than 800 families. Her efforts led to the creation of the Superfund Program by the EPA, which has remediated hundreds of sites across the United States. She won the Goldman Prize in 1990.

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai
Wangari Maathai at the 2006 Goldman Environmental Prize ceremony in San Francisco (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) was an environmental and political activist from Kenya. She founded the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots movement that helped women to plant trees in their communities, bolstering their local environments and empowering women—and leading to the planting of more than 20 million trees. Maathai won the Goldman Prize in 1991 and, in 2004, became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE

Dr. Jane Goodall beside a waterfall in Gombe National Park, Tanzania (Photo: Jane Goodall Institute/Bill Wallauer)
Dr. Jane Goodall beside a waterfall in Gombe National Park, Tanzania (Photo: Jane Goodall Institute/Bill Wallauer)

In her mid-20s, Jane Goodall traveled to Tanzania’s Gombe Forest, immersing herself in the lives of chimpanzees. In the decades that followed, Dr. Goodall’s rich scientific research elevated her profile to a household name synonymous with nature, conservation, and her beloved chimpanzees. Dr. Goodall continues her work today with The Jane Goodall Institute, traveling the world and sharing a message of hope. The Prize was honored to welcome Dr. Goodall, a friend of the Prize, as a special guest speaker in the 2022 virtual award ceremony.

Berta Cáceres

Berta Cáceres (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)
Berta Cáceres in Honduras (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

An Indigenous Lenca woman, Berta Cáceres (1971-2016) first became an activist as a student to address growing threats posed by illegal logging in Honduras. Later, in a multi-year campaign, Cáceres and her community successfully prevented the construction of the Agua Zarca Dam, for which she won the Prize in 2015. In 2016, Cáceres was killed by gunmen in her home. A Honduran court ruled that executives of the Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA) ordered the murder. Activists around the world continue to uphold her enduring legacy.

Nemonte Nenquimo

2020 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Nemonte Nenquimo with members of the Waorani community (Photo: Jeronimo Zuñiga, Amazon Frontlines)
2020 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Nemonte Nenquimo with members of the Waorani community (Photo: Jeronimo Zuñiga, Amazon Frontlines)

An Indigenous leader from the Ecuadorian Amazon, Nemonte Nenquimo led a campaign and legal action that resulted in a court ruling protecting 500,000 acres of Amazonian rainforest and Waorani territory from oil extraction. Nenquimo won the Prize in 2020 and continues to advocate for Indigenous solutions to environmental crises.

Sharon Lavigne

Sharon Lavigne at a community rally (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

A grandmother and special education teacher turned environmental justice advocate, Sharon Lavigne educated and mobilized community members to defend her predominantly African American community of St. James Parish, Louisiana, from a $1.25 billion plastics manufacturing plant. The plant, which Lavigne’s campaign stopped, would have generated one million pounds of liquid hazardous waste annually. With her organization, Rise St. James, Lavigne continues to fight for environmental justice in St. James Parish.

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