Marching for Women’s Rights and Mother Earth

Women's Rights include Caring for the Planet
Many of the activists participating in the historic Women’s March on January 21, 2017 consider taking care of the planet a fundamental part of women’s rights. Credit: Mark Dixon, FlickrCC

In ancient myths, women are associated with fertility, with the nature that gives us all life. So it is not surprising that the environmental movement was a strong presence at the Women’s March on Washington. Amid the crowd of bobbing pink hats were scattered signs depicting the Earth, along with such slogans as “There Is No Planet B, “Science Is Real” and “Respect Your Mother.” It is Mother Earth, after all, not Father Earth.

With the Trump administration threatening to halt action on climate change and allow drilling for gas and oil in national parks, the environmental movement wanted to make its presence felt. Some 2000 people marched for the Sierra Club in DC and in sister demonstrations across the country. Indeed, the Sierra Club was involved with planning for the march early and became an official sponsor in December.

Besides the big event in Washington, DC, there were nearly 700 sister marches, from Boston, Los Angeles, and Atlanta, to Paris, France and Nairobi, Kenya, according to Yordanos Eyoel, an organizer for the Boston march and spokesperson for the sister marches.

A host of other environmental groups joined in the marches, including Friends of the Earth, Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network, the Climate Justice Alliance, the Climate Reality Project, GreenFaith, GreenLatinos, Moms Clean Air Force, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, and others.

This “is a movement led by women,” for which it is “important to amplify women’s issues, not just in this country but globally,” says Eyoel. While the women’s march was open to a variety of voices and issues, the umbrella is “basic human rights for all people, including women,” to achieve “autonomy over their own rights and livelihood,” says A. Tiana Scozzaro, Director of Gender Equity Progress with the Sierra Club. Doing so means a clean, healthy Earth.

Women need to get behind the environmental movement because they “are disproportionately impacted by climate change and natural disaster,” says Scozzaro. “Women are often poorer,” lack access to vehicles, and have responsibilities taking care of children and parents. Climate change is a woman’s issue.

My wife and I arrived on the day of the march in time to buy her a pink knit hat with pussy-cat ears (I stuck to a slightly more masculine red had I’d brought). The crowd was festive as it bobbed forward, a sea of pink hats jostling through downtown DC. The balmy, overcast weather resembled a fall day more than mid-January, a sign, perhaps, of climate change.

With numbers far exceeding expectations, the crowd slowed, wall-to-wall people packed in, immobilized. Alas, my wife and I spent several hours trapped in an unmoving mass, unable to get to the Sierra Club meet-up point or even close enough to hear any of the keynote speeches.

I had to wait till after the march to catch the speeches on YouTube. Rhea Suh, President of the Natural Resources Defense Council, tied the march to the environment. She explained how important it is “that my daughter inherits a world where a healthy environment is a basic right for all of us . . . a world where the rights of communities and tribal nations are held first, not last, and polluters come second.”

Suh pointed to Flint, Michigan, “an entire town poisoned by a governor who took a page out of the Trump playbook, poisoned by a government looking to cut corners.” She asked, “Can you even imagine bathing your children in brown water, your knowledge that the glass of water you gave your daughter has made her sick”? Yet Suh ended her speech on a high note, citing the presence of over half a million people in DC alone as “proof that people engaging in our democracy can lead to real change.”

It is women who have the most to lose from climate catastrophe, and women who must get involved, as the march’s organizers emphasized. Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, is a case in point. “After Katrina 80% of the people left behind in [New Orleans’] lower 9th ward were women,” explains Scozzaro. Six months after Katrina, “psychological victimization” of women increased at a 35% rate (compared to 17% for men) says Eyoel, citing a Global Gender and Climate Alliance report. In the same period, “physical victimization of women” nearly doubled.

Around the planet, changing weather patterns and natural disasters are hitting women hard and will only grow worse. “Climate change has a tremendous effect on a global scale,” says Eyoel, “especially in less developed countries.” In Bangladesh, for example, “crop failure means increasing migration by women disproportionately.”

Women today often find themselves at the “front lines globally in efforts to revision and heal the world,” says Osprey Orielle Lake of Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network, speaking at a telephone press conference. She cites the women at Standing Rock who stood up to fight an oil pipeline and protect their water, and the Honduras women killed fighting to stop mega-dams. Lake exclaims that “violence against the Earth is directly linked to violence against women.”

Eyoel describes the marches, around the world as well as in DC, as an “unprecedented and virulent global movement that just came about in eight weeks under the leadership of everyday people.” After moving to this country from Ethiopia in 1998, Eyeol became a citizen this past September and quickly volunteered to help organize.

The issues Eyeol helps advocates are not just for immigrants, not just for women, and not just for city dwellers. “Both women’s rights and the environment have the support of a majority of Americans,” says Scozzaro. The Women’s March was a chance “to lift up those voices, make sure President Trump knows he does not have mandate on either.”

Those committed to fighting climate change will have another chance to march. On April 29th, 100 days into the Trump presidency, the Sierra Club and other groups are planning a follow-up to the 2014 People’s Climate March, providing a chance to build on the momentum of the Women’s March.