Where Are The Women In The Environmental Movement?

Dear EarthTalk: Most environmental organizations appear to be run by men. But who are the women leaders in this field? I’d love to know about them.

—Leeona Klippstein, Carthage, NC

The ranks of environmental advocacy are teeming with female “movers and shakers,” both at the community level and in some of the highest posts, though one would not know it from watching mainstream TV networks that tend to let men do most of the talking.

For starters, it was a woman, Rachel Carson, who ignited the modern environmental movement with her 1962 book, Silent Spring, which brought widespread attention to problems with pesticides. The book led to a U.S. ban of the pesticide DDT, spurred the founding of several influential environmental groups and helped blaze the trail for passage of the nation’s bedrock environmental laws in the early 1970s.

And it was Lois Gibbs who in 1978 pressured New York authorities to evacuate and clean up Love Canal, a chemical-dump-turned-housing-development suffering from high incidences of birth defects and cancer. Gibbs also lobbied Congress to pass “Superfund” laws mandating cleanup of similar sites. Today she runs the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ), which helps communities with similar problems.

Wangari Maathai has led thousands of women in Kenya in restoring denuded lands through tree planting, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her efforts. Another green heroine was Dorothy Stang, who was murdered in 2005 by land speculators angry at her efforts to preserve Amazon rainforest.

Not all of environmentalism”s leading female lights have such a high profile, but their work is key nonetheless. Deb Callahan turned the League of Conservation Voters into a strong political force during her decade-long stint as Executive Director. Frances Beinecke became the first woman president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in 2006. And Betsy Taylor founded the Center for a New American Dream (CNAD), which provides resources for people who want to “green up” their lifestyles.

Mary Evelyn Tucker co-directs the Forum on Religion & Ecology and has organized major environmental conferences bringing together religious leaders of all faiths. A woman, Mary Pearl, heads wildlife Trust, an international network of scientists engaged in work to save endangered species. And Rebecca Wodder has been president of American Rivers, the nation”s leading river conservation group, since 1995.

Theo Colburn, senior scientist at the World Wildlife Fund, co-authored the 1996 book, Our Stolen Future, which brought worldwide attention to the fact that common contaminants can interfere with human fetal development. And Laurie David, wife of TV icon Larry David, produced Al Gore”s Inconvenient Truth and founded Stop Global Warming, an effort to engage everyday people in addressing climate change.

Thousands of other women—in boardrooms, in offices and “in the trenches” all over the globe—work tirelessly on environmental issues, which affect us all equally regardless of sex, race or natural origin.