Women’s Work

The leadership of the environmental movement-and the grassroots rank-and-file-are no longer male preserves

It’s as basic as keeping the air we breathe clean and the water we drink pure, and it’s as politically knotty as halting construction of incinerators in the inner city and reducing population growth in developing nations. Environmental activism comes in many guises but shares one common trait—it has increasingly become women’s work.

“Women are now taking their place side by side and equal to men,” says Barbara Bramble, The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) international office director.

The environmental glass ceiling has chipped and splintered in the last 15 years; where the top slots were once completely dominated by men, women now hold key policymaking positions at organizations like Greenpeace, The Sierra Club, The National Audubon Society, NWF, The Wilderness Society, The Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) and The League of Conservation Voters (LCV).

“The number of women in leadership roles reflects the fact that women care about these issues and are attracted to this kind of work in the first place,” says Patricia Forkan, executive vice president of HSUS. “Cause-related organizations demand teamwork, which is how women tend to manage.”

The women have not just entered the halls of power, they are achieving significant successes there. In Congress, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) strengthened the Safe Drinking Water Act. Before retiring last year, Representative Pat Schroeder (D-Colorado) wrote legislation transforming a military Superfund site into a wildlife refuge.

Since Katherine Fuller became president of The World Wildlife Fund seven years ago, the organization has doubled its revenue and membership, helped secure an ivory ban, promoted the debt-for-nature swaps in Asia and Latin America, and developed an environmental educational program called “Windows on the Wild” which is currently being introduced into middle school curricula around the country.

Greenpeace USA was falling apart financially in the early 1990s, but since Barbara Dudley became executive director four years ago, she has helped stabilize the organization’s finances. Additionally, Greenpeace under Dudley has earned crucial environmental victories: By educating small-time fishermen about sustainable fishing and working to change the focus of its fisheries campaign from “jobs versus the environment” to “jobs and the environment,” Greenpeace was able to help defeat the Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs) favored by corporate fisheries. “We even got a decent fisheries management bill,” says Dudley, who adds that the bill was co-sponsored by Republican Don Young of Alaska, chairman of the House Resources Committee. (Normally notoriously anti-environment, Young listened to the local fishermen galvanized by Greenpeace.)

Greenpeace under Dudley has also started making inroads in its battle to ban chlorine, a dangerous toxin backed by a wealthy industry. Humanizing a complex issue by raising health issues—like the 1993 report linking chlorine to breast cancer—Greenpeace gained support from women’s groups and organizations like the American Public Health Association. (Dudley adds that Congressmen tend to listen more carefully to chlorine-related testimony once they learn that chlorine may not only lower sperm counts but also cause “shrinking penises.”) In recent years, an increasing number of paper-producing companies have stopped using chlorine bleachers, Dudley says, and more dry cleaners are switching to non-chemical cleaning techniques.

At The Sierra Club, Debbie Sease was the primary lobbyist on the California Desert Protection Act, and as legislative director, she has been the chief strategist in the battle against the war on the environment waged by the Republican leadership in recent years. Sease can also be found brainstorming with the other women power players in the environmental movement at a networking luncheon held in Washington D.C. every six weeks. Started during the Clinton administration by several women, including Carol Browner, head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the lunches attract women like Sease and Dudley from major organizations as well as government officials like Katie McGinty, senior environmental advisor to President Clinton and chair of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (see Conversations this issue).

The animal rights movement also includes many women leaders, including Ingrid Newkirk of the Virginia-based People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). HSUS’ Forkan oversees the leading national group’s whole domestic operations, which include everything from humane legislation to wildlife and farm animal protection.

The Movement Evolves

While part of the power shift is easily attributable to the women’s movement and society’s overall breakthrough in the last quarter-century, Bramble says a major reason for this flourishing has been the evolution of the environmental movement. A generation ago, concerns about conservation held the spotlight—“it was all about outdoor activities, hunting, fishing, and hiking…very male activities—but in the last quarter century, the light has shined equally brightly on health and urban issues like clean air and safe drinking water. Not surprisingly many women environmentalists say, it was a woman, Rachel Carson, who sparked this shift in priorities.

“As the environmental movement has come to include an environmental health movement it has come to include women in leadership,” says Barbara Dudley of Greenpeace. There is, however, much enduring chauvinism and the pace of advancement is excruciatingly slow, she adds. Many men are reluctant to share power and, equally significant, to adapt the approach to environmentalism and to negotiating generally favored by women. Still, the progress is undeniable and has inspired even more women to become involved, paving the way for even greater change.

While there are definitely women involved in traditional male activities, Bramble says, it is still not the norm and most women join causes because of concerns over health-related and community-related problems (which have traditionally been neglected by men). When chemicals in the atmosphere affect fertility issues, she explains, “that strikes a personal chord.”

A Grassroots Force

The changes are coming from the ground up. At the grassroots level, where women have long been an active force, the last generation witnessed a surge of new involvement. When Lois Marie Gibbs formed the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes 15 years ago, the organization had 3,000 names around the country—most were women, but they were largely working alone or in small groups. Today, CCHW works with 8,000 grassroots organizations nationwide, and 80 percent are headed by women. “The movement is now extremely powerful at the local level,” Gibbs says, and that has helped propel women to statewide and even national prominence.

As media coverage brought the pervasive nature of industrial pollutants-from hazardous waste dumps to polluted rivers and wells-into American living rooms, Gibbs says women began saying, “Wait a minute, that’s my backyard. Maybe that’s why

my kids are sick.”

At the grassroots level, where middle-class women have long been environmental activists, the last decade has also seen an influx of minority and working-class women, says Charlene Spretnak, author of Green Politics. Spretnak says these women—many of whom don’t associate themselves with the “green” movement and perceive themselves more as community activists than environmentalists—have flocked to one of the hottest new niches—environmental justice—working to prevent placement of incinerators and toxic waste dumps in poor areas.

The traditional role of nurturing the family prompts women to put the greater good over economic self-interest in their activism, says Karen Steuer, a legislative staffer on the House’s Committee on Resources, adding that in Congress it is easier to find men willing to dismantle environmental laws than it is women. Steuer, like everyone else interviewed for this story, stressed that her comments were broad generalizations—there are certainly many compassionate, committed male environmentalists, they say. But they add that they had witnessed these patterns too often to discount them as unfair stereotypes.

“Men are out in front on property rights and self-interest issues; more men are convinced that if you do the right thing economically, everything else follows,” Steuer says. “Women think about their families and the environment. They worry, ‘If I take my kids to the beach, can they swim or will they be wading around in oil spills?’”

McGinty adds that men tend to be “technological optimists,” confident we are “one machine away from delinking ourselves from nature,” while women humbly intuit the “fundamental connection” between humans and nature.

As bearers of children, women have an innate emotional bond to the Earth, says Theodore Roszak, director of the Ecopsychology Institute, which studies the relationships between individuals and nature. While men traditionally viewed Mother Nature “as a devious female to be put in her place, to be tamed” by technology (just as they historically viewed marriage in terms of domination and submission), women have shifted the emphasis from using science to subjugate nature to finding ways to accommodate nature.

“Seeing the Earth as a female subject to ruthless domination has made women relate better emotionally to the cause,” Roszak says. “Women in the environmental movement have always had sense of being on Earth’s side.” (Roszak does not discount the value of the more technological and calculating approach to science and the environment; he just believes women have provided a much-needed balance.)

The Forest and the Trees

Bramble says one critical factor in the emergence of women as key players in the environmental movement has been the shift in the last decade toward holistic environmental thinking—an understanding that you have to see the forest and the trees.

Like many of these women, Julie Wormser, now a regional associate at The Wilderness Society, first grasped this holistic concept out in the field. Wormser spent each summer in college as a forester in Haiti. “This is kind of silly, but I was looking for a truth to base my life’s work on and my first truth was that soil erosion is bad, so I went to Haiti and started planting trees,” Wormser says. When poor, rural Haitians let their goats eat the trees, Wormser learned a greater truth: “Environmental problems are not just logistical but also societal.”

Wormser realized that solving environmental dilemmas involves exploring all sides of an subject and bringing everyone together to find a feasible solution. She co-founded both the Boston Coalition on Population and Development, which brought together groups concerned with overpopulation and world development issues, and The Environmental Roundtable, which coalesced 40 local groups and chapters of major organizations like The Sierra Club and Audubon to battle the Republicans’ Contract with America. Much of Wormser’s work has not been about the scientific details of environmentalism—she doesn’t have to know the minutia of every environmental bill. Instead, she tries to find a way to get representatives from different groups like The Wildlands Project and the Riverways Program to put aside their individual agendas and work together to convince politicians of the urgency of their cause. “I provide the glue that helps people work together. People look to me as a leader now,” she says.

Women have also brought new ideas to old issues, such as population control and consumption. Roszak says that “often, the basic barrier is male psychology, their insisting on women’s role in life. Men are not aware that the root of the population problem is that women are left with only one thing to do: mother children. It is not just about contraceptives.”

Spretnak agrees, saying it has been women who have replaced the strategy of lowering birth rates in developing countries by shipping contraceptives with offering women “access to education, access to health care and microloans [to start their own businesses].” When that happens, she says, “birth rates go down.”

Vicki Robin, president of the New Road Map Foundation, an all-volunteer group that teaches low-consumption lifestyles, says lowering consumption and planning a sustainable future are equally crucial for society. Robin, co-author of the book Your Money or Your Life, lives happily on about $7,000 a year. New Road Map is staffed primarily by women (although her co-author is a man) and Robin has discovered through the years that women are “more able to go through a transformative process and really reexamine who they are and take on a different way of thinking. Women are more fluid, men are more solid. Men are very often defined by their jobs and their roles, they have a stronger ego identity.”

Cathy Carlson, legislative representative for the National Wildlife Federation, says the fact that “women bring less of an ego to the table” is essential to her success as a lobbyist. In delicate negotiations with the government and industry leaders on the adverse impact of mining and livestock grazing on water resources and wildlife habitat, Carlson has seen firsthand how she can be effective at breaking the gridlock on environmental issues. Women are better at “finding ways to move an idea forward so that everyone’s values are met and the goals are accomplished. Men feel the need to stand by their position—they get their ego involved, and they act like two bulls in a pasture, you can’t get past the headbutting.”

In meetings where dialogue becomes impossible because “the testosterone levels in the room are too high,” Carlson sometimes finds herself chiding men, saying “Fred, you’re not listening to Harry,” the way one might encourage children in the sandbox to play nice. “As a mother I see a lot of parallels,” she says. “You have to negotiate things out with a five-year-old, and the same principles apply.”

On topics that “strike at the heart of traditional male values of independence,” such as restricting where on the plains men can roam with their livestock, a woman’s sensitivity is crucial, says

Carlson. She’s constantly dealing with “cowboys who want to be at one with the land. They are caught up in the myth of the Western man.” Yet she says while women environmentalists can “look past the boots and the hats to focus on environmental damage,” they must achieve their goals without challenging the underlying values or shattering the men’s myth that the West is an open frontier, where nobody will tell them what they can or cannot do.

Finding Common Ground

Lisa Creasman, state director for The Nature Conservancy in Louisiana, also sees herself as a facilitator, using leadership to create partnerships that safeguards the land. Creasman often discusses acquiring land for the Conservancy with private owners and negotiates partnerships with businesses. The Conservancy “also interjects itself into confrontational situations between landowners and government agencies,” she says. “I look at everybody’s needs and try to be considerate of the other side. We have to find common ground.” The Army, looking for extra space for training ground adjacent to Fort Polk, covets the Forest Service’s Vernon District woodlands, which Creasman says is “biologically unique.” So the Conservancy has studied both pieces of land and the Army’s training plans in an effort to provide a compromise. Reading situations, and shifting between a relaxed and professional tone, is essential at meetings, and, she says, something at which women excel. “Women constantly use their peripheral vision,taking the whole scene in. Instead of just saying, ‘Here’s the deal,’ women are more into reading body language and people’s moods and adapting.”

While it may not be surprising that Wormser found the foresters to be hypermacho and sexist and that Carlson once worked as a surveyor, lugging 40 pounds of equipment all day but still treated as less than equal by her male colleagues, the pervasiveness of patronizing attitudes toward women at the executive level remains disturbingly high.

Creasman says progress for women in the South is excruciatingly slow—she is often the only woman in meetings. “In the South, women are just little ladies,” she says. She may be the ranking official, but many men make eye contact exclusively with her male colleagues and she is often addressed, “Hey, cutie.” Creasman handles these slights by ignoring them, concentrating on “the issues and the facts,” she says. “Maybe they don’t respect me afterwards, but they understand the issue better.”

Because Southerners, particularly wealthy oil-and-gas men along the coast, can be dismissive of businesswomen, Creasman occasionally brings a male staffer along to close a deal on a land purchase or request a donation. “I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing anything,” she says. “I keep focused on what I want to accomplish.” Ironically, she finds more discrimination in the boardroom than she did in her outdoor research jobs early in her career. “You’re more accepted when you can demonstrate you can be physically competitive [keeping up with the work]; when you’re dressed in a suit, sitting in meetings, it’s not quite so easy.”

There has, however, been an evolution of sorts, Gibbs says. “We used to have a male organizing director and people would often talk just to him even if we were sitting at the same table. At one meeting. I was arguing that risk assessment doesn’t work, and a man leaned around me to my science director—who was male—and said, ‘Please explain to Lois what this means. Sometimes it’s hard for women to understand.’”

Dudley is appalled that the Green Group—the CEOs of the national environmental organizations that are recognized most often by the press as the “environmental movement”—is almost entirely male, although she believes the group is making itself “less and less relevant” by not including women like Gibbs. However, she adds that it isn’t just male environmentalists who are behind the times—“when the press wants a quote from the environmental movement, they quote a man” the vast majority of the time.

Gibbs says that is slowly changing but that reporters still quote men for data, policy and intellectual ideas and to women environmentalists “for the human interest side”—even if both the man and woman give the same quotes. On the other hand, Gibbs says, “at least they call us—that part of it has changed.”

As more and more women establish themselves as experts and power players, they are finally becoming more difficult to ignore—even in fields that were traditionally the man’s domain. In her early days as a lobbyist, Carlson says men listened more attentively to other men than to her. Now, however, she says, “People know I can deliver on [threats and promises], so they know they have to pay attention.”

The first time she noticed the change was in a meeting with Senator Bennett Johnston, an influential player on the Senate’s energy committee, concerning legislation regarding the impact of hard rock mining on water resources. Carlson was, as usual, the only woman in a room of 15 men, and Johnston was only talking to the men. But suddenly there was a technical issue only she could address—when she did, Johnston ignored her and turned to a man from the Mineral Policy Center and then his male staffers looking for answers. Finally, realizing that only Carlson knew the facts, he began talking to her.

Women’s accomplishments in protecting the environment are finally starting to be fully appreciated and although no crystal ball can predict how long until women truly achieve equality in the field, Dudley finds it encouraging “to go to college campuses and find women in leadership positions out of proportion to their numbers.” Carlson is equally excited about an initiative started by the Federation’s burgeoning female staff to educate other women on their potential role in conservation—the group now holds an annual Women In Conservation summit and provides leadership training at the local level.

And, perhaps most significant, Creasman finds that as business relationships develop, many men enjoy being able to relax around her. “Women are less formal,” she says, “so men don’t have to have that competitive edge to their language.” On an inspection of a Louisiana river, a group of men learned Creasman was pregnant and soon shed their gruff demeanor to discuss their passion for parenthood. So ultimately, perhaps, the environmental movement will adapt to the point where men are comfortable sharing their power with women and even following their lead in an effort to support a common cause.

STUART MILLER is a freelance writer based in New York and author of The Other Islands of New York City: A Historical Companion.