Female Environmentalists From History We Should All Know More About


This Saturday will herald Earth Hour, the yearly act of environmentalism in which people attempt to use as little energy as possible (lights across cities will, for instance, go out). It's more of a signal of environmental commitment than a mark of genuine policy change, but it's still hugely influential; and it's a great time to consider the huge legacy of often-unsung heroes that created America's strong environmentalist movement, many of them women. Often the people who are credited with the most influence on American environmentalism are male (John Muir and Thoreau feature heavily), with only one female, Rachel Carson, author of the famous environmentalist text Silent Spring, admitted to the fold. In reality, since the 19th century America's had a heap of environmentalist women making people think about their impact on the natural world.

It's likely not a coincidence that many of these women crossed over into other areas of female excellence and activism, from the fight for abolition to early feminism. Unfortunately, being able to pursue environmental agendas was often restricted to white, upper-class women who had the societal resources to combat the sexism that restricted others.

Fortunately, today's American environmentalist movement is far more all-encompassing, from Native American activist Winona LaDuke's pioneering work in environmental justice to urban strategist Majora Carter's work in "getting green space into the ghetto." Looking back at the legacy of the first female environmentalists, then, is both an intriguing thing and one that we also have to learn from for the future.

Rosalie Edge

Rosalie Edge took no nonsense from anybody. Born in a prominent family in 1877, she could have had a life of ease, but instead opted to become an activist, first for the women's suffrage movement and then for early environmental causes. Along with founding the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, she also got heavily involved in raising public awareness of environmental issues, from misconceptions about wild "pests" to taking environmental awareness organizations to task. (One received her wrath for letting hunters onto its apparently "protected" land.) She would publish illegally purloined material if it meant getting her point across (an anonymous source contributed to a successful campaign to stop the U.S. Fish Commission from clubbing pelicans to death). She was afraid of nobody, warned against the use of pesticides decades before their problems were widely known, and was basically a badass.

Florence Augusta Merriam Bailey

Another bird expert, Florence Augusta Merriam Bailey wasn't just an ornithologist; born in 1863, she was also one of America's first activists for the protection of birds and their conservation in the wild. The writer of extremely popular bird-watching guides, she also held an instrumental role in the passing of an act in 1900 that meant that wildlife illegally traded or sold couldn't go over state lines, a huge blow to the "trade" in exotic and illegally caught birds. She also started protesting, from a very young age, the harvesting of American birds for plucking due to the fashion for feathery hats, a procedure that disgusted her. A highly decorated scientist for her bird work, she now, fittingly, has a species of mountain chickadee named after her.

Graceanna Lewis

Quaker Graceanna Lewis, born in 1821, had two sides to her life: a humanitarian one, and an environmental. one. Like Rosalie Edge, she also took part in the suffrage movement as it moved across the U.S., but she had another contribution, housing fugitives as they moved through the Underground Railroad to freedom. After the Civil War, however, she turned her life over to botany and ornithology, giving classes in bird identification and becoming, with Natural History Of Birds, the first person to publish a book on America's birds. Despite her failed attempts to get into a professional academic position because of her gender, she still managed to be one of the nation's foremost authorities on its birds and trees, and died at 91 a renowned expert.

Margaret "Mardy" Murie

The Wilderness Society calls Mardy Murie "the grandmother of U.S. Conservation," and she ranks alongside Rachel Carson as one of the most important figures in the movement, gender or not. Born in 1902 and for much of her life based in Alaska, she and her husband Olaus became hugely active in America's burgeoning conservation movement in the 1950s, and would be the motivating force behind the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Range in 1960. Her legal legacy is one of the biggest in American environmental history; she also created the circumstances for the passing of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980 (Olaus, alas, would not live to see it all, having died in 1963 of skin cancer). She was invited to the White House to witness the Wilderness Act being signed into history in 1964, and is generally recognized as one of the biggest influences on the way America views and values its wild spaces in modern times.

Caroline Bartlett Crane

Crane, born in 1858, was another early ecofeminist, striving to make people understand the link between environmental degradation, economic progress, and human health. The American Sociologist wrote that she "labored to protect the natural environment from the rapid degradation caused by increased industrialization, population growth, and changes in land use and exploitation during the Progressive Era." First, though, she had a successful career as a religious leader; but after resigning as a pastor shortly after her marriage, she ventured into urban sanitation, discovering really unhygienic conditions in the slaughterhouses of Michigan. She travelled to over 50 cities to institute new reforms about how people lived in relation to their environment, a way of thinking that came to be called "municipal housekeeping."

Alice Eastwood

She was Canadian rather than American, but the pioneering figure of Alice Eastwood (born 1859) needs to be on any list of contributing figures to early American environmentalism. Eastwood was both a fabulous botanist and a serious early feminist; she wandered the Rocky Mountains on her own looking for botanical specimens, climbed Mount Whitney, and became an official employee of the Californian Academy of Sciences in 1892, when that sort of thing was still pretty unheard of. She studied at herbaria around the world, has multiple species named after her, and published 310 articles in her lifetime. Her science also had a strong environmentalist streak; she advocated strongly for people to preserve and maintain local American flora, including the now-famous redwoods, and collected a gigantic array of plants for the Academy to protect against their disappearance or natural disaster. (She was also "known for her disregard for social convention, particularly in matters of dress", which makes her sound like one of the best dinner companions ever.)

Ellen Swallow

Ellen Swallow, born in 1842, is impressive by any standard: one of the first American women to break into the highly male world of chemistry, she was also a hugely influential environmental reformer who's considered one of the founders of ecofeminism. A brilliant student who graduated Vassar in 1870 and was the first woman ever to go to MIT, she would make huge inroads for science about the importance of clean water and environmental nutrition, and conducted a huge study of water quality in Massachusetts that gathered 20,000 samples, which was basically unprecedented. She called herself a "humanist ecologist," argued that women's unpaid labor in the home was the foundation of their second-class status and what kept modern capitalism in motion, and was basically a total badass, environmental and otherwise.