Women’s History Month 2022: Let Women Lead

Image of Rachel Carson one of a few women fighting for the environment

Mrs. Goldman dashed a dark Expo marker across the whiteboard in my seventh-grade Life Science class. The big letters drawn underneath our to-do list said “Rachel Carson” and “Read Silent Spring.” Sitting in a classroom filled with beakers, science fair projects, and restless middle schoolers was when Rachel Carson entered my life. We heard about this famous woman who stood up for the planet, as well as its people, plants, and animals. As a 12-year-old, I enjoyed the story, but was spared the details of the hardships that Rachel Carson faced as a woman who went against men in positions of power. A few years later, in my senior-year environmental science class, I re-learned the story of Rachel Carson — details included. My class looked on in shock as my teacher projected on the board the vicious personal attacks on Carson, not just critiques of her argument.

Quotes from angry men that asked why “a spinster was so worried about genetics” or that claimed her advocacy was “hysterically over-empathetic” and the result of “mystical attachment to the balance of nature.” By the time I was a senior in high school, unapologetic and undeniable sexism was not new to me; if anything, I was even more impressed by the achievements of a woman who made so much progress despite stereotypes and patriarchal power. However, after having now spent years in environmental advocacy, I see a different, more subtle obstacles that Carson faced: the boundaries set for women who try to lead.

Image of AOL of a the modern women fighting for the environmentAt first glance, this may feel inaccurate; the glass ceiling has been shattered. After all, it’s easy to envision Greta Thunberg or Leah Thomas, the founder of Intersectional Environmentalist, when thinking about those leading the charge in environmentalism. Or, you may conjure up the image of AOC in her advocacy for the Green New Deal. Nevertheless, these outstanding women are not truly representative of who holds environmental leadership positions. A little over a year ago on International Women’s Day, 2021, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published a comprehensive report on women in the environment. It showed that, in 2020, women around the world held only 15% of the top jobs as ministers of environmental sectors; women hold less than one fifth of the positions of power when it comes to ministries that deal with water, forests, and other natural resources.

Despite not having such leadership positions, women are still expected to disproportionally care for their communities and the Earth, and these expectations have real effects. The UK research firm Mintel shows that women are more likely to intentionally attempt to make more ethical decisions. For example, their research indicated that, in 2018, 77% of women recycled compared to 67% of men. This eco gender gap, as Mintel calls it, is not a result of women being biologically wired to think or act more sustainably than men; it is a result of the “socialization [of women] to care about others and be socially responsible.” In other words, women are raised to be caregivers, primarily in the role of wife and mother, which makes them more likely to feel an obligation to care for the planet. On the other hand, being socialized to have concern for communities and the planet has become associated with femininity which can actively turn men away from roles as caregivers or environmentalists.

When you combine the two facts that (1) women are less likely to have leadership roles and (2) women are socialized to be responsible for planetary care, it reveals a trying cycle in which pressure is placed on women to act empathetically without providing them opportunities to lead. Of course, these dynamics become even more complicated for individuals who identify with multiple marginalized identities and are blocked from even more leadership opportunities.

But despite facing barriers when entering the environmental space, women have made impressive and important strides. There are numerous resources to learn about leaders like Isatou Ceesay. Reading about, talking about, and learning from these women is vital to highlighting the advocacy and efforts of marginalized individuals. But widespread change will result not merely from intentionally including women in every decision involving the Earth (environmentally related or not), but giving these women the opportunity to lead where historically they been excluded.

Rachel Carson cared deeply for the plant, animal, and human communities that surrounded her. She witnessed a world heading towards the death of ecosystems and the silence of nature. Despite severe and sexist criticism, as well as systemic barriers to leadership, she inspired and enacted tangible and widespread change. Women in the environment are still making change every day, but not because all barriers have been broken down. Women still must overcome blatant sexism and threats to their physical safety. Imagine the creative, efficient, and meaningful change that would result from a world where the efforts of women are not hampered by obstacles to leadership. A world where being both a woman and an environmental leader was neither “controversial” nor “extraordinary.”


Isabel Wood: RCC Stanback Presidential Intern

Isabel Wood is the co-lead with Ross Feldner and Bob Musil of the RCC Bird Watch and Wonder Program and works with Mackay Pierce on communications and social media.

She is a junior at Duke University majoring in Environmental Science and Policy with a certificate in Documentary Studies. [email protected]