From Rachel Carson to Wangari Maathai—Meet the Women Who Ignited Environmental Movements

Climate change is not just an environmental crisis—it is a feminist crisis as well. 

The environmental and feminist movements have grown like stems and branches of a twisting vine or tree. Sometimes merging, sometimes growing apart. At times they have strengthened each other. At others, they have grown distant. Ultimately, they both address similar forces of oppression and exploitation. They share a common goal of dismantling the “status quo.” Their shared vision is the thriving of both women and nature. Climate change is not just an environmental crisis—it is a feminist crisis as well. 

The following is an excerpt from Intertwined: Women, Nature, and Climate Justice, depicting connections between environmental and feminist movements.

Rebecca Kormos’ upcoming book Intertwined: Women, Nature, and Climate Justice, on sale April 30.

In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which many consider to have launched the modern environmental movement. In the book, Rachel detailed the natural and human health impacts of a then-widely used pesticide called DDT. She provided evidence of how the use of DDT was causing massive die-offs in birds and other species, how it entered the food chain, and how it was stored in human bodies, causing cancers and genetic damage. 

Carson was attacked cruelly, personally and misogynistically for her work. Time magazine wrote that her book was an “emotional and inaccurate outburst” that was “hysterically overemphatic.” Yale Environment 360 reported that “an official with the Federal Pest Control Review Board drew laughter from his audience when he remarked, ‘I thought she was a spinster. What’s she so worried about genetics for?’” 

Rachel Carson stirred up national controversy in 1962 with her book, Silent Spring. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Nevertheless, in 1963, as she was dying from breast cancer (a fact she kept secret), Carson testified before Congress, advocating for laws and policies to control the use of DDT. She died a year later in 1964 at the age of 57, but her legacy continued to grow. Her work is said to have provoked the passage of the Clean Air Act (1963), the Wilderness Act (1964), the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), the Clean Water Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973), along with influencing the creation in 1970 of the Environmental Protection Agency, and galvanizing the first “Earth Day,” on April 22 of that year.

Nature and women have suffered a long history together of exploitation and subordination.

In India, in the early 1970s, another women-led environmental battle was being fought. In the Garhwal Himalayas, logging had caused floods and landslides, and women were having to walk farther for water and fuelwood.

In response, many began hugging trees and refusing to let go to protect them from being logged, declaring that “loggers would have to kill them before they felled the trees.” This act of defiance spread throughout the Indian Himalayas. The movement became known as the “Chipko movement,” after the Hindi word that means “to hug or embrace.”

These demonstrations had a direct impact, resulting in the banning of logging trees above a thousand meters in the Garhwal Himalayas. 

The Hindi word chipko means “to hug” or “to cling to” and reflects the demonstrators’ primary tactic of embracing trees to impede loggers. (Bhawan Singh /The The India Today Group via Getty Images)

In Kenya, also in the early 1970s, another women-led movement was gaining momentum, becoming one of the largest and most famous environmental campaigns in the country. The clearing of forests was causing streams to dry up and food supplies to become unreliable. As in India, women were having to walk farther to find wood for fuel and fencing as a result.

Wangari Maathai, born in 1940 in the village of Ihithe, had been witnessing changes in the environment that were a direct result of the colonial legacy in Kenya. Maathai noticed how women were coping with the paucity of fuelwood by buying more processed, less nutritious food that had the advantage of taking less time to cook. As a result, children were suffering from illnesses related to malnutrition.

To address these problems, Maathai launched an initiative, called the Green Belt Movement, encouraging women to plant seedlings. Since its inception, the Green Belt Movement has planted over 51 million trees.

It was around the time of these emerging movements in India and Kenya that the intertwined relationship between women and nature was given a name. “Ecofeminism” was first used by the French feminist Françoise d’Eaubonne in her 1974 book Le Féminisme ou la mort (Feminism or death). “Ecofeminism” recognized how, through patriarchy and capitalism, the domination and exploitation of women and nature worked in parallel. 

At the same time, the Goddess movement saw a revival. Although the Goddess movement challenged patriarchy, it was problematic in several ways. First, it was very white. In addition, depictions of Mother Earth within this movement were often highly sexualized. Several feminists also disagreed with the way women’s relationship to nature was portrayed.

To deal with disharmony within the movement, different branches of feminism grew in different directions, often as reactions to each other. Several offshoots emerged, each with a slightly different interpretation of what ecofeminism meant.

Both “ecosocialist feminism” and “Marxist ecofeminism” rejected the idea of women’s biological connection to nature. Marxist ecofeminists claimed that women’s work and the benefits nature provides such as filtering fresh water, producing oxygen, pollinating plants, and providing food, were being treated as “free gifts” to be exploited by capitalism. In response to the “whiteness” of ecofeminism, “ecowomanism” focused on intersectionality while also incorporating religious, moral, and spiritual beliefs. 

The focus of “Indigenous feminism” is on decolonization and rights specifically for Indigenous women and girls. Some have responded negatively to the use of the word “feminism,” since it feels too closely associated with white women. In an op-ed in the Navajo Times entitled “Feminism Is Against Our Culture,” multimedia artist and writer Venaya Yazzie writes that as a Diné woman, she considers the word “feminism” to be a “germ” with roots “in racism against the black man,” and argues that it maintains a role in the continuing presence of colonialism.

Jihan Gearon, Indigenous feminist writer, artist and activist, argues that, at its heart, Indigenous feminism is about decolonizing. Restoring women’s autonomy, agency, and what she calls “transformative power” could bring us to a better future in which everyone’s diversity is valued and included.

“Imagine how much better this work will be when Indigenous matriarchs have autonomy, agency, and power once again,” she said. “Not power over men or others, but transformative power, which grows from respect for self and equality with others, in all their diversity of identity, experience, and ability. This is the crux of Indigenous feminism.”

Gearon wrote to me that, ultimately, “it’s about building understanding, not asserting that everyone uses the same word/definition.” 

When we stand up against patriarchy, we are standing up for the rights of the earth as well. 

In the 1980s, as a response to the social and environmental injustices, the environmental justice movement was born. Initiated and led primarily by Black American thought leaders and activists in the United States, such as Robert D. Bullard and Catherine Coleman Flowers, the movement has drawn attention to the ways in which poor communities have been disproportionately affected by pollution, resource extraction, and disposal of waste. 

As the environmental and feminist movements started to splinter, the environmental justice movement sought to bring us back together again, with the common goal to protect nature with equality and fairness. If ever there was a time for the environmental and feminist movements to unite again, it is now. 

How does Mother Earth live now within the environmental and feminist movements? Is it time to de-gender the earth? Nature and women have suffered a long history together of exploitation and subordination. They have been put into categories, where they are essentialized and viewed as powerless, passive or sexualized. When the exploitation of one is justified, or permitted, it facilitates exploitation of the other. When we stand up against patriarchy, we are standing up for the rights of the earth as well. 

I asked Corrina Gould, chair and spokesperson for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan Nation, what she thought of de-gendering the earth. She laughed and replied, “We are her children. Everything grows from her. And yes, she’s a woman. To say that women can’t do anything else is ridiculous. That’s a very narrow, patriarchal idea that doesn’t fit with our cosmologies as Indigenous people. I think the complexity of women has been denigrated in Western society so that women are only for childbirth.” 

Meg Conkey, professor emerita of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the first anthropologists to apply a feminist lens to archeology, suggests that embracing the complexity of human history offers a more optimistic perspective about our human capacity to address climate change and gender inequalities—compared to alternative theories that suggest we are innately predisposed towards a specific social system, such as patriarchy or matriarchy.

Perhaps what is needed, instead of rejecting a view of the earth and nature as female, is to instead embrace that she is many things just as we as women are many things. We were never one thing. We were experimental and, across landscapes and continents and throughout time, we have lived in many different types of systems—and we still do. 

Copyright © 2024 by Rebecca Kormos. This excerpt originally appeared Intertwined: Women, Nature, and Climate Justice, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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Rebecca Kormos is a primatologist, wildlife biologist, conservationist, filmmaker, writer, National Geographic Explorer, and one of the co-founders of the Women in Nature Network. Intertwined: Women, Nature, and Climate Justice is her first book. She lives in Berkeley, California.