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Celebrating Women in Environmental Activism

Updated: Apr 14


In honor of Women’s History Month, this week’s TEDI blog is dedicated to the female environmentalists who have demonstrated their activism throughout their lives in order to make the world a safer and healthier environment for all who inhabit it. That being said, here are three female environmental activists who have left a positive mark on our earth.


  1. Rachel Carson


Rachel Carson is credited as being the first female environmentalist, so it’s only fitting that we put her first on this list. She was a biologist, writer, and environmental activist who utilized her natural literary prowess to spread awareness and profess her interest in the natural world.


Growing up in the rural area of Springdale, Pennsylvania, she spent her childhood exploring nature, observing the fields and hills surrounding her family’s farm. She studied English at Pennsylvania College for Women in 1925, later switching to studying biology at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, then attending Johns Hopkins University for zoology. She intended to earn a Ph.D., but her family’s financial struggle during the Great Depression altered her path.


Carson started off writing radio scripts, combining her talents in writing and biology for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries to make episodes spreading awareness of marine life. At the same time, she also wrote articles for local newspapers, which led to the creation of her first book: Under the Sea Wind; however, the sales were disappointing. She would continue writing about marine life, earning praise for her vivid and poetic descriptions of life beneath the ocean.


Many financial struggles came with being a writer, but Carson had the support of a woman named Dorothy Freeman. There is evidence in letters that points to Carson having an intimate relationship with Freeman. Carson confided with Freeman through her biggest challenges, describing Freeman as a “dearly loved friend.” Carson was a very private person, and it is said that she and Freeman destroyed around 500 of their letters.


Eventually, she found success in her 1962 publication of Silent Spring, a monumental piece on the dangers of pesticides, earning Carson the title “mother of environmental movements.” In 1945 she started shifting her focus to pesticides, finding interest in DDT: a colorless, odorless pesticide used by the military in World War 2. Silent Spring started to spread awareness on people’s impact on the environment.


While she was not the first to create a piece discussing this topic, what set her apart from the others was the poetic language she used combined with her extensive scientific knowledge. Accordingly, the title is a reference to a “silent spring” without birdsong, to emphasize the dangers of pesticides and how they are harming nature's inhabitants. Silent Spring opened the eyes of the people and sparked a national controversy regarding the use of pesticides. Chemical companies attempted to discredit her, but Carson persevered. Her hard work led to the U.S. eventually banning DDT, along with other pesticides.


2. Wangari Maathai



Wangari Maathai was a woman born in Nyeri, Kenya in 1940 who made major strides for the environment, and for African American women. Maathai was the first African American woman to obtain a doctorate, as well as the first to become an associate professor, and chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy. Not only that, she was also the first African American woman to earn the Nobel Peace Prize.


At Mount St. Scholastica College, Maathai earned a degree in Biological Sciences, later earning a Master of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. at the University of Nairobi, also teaching veterinary anatomy at the same university.


Wangari Maathai would become an active member of the National Council of Women of Kenya, becoming its chairwoman from 1981–1987. During her time on the council, she introduced the idea of community-based tree planting. This idea branched out and developed into what is now known as the Green Belt Movement, exposing over 40 people from other African countries to this concept. This led other countries in Africa to launch similar movements. The Green Belt Movement won Maathai the Nobel Peace Prize, as well as other awards, such as The Sophie Prize, The Petra Kelly Prize for Environment, The Conservation Scientist Award, J. Sterling Morton Award, WANGO Environment Award, Outstanding Vision and Commitment Award, Excellence Award, Golden Ark Award, Juliet Hollister Award, Jane Adams Leadership Award, the Edinburgh Medal, The Hunger Project’s Africa Prize for Leadership, Goldman Environmental Prize, the Woman of the World, Windstar Award for the Environment, Better World Society Award, Right Livelihood Award, and the Woman of the Year Award. She also launched the Jubilee 2000 Africa Campaign, which fought to cancel unpayable debts in poorer countries of Africa.


Not only was she an advocate for environmental struggles, but she is also recognized for her struggle to fight for democracy and human rights. She had addressed the UN on multiple occasions, becoming the voice for women for the five-year review of the Earth Summit. She also served on the boards of several organizations, such as the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament, The Jane Goodall Institute, Women and Environment Development Organization, World Learning for International Development, Green Cross International, Environment Liaison Center International, and the WorldWIDE Network of Women in Environmental Work. In December of 2002, Maathai was elected to parliament with 98% of the votes, and the president would later appoint her as Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources, and Wildlife in Kenya’s Ninth Parliament.


She died on September 25th, 2011, leaving behind an incredible legacy.


3. Greta Thunburg


Last, but certainly not least on our list, is Greta Thunburg, a young Swedish activist born on January 3rd, 2003. Thunberg started her environmental journey young, first learning about the issue at eight years old and quickly changing her habits, refusing to travel on airplanes and switching to veganism. It is said that at 11 years old, she was so upset with the state of our environment that she stopped speaking for a period of time. Thunberg has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. People with autism tend to hyperfixate on certain topics and have a strong moral code, and Thunberg’s special interest seems to be climate change.


Thunberg’s goal is to encourage lawmakers to address climate change, so for three weeks before the 2018 Swedish election, she skipped school and sat outside the country’s parliament holding a sign that said “Skolstrejk för Klimatet,” or “School Strike for Climate.” Each day, more and more people joined her protest, and it ended up garnering international attention. She eventually returned to school but continued to skip school every Friday to strike. This day earned the name “Fridays for Future,” and students all over the world joined in this movement. Greta Thunburg gave numerous speeches about her strong views on climate change, speaking at the World Economic Forum, the European Parliament, and in front of legislatures in Italy, France, the UK, and the US. At only 15 years old, she sparked a worldwide movement and became an icon for environmental activists.


Not only did she bring awareness on climate change, but she has also been credited for raising awareness on Asperger’s. She serves as an inspiration for others with the disorder, fighting the negative stereotypes given to those with Asperger’s. Thunberg acknowledges her struggles with the syndrome, but also notes its advantages, comparing it to her own “superpower” when “given the right circumstances.” She has two published books: No One is Too Small to Make a Difference, published in 2019; and The Climate Book: The Facts and the Solutions, published in 2023.


Greta Thunburg inspired thousands across the globe with her intense dedication and passion, with people even calling her influence “the Greta effect.” However, she is not without critics. Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, notably called her a “brat” in 2019. One of the more notorious scandals involving her name occurred on Twitter at the end of 2022. Famous social media personality Andrew Tate, infamous for his misogynistic views, posted a Tweet directed to Greta Thunburg which stated, “Please provide your email address so I can send a complete list of my car collection and their respective enormous emissions.” Thunberg responded, “yes, please do enlighten me. email me at smalldickenergy@getalife.com,” promptly destroying his masculinity in nine words. Her response got the attention of millions, with everyone praising Thunberg for her perfectly petty response, and Tate was clearly threatened.


In an attempt to reclaim his masculine identity, he posted a video of him ranting in a dressing gown, with a cigar in hand and a pizza box in the background. That pizza box is said by some accounts to have led to his arrest, with the Romanian authorities able to find his location because of the box in the background. Tate was accused of sex trafficking and rape, so the police used his location to find and arrest him. Thunberg later Tweeted in response to his arrest, “this is what happens when you don’t recycle your pizza boxes,” rubbing salt further in the wound and causing the internet to cheer her name online. Greta Thunburg truly is an icon for young activists in the next generation.


There are so many amazing women fighting to make the world a better place for our predecessors. As an organization founded by a woman, and run by mostly women, it is only fitting that we pay homage to the women who paved the way for environmentalists like us, inspiring us and thousands of others to preach our message of protecting our home. No matter the region or time period, women have been and will continue to fight to leave the world a better place than when we came.


 

Happy Women’s History Month, everyone! Stay updated and active by following the Environmental Defense Initiative on Medium and our social media platforms!






Author: Ina Sabarre


Editor: Charlotte Wang


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