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Women and the Environment

by Carolyn Merchant

280 pages, paperback, Routledge, 1995

Earthcare explores the association of women with nature in Western culture. Part one raises theoretical issues concerning women, the earth, and female symbols of nature. Part two looks at the history of associations between women and nature, the ways women have interacted with the earth, and the ways they have conserved its resources. Part three examines women's participation in the contemporary environmental movement in the United States, Sweden and Australia.

Quotes from Earthcare

"The post-Civil War resurgence of high fashion for ladies had, by the end of the century, taken an immense toll on American bird-life in the creation of exotic styles in millinery. Bird feathers and whole birds nestled atop the heads of society's upper- and middle-class women. Bonnets of 'sapphire blue-velvet trimmed with flowers and a gay colored bird', hats of ruby velvet trimmed with lace, birds, and aigrette; and 'coquettishly bent hat(s) of white leghorn, with trimmings of white plumes and chiffon' were thought to lend a chic, elegant air to milady.

"By the decade of the 1880s, hundreds of thousands of song birds, swallows, Baltimore orioles, egrets, and terns had been sacrificed to the whims of fashion and the pockets of milliners. Editorials in Field and Stream during the years 1883-1884 called attention to the national tragedy and recommended laws for bird protection. Responding to the urgent need, the American Ornithologists' Union in 1886 prepared a bulletin, published as a supplement to Science with 100,000 copies issued separately, presenting a 'Model Law' for the protection of birds and a collection of articles documenting the wholesale destruction of birds, appealing on their behalf to the ladies of the country.

"The first Audubon societies, organized in 1886, protested the 'abominable' habit of wearing feather fashions. Growing rapidly to 30,000 members in six months and encouraged by the passage of laws in New York and Pennsylvania, the Societies' founders began publication of Audubon Magazine in 1887. Women who sought to educate their sisters to the peril of birds formed Audubon clubs, such as the one at Smith College where two young students developed a plan to protect plume birds.

'Go to it,' said they. 'We will start an Audubon Society. The birds must be protected; we must persuade the girls not to wear feathers in their hats.' 'We won't say too much about the hats, though,' these plotters went on. 'We'll take the girls afield, and let them get acquainted with the birds. Then of inborn necessity they will wear feathers never more.'
" Birding rapidly caught on at Smith with early morning field trips led by luminaries such as John Burroughs, or by student observers who aroused enthusiasm for living rather than dead plumage. . . . Within three years Audubon Clubs and state societies sprang spontaneously into existence in Massachusetts-- where the vice-presidents included Mrs. Louis Agassiz, president of Radcliffe College, and Mrs. Julia J. Irving, president of Wellesley--in Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Iowa, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia. In 1898, a score of ladies met in Fairfield, Connecticut to form the Audubon society of the State of Connecticut, electing as president Mrs. Mabel Osgood Wright, popular author of The Friendship of Nature (1894), Birdcraft (1895), Birds of Village and Field (1898), numerous articles in the New York Times and Evening Post, and nature stories for children.
. . .

"In 1900, Mrs. Lovell White of San Francisco, the brilliant, dynamic founder and president of the women's California Club, took up the cause of forestry. Founded at the home of Mrs. White on a cold rainy evening in 1896 in the wake of the first and abortive California suffrage campaign--a campaign 'brilliant, rich in experience' with a 'spirit of wholesome comradeship,'--the California Club merged in January of 1900 with women's clubs throughout the state to form the California Federation of Women's Clubs. With Mrs. Robert Burdette of Pasadena as president and Mrs. White as vice-president-at-large, the first meeting was steeped in conservation ideals.

" 'The preservation of the forests of this state is a matter that should appeal to women,' declared Mrs. Burdette in her opening address. 'While the women of New Jersey are saving the palisades of the Hudson from utter destruction by men to whose greedy souls Mount Sinai in only a stone quarry, and the women of Colorado are saving the cliff dwellings and pueblo ruins of their state from vandal destruction, the word comes to the women of California that men whose souls are gang-saws are meditating the turning of our world-famous Sequoias into planks and fencing worth so many dollars.' The forests of the state, she went on, are the source of the state's waters and together they made possible the home and health of the people of California. 'Better one living tree in California, than fifty acres of lumberyard, Preserve and replant them and the State will be blessed a thousandfold in the development of its natural resources.' "

"In the years that followed, Mrs. White, as President of the California Club's Outdoor Art League, President of the Sempervirens Club, and later Chair of the Forestry Committee of the General Federation of Women's Clubs made a national reputation 'working unceasingly in behalf of forestry.' "

"In 1900 Mrs. White became alarmed by a report that the Calaveras Grove of Big Trees in the Stanislaus watershed of the western Sierra, discovered in 1850 and of world renown, was scheduled for cutting by an eastern lumber firm. The Big Trees, (Sequoia gigantea), were the largest known redwoods in existence, many measuring over 12 feet in diameter with bark up to two feet thick.

"In February of that year, Mrs. White asked Mrs. A. D. Sharon, a club member who was in Washington, to request the introduction of a joint resolution in congress calling for the acquisition of the grove on behalf of the public. Success was immediate, and too good to be true! In March Mrs. White received a telegram from Mrs. Sharon: 'Bill passed House Friday, Senate Monday, President signed Tuesday.'

"Mrs. White soon realized that the bill had only authorized negotiation to purchase. No funds had been appropriated. But with cutting delayed owing to the owner's cooperation with the law, Mrs. White as president of the Outdoor Art League began a nationwide campaign for purchase of the trees as a national park.

"After a bill failed to pass the house in 1904, she organized a petition drive that collected 1,500,000 signatures and was endorsed by dozens of national organizations. Upon its presentation to President Theodore Roosevelt, the first special presidential message was sent to Congress 'at the request of an organization managed by women,' urging preservation of the groves. In addition, Mrs. White arranged to have large photographs of the most prominent trees, named after presidents and generals of the United States, sent to key congressional committees.

"With Congress still refusing to act, Mrs. White embarked on a personal campaign to lobby every senator and representative in Congress. Finally in 1909 a bill was passed and signed by Roosevelt that authorized exchange of the Calaveras Groves for lands of equal value in the U.S. Forest Reserves. Hailed as a great triumph by the Women's Clubs, preservation of the Big Trees was not yet achieved. No lands satisfactory for the exchange could be found by the owner, Mr. Whiteside. The situation remained in limbo until 1926, when announcement was made of plans to cut the South Grove. At that point the fight was taken up by Mrs. Harriet West Jackson who as president of the Calaveras Grove Association determined to press for a state park in lieu of the national park originally authorized. With the assistance of the Calaveras Garden Club, the North Grove was finally set aside in 1931. But not until 1954, largely through a statewide education campaign conducted by Mrs. Owen Bradley, did the South Grove become part of the state park system."

. . .

"The first factor behind women's environmental leadership is their differing attitudes toward the environment from those of men. For example, a survey taken in Queensland shows that on a variety of environmental issues in which support by gender varied, 'females appeared to have greater support for every environmental and political issue covered by the survey.' These issues included ending uranium mining, logging on Fraser Island, World Heritage rainforest protection, concern that the government was not doing enough to protect the environment, voting as influenced by environmental policy, and voting for Green Party candidates if available. On one issue, the construction of a space base on the Cape York peninsula, men expressed greater support than women, and on two issues (initiating oil shipping controls along the Great Barrier Reef and instituting constitutional power to protect the environment) there was no significant difference by gender. The study concluded that 'Queensland females were almost twice as likely to have high environmental scores than males. This gender-based attitudinal variation is quite marked and is highly statistically significant.'

"Nationwide, more Australian women than men belong to environmental and conservation organizations. Surveys taken at the national level of individuals under fifty years of age, indicate that women are more concerned than men about environmental issues (54 to 46 percent on pollution, 53 to 47 percent on nature conservation, and 42 to 29 percent on social and environmental issues), while men are more concerned about economic issues than women (61 percent to 48 percent).

"The second factor behind Australian women's activism is their differing economic and social situations from those of men. Women occupy different economic niches than do men, and their relationship to both society and nature reflects different experiences of nature and differing approaches to resolving environmental problems. Their work is heavily concentrated in caregiving, service, and volunteer activity. In 1991, women comprised 97 percent of all nurses, 75 percent of the health industry, 66 percent of all educators outside of universities, and 65 percent of all service industry employees. Of the unpaid workforce two-thirds was female, with women constituting 96 percent of those engaged in full-time childcare, 70 percent of those in the home workforce, and 67 percent of all volunteers. . . . Women make up 70 percent of those with incomes below the poverty line."

. . .

"Chaos theory challenges two basic assumptions of ecology as it developed in the 1960s and 1970s and formed the basis of environmental management--the ideas of the balance of nature and the diversity--stability hypothesis. The historical concept of a balance of nature which humans could disrupt implied that people could repair damaged ecosystems with better practices. The idea that biodiversity led to ecosystem stability meant that species conservation and ecological restoration could improve ecosystem health. Yet chaos theory suggests that natural disturbances and mosaic patches that do no exhibit regular or predictable patterns are the norm rather than aberration. Moreover, the seemingly stable world that is the object of socially-constructed representations can be destabilized by human social practices (as when pesticides produce mutant insects or antibiotics produce resistant bacteria). Such theories undercut assumptions of stability at the root of Leopold's land ethic and of holism as a foundation for ecocentrism. They reinforce the idea that predictability, while still useful, is more limited than previously assumed and that nature, while a human construct and a representation, is also a real, material, autonomous agent. A postclassical, postmodern science is a science of limited knowledge, of the primacy of process over parts, and of imbedded contexts within complex, open ecological systems.

"This disorderly, ordered world of nonhuman nature must be acknowledged as a free autonomous actor, just as humans are free autonomous agents. But nature limits human freedom to totally dominate and control it, just as human power limits nature's and other humans' freedom. Science and technology can tell us that an event such as a hurricane, earthquake, flood, or fire is likely to happen in a certain locale, but not when it will happen. Because nature is fundamentally chaotic, it must be respected and related to as an active partner through a partnership ethic."

Table of Contents of Earthcare

  1. Gaia: Ecofeminism and the Earth
  2. Eve: Nature and Narrative
  3. Isis: Women and Science
  4. The Death of Nature: Women and Ecology in the Scientific Revolution
  5. Form Corn Mothers to Moral Mothers: Changing Forms of Earthcare in New England
  6. Preserving the Earth: Women and the Progressive Conservation Crusade
  7. Earthcare: Women and the American Environmental Movement
  8. Peace with the Earth: Women and the Swedish Environment. With Abby Peterson
  9. The Ecological Self: Women and the Environment in Australia
  10. Conclusion. Partnership Ethics: Earthcare for a New Millennium

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