Green Sexism: Women Are the Backbone of the Environmental Movement. When Will Our Rhetoric Reflect That?

By Clarke, Chris | Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview

Green Sexism: Women Are the Backbone of the Environmental Movement. When Will Our Rhetoric Reflect That?


Clarke, Chris, Earth Island Journal


Go fetch your copy of Roderick Nash's Wilderness and the American Mind. Go ahead! I'll wait. Do you have it now? Open up to the index in the back. Leaf through until you find the "W"s. Got it? Good. Now scan down the page and notice the number of references to "women." A rather surprising number, isn't it?

Oh, I'm sorry. A few of you might not have your copy of Nash close at hand. Perhaps you've lent it to a friend, or left it on the bus. No matter, I'll tell you what that surprising number is. It's zero.

Ah, but perhaps this seminal, and you should pardon the expression, work from 1967 detailing the American attitude toward wilderness and nature contains some mentions of individual women. And it does. Of about 400 names of individuals in Nash's index, four are names of women. There is Mary Rowlandson, kidnapped by Indians in the 1670s, whose descriptions of the landscape influenced some later writers. Helen Hunt Jackson is mentioned as having sympathized with Indians. Rachel Carson is mentioned, of course. How could America's most famous wildlife biologist, she who launched generations of wingnut pesticide diatribes with a single book, be left out of the first modern American wilderness studies text? She gets part of one page out of 288. And then there's Katherine Lee Bates, who wrote "America the Beautiful." Nash quoted her line about "purple mountains' majesty," and gave her credit.

I don't mean to pick on Nash unduly: He is merely very prominent. His set of social assumptions toward women were almost necessarily more evolved than those possessed by George Perkins Marsh in 1864, when he wrote the very first classic American environmental text: Man and Nature. And Nash's sins, such as they are, are sins of omission. Mentioning Olaus Murie, for instance, in his role as a leader of the Wilderness Society, but omitting mention of Margaret (Mardy) Murie, who held the same job for years, might be seen as mere authorial prerogative. Surely a writer cannot mention every single detail. Then again, as Mardy is widely credited as the originator of the notion of the 1964 Wilderness Act, perhaps the omission is more systemic than inadvertent. Howard Zahniser, who wrote the text of the Wilderness Act, and shepherded it to within a week of passage before he died, merits mention on 15 pages. And he does merit that level of mention, no doubt about it. Mardy Murie stood in the Rose Garden the next week as Lyndon Johnson signed the act. With Murie was Zahnie's widow Alice Bernita (Hayden) Zahniser.

A recent biography of Howard Zahniser on the Wilderness Society's Web site describes the setting thus:

Zahniser, confident of success, died one week later in his sleep in early May 1964. Zahniser's wife, along with Mardy Murie, was present in the Rose Garden when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Act into law on September 3, 1964.

"Zahniser's wife" is not otherwise identified on that page.

Ah, but those were the unenlightened 1960s. Since then, a raft of capable, dynamic activists and scientists who happen to be female have changed the face of the environmental movement! Well, not entirely. There are certainly realms within the environmental activist world where women are influential, respected, even powerful. The late Judi Bari, for instance, a Northern California activist, changed the face of what was a rather male-dominated Earth First! The original "not-an-organization," born out of the frustration a handful of professional eco-activists shared at their employers' being too tame, was, honest to God, conceived in a Mexican whorehouse. The concept was hatched over beer in the cantina, and then, the story goes, everyone but Mike Roselle "went upstairs."

Earth First! prized sabotage and confrontation. What Bari saw in Earth First! was an uncompromisingly radical group of people committed to take whatever non-violent measures were necessary to defend the beleaguered Earth. …

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