Women: The Unsung Heroes of the Environment

As we waver on the cusp of various global crises, the services women provide to environmental protection become more indispensable every day. Bianca Jagger traces the deep connections women have had with the Earth from time immemorial.

Recently I delivered the keynote speech at the exhibition, “Women Pioneers for the Environment and Nature Conservation – 1899 to the Present” in Berlin, Germany, organised by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment to celebrate International Women’s Day.

When I was first asked to give the speech, I was aware that women have played an important role in conservation, environmental protection, and in addressing the threat of climate change. But I didn’t know how much they have contributed, often invisibly, to preserving and caring for our planet’s precious natural resources. In the course of researching and preparing the speech, I learned a great deal. Women are the unsung heroes of the environment.

What is clear is that, as we waver on the cusp of various global crises, the services women provide to environmental protection become more indispensable every day. More than ever, as we face the challenges of combating climate change, deforestation, the melting of the Arctic sea ice, we will need these women: their skills, their wisdom and their knowledge.

The Great Tradition of Women and the Environment

When the English dissident preacher John Ball asked, in the early 14th century, ‘When Adam delved and Eve span/ Who was then the gentleman?’ he described an idealised divide between traditional gender roles: between the domestic and the agricultural. Eve stays at home and spins – Adam tends the land.

But a short examination of almost any culture across the world, throughout history, will demonstrate how far removed from reality this idea is. Women have always worked and tended the land. Farming, husbandry, gardening, hunting and fishing, forestry… As often as not, Eve is out in the fields with the plough, as well as inside caring for the children.

The idea of the female sphere being limited to ‘Kinde, Küche, Kirke,’ or ‘Children, Cooking and Church,’ is a prevalent one. It is also erroneous.

The relationship between women and the land, the environment, can be hard to trace since records frequently leave out our contribution. For many centuries history has been written by the patriarchy, which omits women from the canon.

But there is a long and great tradition of women devoting their lives to the land and the environment. They have sown and tilled fields, bred new species of plants and rediscovered fossilised, extinct ones. They have protected their homelands from destruction and saved rare animals from extinction. They shaped the way their cultures relate to the land.

Examples of women’s contribution to the protection of the environment can be found all over the world in all eras; wherever there have been women, it seems, they have cared for the planet.

Women in Hunter Gatherer Societies and Agriculture

For 73, 000 years, which is most of our species’ time on earth, we were made up of hunter gatherer societies. In these societies women largely gathered, and men largely hunted. It was an efficient system which meant that the tribe could have both meat, and plant nourishment at once. Both men and women contributed to the welfare of the community.

Woman in the field

12,000 years ago saw the advent of agriculture and cultivation, and the allocation of gender roles. In other words, as the Economist puts it, ‘Agriculture… stands accused of exacerbating sexual inequality. In many peasant farming communities, men make women do much of the hard work.’ This unequal division of labour has persisted for thousands of years.

When the Cherokee tribe was being pushed further and further west by settlers, a group of Cherokee women sternly petitioned the council, reprimanding their ‘beloved children,’ reminding them that they had raised the (male) Council members on that land which ‘God gave us to inhabit and raise provisions,’ and instructing their ‘children’ not to “part with any more lands.”’

Another Cherokee woman wrote to Benjamin Franklin in 1787, pleading for peace between the government and the Cherokee. She says that he

“. . . ought to mind what a woman says, and look upon her as a mother – and I have Taken the privilege to Speak to you as my own Children . . . and I am in hopes that you have a beloved woman amongst you who will help to put her children right if they do wrong, as I shall do the same. . . . “

Though denied any legal rights, these Cherokee women assumed authority as ‘mother’ to the land, and the community.

Mother Earth

The theme of mother, as representing land and earth, is embedded in many traditional cultures, particularly in Latin America. It is a dominant theme in the pre-Columbian Mayan text Popol Vuh. As the Maya scholar Victor Montejo writes, ‘concern for the natural world, and the mutual respect this relationship implies, is constantly reinforced by traditional Mayan ways of knowing and teaching. A holistic perspective of human collective destiny with other living creatures on earth has a religious expression among indigenous people… often expressed in the figure of mother earth.’

This ideological veneration of mother earth in Maya culture, of respect for women and land, is in strong contrast to the treatment of actual women. In ancient and contemporary Maya society women are seen as the preservers of culture. Studies show that women are kept sequestered, away from school, in order that they aren’t contaminated with non-Mayan ideas. ‘Women came to represent Indianness, as a result of the ‘burning western gaze upon them.’ They have become vessels for the Maya way of life, and as such not given the rights and privileges of men.

Early botanists and natural scientists  Great female environmentalists today, like Jane Goodall and Rachel Carson, stand shoulder to shoulder with a long line of women botanists, scientists, paleontologists, and horticulturalists, stretching back into history.

Hilda von Bingen wrote ‘Physica’ and the ‘Causaeet Curae’ two encyclopaedic collections of natural science observations, in Germany during the 11th century.

Josephine Kablick, 18th century Bohemian botanist and palaeontologist, gave her name to many of the fossil specimens she discovered. An intrepid explorer, she contributed over 25,000 specimens to museums.

During the 18th and 19th centuries botany was considered an acceptable pursuit for women – but they were largely invisible scientists, assisting their male counterparts. ‘As long as it remained an informal, private pursuit, botany was open to women. As soon as it became a professionalized, public activity, botany became closed to them and directed towards a male audience.’

I could go on and on. The early woman naturalists like Almira Phelps, Margaret Fuller, Susan Fenimore Cooper, and Mary Treat; Isabella Preston, the Canadian horticulturalist who produced hundreds of new hybrid species of lily, lilac, crab apple, iris and at least 20 roses; Cynthia Westcott, who devised new methods of plant disease control.

I encourage you to do some research of your own; there is so much to learn.

Women and Climate Change

Skilled, dedicated women will be vital in the coming years, in the desperate race to keep up with climate change. Climate change is an issue of human rights, and social and economic justice; and it is a feminist issue.

The poorest people will suffer most in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Developing countries will be hit first and hardest by the effects of climate change, and without a doubt it is women in those countries who will bear the brunt of the disastrous effects of a warming world. The struggle for women’s equality is a key part of the struggle to save the planet.

Many women have livelihoods highly vulnerable to climatic variations. Rural women are responsible for water collection in almost two-thirds of households, according to UN Women. They are the primary managers of household supplies such as water and fuel, resources which will be seriously affected by climate change.

According to a study by the London School of Economics, women are more vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters. ‘In other words,’ the report states, ‘natural disasters (and their subsequent impact) on average kill more women than men or kill women at an earlier age than men…. Natural disasters do not affect people equally.’

Nor does climate change affect everyone equally. In addressing the threat, we must also address the issue of gender: the ramifications a 4 degree warmer world will have on both men and women. We need to do more, much more to tackle the threat of climate change.


Climate change is the greatest threat we face in our time. It is a global crisis: we will only solve it through global collective action – and women will play a vital role.

Dangerous climate change is already upon us. We are not doing enough, and we are not doing it fast enough. In order to avoid climate catastrophe we must be prepared to change everything about the way we live, travel, eat, and shop. We must acknowledge that business as usual is not an option. We cannot, and must not give up.

As the great woman environmentalist Rachel Carson said:

‘We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been travelling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less travelled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.’

I hope we choose the right road. We simply must. Our fate, the fate of our daughters and granddaughters and that of future generations, depends on it.

Bianca Jagger


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