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Eco-warriors: the women who usher in eras of change

Think women in environmentalism started with Greta Thunberg? Think again.

Published on 03 Mar 2021
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This post celebrates a history of women in environmentalism, from the 1940s to the present. With climate change worsening every year, being environmentally friendly has never been a more important topic. We have selected a handful of women who have all contributed to looking after our planet and making it more sustainable, but who you may be haven’t heard of before such as Rachel Carson, Wangari Maathai and Gro Harlem Brundtland. Women’s History Month is the perfect time to celebrate their achievements, both as strong females and environmentalists! Continue reading to find out more.

Rachel Carson (1907-1964)

Starting her career as a marine scientist in the 1950s, Carson challenged the agriculture pesticide revolution that had been forced upon the American public by chemical manufacturers. Manufacturers had argued that their pesticides were safe to use on farmlands. Following the use of these pesticides, Carson uncovered the increase of dead birds and decaying wildlife. If they could kill animals, what could they do to humans? Undeterred by the bully boys of big pharma, she fought a long and often lonely campaign to alert the public to the dangers of spraying pesticides on crops.

Backed up by scientific evidence, Carson’s first published Silent Spring in 1962. It provides an informative and persuasive account of how one person can make a major impact. As a result of her work, there are significant changes in the way agriculture chemicals are deployed not just in America, but across the world.

Wangari Maathai (1940-2011)

Wangarĩ Maathai was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her "contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace." Since its inception, only 57 Nobel Prize winners were women, while 852 were men. Maathai became the first African woman, and the first environmentalist, to win the prize.
After obtaining a Bachelors and Masters degree in the US, Maathai returned to Kenya in 1977 to establish the Green Belt Movement, a grass-roots non-governmental organisation that aimed to reduce poverty whilst conserving the environment. 

She later campaigned for parliament office in Kenya, winning 98% of the vote. As a result, she was appointed Assistant Minister in the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources, before co-founding the Nobel Women's Initiative which aims to help strengthen work being done in support of women's rights around the world. 

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Charting women environmentalists throughout modern history

Gro Harlem Brundtland (1939 – Present)

Gro Harlem Brundtland was born in Oslo, Norway and was both the youngest and first female person to become the Prime Minister of her country, serving three terms (1981, 1986-89 and 1990-96). Her nickname quite quickly became ‘mother of the nation’ within Norway.

From the beginning of her time in office, Brundtland wanted to begin prioritising sustainable development and became chair of the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, which issued a report in 1987 named ‘Our Common Future’, otherwise known as the Brundtland Report. The report emphasized an integrated vision of world problems under the concept of ‘sustainable development’, that wouldn't jeopardize the condition of the earth for future generations.

Brundtland was a key player in bringing about environmental change as this report enabled the re-examination of the critical issues the environment faced, strengthening international cooperation, and focusing its attention on areas of population, food security, the loss of species and genetic resources.

Above everything, she was a strong female environmentalist who wasn’t afraid to plead with rich countries to hand over their wealth to the developing countries that needed it.

Greta Thunberg (2003 – Present)

You could say that Greta Thunberg, one of the youngest environmental activists ever, was hugely influenced by the efforts of the women showcased above. Born in Sweden, Thunberg has taken time out of school to participate in mass protests, toured the world (environmentally friendly, of course!) to give talks on climate change at the United Nations Climate Action Summit and has also urged the world (even Donald Trump) to reduce their carbon footprint. 

As a gen Z, Thunberg is well known for her use of social media to promote environmentalism, which is what sets her apart from the other women we have talked about. Nevertheless, the women above have all paved the way for a woman like Thunberg to usher in another era of environmental change at such a young age.