April Feminist Four

Women in STEM

Female Environmentalists

From chemical regulations to National Parks, female activists and scientists have changed the course of American environmentalism. On April 22nd, when we celebrate Earth Day, let’s also
celebrate the remarkable achievements made by American women to protect our planet.

Ynés Mexía (1870-1938)

Mexia Photo

Ynés Mexía had one of the most influential midlife crises on record, discovering her hugely successful passion for botany at age fifty. She was the first Mexican American female botanist, a field often dubbed too rigorous and unfeminine for women. Mexía’s botanical discoveries are still studied today, with over fifty plants named in her honor.

At a time when women often had to travel with male guardians, Mexía explored alone. She traveled to the ends of the earth in order to save it, embarking on expeditions to California, Alaska, and Columbia — sometimes traveling alone by canoe for thousands of miles. Mexía became a keystone activist in protecting California’s redwood forests. Her work paved the way for future female environmentalists at a time when both the study of botany and solo travel were male prerogatives.

I don’t think there’s any place in the world where a woman can’t venture” – Ynés Mexía

Rachel Carson (1907-1964)

Rachel Carson Picture

Rachel Carson is widely considered the mother of modern environmentalism. She captivated the American public with the effects of chemicals and pesticides on both ecosystems and human health in her 1962 book The Silent Spring. Her book cultivated a public environmental awareness, paving the way for contemporary environmentalism.

Carson’s work created intense controversy, and chemical companies launched a series of campaigns to discredit her and her work. They accused her of being everything from a hysterical woman to a communist. Carson was summoned by Congress to testify on her scientific findings, which led directly to the 1972 ban on the pesticide, DDT. Her advocacy resulted in the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980 for her research. Carson’s scientific work, advocacy, and persistence fostered landmark government environmental protections.

The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized” – Rachel Carson

Marjory Stoneman Douglass (1890-1998)

Douglass Photo

Marjory Stoneman Douglass started her career as a freelance writer and journalist before publishing The Everglades: River of Grass in 1947. Her research and descriptions of the Everglades transformed public perception of the wetlands. At the time, most viewed the Everglades as an overgrown swamp to be developed out of existence. Douglass’s book changed popular perception, fostering an appreciation of wetland ecosystems as integral environmental habitats.

The Everglades are now a protected National Park in part due to Marjory Douglass’s persistence and public outreach. She lived to be 108, and continued to volunteer and advocate for the Everglades until the end of her life. Friends of the Everglades, a foundation Douglass created in 1969, is still actively working to conserve and restore the Everglades today.

Marjory was … a prophet, calling out to us to save the environment for our children and our grandchildren” -Lawton Charles, 41st Governor of Florida

Quannah Chasinghorse (2002- )

Chasinghorse

Quannah Chasinghorse of the Gwich’in tribe uses her multifaceted talents to bring awareness to environmental issues. As both a community leader and a rising supermodel, Chasinghorse created a public consciousness about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A protected sanctuary for nearly fifty years, Congress approved the sale of gas and oil development leases in the 20 million acre refuge in 2017. To protect this Alaskan wilderness, Chasinghorse and her affectionately-named, “auntie squad,” have been leading an intergenerational female indigenous protest movement.

Chasinghorse and the Gwich’in activists spoke out in favor of a bill to end oil and gas extractions in the Refuge, but their sponsored legislation stalled in the Senate. Instead of letting Congress’s failure to act defeat them, the activists turned their attention toward a different kind of power.

Since the founding of the U.S., corporations have wielded enormous influence, and harnessing corporate power can sometimes be more impactful than winning a political victory. In this case, environmental activists lobbied financial institutions to pursue a divestment strategy. In 2021, their efforts were a success: without financing by U.S. or Canadian banks, the government’s attempt to lease oil and gas extraction rights failed to earn the U.S. government an adequate return, making future leases of oil and gas rights a less attractive means for raising revenue.

By using her spotlight as a fashion model for Calvin Klein and other brands to promote her message, Chasinghorse has won needed public attention to her environmental causes. The line between maintaining a movement’s integrity and working within the system to spread awareness is one that activists have had to walk throughout history, and one that Quannah Chasinghorse walks today.

Learn more about famous women using their spotlight for advocacy in The Songs of the Suffragists.

About the Feminist Four

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The Feminist Four is a monthly newsletter that describes four ways feminists leveraged their cultural and political influence to fight for women’s equality in the US. It is part of the LWV-BHNPS’ ongoing Songs of the Suffragists Project.  Click on the photos in this email if you would like to learn more about the described topics. Support our project by buying our book. And please reply by email if you would like help presenting a virtual Songs of the Suffragists program in your community!

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