Acknowledging the Role of Women in the Environmental Movement
Current approaches to sustainability science and practice lack representation. What comes to mind when you think of a scientist? Many people conjure up images of a man with chaotic hair, lab coat, and goggles. Even a simple Google search for famous scientists garners a sea of "great men" in history. The NPR podcast, "Anti-racist Science Education," finds that these ideas stem from a system geared towards learning in a male, White-dominated space. Yet many triumphs in environmental science emerge from the hard work of women and people of color.
Take Harriet Tubman for example. You may recognize her as the underground railroad leader who helped slaves escape to freedom. But according to Dr. Dorceta Taylor, she was also an environmentalist that used topography, stars, and moss patterns to navigate missions through miles of wilderness. However, her intimate knowledge and understanding of the earth has been left out of environmental history.
Sacagawea’s traditional ecological knowledge was instrumental in leading the Lewis and Clark expedition. History states the journey would not have been possible without her understanding of plant medicinal properties and sustenance values. Despite this notable work, Lewis and Clark received praise for the mission's success while Sacagawea and her early environmental knowledge went largely unnoticed.
We must acknowledge a history of disregard when honoring the progress of women sustainability scholars and practitioners today. Even though barriers to participation still exist, women and people of color prevail in contributing tremendously to knowledge production in the sustainability arena. We can see this work in action at the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS).
Ivette Perfecto, a SEAS faculty member, elevates women in the environmental justice movement. As a founding member of the Alliance for Women in Agroecology, Dr. Perfecto aims to recognize the obstacles that women farmers face in an overwhelmingly male field. Her organization brings together women agroecologists from across the globe to reimagine sustainable agriculture. We can look to Dr. Perfecto’s work as a guide for writing a more inclusive environmental agenda.
Outside of SEAS, women practitioners like Heather McTeer Toney are on the ground achieving equitable sustainability solutions. Through her leadership as the Environmental Defense Fund Climate Liaison and Moms Clean Air Force Senior Advisor, she fights climate change with a social justice lens. More specifically, Heather calls attention to the role that systemic racism plays in disproportionately exposing communities of color to climate change impacts. This action approach is significant because it encourages a social justice movement, not just an environmental one.
Building a more equitable future will require dismantling a history of exclusive scientific advancement. But where to start? Our classrooms should realize the contributions of diverse scholars while bringing social justice conversations into science learning. In academia, we must also create safe spaces that support women and people of color and ensure their work does not go uncredited. This means making space for those who are underrepresented to have their voices, stories, and experiences heard. Above all else, there is a critical need to redefine how we do science and who we leave behind along the way.