Women defending the environment

1 March, 2024

Gender equality and environmental protection are two of the most important challenges facing society today. And although they may appear to be different issues at first glance, the reality is that the two are closely related. 49.5% of the world’s population are women, i.e. their voice represents half of the globe. Hence, their vision is key in aspects such as environmental management, the administration of natural resources and decision-making in the fight against climate change, for example.

Coincidentally, since the 1960s and 1970s, both movements have become increasingly important. On the one hand, global warming, the loss of biodiversity and extreme natural events, such as storms and droughts, have raised widespread concern about how to mitigate the imbalances caused by human activity. On the other hand, equal access to education, employment and pay, or the eradication of gender-based violence are some of the demands to achieve gender equality.

Dates such as the 8th of March — declared International Women’s Day by the United Nations in 1975 to commemorate the protests more than a century earlier (1857) by female textile workers in New York for better working conditions and the abolition of child labour — serve as a reminder and vindication of women’s struggles. On this occasion, we would also like to recognise those women entrepreneurs who, through their work, contribute or have contributed in different areas to the protection of the environment.

The 8th of March was declared International Women’s Day by the United Nations in 1975

Four influential women in the environmental movement

Jane Goodall

She is renowned for her pioneering studies on the social and family interactions of chimpanzees. For more than 60 years, this primatologist, born in London in 1934, devoted herself to documenting the life of this wild species in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. She was the first person to discover that the chimpanzee — the most genetically similar animal to humans — is capable of making and using tools, that it is not a vegetarian as previously thought, that it has individual personality traits and that it is capable of rational thought and emotions.

Thanks to her ground-breaking discoveries, Goodall is one of the few students admitted to Cambridge University to pursue a PhD without a previous undergraduate degree. In addition, she founded the Jane Goodall Institute to support research and to protect chimpanzees and their habitats, work to which she still devotes much of her time.

Rachel Carson

Despite her short life (she died in 1964 at the age of 56), the legacy of this U.S. marine biologist and writer has been instrumental in advancing environmental protection. She started writing stories about animals when she was just eight years old, but it was her books about ocean life that brought her success. As a result, she gained the necessary prestige to become an authoritative voice on the matter. In her later years, she turned her attention to the conservation of ecosystems, especially the harmful effects she believed were caused by synthetic pesticides.

Two years before her death, she published ‘Silent Spring,’ an unprecedented book that captured the attention of American society and was the driving force behind the birth of pesticide control policies. Its impact was such that it led to a nationwide ban on substances widely used by industry at the time.

Carson’s work laid the foundation for the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She is recognised as the pioneer of the modern environmental movement and one of the inspirations for the subsequent celebration of Earth Day from 1970 onwards.

Rachel Carson is recognised as the pioneer of the modern environmental movement and one of the inspirations behind the celebration of Earth Day

Wangari Maathai

The story of Wangari Maathai is the story of a woman destined to break down barriers to fight for the environment. Born in Kenya in 1940 to a Kĩkũyũ family — the country’s largest ethnic group — she learned to speak English at the age of 11 when she started primary school. Later, she was one of 300 Kenyans selected to study in the United States under a programme funded by then Senator John F. Kennedy. There, she graduated in biology before returning home.

She went on to become the first woman in East Africa to graduate with a PhD (in veterinary anatomy). She combined her work as a professor at the University of Nairobi with the leadership of different institutions in favour of gender equality. However, one of her greatest legacies is undoubtedly the Green Belt Movement, an initiative that combined the fight against deforestation with job creation. In total, Wangari succeeded in getting more than 30 million trees planted in Africa.

In recognition of her contribution to women’s rights and environmental protection, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, breaking down yet another barrier by becoming the first African woman to win the award.

Greta Thunberg

A beacon for the younger generation for her fight against climate change, this Swedish activist (born in Stockholm on 3 January 2003) started a solo student strike every Friday in front of her country’s parliament to protest against the lack of climate action when she was just 15 years old. This initiative has inspired thousands of young people, so much so that students in more than 180 countries have staged protests in recent years in defence of the environment.

The young Swede has written several books and given numerous speeches at international summits, in which she has had no qualms about criticising economic and political leaders for their inaction on environmental protection. Undoubtedly, one of her most memorable initiatives has been to sail on a carbon-free yacht from Plymouth, England, to New York, USA, to participate in the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit. Once there, Thunberg uttered one of her most famous phrases: ‘How dare you!’ in reference to their inaction to the climate crisis.

Her impact on young people and society in general has led her to be included in Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people, as well as in the Forbes list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.