Women and the environment

Anna Boberg's painting of a fishing harbour in the forefront still in shadow while the snowy mountains across the water are light up by sunlight

A look at women from the past and present who continue to inspire climate action

Marijke Everts (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

The direct link between humankind’s impact on the environment and our chances of survival within it is not a recent discovery. Environmental concerns have been around for a very long time and women have used different ways to share this knowledge and work towards bringing positive changes. Let’s meet some of them.

Hildegard von Bingen

An engraving of Hildegard in a dark veil with only her face showing and her hand holding a book. 
At the bottom text mentioning her death at age 82.

Hildegard von Bingen, who lived in present day Germany from 1098 to 1179, can be considered one of the early environmentalists. Her understanding of the importance of respecting the environment and all creation came through a religious lens.

In each creature that comes from God, even the one that seems most useless, there is some usefulness, even if humans do not know it.

Her view of the word ‘creatures’ meant flora, fauna, elements, metals and all existing natural things.

Hildegard maintained that the body, the spirit, the soul and the environment are the four pillars of health and are closely connected. She understood that humans are made of the same material as other beings and that destroying nature was the same as destroying humanity. She asserted that nature takes care of us and we must take care of it in return.

Anna Botsford Comstock

a profile of Anna with grey white hair and what appears to be a white laced dress. She appears before a black background.

Ann Bostford Comstock shared the importance of understanding our wild and natural landscape through her educational text for children. Through her books, she fostered love and appreciation of nature and wanted people to understand that they play a crucial role in it.

She worked with other nature educators at Cornell University and compiled her collective work and publications into ‘*The Handbook of Nature Study (1911)*’. The book is still in print and is still used throughout the world. In this handbook, she wrote about diverse topics from ‘Stone and Minerals’ to the seasons, weather and astronomy.

The book includes lessons on mammals, fish, birds and their habitats. Her lessons transcend time and are still relevant and inspiring to people today.

nature-study gives the child a sense of companionship with life out-of-doors and an abiding love of nature

Anna Bostford Comstock was one of the first educators to take students and teachers outdoors to study nature. She was an advocate for conservationism by imprinting a love and respect for our environment through her educational tools.

Octavia Hill

a portrait drawing if Octavia Hill, her dark hair split in the middle and tied to the back as her eyes gaze above with a half smile on her face. She is wearing dark clothes.

English social reformer Octavia Hill had a strong commitment to alleviating poverty and improving the welfare of inhabitants of cities. She felt that natural spaces needed to be accessible and were essential for the wellbeing of everyone and especially those who didn’t have money to travel far to reach nature. She campaigned against developments on suburban woodlands and helped save London’s Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill Fields from being built on.

Octavia supported the Common Preservation Society’s efforts to safeguard open spaces around London in the face of unchecked expansion. She spoke of the dangers of reproducing inner London’s problems in the outer suburbs. In a paper of 1888, she marked the imbalance between open space to the west and that to the east of London, and used her evidence to argue for rapid adjustment.

She was one of the three founders of the Natural Trust, set up to preserve places of natural beauty and historic interest for the public, which still plays an important role in the maintenance of parks, landscapes and stately homes in the UK.

The right of access to beauty and nature is an essential element towards the wellbeing of every man, woman and child.

Rachel Carson

A picture of Rachel smiling, she has short dark hair and light coloured eyes. She wears a white shirt with a dark coloured vest over it.

American marine biologist and author Rachel Carson challenged the belief that humans could dominate nature through the use of chemicals, for example in farming and agriculture. She questioned the scope and direction of modern science and initiated the contemporary environmental movement.

Her book Silent Spring, which highlighted problems caused by synthetic pesticides, was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies but gradually led to a ban on the insecticide DDT and other pesticides.

But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.

A Look at today’s women environmentalists

A drawing of a helicopter hovering over a man watering a plant. The text below the helicopter reads 'Come in HQ. I see signs of protest, please send reinforcement!'

There are prominent women working towards supporting climate actions such as Brazil’s Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, Marina Silva, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and more.

But there are some voices in the environmental cause that rarely reach the spotlight - those of people with disabilities. Climate change affects everyone but those affected first are marginalised groups, with the disability community affected the most.

A picture from #fridaysforfuture demonstration in Munich. A couple of hundreds of pupils demonstrated for climate justice. Protest signs read ' There is no Planet B' and 'This is our future'.

Climate activist Pauline Castres has spent decades working on global health and disability rights policies. She also writes for The British Medical Journal and The Lancet on the effects of air pollution on public health.

success is when a policy delivers concrete and sustainable changes to help those who are most left behind. There are huge inequalities even within activism spaces, and we can only call ourselves successful when the poorest and most marginalised experience a real difference in their lives

Disability policy researcher Valerie Novack works on issues that affect multiply marginalised people with disabilities. She focuses on climate action and the effects of urban planning on housing and transportation. She realised that few states in the US had plans for protecting and evacuating disabled citizens in the event of a disaster.

If a global pandemic or an unlivable increase in rent costs don’t push our government to make changes, what can I accomplish?

She focuses now on her community, providing food locally and researching programmes run by people with disabilities.

Within discussions and actions around creating better environments for our future, no one should be left behind. Marginalised people's needs need to be at the forefront.

SustainedAbility a disability led network working on environmental justice and disability is a space were the disability community and allies can co-create empowering changes.