NCEL Honors Women's History Month
This piece was written by Olivia Amitay, NCEL Communications Intern. Olivia is a recent graduate from Boston University where she earned a B.S. in Public Relations and a minor in Environmental Analysis & Policy.
This March is a time to celebrate women’s immeasurable contributions in the environmental movement. However, it is equally important to recognize that women commonly face higher risks and greater burdens from the impacts of climate change, partly because they represent the majority of the world’s poor and are more dependent on threatened natural resources. In light of these inequalities, it is crucial to uplift female voices and actively involve women in climate-related planning and policymaking. In celebration of Women’s History Month, NCEL is highlighting five incredible women who have fought to achieve a healthy environment for all in the face of gender inequality.
Mollie Beattie – First Female Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Mollie Beattie was an American conservationist and the first woman to serve as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1993 to 1996. Before working at the federal level, Beattie was the commissioner of Vermont’s Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, as well as the deputy secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources. During her time at U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Beattie was instrumental in protecting landmark environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species and Clean Water Acts. Beattie also spearheaded the reintroduction of the grey wolf to Yellowstone and the creation of 15 new wildlife refuges.
Lois Gibbs – Environmental Health Activist and Founder of the Love Canal Homeowners Association
In the Spring of 1978, Lois Gibbs discovered that 21,000 tons of toxic chemicals, including at least 12 known carcinogens, were buried beneath her child’s elementary school and her neighborhood of Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York. Gibbs was instrumental in raising public awareness around the public health consequences of the toxic waste, such as increased cases of epilepsy, asthma, and birth defects. Her political activism also influenced President Jimmy Carter’s decision to declare a national state of emergency, evacuate more than 800 families, and create the EPA’s Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or Superfund. Since then, Gibbs founded the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice (CHEJ), a nonprofit that trains local leaders in rural, working-class neighborhoods to organize against environmental degradation.
Tara Houska – Tribal Attorney and Climate Justice Activist
Tara Houska (Couchiching First Nation) is a tribal attorney, land defender, and climate justice activist who advocates on behalf of tribal nations on diverse issues impacting Indigenous peoples. Houska fought for justice at Standing Rock and stood with Dakota Access Pipeline demonstrators for six months, helping raise legal funds for protestors facing charges. In 2018, Houska created the Giniw Collective, an Indigenous woman, two-spirit led organization that works to protect natural spaces and train protestors in direct action. She’s also the co-founder of Not Your Mascots, a non-profit dedicated to educating the public about the harms of Native stereotyping while promoting positive representation of Indigenous peoples in the media. Watch Houska’s TEDTalk for more information about her story.
Ynés Mexía – Accomplished Botanist and Conservationist
Ynés Mexía was one of the most successful botanists and plant collectors of her time, despite not starting her career until she was 55. After 30 years of living in Mexico, Mexía moved to San Francisco to seek mental health treatment and make a new life for herself. She soon discovered her passion for environmentalism and became an early member of the Sierra Club and the Save the Redwoods League. Her work in conservation fueled her botany career, where she traveled all over the Americas, often alone or with a few Indigenous guides. In her 13-year career, she collected more than 145,000 plant specimens, discovered 500 new species, and became the first botanist to collect plants in what is now Denali National Park.
Marjorie Richard – Community Organizer and Climate Justice Activist
Marjorie Richard grew up in the historically Black neighborhood of Old Diamond, Louisiana, a community within the southern Mississippi region known as “Cancer Alley.” Sandwiched in between a Shell plant and a Motiva oil refinery, Richard was exposed early on to the environmental and health consequences of living in such close proximity to polluting industries. After living through a pipeline explosion that killed two community members, and another accident that killed seven workers and released 159 million pounds of toxins into the air, Richard founded Concerned Citizens of Norco to seek justice from Shell. For over a decade, she held press conferences, collaborated with researchers, and held workshops to empower her neighbors to fight for change. Her efforts pushed Shell to relocate the entire Old Diamond neighborhood, reduce emissions by 30%, and pledge $5 million to community development funds. In 2004, Richard became the first Black woman to earn the Goldman Environmental Prize.