April 24, 2013

Is environmentalism women's work?

Ellen Swallow Richards

In an Earth Day-themed op-ed, historian Nancy Unger writes for CNN a piece titled "When helping Earth was women's work." As a topic of interest for both academic interest, I had high expectations for an insightful piece connecting environmental history with contemporary debates. But after a first and subsequent reads, her point is lost and surprised at the lack of clarity in an article aimed at the public. I'd like to propose an alternative narrative about women's involvement in Progressive Era environmental and conservation movements and what it means for today's environmental science and politics.

Although today's most prominent climate change advocates are politically liberal men, women played an important role in the development modern environmental protection in America. At a time when the conservation and preservation of America's parks and wilderness was deemed a man's job due to the "frailty" of women, women became active in urban sanitation and environmental health projects. We now call this period the Progressive Era, the 1880s to 1920s, when a new set of social and scientific practices drastically changed America's urban landscapes for the improvement of human health.

Because I study the history of science, an important Progressive Era scientist was Ellen Swallow Richards (1842­­—1911), the first woman to attend MIT in 1871. Richards was a pragmatic-minded scientist, using science to improve public health issues from sanitation, nutrition, and the home and urban environment. This is a very different kind of "environmentalism" than we might ascribe to Teddy Roosevelt and Henry David Thoreau. Richards sharply focused on improving household efficiency and environmental sanitation, or in her words, “the larger household, the city” (Stage, 1997:30). Richards, however, is best known for founding the field of Home Economics.

Richards was also possibly the first scientist to introduce the word "ecology" into the American scientific discourse. She defined "Oekology" as “the science of teaching people how to live” safely in their environment, and specifically the built environment (Clarke, 1973:117). For most of her life she used science to advocate new ways of examine the environment and society, and to empower women as guardians of home health and practitioners of efficiency. Richards saw home efficiency as a way of bringing women out of their supposed frail health, as well as preventing the transmission of newly-discovered bacterial diseases. Among Richards' great scientific legacy include her training of Boston's first team of sanitary engineers and laying the groundwork for public health reform, as well as leading Boston's Pure Food Movement, nation's first laws in this area.

Her contemporary urban reformers of Richards included Jane Addams and Alice Hamilton, part of the Settlement House Movement for urban sanitation and workers’ rights. The echoes of Ellen Swallow Richards’ work can be seen in modern environmental leaders, such as Rachel Carson, Lois Gibbs, Majora Carter, Peggy Shephard, and Grace Lee Boggs. But despite Richards’ challenges as a woman scientist in a very male-dominate academy, she was no feminist, and would hardly describe protecting the environment as "women's work." Rather than falling back on stereotypes of Mother Earth, we should learn from Richards' pragmatic view of human and environmental health. While Richards was a Progressive Era reformer, she wasn’t a radical and was determined to improve human and environmental conditions through very practical means. Today's environmental leaders could learn from Richards' dedication to working within the system of existing societal values of efficiency, self-reliance, and protection of the home and urban environments.

Unfortunately, Unger's point about transcending partisan politics for environmental protection is lost in what many might view as a feminist view that essentially positions women as environmental protectors. I'm not sure if this was her point, but my argument here is that women do have a great legacy of environmental protection, and in particular we should consider the contributions of women like Ellen Swallow Richards to improving the public health of a great city like Boston. Richards wasn't a conservative and wasn't a radical, but she channeled her ideals into the pragmatic fields of sanitation science, nutrition, and home economics. Perhaps instead of arguing over climate models today, we could find a similar way of addressing our country's energy future and creating a new vision of sustainability.

Works cited:

Clarke, Robert, 1973. Ellen Swallow: The Woman Who Founded Ecology. Chicago: Follett Publishing Company.

Stage, Sarah, 1997. Ellen Richards and the Social Significance of the Home Economics Movement. In Rethinking Home Economics: Women and the History of a Profession. Sarah Stage and Virginia Vincenti, eds. Pp. 17-33. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Further reading:

Cravens, Hamilton, 1990. Establishing the Science of Nutrition at the USDA: Ellen Swallow Richards and Her Allies. Agricultural History 64(2):122-133.

Hunt, Caroline, 1918 [reprint]. The Life of Ellen H. Richards. Boston: Whitcomb & Barrows.
Hynes, H. Patricia, 1985. Ellen Swallow, Lois Gibbs, and Rachel Carson: Catalysts of the American Environmental Movement. Women’s Studies Int. Forum 8(4):291-298.

Melosi, Martin, 2008. The Sanitary City: Environmental Sciences in Urban America from Colonial Times to Present: Abridged Edition. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Mitman, Gregg, 2005. In Search of Health: Landscape and Disease in American Environmental History. Environmental History 10(2):184-210.

Rossiter, Margaret, 1982. Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.

Taylor, Dorceta, 2002. Race, Class, Gender, and American Environmentalism. United States Department of Agriculture.


  1. So, I was thrown by your title... Is environmentalism women's work? is a much different question than "Has environmentalism historically been women's work?"

    Anyway, since you answered question 2, I will answer the first. Sure, but not in the sense that the environment gets relegated to some lower class of individuals willing to do the work. The implication of your title's meaning (to me) is that "women's work" holds a subservient place to men's work somehow. Though this is not true. The place of one's work in some non-existent hierarchy is not determined by who does the working but by the quality of one's work.

    1. Yes, Sean, thanks for commenting! The title was in response to the Unger op-ed, in which she seems to suggest that we return to more conservative values of women as "caretakers" of the environment. While obviously I think the world would be a better place if everyone lived more sustainably, it's important to notice that some aspects of the environmental movement are divided among pretty stark gender lines (and have been historically); i.e. climate policy advocacy being overwhelmingly male, and environmental justice/toxics issues being mostly led by female activists. It is an interesting connection the the public/private sphere argument. The other aspect is that if more personal action is asked of individual citizens to be more sustainable, it should be noted who will bear the brunt of that work... there are a lot of disproportionate impacts of "good" things like recycling.


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