As organizers, scientists, journalists and more, women have always played essential roles in protecting the natural world. Successful environmental movements have long relied on women’s abilities to build partnerships, shift public opinions and secure accountability from public officials.
Following the Civil War, many wealthy, educated white women organized in clubs, focusing on suffrage and preservation of the environment.
The California Club, based in the Bay Area, fought tirelessly for the protection of Coast Redwoods and Giant Sequoias. Their petitions, letter campaigns and Congressional lobbying turned a nation’s attention to groves of ancient trees—trees that millions of us still flock to today.
But who did they save green spaces for? Most clubs excluded African American women. As the California Club rallied for trees, Black women’s clubs in Oakland provided childcare, education and health care to their community—quality services they could not receive from the government.
“The other day I was asked by one of the women if didn’t I think we ought to go into the
forestry question that so many women’s clubs were taking up. I said: ‘Not at all, because
most of those women have already got their own yards fixed up front and back, and
have time to think about the forests. We have got to try to get shrubbery and trees and
roses in our own yards first. ” -Margaret Murray Washington, National Association of Colored Women founder
Today, successful activists recognize the power in diverse partnerships. People of color already bear the brunt of climate change, and can best speak to the needs of their own communities.
In the 2010s, two oil pipelines threatened water sources and sacred burial sites of Indigenous communities, violating multiple treaties. Native American youth and women led some of the largest and most publicized protests of the decade in attempts to halt the Dakota Access and Keystone XL Pipelines.
Joye Braun, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, was the first of hundreds of people to camp
near the Dakota Access construction path. For ten months, law enforcement used violent tactics
against peaceful protesters, forcing their evacuation, and the pipeline was eventually built. But Braun’s
continued activism and the movement she inspired contributed to the defeat of the Keystone XL Pipeline in 2021.