Green Sexism

World Reports

Go fetch your copy of Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind. Go ahead! I’ll wait. Do you have it now? Open up to the index in the back. Leaf through until you find the “W”s. Got it? Good. Now scan down the page and notice the number of references to “women.” A rather surprising number, isn’t it?

Oh, I’m sorry. A few of you might not have your copy of Nash close at hand. Perhaps you’ve lent it to a friend, or left it on the bus. No matter, I’ll tell you what that surprising number is. It’s zero.

Ah, but perhaps this seminal, and you should pardon the expression, work from 1967 detailing the American attitude toward wilderness and nature contains some mentions of individual women. And it does. Of about 400 names of individuals in Nash’s index, four are names of women. There is Mary Rowlandson, kidnapped by Indians in the 1670s, whose descriptions of the landscape influenced some later writers. Helen Hunt Jackson is mentioned as having sympathized with Indians. Rachel Carson is mentioned, of course. How could America’s most famous wildlife biologist, she who launched generations of wingnut pesticide diatribes with a single book, be left out of the first modern American wilderness studies text? She gets part of one page out of 288. And then there’s Katherine Lee Bates, who wrote “America the Beautiful.” Nash quoted her line about “purple mountains’ majesty,” and gave her credit.

I don’t mean to pick on Nash unduly: He is merely very prominent. His set of social assumptions toward women were almost necessarily more evolved than those possessed by George Perkins Marsh in 1864, when he wrote the very first classic American environmental text: Man and Nature. And Nash’s sins, such as they are, are sins of omission. Mentioning Olaus Murie, for instance, in his role as a leader of the Wilderness Society, but omitting mention of Margaret (Mardy) Murie, who held the same job for years, might be seen as mere authorial prerogative. Surely a writer cannot mention every single detail. Then again, as Mardy is widely credited as the originator of the notion of the 1964 Wilderness Act, perhaps the omission is more systemic than inadvertent. Howard Zahniser, who wrote the text of the Wilderness Act, and shepherded it to within a week of passage before he died, merits mention on 15 pages. And he does merit that level of mention, no doubt about it. Mardy Murie stood in the Rose Garden the next week as Lyndon Johnson signed the act. With Murie was Zahnie’s widow Alice Bernita (Hayden) Zahniser.

A recent biography of Howard Zahniser on the Wilderness Society’s Web site describes the setting thus:

Zahniser, confident of success, died one week later in his sleep in early May 1964. Zahniser’s wife, along with Mardy Murie, was present in the Rose Garden when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Act into law on September 3, 1964.

“Zahniser’s wife” is not otherwise identified on that page.

Ah, but those were the unenlightened 1960s. Since then, a raft of capable, dynamic activists and scientists who happen to be female have changed the face of the environmental movement! Well, not entirely. There are certainly realms within the environmental activist world where women are influential, respected, even powerful. The late Judi Bari, for instance, a Northern California activist, changed the face of what was a rather male-dominated Earth First! The original “not-an-organization,” born out of the frustration a handful of professional eco-activists shared at their employers’ being too tame, was, honest to God, conceived in a Mexican whorehouse. The concept was hatched over beer in the cantina, and then, the story goes, everyone but Mike Roselle “went upstairs.”

Earth First! prized sabotage and confrontation. What Bari saw in Earth First! was an uncompromisingly radical group of people committed to take whatever non-violent measures were necessary to defend the beleaguered Earth. The sexism infuriated her and she fought it. Northern California’s Earth First! soon became significantly more woman-centered than its cohort elsewhere in the country, with female activists such Earth Island Journal contributor Karen Pickett and many others taking leadership roles in this non-hierarchical organization.

photo of a woman with a protest sign in Tagalog: Tunay Na Reporma Sa Lupa Ipaglaban! - AmihanPhoto by IndyMediaPhillipinesWomen around the world are at the center of
work to protect the environment.

Criticism of Bari slackened somewhat in the wake of an assassination attempt in 1990, in which a bomb planted in her car by unknown assailants went off on Park Boulevard in Oakland, nearly killing her and seriously injuring her friend Darryl Cherney. By this time female activists had gained some measure of respect in other sections of Earth First!, and within the ranks of the FBI as well. Of five activists entrapped by an admitted FBI informant in the Arizona Five sabotage case in 1989, for instance, two were respected Earth First! women: folksinger and Prescott College graduate Peg Millet and her close friend Ilse Asplund. But many rank and file Earth First!ers, mainly but not exclusively of the male persuasion, slammed the growing female leadership of the network as being too “conciliatory.” When Bari realized that the act of tree-spiking – driving nails into trees so as to damage sawmill blades, then warning the timber companies that the trees were useless to them – was needlessly alienating potential allies in the mills, she called for a moratorium on the practice. Bari had gotten her start in activism as a labor organizer at the US Postal Service. An alliance between labor and environmentalists seemed an obvious goal to her, and she was still working to foster that alliance when she died of cancer in 1997. Not a few men in Earth First! accused her of selling out over the moratorium.

The thing that always symbolized, for me, the split nature of Earth First! was the liberal use of the word “rape” in headlines in the Earth First! Journal. Again, the paper was by no means alone in this usage, and Earth First! merely provides an example of a very common rhetorical trope. While denigrating the concerns of their sisters about the systemic sexism within the movement, male activists would use the word “rape” with some abandon to describe, say, a strip mine or a clearcut.

Underscoring the metaphor, the landscape being discussed was often described as being, before resource extraction, “virgin.” Dave Brower once said, famously and jocularly, that wilderness was where the hand of man had not set foot. These activists had some other appendage in mind. To them, rape was clearly an act by which some man claimed ownership of something that was rightfully the common property of us all, and ruined it for the rest of us. How are we to be expected to enjoy partaking of the virgin forest once it has been raped? Aside from some rather mystical radical environmentalists, most of them women, whose activism was informed by an animist sensibility, few interpreted the trope as signifying that the forest, a discrete entity with a right to existence and self determination, had had its integrity and will and dignity thwarted by force.

To call environmental destruction “rape” is to achieve the startling and counterintuitive accomplishment of trivializing both sins. In using the metaphor, the writer both inflates the importance of a single individual to that of a huge complex of millions of individuals and reduces the anguish of a bonafide rape victim to some pallid parallel, a gouge in a hillside. The metaphor relies on the equation of women to passive, non-sentient resources, and it masks the true nature and depth of the damage to the landscape. It equates rape with the taking of something of monetary value that rightfully belongs to a third party. It assigns women the status of scenery, and we the environmentally concerned – who would husband that violated landscape – are cast as the true victims.

The women who provide the main source of power for the environmental movement deserve better than that.

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