March 2021

By Brianna Cunliffe – PEN Chief Investigative Reporter

This Women’s History Month marks a sobering benchmark: a full year since the start of  a pandemic that many experts agree has been the hardest of all on women. Job losses among women far exceed those among men threatening to erase decades of progress. As many women continue to juggle household and childcare responsibilities alongside their professional lives — without the typical support systems of schools, nurseries, and family — this year of tough sacrifices is taking its toll. 

Hazel Johnson (far right) galvanized minorities and low-income groups in order to seek equal environmental protections and correct environmental and social injustices on behalf her community.  Her herculean efforts would ultimately lead to the historic signing of a landmark environmental justice executive order by President Bill Clinton

We celebrate the remarkable resilience of the women, today and throughout history, recognizing that particularly in the Global South, they are already bearing outsize burdens stemming from the climate crisis in their roles as primary caregivers and gatherers of food and fuel. The U.N. estimates 80 percent of those who have been displaced by climate change are women.

There is a long and remarkable history of how women have overcome their unique challenges to emerge as leaders in the most pivotal movements of the age. The environmental movement is no exception.  

For decades mothers in front-line communities have been raising their voices against the injustices of air pollution, factory emissions, and water contamination. Fights against urban toxins, diseases like asthma, and hyper-localized blights endured most often by communities of color have been characterized by a collaborative, grass-roots organizing often with women at its helm. Hazel Johnson, called by many the Mother of Environmental Justice, organized for decades to clean up the South Side of Chicago and left a powerful blueprint that many have used to follow in her footsteps.  

The regulatory state currently guarding Americans against reckless exposure to chemical pollutants like DDT and synthetic estrogens owes its genesis to Rachel Carson and the women, many of whom were suburban wives and mothers, who took on her cause,  exercising their newfound political power in the realm of the environment, a socially more acceptable outlet because it was, after all,  concerned with the future of children. 

Women are still harnessing this unique facet of their power to drive forward activism today. 

The newly formed and fast-rising group known as Science Moms aims to demystify climate change and give mothers and families across the country actionable steps to combat rising carbon emissions and hold their elected officials accountable stating, “that to solve this problem, it will take all of us moms joining forces to demand change from our leaders. Moms, united, can give our children the safe and prosperous future they deserve.”

Mothers and daughters alike are raising their voices: perhaps the most distinctive voice raised in unassailable determination to hold failing global leadership accountable is Greta Thunberg, a young woman whose organization of  Fridays for Future climate strikes and heartbreaking speeches at the United Nations have brought questions of intergenerational equity to the forefront of international discourse on climate. 

75 percent of farmworkers in India are women but the only own 12 percent of the land. Read more about the Indian farmers uprising HERE.

Varshini Prakash and Sara Blazevic, co-founders of the Sunrise Movement, are still more examples of climate’s leading young women, who bring their whole selves, the fullness of their emotion and passion to the work, challenging conceptions of what leadership looks like in these spaces. Because of it they are forces of nature — impossible to ignore. 

Recent years have brought a focus on female climate leadership as distinct in character and critically necessary to move forward. All We Can Save, an anthology of “truth, courage, and solutions” from leading women in the climate movement compiled by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katherine K Wilkinson, has been called by many the number one climate book of the moment. This collection of essays from leaders running the gamut from EPA luminary Gina McCarthy to teenage indigenous activists,  interspersed with art and poems tackles, aims “to advance a more representative, nuanced, solution-oriented public conversation on the climate crisis.”

The voices of the women at the forefront of work on the climate crisis are key. The characteristically collaborative models of change they advocate and the passion and heart with which they come to this collective work of salvaging a livable planet are fundamental. 

This Women’s History Month we honor both the sobering realities of all the challenges women today face and the indomitable resilience that allows them to nonetheless raise their voices to fight, for this, our planet — our home.