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As long as I have been involved in the environmental movement, it has been a place where strong, dedicated females have assumed leadership roles. That’s not to say that there aren’t men who have dedicated their lives to saving the planet, it’s just that more often than not the fight for clean air, water, land, and species of the earth is frequently led by females.
Many philosophers have their opinions as to why women have played a significant role in the environmental movement. Some believe that males view the Earth as something to dominate, exploit and use to their benefit regardless of the possible destruction that might result. Whereas females view the Earth much like a mother, an entity that brings forth life. Women seek to preserve the planet and see their struggles for equality and justice intertwined and similar to the struggles experienced by indigenous tribes and climate refugees.
A few decades ago, in 1974, the term ecofeminism was used when speaking of women’s roles in the environmental movement. The definition of ecofeminism is: a philosophical and political movement that combines ecological concerns with feminist ones. One of the greatest concerns of the movement continues to be male domination over females and the planet’s resources.
Women have gained some ground but still fall short in terms of equal pay and representation in the political venue. In the USA, men, using policies and laws, still control our access to reproductive health care. This is ridiculous. But, considering that women did not acquire the right to vote until 1920, and this was only a right for white women, not black, Native American or immigrant women, it is not surprising.
Throughout history, many strong, intelligent women have endeavored to speak truth to power. This is especially true when it comes to issues of health and environmental destruction. Rachel Carson took on the chemical industry to expose the links of pesticides to human health effects. Marina Silva, who grew up in the rainforest of Brazil, spoke out to protect this forest from illegal logging. Today, we have Greta Thunberg leading the fight for the climate crisis.
Sadly, while women continue to fight for the planet, they are also fighting for their lives as many of the illnesses visited on females are directly linked to environmental toxins. A prime example of this is the continuing rise in breast cancer rates. In the 1970s, breast cancer was not common, but in the past forty years the incidence of cancer has significantly increased to the point that the National Institute of Health says one out of eight women will get breast cancer in their lives. My mom’s sister had breast cancer.
While working on my master’s thesis, I was assigned a reading titled, “Clan of the one-breasted women.” The piece was an excerpt from Terry Tempest Williams’ book titled, “Refuge; an unnatural history of family and place.” The basic theme of the story was an examination of the source of the multiple cases of breast cancer in the Williams family. For years, the women of the family blamed their cancers on “bad genes.” However, years after her mother succumbed to cancer, Terry realized that being exposed to radioactive fallout from the government’s testing of nuclear devices in Utah played a pivotal role in the cancers.
Many years ago, I viewed the documentary “Assault on the Male.” The main focus of the film was the declining sperm counts in males but one segment mentioned an interesting finding. Dr. Ana Soto, a breast cancer researcher, discovered that “plasticware in which human blood serum was stored shed an estrogen-mimicking chemical. They’ve found that toiletries, plastics and spermicides may release estrogenic compounds and hypothesize that these estrogens may act cumulatively as reproductive disruptors, and may also increase the incidence of breast cancer.”
Sandra Steingraber, an endocrinologist and author of “The Falling Age of Puberty in US Girls,” said that over the past decades, there has been a marked decline of the onset of puberty in the USA and other affluent countries, a decline that cannot be accounted for by vitamins or nutrition. Numerous studies have linked the exposures to chemicals in our environment, specifically hormone mimicking compounds, to early puberty in females. Also of concern is the fact that early puberty is a known risk factor for breast cancer.
Women’s health and exposures to environmental toxins are linked. We know that women use more personal care products and are exposed to more endocrine disrupting compounds such as perfluoroalkyl or PFAS. These chemicals cause “cancer, hormone disruptions, weakened immune systems, and low birth weights.” In a recent Science News report, University of Notre Dame researchers “tested 231 frequently-used makeup products, including liquid foundation, concealer, blush, lipsticks, and mascara, and found 82 percent of waterproof mascaras, 63 percent of foundations, and 62 percent of liquid lipsticks contained at least 0.384 micrograms of fluorine per square centimeter of product spread out.”
Women are exposed to chemicals via sanitary products. The cotton fibers that are bleached and used to make Q-tips, diapers, cotton balls and tampons can contain dioxins, a known human carcinogen. These dioxins can be directly absorbed into the bloodstream and accumulate over time in the body.
Women do most of the cleaning in the home. This exposes them to dangerous compounds in cleaning products that often are not even listed as ingredients. The website “Women’s Voices” points out that “some products contained reproductive toxins such as toluene and phthalates, carcinogens like 1,4-dioxane and chloroform, and a hormone disrupting synthetic musk.” My mom only used vinegar, baking soda and alcohol to clean with because her sensitive skin couldn’t handle cleaners like Lysol and ammonia.
Recently, a group of grandmothers from Athens County, Ohio was arrested as they protested a pipeline in Minnesota. Line 3, as it is known, is being built by Enbridge Energy to carry dirty, climate changing tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to Wisconsin. The pipeline crosses areas where Native Americans use the land for traditional practices and claim treaty rights.
If you want to write to Dr. Jill Biden and urge her to join the grandmothers’ campaign to stop this pipeline you can send a letter to: First Lady Jill Biden, The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20500.
Vandana Shiva has said, “We are either going to have a future where women lead the way to make peace with the Earth or we are not going to have a human future at all.”