Open Letter


Dear students, colleagues, and friends of the Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences,

To honor Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day (IWD, March 8), we thought it appropriate to honor and to take a moment to reflect on the historical contributions, often un- or under- heralded, of women to environmental and sustainability studies, to science more generally, and as movers and shakers in these fields. This year the theme for IWD is “Choose to Challenge” because ‘A challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change.’ The list of names of women that ‘choose to challenge’ accepted beliefs about how ‘things work’ is too long and cannot be covered in this brief note, but we’d like to shout out a few key figures that, as a result of their choices to challenge have transformed the way we have come to understand our world. 

Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring is often cited as one of the catalysts, or even the most important catalyst, for establishment of modern environmental protection; and probably the most influential book in modern environmental history. Perhaps less well known is that long before Silent Spring’s publication Carson had made her mark as a gifted and influential government biologist, as well as a best-selling author and National Book Award winner. She was also a brave public figure who, for her decision to speak truth, suffered tremendous abuse both as a scientist and specifically as a woman.

Lauret Edith Savoy, an award winning writer, geologist, and cultural scientist, and Professor at Mount Holyoke College, explores “the stories we tell of the American land’s origins – and the stories we tell of ourselves in this land.” For example, in her most recent (2015) book Trace: Memory, history, race, and the American landscape, Savoy combines her personal history with stories of human migration and natural history, shedding light on our concepts of race and of the human-nature relationship. You can attend a virtual presentation by Dr. Savoy as part of the Boston College Lowell Humanities Series, free and open to the public, on the 17th of this month: Lauret Savoy | Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape @ Boston College Lowell Humanities Series

Two books published just within the last month merit particular attention. The first, Under a White Sky: The nature of the future by Elizabeth Kolbert, is a logical follow up to her previous award winning publications in which Kolbert, an environmental reporter and writer, explains how human intervention in natural processes have profoundly altered major spheres of the earth’s system, including the climate and extinctions in the biosphere. Incorporating field work, interviews with prominent practitioners, and engaging writing she brings home these transformational issues. In her current book she examines the possibility that the only way to avoid the worst impacts of previous human interventions is by more interventions, and what this means for our relationship to the natural world. You can also see Kolbert on March 17, in a conversation with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; register here

The second book published in the last month is Countdown: How the modern world is threatening sperm counts, altering male and female reproductive development, and imperiling the future of the human race by Shanna H. Swan. Swan, and professor of environmental medicine and public health at Mount Sinai in New York City, is an award-winning scientist who examines the impact of environmental exposure to human reproduction. Her publications during the last twenty years on declining sperm counts in countries with developed economies, and subsequent work on female reproductive changes, has led to wide recognition of the threat of endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) on human as well as animal reproductive health.

There are so many others from around the world! Just to name a few examples from the United States:

  • Lois Gibbs, starting as a parent concerned for her children’s health became one of the most prominent and effective activists for protections against the health effects from toxic waste dumps
  • Katherine Johnson, featured in the film Hidden Figures, a mathematician who broke barriers at NASA
  • Gina McCarthy, health and air quality expert who served as Administrator of the EPA, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and currently the first ever Whitehouse National Climate Advisor
  • Jamescita Peshlakai, Arizona’s first Navajo woman State Senator, has been a tireless advocate for safe drinking water in her district which includes Navajo Nation.
  • Linda Zall spent decades at the CIA quietly fighting to make information from spy satellites available for monitoring the earth

With interest in uncovering women’s unheralded contributions growing, a number of articles and books are available. We recommend that you take a few moments of your days to read about the women in Rachel Swaby’s 2015 book Headstrong:52 Women who Changed Science - and the World.  Susan Dominus recently wrote in The Smithsonian Magazine about Margaret Rossiter’s devotion to naming women scientists who have been written out of history. A recent Buzzfeed article by Kathryn Aalto identifies eleven women who have changed our vision of the natural world. We are sure you can find many more.

We hope you join us in honoring these challengers, thinkers, and influencers, as well as all the very many others we had no space to mention, as we appreciate their value in making us more alert and motivating us to move forward along the lines of the theme for the IWD.

Professors Salmun and Frei
Department of Geography and Environmental Science
Hunter College, CUNY
International Women’s Day, March 8, 2021

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