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Women and the Environment: A Look at the Link
Elektra Grant

Ferris Kawar rocks. As a member of the Steering Committee of Environmentalists for John Kerry, he believes that the prevalence of females working as environmental stewards is a chief reason why a woman should be next in line for the United States presidency. His lead in to this stellar view was an opinion altering question, “Why do you think there are so many women working for environmental causes?”. Judging from the attendees at the environmentally themed classes I’ve taken and events I’ve attended, men appear well represented to me. But Ferris’ query became more understandable after I was gently twisting the arm of a young man who was considering becoming a Crew Leader in the Sustainable Works Student Program, one of the community services our environmental nonprofit offers. The student asked a little sheepishly, “But am I going to be the only guy doing this?” And Ferris, my coworker, is the first and only man thus far hired in Sustainable Works’ five-year history. His minority status as the “token male” in the workplace brings home the question: Are women particularly well-suited for environmental work?

Sandy Grant, an environmentally-focused urban planner who was recently appointed to the City of Santa Monica’s Sustainable City Task Force, thinks so. The Sustainable City Task Force overlays a quality-of-life perspective on the ecological issues of resource conservation, environmental and public health, transportation, and land use. The program includes economic development, community education, civic participation, and human dignity as measures of civic success.

Sandy’s role on this committee allows her to put her vocation, urban planning and community organizing, to good use. According to Sandy, her disposition toward strengthening community has deep roots in an innate feminine energy. She traces her aptitude to the hunter-gatherer model of prehistoric society where women worked together to create a livable habitat, preparing and refining the spoils of the men’s expeditions for food and goods. Choosing not to raise children, Sandy feels that she applies her ability to foster growth into her work instead. She resonates with Joan Borysenko’s model of the Guardian: as a woman moves beyond her reproductive years, her capacity to nurture is extended to the “world family”. Sandy’s penchant for community building again mirrors the Guardian role: her environmental consciousness extends not only to the earth, but leans strongly to the people who inhabit it.

Although Ferris Kawar refutes the notion that women possess inborn qualities that would allow them to excel in environmentalism, he believes that cultural conditioning may explain women’s heightened interest in environmental issues. As Sustainable Works’ Residential Program Coordinator, Ferris runs a voluntary program that teaches Santa Monica residents how to be more resource efficient. He finds that 65 to 70% of his participants are women and, like Borysenko’s Guardians, the most receptive and informed audiences are women between the ages of 50 and 65.

However, rather than chalking this up to a biological imperative, Ferris believes that this age group has a more personal relationship with the environmental crisis due to the gender roles that defined their formative years. For example, being more likely than men or younger women to have prolonged, hands-on experience with housework, these women are invested in learning about the effects of the chemicals in the cleaning solvents they have used throughout the years. Ferris finds that the women he teaches are generally more open and aware of environmental problems. He thinks this may in part be attributed to an informal community amongst women where information is freely shared, a trait that is not encouraged amongst men.

Sandy and Ferris agree that women and environmental work make a good match and that there are larger forces than the individual that inspire women to get involved. But while Sandy feels her environmental work is the outward expression of a female essence that fosters growth and connection, Ferris sees the dictates of gender roles putting women in a prime position of concern and receptiveness. Whether or not women care about the environment because it is encoded in them to do so or because their housewifely duties put them at a higher risk of chemical poisoning is ultimately not important. What is of great consequence is the Earth’s unprecedented state of environmental decline. The human population, women and men included, must rally to attend to its care.

Elektra Grant is a staff member of Sustainable Works, a nonprofit organization that teaches sustainable practices to individuals, institutions and businesses in the urban environment. She is enrolled in the Environmental Studies program at Santa Monica College.





The Women’s College Magazine at Santa Monica College
Copyright 2003 Santa Monica College