Earth Day: Linking gender equality and environmental protection

Earth Day: Linking gender equality and environmental protection
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On April 22, 1970, America’s first Earth Day protested air pollution, water contamination and an unsustainable earth. By the end of 1970, Earth Day had heralded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the passage of the Clean AirClean Water and Endangered Species Acts.

Nearly 50 years later, and on the heels of Women’s History Month, it’s fitting to link gender equality with environmental protection because many of the same trailblazers continue to defend endangered species, wilderness and constitutional rights for women.

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This Earth Day, we praise women who have championed the forgotten and voiceless among us by safeguarding ecosystems and animals and their habitats. These women include, Terry Tempest Williams, an influential author and supporter of wilderness. Mollie Beattie, my predecessor at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was the first female agency director from 1993 to 1996. She oversaw the reintroduction of the gray wolf into the northern Rocky Mountains and established 15 national wildlife refuges. Scientists Mardy Murie and Celia Hunter, served among others in conservation history who worked for wildlife in the federal government.

While more women enter the STEM fields, strong and dynamic female forerunners who worked to recover species and preserve America’s natural history have emerged to pave the way. Rachel Carson, known as the matriarch of the modern environmental movement, sounded the alarm about the impacts of the pesticide DDT on birds in her 1962 book, “Silent Spring.” Carson was the first woman to take and pass the civil service exam for federal employment. Though we never met, I was inspired by her and others who dedicated their lives to conserving public lands, protecting species and employed as a civil servant.

Carson’s work helped raise awareness that bald eagles, peregrine falcons and other birds were ingesting pesticides and laying thin-shelled eggs that led to breakage and serious population declines. In 1967, the bald eagle was listed as “endangered” under the predecessor to the Endangered Species Act  — the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966. Later, the eagle and falcon were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

Following in the footsteps of Carson, in 1997, I took the helm of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. At 39, I was the youngest person and the second woman to serve as director of the service.  During my tenure, I supervised the establishment of 27 new wildlife refuges and the addition of over 2 million acres of public lands to the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Today, I am among one of the few women leading a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of wildlife and wild places. The fight to defend endangered species is also personal. 

I know that future generations will inherit a more compromised environment than what we have experienced. Many years ago, my son, Carson, who was named after Rachel Carson, came home from second grade demanding that I do something to avert the climate crisis and save polar bears. Today, the situation has become so dire that kids are suing the federal government to demand action on climate change. It is not too late for us to take decisive action. Now is the time to make forward-thinking decisions about recovering wildlife species, our planet and ourselves. Women should be at the forefront to lead and will continue making pivotal decisions.       

A recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll affirms what the public thinks of the treatment of women at work. According to the poll, 78 percent of voters said the country needs to do more to give men and women workplace equality. If the Equal Rights Amendment were ratified, we could level the playing field for all American women. There must be women’s equality in the workforce, equal pay, representation at the highest corporate ranks and women integrated in all disciplines, including the sciences

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Women are tackling the planet’s most formidable challenges — such as protecting wildlife that are impacted by the planet’s sixth mass extinction and attacking how to mitigate the impacts of climate change, which is one of the single greatest threat to biodiversity. We are devoted to defeating the egregious, irreparable impacts that President TrumpDonald John Trump5 things to know about Boris Johnson Conservatives erupt in outrage against budget deal Trump says Omar will help him win Minnesota MORE's proposed border wall will have on nature, while protecting our national wildlife refuges and national monuments that are under siege. That also goes for Congress’ relentless actions to weaken and dismantle the Endangered Species Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act. 

This Earth Day, we must recommit ourselves to gender equality and build on the conservation victories of women pioneers, advocates and scientists. Women have always led in driving change and we must continue to counter efforts to devalue and downplay our achievements. Together, let’s rise and chart a new path for the next generation of conservation-minded women. The future of our planet and imperiled wildlife depend on us to create a more just world.

Jamie Rappaport Clark is president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife.