Guardians of the Planet: 10 Women Environmentalists You Should Know

Victoria Green
Posted June 6, 2016 from Italy
Guardians of the Planet
Kate Sessions
Kate Sessions (1/10)

During April's Earth Month, we are also celebrating the incredible women who are working to protect the environment and allof the creatures which share our planet. From groundbreaking primatologists to deep-sea explorers to determined activists, each of them has changed the way that we see the world — and our role in protecting it. Equally importantly, these women have shown all of us that we have an effect on the health of our plant: from the smallest decisions of our day-to-day lives to international policy— each of us can make a difference.

Below we share the stories of ten women and explore their contributions to making a greener and healthier world. And, if you'd like to learn more about any of the featured women or introduce them to children and teens, after each profile we've shared several reading recommendations for different age groups, as well as other resourcesthat celebrate these remarkable women.

To discover fictional stories that show young readers how everyone can make a difference in making the world a little greener, check out our blog post,Mighty Girls Go Green: 20 Girl-Empowering Books for Earth Month.

Kate Sessions (1857 - 1940)

Environmentally friendly living doesn’t just mean protecting natural spaces; it also means finding ways to create green space in towns and cities. Kate Sessions spent most of her childhood living in and around the towering trees of northern California. In 1881, she was the first woman to graduate from the University of California with a science degree, and shortly afterward she moved to San Diego — at the time, a dry city with almost no plant life. After starting her horticultural career with a nursery in 1885, Sessions arranged to lease 30 acres of land in City Park (now called Balboa Park) from the city, in exchange for planting 100 trees a year in the barren park, and 300 trees a year in the rest of San Diego. Today, her gardens and parks are still found throughout the city, and Sessions is known as “the Mother of Balboa Park.”

Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1890 - 1998)

When Marjory Stoneman Douglas moved to Miami as a young woman, the Everglades were considered a worthless swamp, but the budding journalist something different: a vibrant web of ecosystems, worthy of protection, that provided much of Florida's clean water. "There are no other Everglades in the world," she wrote in her 1947 bookThe Everglades: River of Grass, which has been compared to Rachel Carson'sSilent Springfor its impact on popular opinion. In fact, without her ongoing activism, the Everglades would likely have died forever after large sections were either drained or contaminated. Her influence is best summed up by Florida Governor Lawton Chiles, who said, "[Marjory] was not just a pioneer of the environmental movement, she was a prophet, calling out to us to save the environment for our children and our grandchildren."

Rachel Carson (1907 - 1964)

When American marine biologist Rachel Carson publishedSilent Spring, she didn’t just call attention to the dangers of indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides; she also helped launch the modern environmental movement. Carson began her career in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but after articles and books that she wrote about ocean life became extremely popular, she started writing about science full time. WhenSilent Springwas released in 1962, Carson stood strong against intense criticism from the chemical industry, despite a simultaneous battle against breast cancer that was outpacing her treatments. Even after Carson's death, her book fueled public interest in environmental and public health issues and, within a few years, the Nixon Administration formed the Environmental Protection Agency. "Silent Spring" is widely considered one of the twentieth century's most influential works of non-fiction.

Dian Fossey (1932 - 1985)

Dian Fossey broke new ground for female biologists in the field when she set out to study the mysterious mountain gorillas of Rwanda: the American primatologist succeeded in getting close to gorillas when no one else could by imitating their behavior. But as Fossey identified and cataloged many new aspects of gorilla behavior, she also saw the brutality of poaching first hand. After her favorite gorilla, Digit, was killed, she foundedthe Digit Fundto fund anti-poaching efforts. Fossey and her colleagues devoted significant attention to anti-poaching activities, including running poaching patrols, destroying poacher's traps, pressuring local authorities to enforce anti-poaching laws, and helping in the arrest of poachers. Tragically, Fossey was killed in her cabin in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda in December 1985. Although the case has never been solved, it is widely believed that she was killed by a poacher in response to her aggressive anti-poaching efforts. Fossey left behind an amazing legacy -– both one of greater knowledge about these previously poorly understood animals and one of inspiration which has motivated many people to join the fight to save the mountain gorillas. Her efforts continue today through theDian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

Jane Goodall (b. 1934)

At a time when female scientists were often considered too fragile and emotional for fieldwork, Jane Goodall proved everyone wrong. The British primatologist is considered the world's foremost expert on chimpanzees after her 55-year-long study on the wild chimpanzees in Gomber Stream National Park in Tanzania, but she's also a dedicated advocate and activist on behalf of animal welfare and conservation causes. Her discovery of tool manufacture and use among the chimps led her to challenge the idea that animals were distinctly different from humans, and argue instead that "we're not as different from the rest of the animal kingdom as we used to think." Today, theJane Goodall Instituteworks with people around the world to develop a greater understanding of how we can help humanity while still protecting the natural world.

Sylvia Earle (b. 1935)

This groundbreaking American marine biologist and oceanographer, who was Time Magazine's first Hero of the Planet in 1998, is known by her fans as the Sturgeon General! Sylvia Earle set a women's depth record for suit diving and has helped design research submarines, but she is most well known for her advocacy for protecting Earth's oceans. In 2009, she used money from a TED Prize to foundMission Blue, a non-profit dedicated to creating protected marine preserves around the world. Earle is also a best-selling author whose writing is increasing public awareness of the ecological importance of the ocean, which she calls "the blue heart of the planet". And to the delight of her fans both young and old, last year LEGO created a series ofdeep sea exploration building kitsthat are inspired by her work — and will inspire the next generation of ocean protectors.

Wangari Maathai (1940 - 2011)

Wangari Maathai had a rare opportunity for a Kenyan woman in 1960: she was one of 300 Kenyan students selected for the Airlift Africa program, giving her the chance to attend university in the United States. After completing undergraduate and master’s degreesin biology, she returned to Kenya, where she had a new perspective on both the environmental damage in her country — and on the need for women’s rights. She founded theGreen Belt Movement to tackle both, by teaching Kenyan women how to plant new trees in deforested areas and sustainably draw income from the land. Since then, the Movement has trained 30,000 women in trades to raise them out of poverty, and planted over 51 million trees. For her dedication to both environmental conservation and the advancement of women’s rights, Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 — the first African woman ever to receive the award.

Vandana Shiva (b. 1952)

Indian scholar and environmentalist Vardana Shiva is leading a campaign to see the value in traditional local practices over uniform solutions: "Uniformity is not nature's way," she says, "diversity is nature's way." Her NGONavdanyais now a national movement to protect native seeds for farming and promote organic practices and fair trade. Critical to this, she argues, is a new perception of the role of women, particularly in the developing world: in her 1988 bookStaying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development, she argues that supporting small, women-run farms can be the key to creating environmentally sustainable food sources that also provide economic growth. Protecting the Earth, she says, is simply a matter of recognizing our place within it: "You are not Atlas carrying the world on your shoulder. It is good to remember that the planet is carrying you.

Winona LaDuke (b. 1959)

American activist Winona LaDuke learned early in her life about the challenges facing Native Americans: her father, an Objibwe man from Minnesota's White Earth Reservation, had a long history of activism relating to the loss of treaty lands. But within her tribe's traditional connection to the land, she also saw the potential for a new model of sustainable development and locally-based, environmentally conscious production of everything from food to energy. Her non-profit theWhite Earth Land Recovery Projecthas revived the cultivation of wild rice in Minnesota, and sells traditional foods under its label Native Harvest. She's also the cofounder ofHonor the Earth, a Native-led organization that provides grants to Native-run environmental initiatives. "Power," she says, "is in the earth; it is in your relationship to the earth." By providing a model for that relationship, she hopes that other peoples, as well as Native American tribes, can see the value of sustainable, connected living.

Isatou Ceesay (b. 1972)

Like many girls in Gambia, Isatou Ceesay was forced to drop out of school at a young age — but that didn't mean she was oblivious to the environmental challenges around her. The colorful plastic bags that she used to admire were now gathering as trash all over her village, injuring livestock, helping mosquitoes breed, and strangling plants... and unlike the woven baskets her community was used to, they never decomposed. So in 1997, Ceesay founded the Njau Recycling and Income Generation Group. This revolutionary community recycling initiative turns waste into wealth: women collect the recyclable materials and bring them to a center where they separate out the plastics and upcycle them into bags, mats, purses, and more. Today, she is known as the "Queen of Recycling in The Gambia” and over 100 women gain income thanks to Ceesay's organization. You can learn more about her program or buy a bag

(original source here)

Comments 4

Log in or register to post comments
Jun 07, 2016
Jun 07, 2016

Amazing! Thank you so much for sharing keeps touching lives.

Victoria Green
Jun 07, 2016
Jun 07, 2016

Thank you Joy Eze! 

We are in search of such female examples! If you happen to be one, please share your story! Do you know any environmental organisations in your community that need a promotion? 


Jun 07, 2016
Jun 07, 2016

This post was great; I am now interested in learning more about some of these women whom I'm hearing of for the first time after reading your article. I love to be turned on to new ideas and inspiring people. I will also be checking out the recommended reading list and hope to find some books to share with my children.


Victoria Green
Jun 08, 2016
Jun 08, 2016

Dear tlynnO,

I appreciate this resource was useful to you! Please, help us spread the word! 

We invite you to join our Environment Group community as there are more beautiful stories and resources coming out!