Culture, Nature, and Feminism:

Culture, Nature, and Feminism:

The Creation and State of Environmental History

One of the many consequences of the 19th century Industrial Revolution was a modernized mentality that it was Man’s right to conquer the natural world; that Man was no longer a part of nature, he was above it, and ultimately needed to control it. Consequently, over the course of the 20th century, the term nature is overwhelmingly replaced by environment. Likewise, natural history is largely replaced by environmental history, which commences as an interpretation of man’s destruction, not coalescence, with the natural world.[1]  However, in the 1960s, environmental history is altered by several key factors. Advancements in science and technology, the growing popularity of the Women’s Rights Movement, and an overwhelming growth of support for environmentally-friendly practices cause a shift in environmental history from a machismo nature-conquering pseudo-science to data-based methodology.

Focusing on the causation behind the coalescence that formed between the environmental and feminist movement, three trajectories will be presented: the causation for the separation between natural and environmental history, the modernization of environmental history as an interdisciplinary study, and the amalgamation of feminist history with environmental history. What initiated the massive wave of support that would spawn the modern Environmental Movement? Firstly, one must focus on the studies from which environmental history rooted, namely natural history, a discipline that focuses on the empirical observation of the natural world. According to Donald Worster in his work, The Wealth of Nature: Environmental History and the Ecological Imagination, environmental historians study nature’s place in human life, not man’s place in nature.[2] Worster states, “Wherever the two spheres, the natural and the cultural, confront with one another, environmental history finds its essential themes.”[3] In essence, Worster asserts that the natural and cultural realms are separate entities, modernly linked for ecological purposes.

Image result for The Wealth of Nature: Environmental History and the Ecological Imagination,

However, some have felt Worster falsely romanticizes nature as static and largely unaffected by cultural changes. In his critique to Worster’s definitions of nature and natural history, environmental historian William Cronon claims that historians in the field must implement analytical methodology in order to identify links and correlations within what he believes to be an interweaving ecological and historical timeframe.[4] Additionally, Cronon believes Worster fails to identify the links between capitalism and its subsequent effects on nature in 19TH century America. In his 1992 work, A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative, Cronon states, “For Worster, the refusal to recognize natural limits is one of the defining characteristics of a capitalist ethos and economy.”[5]  Cronon asserts that key differences between natural and environmental history begin to surface almost immediately.[6] Whereas natural historians were limited to physical studies, environmental historians rely on a myriad of other factors, including philosophy, anthropology and biology in their research.


Image result for 1960s ddt adPhoto Source:

 In the 1960s, the popularity of environmentalism polarized as the American public was not only furious for being misled by chemical companies, they were terrified that they had been exposed to harmful products. According to Daniel Nelson, “One obvious factor was a continuing series of exposés and crises which provided stark evidence of the tolerance of supposedly responsible institutions for irresponsible, risky behavior.”[7]  After the national condemnation of chemicals such as DDT, leaded gasoline, and greenhouse gasses, public opinion in the 1960s begins to shift from industry in favor of the environment.[8] Unlike ecological or natural history, environmental history will grow encompass something much broader, implying that humans are deeply intertwined with the natural world. For many environmental historians, Like Cronon, the banning of DDT must have served as concrete evidence that culture and nature have drastic effects on one another.

Image result for rachel carson

Rachel Carson, Photo Courtesy: University California Santa Cruz

Between the 1960s and 1970s, environmental history grows to embody spheres that are both local and global, and attempts to explain changes in environmental and human health.[9] Resultantly, environmental historians initiate the incorporation of anthropology, geography, ecology, and modern technology in order to identify the causes of contemporary issues, just as Carson incorporated these disciplines in her research. According to Cronon, “We therefore ally our historical work with that of our colleagues in the sciences, whose models, however imperfectly, try to approximate the mechanisms of nature.”[10] Environmental Historians not only tackle the anthropogenic impact of the past, they are now forced to ask several identifying questions whenever a new material, either natural or synthetic, is introduced to our environment: who made it, why did they make it, what is it made of, and what are its environmental impacts?  Environmental history therefore must be interdisciplinary, requiring the environmental historian to go outside the realms of traditional history in order to explain environmental issues. According to Seager, “Environmentalists provided baseline insights into the interdependence of human life and planet life and offered a systems analysis of the ways ecological destruction cascaded through intertwined social and ecological webs.” [11] Less than a decade after the publication of Silent Spring, environmentalism not only expands to consider anthropogenic effects on a global level, it sparks a fire within a growing feminist movement.

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The rise of environmental feminism was predominantly a consequence of long-standing sexism in both the science industry and marketing. In 1962, Rachael Carson published Silent Spring, an exposé vilifying the flagrant use of Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane or DDT, a synthetic pesticide she believed to be the catalyst for a potentially apocalyptic scenario.  Carson’s work had overnight success and quickly triggered an explosion of environmental consciousness and feminist empowerment after its publication. However, Carson’s growing popularity would consequently spawn a backlash of controversy surrounding her credibility as a scientist, which stemmed from a combination of a deeply rooted misogynistic culture, as well as corporate corruption. As chemical companies were a male-dominated industry in the 1960s, one could argue that corruption at this level was largely sexist, as women, particularly housewives, were generally the target audience for advertisements in home-making and beauty magazines.[12]  Carson had herself been discredited as a scientist due to her gender, with critics describing her as a premenstrual complainer who did not have the expertise to make accusations about DDT.[13] In 1963, journalist Edwin Diamond published an article in the Saturday Evening Post attacking Carson for her allegedly biased and unjust claims about the toxicity of DDT. Diamond states, “Thanks to a woman named Rachel Carson, a big fuss has been stirred up to scare the American public out of its wits.”[14] Carson is not referred to as a scientist at any point in Diamond’s article. In fact, Diamond goes on to compare Silent Spring to McCarthyism, implying that her statements against DDT were nothing but scare tactics that could result in a widespread Malaria epidemic, essentially using a reverse scare tactic as his counter argument.[15]


Despite Diamond’s pro-DDT campaign efforts, a large population of American women began to take a stand against companies for creating what they believed to be false advertisements designed to sell harmful products to housewives.  By marketing to a female audience, chemical companies managed to sell toxins like DDT by portraying them as something not only necessary to prevent the diseases spread by pests, but as something so safe, it could be sprayed around the nursery.[16] The backlash of these advertisements, once exposed, provoked a rise in feminist culture that not only paralleled the growing interest in environmental causes, it altered a long-standing history of cultural and scientific misogyny.[17] According to Joni Seager, “Debates around these issues were once fresh and exciting. Indeed, what we might consider to be protoecofeminist insights played a more significant role than is often acknowledged in shaping the overall development of second-wave feminism in the United States.”[18] Without the rise of feminism, environmental causes may not have been so successful and the environmental movement itself may have never gained traction.

Environmental history expanded as a discipline through the rise of feminism in the 1960s and consequentially bonded the two groups, while still encompassing new fields of research as necessary. According to Seager, “Feminist environmentalism is shifting paradigms in public health, political economy, philosophy, science, and ecology.”[19] Women had lost trust in chemical companies and found faith in scientific methods to ascertain what was beneficial to the environment and thus beneficial to humanity. Consequently, trust would prove to be a key theme in environmental feminist history. According to William H. Rodgers, Jr., “This tactical advantage of telling the truth quickly became a recognizable universal advantage that environmentalists strove to write into the ‘canonical’ environmental laws of the 1970s.”[20] Additionally, a growing distrust for corporate science, now largely perceived as corrupted, inspires public opinion to consider the impact of industry as well as the impact of the individual consumer. The metamorphosis from consumerism to conservationism as a mentality will have the largest influence on the progression of environmental movement and subsequently environmental history.

After the 1960s, through several successful lawsuits that favored the environment over industry, like the 1972 banning of DDT and the 1985 banning of tetraethyl lead from gasoline, environmental history expands rapidly and begins to branch off into subcategories. On a global scale, awareness of the detrimental effects of anthropogenic activity surface in the 1960s. The desire for equal rights for both genders shadows the desire for environmentally sound practices, ultimately seeking better conditions for humans and the planet. As the concept of gender equality gained momentum, lobbying against sexism and sexual misconduct in the workplace became as common as lobbying against pollution from chemical corporations, two concepts largely unheard of before the 1960s. [21]

Environmental history over the course of the 20th century has continued to expand, incorporating new fields of research and technology as they are made available in attempt to understand both natural and anthropogenic effects on the environment. In the 1980s, the concept of scientific uncertainty, in which chemical companies could sell products without knowing their health effects, catalyzed one of the most successful environmental policies in to date. Seager states, “Scientific uncertainty serves as a refuge for scoundrels of all kinds Chemical-producing and pollution-causing industries have relied for years on the “cover” that scientific uncertainty affords them.”[22]  Similar to the scientific uncertainty surrounding DDT in the 1960s, the widespread use of the chemicals called Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a common ingredient in aerosols, was attributed to the depletion of the ozone layer only two decades later. Though scientists at the time were not able to directly link CFCs with ozone depletion, though it has sense been proven, the concept of the Precautionary Principle was enacted, and permitted acting in the face of uncertainty when the consequences are considered to be dire.[23] According to Seager, “…the precautionary principle asserts that public and private interests have a positive obligation to act to prevent environmental/health harm before it occurs; that the indication of harm, rather than ‘proof’ of harm, should be the trigger for action…”[24] These actions have had a massive influence in shaping modern environmental history.

The history of environmentalism could easily be subtitled The Rise and Fall of the Industrialized Mentality, as so much of the movement’s core was inspired by the adverse effects of industrial corporations on global health. By the 1960s, the consequences of Man’s mental separation from nature began to reveal its insidious effects, like scientific uncertainty, which allowed companies to manufacture and sell chemicals without fully understanding their health effects. Likewise, the growth of gender equality as a result of the women’s rights would amplify popularity of the environmental movement, as the two groups shared many common values and prioritized fair treatment for both people and nature. Environmental historians attempt to deepen our understanding concerning the anthropogenic effects on the environment in the past, as well as the relationships between humans and nature. In doing so, environmental history has taken on a myriad of interdisciplinary studies, a list that will continue to expand as science and technology advance, and new environmentally sound practices are invented.

By Madi Golightly

[1] Donald Worster, The Wealth of Nature: Environmental History and the Ecological Imagination, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 47-48.

[2] Ibis., 47-48.

[3] Ibid., 48.

[4] William Cronon, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” Journal of American History 78, no. 4, 1 (March 1992): 1349.

[5] Ibid., 1353.

[6] Ibid., 1370.

[7] Daniel Nelson, Nature’s Burdens: Conservation and American Politics, The Reagan Era to the Present, (Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 2017) 69-86.

[8] Reed Karaim, “Not So Fast with the DDT: Rachel Carson’s Warnings Still Apply,” The American Scholar 74, no. 3 (June 2005): 54.

[9] Ibid., 54-57.

[10] Cronon, 1349.

[11] Joni Seager, “Rachel Carson Died of Breast Cancer: The Coming of Age of Feminist Environmentalism.” Signs 28, no. 3 (2003): 945-951.

[12] Killing Salt Chemicals, “DDT is Good for Me-e-e!” Time Magazine, (June 1947).

[13] Edwin Diamond, “The Myth of the ‘Pesticide Menace,” Saturday Evening Post 236, no. 33

(September 1963): 16-18.

[14] Ibid., 16.

[15] Ibid., 18.

[16] Killing Salt Chemicals, “DDT is Good for Me-e-e!” Time Magazine, (June 1947).

[17] Seager, 945-951.

[18] Ibid., 946

[19] Ibid., 945.

[20] William H. Rodgers, “Giving Voice to Rachel Carson: Putting Science into Environmental Law,” Journal of Land Use & Environmental Law 28, no. 1 (2012): 63.

[21] Ibid., 66-68.

[22] Seager, 964.

[23] Barbara L. Ley, From Pink to Green: Disease Prevention and the Environmental Breast Cancer Movement, (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2009), 81-82.

[24] Seager, 964.

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