Tue, 03/28/2017 - 09:50 - 24 Views

The Gender and Society Research Center - Hoa Sen University held a lecture on "Gender and Environmental History" presented by Professor Mart Stewart and the writer Ly Lan on March 10, 2017, Hoa Sen University.

Reading and the environment

First of all, we read books about the nature and read the landscape around us. We read with conversation and walking. From Henry David Thoreau’s classic 1851 lecture/essay "Walking", “There goes a “sainte-terrer", a saunterer- a holy-lander.”  To saunter means to be at home everywhere. To walk, read, and converse well is to live not on the surface of the world, but to find connections everywhere.  

Professor Mart Stewart and the writer Ly Lan

Why do we need the environmental humanities?

Thomas K. Dean explained about the environmental humanities, “The study and/ or use of culture and cultural products (art works, writings, novels and essays, historical documents, scientific theories) that are in some way connected with the human relationship to the natural world.”[1]

Scientists create great stories about the nature, but they do not know how to tell these stories to others, while students studying history and culture can learn how to tell stories and communicate them to others. These are the questions of perspective, justice, and “who gets to say”.

Gender and the Environment: several critical perspectives

The eco-feminists in the 1990s considered the Earth itself as "feminine". Some of the perspectives were conditioned by the gender and power relations which were reflected through scientific illustrations or landscape gardening. Gender is considered as a genuine historical event, through which women were as environmental leaders of a particular kind. According to early ecofeminism, the nature is considered as feminine and that patriarchy along with the scientific revolution of capitalism, has contributed to a tragic split of femininity from the nature, for instance, in Carolyn Merchant (1980), "The Death of Nature - Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution". However, this has been rejected as essentialist, especially as we’ve come to understand “gender” as much more complicated than simple and essentialist “feminine” and “masculine” and “woman” and “man” categories.

Some people are sometimes not scientists, but they are crucial to the practice of science. Marianne North (1830-1890) worked with professional botanists at Kew Royal Gardens and elsewhere to illustrate the science. She was both a scientist and a botanical illustrator. The flower Nepenthes northiana was named after her. Margaret Mee (1909-1988), painter of biological plants, traveled widely. Elizabeth Blackwell (1707-1758) is a botanist and expert on medicinal herbs. In 1737, she published "A Curious Herbal," drawing 500 species of plants together with descriptions of the plant and its use in medicine. Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) is a garden landscape designer. She designed over 400 gardens in the UK, US and Europe.

Hestercombe Garden in Somerset (UK) designed by Gertrude Jekyll

Gender and environmental protection movement in the United States

John Muir (1838-1914) was a naturalist and environmental philosopher. John Muir was one of the Sierra Club founders (1890) with the wildlife conservation movement. “The Mountains of California” by John Muir (1894), hailed the wilderness of the nature. With biocentrism, he focused more on the natural biology, rather than the nature’s relationship to humans. He recommended US President Theodore Roosevelt on the protection of the forests and mountains wilderness. During his eight years as president, 1900-1908, President Roosevelt signed documents to protect five national parks, 150 national forests and more.

Thomas Moran (1837-1926) was a painter specialized in landscapes of mountains. He went to the field and drew the painting "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone". His paintings convinced President Ulysses S. Grant and the Congress to include Yellowstone as a national park for conservation (1872).

Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946) was a forest researcher, and later on he served as governor of Pennsylvania. Unlike John Muir and Thomas Moran who only preserved the wilderness of nature, Gifford Pinchot argued that nature conservation must go hand in hand with economic benefit. President Roosevelt was especially interested in Gifford Pinchot’s approach to conservation with rational use and reduction of waste, to keep the  “forest hygiene”. Since then, the United States Congress enacted a law in 1908 putting 156 forests, accounting for a quarter of the total forest land in the national forest system. In “The Fight for Conservation”, 1910, Gifford Pinchot coined the term conservation ethic as applied to natural resources.

In short, there are conservation policies in the mountains, but what about in an urban environment where most people live? At that time, the United States was in the modernization period and suffered of urban environmental problems such as air pollution and increasing industrial toxins.

Women - the first to work for the environment

Jane Addams (1860-1935) established the Hull House (named after its former owner Charles Hull) in Chicago in 1889. Workers live among other urban residents. Jane Addams also organized "urban sanitation" activities, collecting and recycling garbage in slums, and caring for workers infected by hazardous chemicals while working in the factories.

Alice Hamilton (1869-1970) was a doctor, she visited workers at the Hull House in 1897, and discovered occupational diseases. She invented the term "pollution," she tracked and mapped lead, and linked it to illness – also phosphorus and other pollutants. Then she launched tree planting and factory smoke abatement campaign. Alice Hamilton was one of the inventors of environmental toxicology. She was also named as one of the three founders of the environmental movement in the U.S., the other two were John Muir and Gifford Pinchot as mentioned above.

In addition, the US environmental movement also included Rachel Carson (1907-1964). She was trained as marine biologist, wrote gracefully of sea and shore life. Some of her works are among the best-selling books in the United States: "The Sea Around Us", 1951; "The Edge of the Sea", 1955. Especially the "Silent Spring", 1963, helped stop a US pesticide industry project, especially DDT. Carson argued that the pesticide not only kills insects but also enters the food chain, causing the birds, fish and humans to become contaminated. Most of the information that Carson put forth was not new and was known among scientists, but she was the first to combine the data and introduced Americans to the environmental effects of toxic, especially agricultural, chemicals. She explained the problem of toxic “exposure” on American landscapes and the damage to humans as well as wildlife.

In another country, we saw the Chipko movement in 1973 in India. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, at the foot of Mount Hymalaya there is a forest, which is an important source of livelihood for the people of the region. However, the forest was becoming narrower due to deforestation from logging enterprises. Local people are concerned that deforestation will cause soil erosion and soon the area will turn into desert due to the absence of trees to retain groundwater in the soil. Therefore the Chipko movement started, “chipko” means "hugging", each tree in the forest had many people hugging around to prevent the indiscriminate logging business. During the 1980s, this movement inspired many parts of the country and internationally, and later on was the beginning the ecological feminist and natural resources preservation movements.

Also in India, Dr. Vandana Shiva (1952-   ) is a physicist and ecology activist. She works to preserve the biodiversity. Seeds are the basis of agriculture as well as farmers’ means of production and livelihood. However, in the 1990s, Mosanto, a multinational agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation, came to India and collected seeds from farmers, using techniques to genetically modify the seeds and then farmers had to borrow money to buy Mosanto’s seeds at high price. When the crops failed, the debt piled up, many farmers had committed suicide. Thus, Vandana Shiva opposed Mosanto.

In brief, ecofeminism is now a much more complex approach to the study of the relationship between culture and nature, but in general ecofeminism analyzes the way that depictions and uses of nature had contributed to the oppression of women and are asking environmental and justice questions. More generally, we do not need to talk about how the nature might or might not be gendered, but how do we “gender” the nature and what difference does it make. 

Short bio about the guest speakers

Professor Mart Stewart is currently teaching in the History of Science and Environmental History at Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington, USA.

The writer Ly Lan graduated from Ho Chi Minh City University of Pedagogy, and she received a master degree in English from Wake Forest University, USA. Previously she taught at some high schools in Long An and Ho Chi Minh City. She was also lecturer at Van Lang University (1995-1997). Ly Lan was entrusted by the Tre/ Youth Publishing House for the translation of Harry Potter books into Vietnamese.

Ly Lan got married with Professor Mart Stewart. Currently, the couple lives in both the United States and Vietnam.


[1] Thomas K. Dean, www.asle.umn.edu/conf/other_conf/wla/1994/dean.html, accessed 10.6.08


Reported and translated into English by Le Thi Hanh