Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"Hysterical Housewives" and "Emotional Fanatics"

Women have been at the forefront of the environmental movement since … well, before it was a movement. Ellen Swallow, Rachel Carson, and Lois Gibbs are probably three of the more prominent women involved in the environment. All three fought against the idea that women simply could not “do science.” They represent a broad range of women—from a housewife to PhD’s. Below is a brief summary of their work and impacts.

Ellen Swallow was the first woman to be admitted to and later instruct at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her “aim was to understand the environmental dynamics of industrialization and to provide the community, particularly women, with the expertise to monitor their own environment.”[i] Swallow felt that there was added importance in educating women because the home was where primary resources could be monitored. These resources include nutrition, water, and air. Swallow’s initiatives were not appreciated, however, and her work was recorded as being “domestic science.”[ii]

Almost one hundred years later, Rachel Carson published her controversial book Silent Spring (1962). In the book, Carson claimed that herbicides and pesticides accumulate in the food chain and other animals (including humans) then consume the food and chemicals and become contaminated. Carson went on in the book to conclude that chemicals never disappear, but rather they accumulate in the soil and water and are carried away from the original site. Carson specifically cited DDT, an estrogen mimic that affects reproduction.

The chemical industry saw Rachel Carson (and those like her) as “directly challenging technology.”[iii] One such chemical company, Veliscol Corporation tried to prevent the book from being published by threatening a lawsuit against the publisher. Veliscol said that Carson “sought to create the false impression that all business is grasping and immoral” and that the book was designed to “reduce the use of agricultural chemicals in this country and in the countries of Western Europe, so that our supply of food will be reduced to east-curtain parity.”[iv]

When the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, published the book despite the threat of a lawsuit (after having it reviewed by an outside toxicologist), the attacks on Carson became more personal. Carson was called a communist and a lesbian, as well as being “over empathetic.” Robert Gottlieb summarizes the attacks on Carson as having been:

Anticommunist innuendos accompanied by hostile references to the sex of Carson from suggestions of lesbianism to assertions that a woman was incapable of mastering as scientific and technical a subject as pesticides.[v]

Carson brought the effects of synthetic and toxic chemicals to the forefront of political agendas and the public’s radar screen. Approximately seven years after Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, DDT was banned from production and use in the United States.

Carson continued to fight an uphill battle, as even the American Medical Association was on industry’s side. Also, chemical companies were paying people and funding propaganda that would damage Carson’s credibility. Carson faced further difficulties because the man who had discovered the insecticidal properties of DDT had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.[vii] Along with the banning of DDT, Carson is credited for starting the grassroots movements that led to the development of the United States Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

Two years after the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson died of breast cancer. Former Vice President of the United States, Al Gore, writes in his introduction to the latest publications of the book that “in a sense, Carson was literally writing for her life” because “new research points strongly to a link between this disease and exposure to toxic chemicals.”[vi]

Prior to 1978, Lois Gibbs[viii] was a quiet housewife in Niagara Falls, New York. However, by 1982, she was a household name and a political steadfast, due to her work at Love Canal. Gibbs became concerned with health of her neighborhood when her son became epileptic and her daughter developed a rare blood disease (they both had other health problems as well).[ix] Gibbs also discovered unusually high proportions of miscarriages, stillbirths, and birth defects among her neighbors. She found that only two out of fourteen pregnancy resulted in normal births in 1980. The other twelve pregnancies resulted in miscarriages or stillbirths.[x] The “normal births” resulted in birth defects.

The chemical industry discounted social and medical surveys conducted by Gibbs, the Love Canal Homeowners Association, and other researchers solicited by the residents of Love Canal, because they had a stake in the outcome. However, industry (and the government) had no problems with their own inconclusive results despite the fact that Hooker Chemical (the chemical company that previously used Love Canal) employed the state of New York to conduct investigations and that the state of New York was funding scientists to study the effects.

While the State of New York Health Department told the people of Love Canal that they could not prove the contamination was causing the illnesses in questions, they evacuated women and children under the age of two from the area three times and urged residents to avoid eating food from their gardens. Due to the lack of conclusive results from both sides, President Carter evacuated ALL families in 1980 permanently due to their mental anguish.

The actions of Gibbs led Congress to pass the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) in order to hold chemical companies and other hazardous waste generating facilities liable for their chemicals effects on the environment and human populations as well as to prevent future Love Canals from developing.


[i] Mary Mellor, Feminism & Ecology (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 14.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Robert Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement (Washington DC: Island Press, 1993), 81.

[iv] Ibid., 85.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962), xvi.

[vii] Ibid., xvii.

[viii] Unless otherwise noted, the information on Lois Gibbs comes from her book Love Canal: My Story (Albany: New York State University Press, 1982).

[ix] Mellor, Feminism & Ecology, 21.

[x] Lois Gibbs, Love Canal: My Story (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982), 141.

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