Women and the Environment

by Douglas M. Costle
[EPA Journal - November/December 1978]

Long before the first Earth Day in 1970, women were playing a major role in the effort to protect the environment.

They showed up at board meetings to point out that industrial expansion would threaten a trout stream or salt marsh. At city council sessions when the planners talked about the economic benefits forthcoming from the new expressway/highrise/industrial park, women often asked about the neighborhood park. Their interest in trees, birds, flowers, and insects was legendary. Construction engineers were said to cringe from the specter of these women who campaigned to protect the air, land, and water.

In the 1940s Dr. Florence Sabin, then in her seventies, campaigned to clean up Colorado by combating diseases spread by contaminated food and water and sewage disposal.

I think that these women symbolized the life-giving and conserving aspect of human nature. What was sometimes portrayed as blind opposition to progress was actually a zeal to protect human health and the quality of life.

One of the most outstanding of these women, Rachel Carson, sounded the alarm about environmental dangers. As a scientist Miss Carson knew the value of careful, detached research, but it was her unique, empathetic presentation of the workings of nature in Under the Sea-Wind, The Sea Around Us, The Edge of the Sea, and finally Silent Spring, that gave impetus to the growing environmental awareness in this country and around the world.

In the following years women played a role in the growing international realization that pollution and environmental damage are problems on a world scale. Diplomat Inga Thorsson of Sweden suggested to the United Nations in 1968 that a conference be held to consider problems of the environment at the intergovernmental level. Secretary General U Thant supported her idea and called for the U.N. conference on the Human Environment that was held in Stockholm in 1972. Inga Thorsson later headed the Swedish delegation to the Governing Council of the United Nations Environmental Program, a product of the Stockholm Conference.

Helena Benitez, President of the Philippine Women's University in Manila, chaired a committee at the Stockholm conference, and in 1975 was named President of the Third Governing Council of the U.N. Environmental Program.

The U.N. commissioned an unofficial report on the human environment to serve as a factual and conceptual background for the conference at Stockholm. Co-author of the report with Rene Dubos was Barbara Ward, the British economist. Their comprehensive and balanced report, Only One Earth, outlined the social, political, and economic dimensions of the pollution problem world-wide.

In this country the late Margaret Mead was a shining example of the role women can play in leading public opinion to support the environmental cause. She was a strong supporter of Earth Day and was president of the North American Nongovernmental Organizations Concerned with the Environment.

Throughout my career in environmental work, I have met women who serve the environment not just as organizers and promoters but as scientists and specialists. Limnologist Dr. Ruth Patrick invented the diatometer, an instrument that plots the growth of microscopic algae, which is used to study pollution in bodies of water. Her theories of fresh-water aquatic life are applied to Environmental Impact Statements throughout the world. In 1975, Dr. Patrick won the Tyler Ecology Prize from Pepperdine University for her work.

The appointment of my colleague Barbara Blum as Deputy Administrator of this Agency is an indication of the seriousness of our commitment to let women take their rightful place as respected professionals within this Agency. Barbara's long history of involvement in environmental activities in her home State testifies to her keen interest in our mission. In addition to working to protect the Chattahoochee River, she served on county planning commissions, advisory boards, councils, and committees relating to the environment. As a chairperson of the Georgia Heritage Trust Commission, a trustee of the Georgia Conservancy, and a member of Save America's Vital Environment, her activities earned a Feinstone Environmental Award in 1977, one of five given nationwide.

Dr. Kay Camin, EPA's Regional Administrator in Kansas City, has a background in economics. Her work before joining the Agency included studies of strip-mine reclamation, workshops on citizen participation in water quality control and the first national study on water pollution generated by the meat-packing industry.

Regional Administrator Adlene Harrison in Dallas was a member of the National League of Cities Steering Committee for Environmental Quality. Her work on the Dallas city council included support for a stringent air pollution ordinance and co-sponsorship of an ordinance to establish a city environmental committee.

In Boston, Rebecca Hanmer is EPA's Deputy Regional Administrator. She has been with the Agency since its inception, and is a former Director of the Office of Federal Activities at EPA headquarters. The EPA Deputy Regional Administrator in San Francisco is Sheila Prindiville, who has served in numerous capacities during her seven years with the Agency.

Here in Washington, I have opportunities to see and appreciate daily the dedication and skill of the women on our staff. EPA's General Counsel, Joan Bernstein, has 25 years of experience as an attorney in government and private practice and served in various capacities with the Bureau of Consumer Protection of the Federal Trade Commission.

Alice Brandies Popkin, who heads up our Office of International Affairs, came to the Agency form the Antioch School of Law where she served as a professor. She was a member of the original staff that set up the Peace Corps.

Joan Martin Nicholson, Director of the Office of Public Awareness, served on several boards of environmental organizations and founded the Bolton Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping people find practical solutions to environmental problems.

The Director of EPA's Office of Civil Rights, Doris Thompson, has 26 years of government experience with the Department of the Army and the National Security Agency.

In addition to the women who act as administrators and managers, EPA has an increasing number of women technical specialists. Dr. Marilyn Bracken is a Deputy Assistant Administrator in the Toxic Substances Program who is responsible for integrating the Agency's toxic substances activities, coordinating interagency toxics strategies, and for establishing and operating information policies and programs. Dr. Elizabeth Anderson is the Director of the Agency's Carcinogen Assessment Group, the advisory body that assesses the possible health risk of suspected cancer-causing substances that fall under EPA's regulatory authority. In Chicago, the Director of EPA's Great Lakes National Program is Dr. Edith Tebo, a specialist in laser technology.

I am proud of the talent, intelligence, and experience that these women represent. They are all seasoned professionals. Yet they are only a sampling of the more than 3,500 women employed by EPA, 35 percent of the Agency's staff. At the same time I am aware of the concentration of women at the lower levels of the civil service grade hierarchy in EPA, an unfortunate legacy of discrimination afflicting many Federal agencies. The average grade of male employees at EPA is 11.67. The average of the female EPA employee is 7.04. The Agency has undertaken to remedy that situation and with it the tremendous waste that results from underutilization of the abilities and contributions of women.

Finally, women traditionally have been responsible for the care and welfare of families, which makes them especially sensitive to the importance of clean air and safe water. As mothers they know that their bodies provide the first environment for a child, and that they will be primarily responsible for the nourishment, safety and well-being of their children.

Homemakers were the foot-soldiers of the environmental movement -- the volunteers who gave freely of their time and energy in support of environmental causes. Many important environmental decisions have been based on the concern of local activists, who many times were homemakers. This is not strictly an American phenomenon but occurs anywhere that pollution poses a threat to people; the women of Minamata, Japan, were in the forefront of the battle against mercury poisoning in their fishing village.

The work many women initiated continues wherever people care about their world.