Voices: We owe much to history’s female eco-warriors

Greta Thunberg has many sisters, not least in the Global South and among Indigenous communities (NTB)
Greta Thunberg has many sisters, not least in the Global South and among Indigenous communities (NTB)

How do you picture an eco-warrior? A friendly bloke, binoculars dangling, bird list on the go? Or those heroes who – long before others – fought for nature: John Muir (1838-1914), shepherd and philosopher; Teddy Roosevelt (1858-1919), sportsman and US president; Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), gamekeeper and author?

Or the “penitent butchers”, to use the self-chosen moniker of the huntin’ and shootin’ chaps who in 1903 founded the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire (now Fauna and Flora International).

The green movement may seem like a boys’ club. But many green pioneers were women, doing work of equal value and magnitude as their male colleagues; and against far greater odds.

Octavia Hill (1838-1912) brought nature to the urban poor. She coined the term “Green Belt” and helped save Hampstead Heath. In 1895 she was one of three founders of the National Trust – today Britain’s biggest land guardian, with 260,000-odd hectares. Yet she never went to school, and started work at 14.

Educated at home, Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) was banned from entering the Linnean Society when in 1897 it presented a scientific paper of hers. Still, she gained freedom as a children’s author and sheep breeder, and bought 4,000 acres of Lake District for the National Trust.

Defying her aristocratic family to become a hands-on farmer, Lady Eve Balfour (1898-1990) pioneered organic farming by farm experiments, by her 1943 bestseller The Living Soil, and by co-founding the Soil Association in 1946.

Rachel Carson (1907-1964) had to abandon her zoology PhD in 1934, to support her widowed mother and orphaned nieces. An overnight sensation, her 1962 Silent Spring led to the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and the ban on DDT in 1972.

At 17, Miriam Rothschild (1908-2005) finally persuaded her aristocrat family to send her to school. A brilliant naturalist, she authored some 350 scientific papers; worked with Alan Turing at Bletchley; housed 49 Jewish refugee children during the War; and had six children herself. Fighting for lost Arcadian landscapes, she merrily named a hay-meadow seed-mix “Farmer’s Nightmare”.

Miriam and Beatrix found happiness in married life. Other green women remained unmarried. Marriage was hard when the law in effect enslaved one partner to the other (and it was defined as between a man and a woman).

But times change. Kris Tompkins’s (1950-) marriage to Doug Tompkins (1943-2015) was one of true minds and a great romance. Industrialists both – Kris, CEO of Patagonia, Doug founder of The North Face and co-founder of Esprit – they turned 14 million acres of Chilean and Argentinan wildlands into national parks.

Octavia, Beatrix, Eve, Rachel, Miriam, and Kris pioneered a movement. Thousands of courageous, wise and often very young women have risen up. Global star Greta Thunberg (2003-) has many sisters, not least in the Global South and among Indigenous communities. They lead, inspire and animate the fight for mother nature.

As the saying goes: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Lisbet Rausing is a historian, and co-founder of green charities Arcadia and Lund Trust