It was 6.30pm on a Thursday and impeccably dressed women in sparkling dresses, hats and heels had started gathering outside the rather swish Landmark Hotel in London. Furtive looks and whispered hellos hinted that something was brewing. That, and the huge number of police circling the block.
A glamorous looking woman talked urgently into her phone. Suddenly she cried ‘now, now, now’ and the group dashed off to a side entrance and into the hotel. I dashed off with them. Through secret back passages that usually only the staff would see, our well dressed group headed deeper into the hotel before emerging into a huge atrium. Chanting ‘no new coal’, and now sporting bright red sashes emblazoned with the same message, we sat defiantly around a sweeping staircase as two of our number unfurled a large banner from one of the balconies facing into the hall.
This was a Climate Rush action, organised in protest against the UK coal industry, which had been planning a dinner at the hotel that evening. Climate Rush isn’t an exclusively female movement, but the organisers proudly take their inspiration from the Suffragettes. They declare they are “a diverse group determined to raise awareness of the biggest threat facing humanity today – that of climate change. We demand deeds not words”.
Environmentalism is not gender neutral
Research suggests that men and women approach environmental issues differently, that the relationship between communities and their environment is not gender neutral.[i] Forget Tupperware or Anne Summers parties, women have been meeting up and determining to fight for a better planet for years, and the movement seems to be gathering a new momentum of late.
Back in the early nineties, 1500 women from 83 countries met for the first Women’s Congress for a Healthy Planet. More recently, in 2007, the Women’s Institute (WI) and Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) joined forces to produce the Women’s Manifesto on Climate Change. Last year a networking group called WISE – Women in Sustainability and the Environment – set themselves up, calling for more female voices within the environmental movement.
“It is time now for more females to be informed, to become influential spokespersons and promoters of the solutions required to mitigate climate change, to push for a seismic shift in consciousness that recognises that we owe a duty of care to our wild and beautiful planet” say the WISE founders. Born out of an email to six people in April last year, the network already boasts 9,500 people on its mailing list, including quite a few men.
Fighting for planetary rights
Polly Higgins is an environmental lawyer and one of the founders of the WISE network. She’s behind ambitious eco-projects including the Trees Have Rights Too call for global planetary rights. She puts the success of WISE so far down to a huge appetite from women, and men, for a pro-active, solution based approach to environmental problems.
I asked her how people responded to the women only thing. “A small minority think it’s ridiculous but most see it as non-threatening and actually I’ve found it’s a selling point. Men are very interested in it! It’s about positive discrimination and balance, not about excluding men” she explains.
Green tasks are pink not blue
It’s not all about direct action and political campaigning either. Women are a powerful force on a much more personal level too. A joint WI/WEN survey found that women make most household decisions, that 80% are very concerned about climate change and that a massive 98% recycle. “Green tasks, like similar chores, are it seems more likely to be pink than blue” say Caroline Oates and Seonaidh McDonald in their research paper ‘Recycling and the Domestic Division of Labour’.
Our ladies only eco-group
About a year ago I joined a group that was meeting in my local area to talk about environmental issues. There were no rules, except that I was female. As with all these kinds of things, I went along not knowing what to expect but with all kinds of expectations. It was like a first date, and a blind one at that. I was attracted to the group because it was for ladies only, but I did, I confess, feel slightly awkward about that fact.
We wanted our first event to be fun as well as informative, so we picked a gorgeous venue and there was wine and goody bags, as well as talks and advice from experts. Our local MP Emily Thornberry even showed up. It was a lot of work but it felt important to try and talk to women who hadn’t yet been converted to environmentally friendly ways of working.
These days our meetings tend to focus around talking about our eco problems. It’s incredibly useful – an environmental concern shared is a concern halved, etcetera, etcetera. We’ve researched and debated things like plastics, organics and cosmetics. We explored how to hold a green wedding when one of us announced her engagement and environmentally friendly parenting when one of us got pregnant.
All this, plus some great evenings in our favourite Islington pub. We really enjoy the supportive dynamic created by the ladies only rule, valuing the fact the women’s movement seeks to challenge the default ways of doing things and gives us the courage to take action, both personal and political.
A different kind of energy
“Women offer a different energy and perspective” says Polly Higgins of WISE, who explains the network “is about helping more women step up to the podium to deliver messages that are not doom and gloom led but offer big solutions. There are so many women out there with so much expertise that we should be tapping into”.
Previous climate change talks have been dominated by men, but something is beginning to shift. In December the UN vowed to address gender imbalance in climate change negotiations and women are working hard behind the scenes to make their presence felt more strongly at the upcoming climate talks in Copenhagen. “We are different creatures, we look at things differently” says Polly, and it seems that that different approach can only make the environmental movement stronger and able to engage more people, male and female.
This article appears in the May issue of Organic Garden and Home magazine
Useful facts, figures, resources
A joint survey of UK women by WEN and WI found:
Women make most household decisions
80% of women are very concerned about climate change
87% refuse plastic bags
Useful web links
[i] Climate change: learning from gender analysis and women’s experiences of organising for sustainable development by Irene Dankleman; Gender and Development Vol. 10, no. 2, July 2002