Women environmental activists are nothing new

Marylou Tousignant

THE WASHINGTON POST – Say the phrase “female environmental pioneers,” and among the names you will hear are Rachel Carson, who wrote about pesticides; chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall; and 17-year-old climate-change activist Greta Thunberg. To mark Women’s History Month, The Washington Post is sharing the stories of three lesser-known but equally remarkable environmental trailblazers.


Anna Botsford Comstock loved bugs, kids and the great outdoors. If you have enjoyed a nature field trip or been on a Scout campout, tip your cap to Comstock.

Her 1911 Handbook of Nature Study became the go-to source for teachers and others wanting to interest children in the beauty of the natural world.

The book, updated several times, remains the backbone of many lesson plans about plants and animals, rocks and minerals, and Earth, the moon and the stars.

Comstock’s seven science books include How to Keep Bees and Ways of the Six-Footed (insects). In The Pet Book, a 300-page catalogue of creatures ranging from alligators to toads, she wrote that having a pet teaches children to be responsible. That’s an argument pet-wanting kids still make with their parents.

Comstock didn’t just write books. Her detailed drawings and wood engravings of hundreds of insects filled her books and those of her husband. The couple taught at Cornell University. In 1923, the League of Women Voters named Comstock one of the 12 greatest women in America whose work made the world a better place.


She didn’t know it then, but Sylvia Earle found her lifelong passion at age three. She was playing at a beach when a wave snuck up and knocked her over.

“My mother… saw the big smile on my face and let me run back in,” Earle told a TV interviewer years later. “And I’ve been running back in ever since.”

Now 84, Earle has spent thousands of hours exploring the world’s oceans and working to protect them from pollution, overfishing and other threats. A pioneer in using scuba gear, which lets divers breathe underwater, she holds the world record for deepest untethered walk on the ocean floor – 1,250 feet – during which she planted a United States (US) flag.

In 1998, Time magazine gave her its first Heroes for the Planet award. She was the first female chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And she may be the only member of the National Women’s Hall of Fame to have appeared in the comic strip Sherman’s Lagoon.

To those who don’t understand why the ocean matters, Earle said, “They should know that with every breath they take, every drop of water they drink, the ocean is touching them. You should treat the ocean as if your life depends on it – because it does.”


Plastic bags were piling up in the African village of Njau, Gambia. Goats and gardens were dying, mosquitoes were multiplying, and toxic fumes filled the air as people burned heaps of plastic trash.

Isatou Ceesay had an idea. She started a recycling centre to create a healthier environment and teach local women how to turn those plastic bags into purses and wallets they could sell. (The story was turned into the picture book One Plastic Bag.)

What Ceesay started has put more than 2,000 women to work in 40 communities. They learn how to sew or knit the products and how to manage the money they earn. Giving women financial independence is one of Ceesay’s proudest achievements.