Connecting the dots

Women’s Voices for the Earth turns 10


“Why would a single mother of two kids who’s desperately trying to put food on the table worry about grizzly habitat?”

The simple truth is she wouldn’t. But frame environmental concerns in a different way, says Bryony Schwan, and women can see the links between the state of the world and the lives of their families.

Schwan follows up her first question with a second: “How do we make environmental issues real issues—not a special interest?”

“You go to a mother and say there’s a medical waste incinerator across the street from her child’s school,” she answers. “It doesn’t matter what her economic situation is—she’s going to care because it impacts her child’s life.”

Schwan, who founded Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), which celebrates its 10th anniversary this November, says too often the environmental movement is detached from everyday life. In particular, it fails to address the core concerns of women, losing a major constituency along the way. For the last decade, WVE has sought to add women’s voices to the chorus that’s speaking out about environmental health concerns.

“We feel like there’s a niche that needs to be filled, which is working at the intersection of environmental health and women’s issues,” says Dori Gilels, director of WVE’s Northern Rockies Program.

In 1995, as a graduate student in UM’s environmental studies program, Schwan says she noticed a remarkable dearth of women participating in local environmental groups, let alone leading them. Intrigued, she began interviewing women about their lack of involvement, and heard time and again from fed-up women who’d been told to bring cookies or coffee when they asked how they could help. Many women who did get involved said they eventually dropped out after finding they couldn’t play a significant role or make their voices heard.

“I really got the sense that it was hard for women to play any role in the environmental movement,” Schwan says.

So Schwan quit her position with a Missoula conservation group, founded WVE and began taking on local environmental issues with a slant targeted at, and responsive to, women.

One of the group’s first campaigns, against the proposed Blackfoot River gold mine, established WVE’s distinctive approach. Rather than joining throngs of other environmental groups in objecting on the grounds of wildlife impacts or water quality, WVE began a campaign called Mine Your Jewelry Box, Not the Blackfoot. WVE pointed out that 84 percent of gold mined worldwide is used to manufacture jewelry, and solicited gold donations that were melted down and used to fund the successful fight against the mine. The approach showed consumers—particularly women—the connection between their accessories and their environment, and gave them an outlet for enacting change outside the typical bounds of activism.

A current campaign that Schwan is heading up for WVE on the national level takes the same approach toward the thousands of untested and toxic chemicals contained in cosmetics and home cleaning products. The $35-billion U.S. health and beauty products industry accounts for a good share of the 85,000 or so chemicals in common commercial use, Schwan says. What most people don’t know is that at least half of those chemicals have never been tested for toxicity, she says, because the United States doesn’t have policy requiring it. And given the difficulty of persuading the Bush administration to regulate the powerful chemical industry, WVE and others in the campaign have turned to educating the women who predominantly use the products.

“What people don’t understand is the government isn’t minding the store here,” Schwan says. “So we’re educating women so they demand that government ensure it’s safe.”

Much of WVE’s work revolves around chemicals because women and children are particularly affected by exposure to them, Gilels says.

Women are disproportionately impacted because their bodies have a higher percentage of fatty tissues, which are where dioxins and other chemicals build up over time. A study in the American Journal of Public Health found women had more than 14 percent more dioxins—chemicals that cause cancer and developmental problems—in their bodies than do men. Children are even more vulnerable because of their developing systems and size, and in the case of pregnant women, who share exposure with their fetuses, the impact is twofold.

“We may be exposed the same as others, but we carry the burden differently,” Gilels says. “It’s just the facts about how we grow and the structure of our bodies that make us more susceptible.”

One of WVE’s cornerstone accomplishments is the closing of four out of five of Montana’s medical waste incinerators since 1999. Most recently, the group successfully campaigned for the mid-October closure of a hospital waste incinerator in Boise, Idaho, which stood across the street from a neighborhood school. The burning of medical waste disperses mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium and the like into the air, Gilels says, and was identified as the third-largest source of dioxin air emissions by the EPA. In Montana, WVE helped encourage the closing of waste incinerators in Helena, Great Falls, Polson and Corvallis. A fifth facility, Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, agreed to stop burning non-medical waste by October 2005 and to explore alternatives for disposing of medical waste.

Schwan and Gilels stress that WVE isn’t just about individual environmental issues and particular goals. The larger aim is to give women a voice about the world in which they raise their families, to encourage leadership among the half of human society that has historically been relegated to positions of little power. WVE’s Girls Using Their Strengths (GUTS!) program to educate and empower young women, and its efforts to tap into women’s political power by registering them to vote, aren’t directed at specific environmental causes, but rather foster the ability to take on such causes. Once women see that they can bring about small changes, like the closing of a town’s incinerator, larger obstacles like U.S. chemical policy are easier to grasp.

“I think people need something that affects their hearts, that grabs them and opens their eyes so they can see what a difference they can make,” Gilels says.


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