Women’s Voices for the Earth by Bryony Schwan
“Why do we need a women’s environmental organization?” was the refrain I constantly heard from foundations in late 1994 when I was trying to start Women’s Voices for the Earth. I had been involved in local environmental issues for many years by then, volunteering for several organizations working to protect Montana’s forests from clear- cutting, and advocating for a comprehensive, ecosystem-based wilderness bill. There were several attempts by Congress to pass wilderness bills that would only protect small pockets of wilderness and actually release more of our public lands to logging.
I kept noticing that I was often only one of a very few women in the room in these organizing meetings. Women often came but didn’t stay engaged, and I began to ask why. Many said they didn’t feel welcome or included—there was no place for their voices at the table. At the time, I was in graduate school studying for my Master’s Degree in Environmental Studies, so I raised the issue with my professors. They encouraged me to bring women together to talk about the issue, and in the summer of 1994, I and a group of fellow students organized a conference called “Finding Common Ground: Gender, Justice & the Environment.” Over a hundred women came from around the region to share their stories of feeling left out of the environmental movement. It was clear we were going to need to do more than organize a conference. So, I rallied a group of women from various progressive causes and we worked together to create a new organization which would empower women to have a voice in the environmental movement and to work on the environmental issues that most impacted their lives.
In January 1995, Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) opened its first office in Missoula. The first year was immensely difficult as we faced continuous rejection for funding, with the exception of a couple of donors and the outdoor clothing company Patagonia. We scraped by with a staff of two for less than $9,000 that first year. However, WVE’s membership grew quickly and women rallied to stop the aerial spraying of pesticides on Mt. Sentinel (the mountainside adjacent to the university campus), to prevent the development of one of the largest cyanide heap-leach goldmines proposed in the US, and to prevent the emission of dioxin (one of the most toxic substances known to humans) from the local pulp and paper mill. As the years went by, we took on bigger and bigger issues and our reach went beyond Missoula, beyond Montana, to across the US and even globally as we worked in coalition with other groups to close down toxic medical-waste incinerators and stop the use of hazardous chemicals in homes, building materials, toys, and health and beauty products.
After 12 years at WVE, I left to start The Biomimicry Institute, but I’m so thrilled that younger women have taken over WVE and made it an even more effective organization. And, they are still challenging the contamination of our bodies, our breast milk, our children, and the planet by the chemical industry. They are stronger, more organized, and so effective. Take a moment to check out their work at Women’s Voices for the Earth