A song’s been running through my head for several days now: Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves.
This International Women’s History Month, I’ve been thinking about how women around the world are “standing on their own two feet, and ringin’ on their own bells” on behalf of a fair, safe and sustainable global food system.
Women have been leading work at the intersection of food, health and the environment for decades — often facing criticism men don’t face. Critics dismissed scientist Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking book Silent Spring as the hysterical ravings of a sad, unmarried fanatic.
Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson wondered why “a spinster was so worried about genetics.” The chemical industry promoted articles calling her a romantic and challenging her scientific credentials. Even her supporters expressed surprise to learn that such a knowledgeable and compelling writer was “attractive.”
Decades later, Dr. Theo Colborn faced similar attacks. Co-author of Our Stolen Future and founder of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, Theo examined the effect of certain pesticides and other chemicals on women’s reproductive processes.
Given this context, I take special pride in pointing out that PAN’s three staff scientists are all women. Having women in leadership positions influences how we move the work forward.
For example, anyone’s health can be at risk from hazardous pesticides, and we promote solutions that we believe are ultimately good for everyone. But women’s exposures to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors (like the herbicide atrazine) can raise the likelihood of developing breast cancer. Women in rural communities are speaking out against herbicides like 2,4-D because these chemicals have been linked to reproductive health issues.
And while parents and all caregivers want the best for children’s health, organizations comprised of mothers are among the most passionate defenders of the precautionary principle, the common-sense notion that if a chemical seems to pose a threat to human health, let’s stop using it until we have scientific evidence to the contrary.
Women hold up half the sky — and till the soil, too
Sisters are doin’ it in the fields, too. The stereotypical image of a US farmer is a man, but women have always been in agriculture — on their own land, with spouses and families, and as farm laborers. More than one in four farmworkers are women and, according to the Women Food & Agriculture Network (WFAN), women own or co-own nearly half the farmland in the country.
Science shows that women in their child-bearing years are especially vulnerable to the harms of certain classes of pesticides; thus we pay close attention to what EPA calls “disproportionate impacts” of these chemicals on women in rural areas. Women are “standing on their own two feet” to fight exposure to pesticide drift, using PAN’s Drift Catcher and working together in circles like WFAN.
The World Food Programme says that women make up nearly 43% of the farming workforce across the globe. Knowing the importance of organizing women to advocate on their own behalf, PAN Africa hosts leadership trainings for rural women in southern Senegal. And our brothers and sisters at PAN Asia & the Pacific recently launched the third traveling women’s journal, declaring that “women are not weak, but instead they hold the power to change the course of history.”
The famed Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai is one of my inspirations this month. She was the first Kenyan woman to earn a masters of science degree, and the first woman in Eastern or Central Africa to earn a Ph.D. With so many options available, she could easily have settled into a cushy life as an intellectual anywhere in the world. Instead she dedicated herself to empowering poor, uneducated women, founding the Green Belt Movement and catalyzing similar activities by women across the continent.
Dr. Maathai, who once said, “What is done for the people without involving them cannot be sustained,” knew the value of engaging ordinary women in “doing it for themselves.” She refused to be limited by what her culture defined as “women’s work,” and literally put her body on the line in her advocacy for women’s rights. Like Rachel Carson and Theo Colborn, she insisted on connecting the dots between issues and across systems and borders — and her efforts will influence generations to come.
When accepting the Nobel Prize, Dr. Maathai noted that:
“In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.”
In the fields, on campus or in communities, I’m grateful for all the sisters who are showing us how to stand on our own two feet and sing out, loud and strong, for a fair, safe and sustainable food system. Who are your “sheroes”?