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20 Trailblazing Women Environmentalists

20 Trailblazing Women Environmentalists

Which women are at the forefront of environmental conservation, and what impact have they made on the movement? From Rachel Carson's groundbreaking literary work on DDT to Greta Thunberg's global activism, women environmentalists have been pivotal in elevating environmental awareness and effecting tangible change.

While many women have played pivotal roles in the origins of environmental conservation, their achievements have often been, regrettably, overshadowed by their male peers in terms of recognition. Despite facing obstacles, many courageous women have risen to prominence in the fight against climate change and global warming.

In celebration of Women's History Month , let's dive into the stories of these remarkable women, recognizing their substantial contributions to environmental conservation in terms of leadership, environmental justice, policy, and the new generation of women environmentalists.

This list is far from exhaustive, but a great starting point for anyone interested in learning about the contributions of women to fighting for our planet.

Women Environmentalists and Leaders of the Climate Movement

1. Rachel Carson (1907-1964)

Rachel Carson, an American marine biologist, author, and conservationist, is revered for her influential book ‘ Silent Spring .’ Published in 1962, the book raised public awareness about the harmful effects of synthetic pesticides on the environment, notably DDT.

Her work instigated significant changes in environmental policy, resulted in a nationwide ban on DDT, and encouraged further investigation into pesticide use and the chemical industry.

Carson’s Silent Spring served as a wake-up call, sparking the modern environmental movement and leading to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Rachel Carson
This photo is from the National Digital Library of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and is available in the Public Domain.

Her work is why she is considered an early female environmentalist and remains a source of inspiration for environmental activists worldwide, emphasizing the potential of individuals to effect meaningful change. The impact of her work is evident as it catalyzed a paradigm shift in how the public and policymakers viewed the natural world. Her ability to translate complex scientific concepts into compelling narratives that the average person could understand and act upon was a hallmark of her effectiveness as an environmental advocate. Carson's legacy continues to resonate today, reminding us of the importance of being stewards of the planet.

2. Jane Goodall (b. 1934)

Jane Goodall is a well-known authority in conservation, having transformed the study of primatology through her extensive and groundbreaking research on wild chimpanzees. Her work has dramatically expanded our understanding of primate behavior and overturned dominant scientific views at that time. As an influential environmental activist, she dedicates her efforts to raising awareness about conservation issues and inspires young people worldwide to adopt eco-friendly practices.

"What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make. The greatest danger to our future is apathy. You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you."

Jane Goodall

Her commitment led to the creation of the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977, which supported her continued research in Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve in Tanzania while also pursuing broader objectives for chimpanzee safeguarding and ecological preservation. Established in 1991, Roots & Shoots is a program within the Jane Goodall Institute that aims to nurture future generations enthusiastic about conservational endeavors. It is now an international movement present across more than one hundred nations.

3. Dr. Wangari Maathai (1940-2011)

At the core of environmental conservation efforts in Africa, Kenyan activist Dr. Wangari Maathai carved her mark in history as the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She was also the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. She was instrumental in establishing the Green Belt Movement in 1977, which catalyzed engaging rural women from Kenya to rejuvenate their deteriorating environment via tree-planting initiatives. Thanks to Maathai’s leadership and vision, these endeavors saw more than 51 million trees taking root across Kenya and provided economic opportunities for upwards of 900,000 Kenyan women through seedling sales.

"When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and hope."

Wangari Maathai

Maathai’s contributions had ripples that extended well beyond national boundaries. They inspired a United Nations campaign that astonishingly led to over 1 billion trees being planted worldwide. Even after her time on earth has passed, Wangari Maathai’s global indelible impact echoes among environmental advocates—her life is a testament to how grassroots movements can effectively intertwine social betterment with vigilant stewardship of our natural surroundings.

4. Isatou Ceesay (b. 1972)

Often called the ' Queen of Recycling ,' Ceesay's recycling journey started when she noticed the large pile of trash near her village. In 1997, Ceesay founded the N'jau Recycling and Income Generation Group (NRIGG), a social enterprise aiming to tackle the growing problem of plastic waste in her community. Her innovative project cleans up the Gambia environment and empowers women economically. She has created a sustainable business model that benefits the community and the environment by teaching them how to recycle plastic waste into new, valuable products like purses and bags.

Ceesay's work goes beyond recycling; she educates communities about the importance of environmental stewardship and the impact of waste on their health and prosperity. Her efforts have significantly reduced the amount of plastic litter in The Gambia and have inspired similar initiatives in other African countries.

For her dedication to environmental conservation and women's empowerment, Ceesay has received international recognition, including the International Alliance for Women's Difference Maker Award in 2012. Her story is featured in the book " One Plastic Bag : Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia," which introduces children to the concept of recycling and shows the difference one person can make in the fight against pollution.

"People thought I was too young and that women couldn't be leaders. I took these things as challenges; they gave me more power. I didn't call out the problems - I called out the solutions."

Isatou Ceesay

5. Greta Thunberg (b. 2003)

Swedish young climate activist Greta Thunberg sparked a worldwide movement when she initiated her school strike for climate at a young age. Her Fridays For Future movement has been recognized globally for its significant role in engaging young people with environmental issues. Thunberg’s unapologetic approach to addressing climate change and the simplicity of her protests have inspired a new generation to believe in the efficacy of their advocacy.

Greta Thunberg
" Greta Thunberg, March 2020 (cropped) " by European Parliament is licensed under CC BY 2.0 .

Thunberg has directly addressed world leaders at various international summits, including the World Economic Forum, underscoring the urgency of global climate justice and meaningful action on the climate crisis. Her fervent speeches have struck a chord with people around the globe, strengthening the demand for immediate and conclusive action on climate change. The image of her solitary figure, protesting outside the Swedish Parliament, has become a powerful symbol of youthful determination and has been replicated by students around the world. This young activist's bold stance and piercing gaze have challenged the status quo, making her a formidable voice in the fight against climate inaction. As she continues her crusade, Thunberg's influence only grows, reminding us all that the time for debate is over, and the time for action is now.

"I'm telling you there is hope. I have seen it, but it does not come from the governments or corporations. It comes from the people."

Greta Thunberg

6. Hazel M. Johnson (1935-2011)

Hazel M. Johnson, recognized by U.S. Congress as the " mother of environmental justice ," pioneered the movement to link environmental health and civil rights. Born in New Orleans, Johnson's journey as an activist began in earnest when she settled in Chicago's public housing. There, she confronted the stark realities of living in an area plagued by pollution, where the rates of cancer and respiratory illnesses were alarmingly high.

In 1970, after losing her husband to lung cance r and noticing that her seven children experienced skin irritation and respiratory issues, Johnson founded People for Community Recovery (PCR). PCR is a grassroots organization focused on combating environmental racism and improving living conditions in her community of Altgeld Gardens. Under her leadership, PCR tackled asbestos abatement, lead poisoning prevention, and installing proper sewage systems.

Johnson's tenacity led to significant policy changes and heightened awareness of the environmental injustices marginalized communities face. Her advocacy was instrumental in establishing the Environmental Justice movement, which gained national traction in the 1980s and culminated in President Bill Clinton's signing of Executive Order 12898 in 1994, addressing environmental justice in minority and low-income populations.

Her legacy inspires environmental activists and community leaders to fight for a world where everyone has the right to clean air, water, and soil. Johnson's work exemplifies the power of grassroots activism to bring about systemic change and ensure a healthier environment for future generations.

In 2021, the United States designated April of every year as Hazel M. Johnson Environmental Justice Month .

"Every day, I complain, protest, and object, but it takes such vigilance and activism to keep legislators on their toes and governments accountable to the people on environmental issues."

Hazel M. Johnson

7. Dr. Dorceta Taylor (b. 1957)

Dr. Dorceta Taylor is a renowned environmental sociologist whose influential work has significantly shaped the field of environmental justice. Born in rural Jamaica, Taylor moved to the United States for her higher education and has since blazed a trail in academia with her groundbreaking research and teachings as an environmental sociologist.

Taylor's work is defined by her focus on the intersectionality of social issues and environmentalism. She passionately argues that environmental concerns are not separate from social issues but are deeply interconnected. Her research highlights how marginalized communities often experience the worst effects of environmental degradation and climate change, illuminating the need for environmental policies that address these inequalities.

Dr. Dorceta Taylor

Her book, ' The Environment and the People in American Cities ,' comprehensively examines urban environmental management and policy, focusing on the interplay between race, class, and environmental inequality. It is an essential resource for understanding the historical and contemporary dynamics of ecological justice in American cities.

In addition to her research and writing, Taylor has made significant contributions to the field through her teaching. As a professor at the University of Michigan's School for Environment and Sustainability, she inspires future environmental leaders to approach their work with a keen awareness of social justice. Beyond academia, Taylor is also a leading advocate for diversity in the environmental movement. She was honored by the Smithosonian Insitution in 2019 and is currently a professor at Yale in Environmental Justice.

8. Peggy Shepard

Peggy Shepard is a pioneering figure in environmental advocacy and grassroots organizing. Co-founder and Executive Director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice in New York, USA, Shepard has dedicated her life to advocating for cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable environments, particularly for low-income communities and people of color.

As a former journalist and the first African-American reporter at the Indianapolis News, she moved to New York in 1988 and co-founded WE ACT following a successful protest against sewage pollution in the Hudson River impacting the communities of West Harlem . Under her leadership, WE ACT has grown into a significant force for environmental health and justice nationally.

Shepard has received numerous awards for her work, including the Jane Jacobs Medal from the Rockefeller Foundation for Lifetime Achievement and the 10th Annual Heinz Award For the Environment. She was appointed the first female chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

9. Winona LaDuke (b. 1959)

Winona LaDuke of the Ojibwe Nation is an environmental advocate from the United States, and she fervently supports sustainable development via her non-profit endeavors and by establishing projects such as Honor the Earth (an organization dedicated to awareness and support for Native environmental issues) and the White Earth Land Recovery Project (focused on the revival of Indigenous culture). She emphasizes food sovereignty for indigenous populations, encourages locally sourced organic produce consumption, and is a proponent of cutting-edge renewable energy solutions.

Winona LaDuke
" Winona LaDuke " by KODX Seattle is licensed under CC BY 4.0 .

In 2016, she was significantly involved in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. In 2019 also protested other pipelines near Ojibwe waters in the Leech Lake Reservation. In 2020 and 2021 she led the protests against the Line 3 pipelines. She has urged many people to take on the role of Water Protector . In 202, she published a book, ' To Be A Water Protector' , which describes the fights of indigenous people to fight against corporations and governments of the U.S. and Canada who are destroying the land and water. LaDuke also highlights how the degradation of the environment impacts us all.

LaDuke exemplifies how community-driven environmental programs can make an impact. She stands against the patenting and genetic modification of native crops to emphasize safeguarding plant varieties—a crucial step in maintaining indigenous traditions and planetary well-being.

"Let us be the ancestors our descendants will thank."

Winona LaDuke

10. Dr. Vandana Shiva (b. 1952)

Shiva studied physics at Punjab University and later received a PhD in physics from the University of Western Ontario with a dissertation titled " Hidden variables and locality in quantum theory ." She was interested in studying nuclear power until digging into the health implications. Seeing the environmental degradation of areas she grew up in, she began a shift towards ecological activism .

Vandana Shiva's work is rooted in the principles of ecofeminism, which draws parallels between the exploitation of the natural world and the marginalization of women, emphasizing that environmental and social justice are inseparable. Shiva's book on ecofeminism is a foundational text that explores the vital role women's rights play in preserving and celebrating ecological diversity, arguing for their empowerment as agents of change within environmental movements.

Dr. Vandana Shiva
" Vandana Shiva " by is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 .

As the founder of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy (an organization dedicated to developing methods for sustainable agriculture), Shiva has tirelessly worked to promote sustainable agriculture, protect indigenous knowledge, and advocate for farmers' rights. Her intellectual contributions and activism have inspired a generation of environmentalists to view ecological issues through a lens of interconnectedness, advocating for a world where living resources are respected and conserved for future generations.

Shiva's staunch opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) reflects her commitment to biodiversity and protecting indigenous farming practices. She views GMOs as a threat to seed sovereignty. She has been a vocal critic of the chemical industry, particularly Monsanto, for their role in patenting seeds and promoting GMOs that she argues endanger both the environment and human health. Her efforts to maintain the integrity of native seeds have led her to take legal action against Monsanto, challenging their patents and the broader implications of the chemical industry in the natural world.

"We share this planet, our home, with millions of species. Justice and sustainability both demand that we do not use more resources than we need."

Vandana Shiva

11. Berta Cáceres (1971-2016)

In the realm of environmental justice within Central America, Berta Cáceres played a pivotal role by helping to establish the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). This organization led efforts against unauthorized deforestation and damaging mining practices. By empowering her community through such activism, they confronted influential corporations and enforced their rights, as seen in their initiative to create human blockades on roads to obstruct dam projects.

The enduring legacy of Cáceres’ life is rooted in her dedication to grassroots movements advocating for environmental justice.

Berta Cáceres
" Berta Cáceres (cropped) " by UN Environment is licensed under CC BY 3.0 .

Her untimely death was a grave loss. It has only strengthened the resolve among activists fighting for the right to environmental and territorial sovereignty across American nations. Her life highlighted that achieving accurate equity requires profound systemic change, especially for those communities marginalized by societal power structures.

"Let's wake up! We’re out of time. We must shake our conscience free of the rapacious capitalism, racism, and patriarchy that will only assure our own self-destruction."

Berta Cáceres

12. Christiana Figueres (b. 1956)

Born and raised in Costa Rica, Figueres represented the Government of Costa Rica as an international negotiator at the UN Convention on Climate Change from 1995-2010. Following the failed COP15 climate change conference in Copenhagen, she was appointed as the new Executive Secretary for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Figueres' tenure at the UNFCCC was marked by her relentless pursuit of consensus and cooperation among member countries, culminating in the historic Paris Agreement in 2015 at COP21. Figueres described her tactic as deliberate change of tone in climate discussions through what she called, " relentless optimism ." In her TED talk reflecting on her job to get every sovereign national in the UN on board with addressing the climate crisis, she noted there had to be optimism to delivery victory in fighting the crisis.

Her leadership was instrumental in achieving the near-universal accord, which for the first time united nations to collectively commit to curbing global greenhouse gas emissions and to prevent the planet from reaching critical warming thresholds.

Beyond her work with the UN, Figueres continues to be an influential voice in the climate change conversation. She co-founded Global Optimism , an organization focused on social and environmental change, and she co-hosts the podcast " Outrage + Optimism ," which discusses global challenges and solutions with various thought leaders and activists. 

"The planet will survive, in changed form no doubt, but it will survive. The question is whether we will be here to witness it."

Christiana Figueres

13. Dr. Sylvia Earle (b. 1935)

‘Her Deepness,’ Sylvia Earle has been a groundbreaking figure in oceanography and is well-known for promoting the conservation and protection of U.S. waters.

With her extensive background, she demonstrates a strong commitment to informing others about the importance of preserving our oceans. She established Mission Blue , which focuses on forming a worldwide network of ‘ Hope Spots ’—places critical to the health of the ocean that need to designated asprotected areas to protect ocean life from climate change hazards.

Dr. Sylvia Earle tries on a plastic helmet collected at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. And area she played a pivotal role in protecting.
This photo was cropped and extracted from another image, " Dr. Sylvia Earle, Construction Worker? ", from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service by Bonnie L. Campbell that is available in the Public Domain.

Earle's passion for the ocean is infectious. She has spent over 7,000 hours underwater, exploring the vast, intricate ecosystems that thrive beneath the waves. Her advocacy for ocean conservation is not just about protecting species and habitats but also about preserving the complex relationships within marine environments, which are crucial for the planet's overall health.

Through her numerous expeditions, Earle has witnessed firsthand the devastating impacts of pollution, overfishing, and climate change on oceanic ecosystems. Her dedication to the cause has made her a vocal proponent for establishing marine reserves. Fishing and other extractive activities are prohibited in these areas, allowing the ocean to recover and regenerate.

Her ocean research and conservation leadership have inspired countless individuals to stand for our seas. As a sought-after speaker and author, Earle continues to share her knowledge and experiences, educating the public and policymakers alike on the critical need for ocean stewardship.

"We need to respect the oceans and take care of them as if our lives depended on it. Because they do."

Dr. Sylvia Earle

14. Dr. Joanne Chory (b. 1955)

Dr. Joanne Chory is a distinguished plant biologist and geneticist whose innovative research is charting new courses in the fight against climate change. As an Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Chory's investigations delve into plant genetics and their potential to solve environmental problems.

Chory is at the forefront of the Harnessing Plants Initiative , a pioneering project aimed at combating climate change by developing plants that can capture and store increased amounts of carbon in their roots. Her team is exploring the genetic engineering of plants to increase carbon sequestration in soil, thereby reducing atmospheric CO2 levels.

Additionally, Chory's research sheds light on plant adaptation to their environments. She has uncovered pivotal information about plant hormones and their role in regulating growth and development in response to environmental stressors. This knowledge is vital in the era of climate change, potentially leading to the creation of crops that can endure extreme weather and adapt to shifting climates.

Her research is not just pushing the boundaries of plant biology but is also offering practical solutions to mitigate the effects of climate change.

15. Dr. Kate Marvel

Born and raised in California, Marvel's fascination with the natural world led her to pursue a career in climate science. She holds a PhD in theoretical physics from Cambridge University and completed postdoctoral research in climate modeling at the Carnegie Institution for Science. Her academic background equips her with a deep understanding of the physical processes underpinning our changing climate.

At Project Drawdown , where Marvel is a senior climate scientist and is part of a team of international researchers working towards 'drawdown' - the point at which greenhouse gases in our atmosphere begin to decline. Their mission is not just to stop climate change, but to reverse it. Marvel's work focuses on developing and refining models that can accurately predict the impacts of various climate solutions.

Dr. Kate Marvel
" Kate Marvel " by Norwegian University of Science and Technology is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 .

Marvel's contributions to climate science extend beyond her research. She is known for her ability to communicate complex scientific concepts in an accessible and engaging way. Her writings have appeared in Scientific American and On Being , and she often speaks at public events about climate change.

16. Dr. Corinne Le Quéré (b. 1966)

Professor Corinne Le Quéré is a scientific leader in the field of climate science, known for her extensive contributions towards understanding and combating climate change. She was also an author of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th assessment reports from the IPCC. A distinguished professor of Climate Change Science at the University of East Anglia, her research focuses on the interactions between climate change and the carbon cycle.

One of Professor Le Quéré's significant contributions is her work on the Global Carbon Budget . Her studies provide insights into how human activities and natural processes affect carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) levels in the atmosphere. She has played a pivotal role in assessing the impact of anthropogenic activities on these greenhouse gases, which are key drivers of global warming.

Inspiring the Next Generation: Young Female Environmental Activists to Watch

When people think of young activists, their minds often go directly to Greta Thunberg. But there are so many more.

Young activists are at the forefront of environmental change as they inspire their contemporaries to work toward a sustainable tomorrow.

These committed young women prove that youth is no barrier to effecting meaningful change. Their fervent commitment reminds us that individuals of any age can be key contributors to our planet’s future trajectory.

17. Xiye Bastida (b. 2002)

Born in Mexico, Bastida was compelled to take action on climate justice after witnessing her hometown of San Pedro Tultepec suffer devastating floods in 2015 , a direct consequence of climate change.

She has since risen to prominence as a leader within the climate advocacy sphere. As a member of the Indigenous Otomi-Toltec nation, she brings a vital perspective to her roles in the People's Climate Movement and Fridays for Future. Bastida's activism is rooted in the principle of intersectionality, underscoring the disproportionate impact of climate change on marginalized groups.

After relocating to New York City, Bastida galvanized her school to participate in the inaugural global climate strike in 2019. Her eloquence and passion have graced numerous high-profile platforms, including the United Nations and the World Economic Forum, where she has demanded swift and decisive climate action.

In 2020, Bastida co-launched the Re-Earth Initiative , an international NGO led by youth, with the mission of inclusivity and accessibility within the environmental movement.

18. Howey Ou (b. 2002)

Howey Ou, a young Chinese climate activist inspired by Greta Thunberg's Fridays For Future, has become a prominent figure advocating environmental policy change in China. In 2019, at 16, Ou organized her own solitary school strike in front of the local government building in her hometown of Guilin. This act of peaceful protest marked the first of its kind in China, capturing international attention and highlighting the growing concern for climate change among young people in the region.

Ou's activism has not been without its challenges. She has faced scrutiny from authorities and has had to navigate the complexities of advocating for environmental reform within China's political landscape.

Howey Ou
" Howey Ou - 3D hunger strike - Lausanne " by lechatdanslaprise is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 .

Despite these hurdles, Ou remains committed to her cause, continuing to engage with her community and spread awareness about the urgency of climate action.

Her dedication to environmentalism has led her to collaborate with other climate activists and participate in international events, further amplifying her message. Howey Ou's courage and determination make her an inspiring role model for young environmentalists worldwide, showcasing the power of youth activism in the global fight against climate change.

19. Vanessa Nakate (b. 1996)

Vanessa Nakate, serving as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, champions inclusive climate action and justice. She is a Ugandan environmentalist whose advocacy is channeled through her founding of rthe Youth for a Future Africa and the Rise Up Movement . She wrote ‘A Bigger Picture: my plight to bring a new African voice to the climate crisis’, underscoring the necessity for climate actions that consider those communities bearing an unequal brunt of climate change consequences.

Nakate also founded Green Schools Project , which aims to transition schools in Uganda to renewable energy via solar energy. 

"In the end, you know, we cannot eat coal, we cannot drink oil."

Vanessa Nakate

20. Disha Ravi (b. 1998)

Since becoming an ardent climate activist at 19, Disha Ravi has been instrumental in founding the Indian branch of Fridays For Future . This initiative demands urgent action on climate change and has significantly elevated consciousness regarding environmental issues throughout India. Her activism now includes backing farmer protests across the country, revealing her dedication to championing environmental and agricultural causes.

Ravi’s endeavors underscore the importance of a multifaceted perspective within environmental activism. By interweaving social and economic topics with ecological concerns, she highlights how these matters are mutually dependent and necessitate holistic resolutions for effective change.

Disha Ravi
" Disha A Ravi " by Rottencluster is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 .


Women have spearheaded environmental conservation efforts by advocating for environmental justice, being central in grassroots movements, changing policy, and initiating transformative research. Their work has profoundly influenced the course of the environmental movement and motivates upcoming leaders concerned with our ecological future.

As we reflect on these narratives during Women's History Month , we can see how the achievements of these trailblazing women environmentalists have shaped the course of environmental advocacy. Their stories are a testament to the indomitable spirit of women who have and continue to, pave the way for a more sustainable and equitable world.

If you're interested in learning more, ' All We Can Save ' is an anthology of 60 women at the forefront of the climate movement. 

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