To celebrate Women’s History Month, we asked four leaders of the foundation’s Environment Program to tell us about the women who have influenced their careers and passion for conservation.
Environment Program Director Moira Mcdonald cited nature writer Terry Tempest Williams, the award-winning author of several acclaimed books, including “Finding Beauty in a Broken World,” “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place,” and “The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks.”
“Terry Tempest Williams uses her words to inspire engagement, protection and love of nature,” Mcdonald notes. “But she is also able to bring the human dimension into focus writing about the role of people in protecting and restoring nature.”
Williams has written extensively on issues of environmental and social justice and the links between nature and culture.
In “When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice,” published in 2012, Williams writes: “Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.”
Pipa Elias, the Environment Program’s deputy director, said she grew up admiring astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Ride flew aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1983 and again in 1984.
“As long as I can remember, I have looked up to Sally Ride. As the first American female astronaut in space, she inspired my love for both science and pushing the envelope,” says Elias.
Ride earned her master’s and Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University before becoming the nation’s youngest astronaut at the age of 32. After leaving NASA, she founded the nonprofit Sally Ride Science, aimed at inspiring young people to pursue careers in STEM.
“For whatever reason, I didn't succumb to the stereotype that science wasn't for girls,” Ride told USA Today in 2006. “I got encouragement from my parents. I never ran into a teacher or a counselor who told me that science was for boys.”
Elias believes in the power of female role models to inspire young women to pursue their dreams.
"My favorite part of being a woman in conservation is a Mother’s Day card from my daughter, who was three at the time,” she says. “It said, ‘I love you, mom, because you’re making the world a better place.’ ”
Teresa Ish, the foundation’s Oceans Initiative lead, named marine biologist Sylvia Earle, the first woman to be chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“While she is a noted marine scientist, Sylvia Earle was the first person who made me think about how the food we eat matters,” says Ish. “While she advocates for not eating seafood — a position I do not hold — when I saw her speak as a teenager, she talked about food conversion ratios — the amount of feed needed to produce one pound of beef, chicken, fish or other farmed meat. This idea opened my eyes to how many resources we need to feed the planet. And that there was a way to do it better.”
Earle, a National Georgraphic explorer-in-residence, has written extensively and produced documentaries about the perils of overfishing and threats to oceans from climate change and pollution.
“We need to respect the oceans and take care of them as if our lives depended on it,” she wrote in 2013, “because they do.”
Amy Saltzman, who leads the foundation’s Mississippi River Initiative, says naturalist and author Lauret Savoy has influenced her thinking about the impact people have on the land.
“She does not write about conservation specifically, but about understanding the layers of human impact on the landscape and how history is created and told,” Saltzman says of Savoy, the author of “Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape.”
“Her narrative about how people and the land are intertwined across time and place has stuck with me. It makes the case for why environmental conservation is important – because people and the places they love have stories worth conserving.”
Savoy, a geologist and professor of environmental studies at Mount Holyoke College, won the 2016 American Book Award for Trace and she was a finalist for the 2016 PEN American Open Book Award and Phillis Wheatley Book Award.
In a 2016 interview, Savoy said she became a geologist because she was interested in “the stories we tell of the land. And the stories we tell of ourselves in the land.”
“I always defined geology as not only understanding Earth but understanding our place on Earth,” she said. “It’s a sense of place writ large—not only a sense of where you are but a sense of where you are through time.”