We’ve all heard of Sylvia Earle, Rachel Carson, Gina McCarthy, and Jane Goodall, and there is no doubt that they are all heroines and role models to me. But there are so many more kick-ass women coming up in the ranks of environmental activism right now that I knew it would be amiss not to share my list. This is not comprehensive by any means – there are so many amazing women doing great things for the planet, known and unknown. But as a woman and as an environmentalist, here are ten incredible females that I am looking to for inspiration in this time of deep challenge and struggle:
Winona LaDuke (United States)
An environmental and political activist whose father was from the Ojibwe White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, LaDuke has been involved in indigenous issues in the United States for the last several decades. In 1985 she founded the Indigenous Women’s Network, and in the ’90s she fought for land rights for the Anishinaabe by establishing a foundation and conservation trust, which also works to re-cultivate wild rice and other traditional foods. Most recently, she runs Honor the Earth and is an active participant and spokesperson at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner (Marshall Islands)
Jetnil-Kijiner is from an archipelago of 29 Pacific islands that are currently experiencing sea level rise, saltwater intrusion, and coastal erosion as a result of climate change. As a poet and climate activist, she shares words of hope to inspire action across the world. Jetnil-Kijiner has performed at numerous UN Climate Summits, including COP 21 in Paris in December 2015.
Priscilla Achakpa (Nigeria)
Achakpa serves as the executive director of the Women Environmental Programme (WEP) in Nigeria, in which she works with women to find “sustainable solutions to everyday problems.” One big problem that she encountered was that women had no way to preserve rice husks, which they harvested for their livelihoods, during the winter. Achakpa introduced solar dryers to many rural communities, which women now use to dry and store husks, which provides more economic stability for them and their families.
Terry Tempest Williams (United States)
Growing up in Utah, Williams first became exposed to environmental issues when seven members of her family died of cancer, likely arising from the proximity of a nuclear testing site outside of Las Vegas. Now as a conservationist and writer, she has testified before Congress and has written nine books and countless magazine articles. In 2015, she also bought several oil and gas leases on public land for conservation purposes.
Ruth Buendía (Peru)
A member of the Asháninka people of Peru, Buendía led a successful campaign against proposed dams that would flood her valley home and disrupt the livelihood of her community. The hydroelectric dams were approved by Brazil and Peru in 2010 without input from indigenous communities. As the first woman president of the Asháninka Center of the Ene River (CARE), she organized people from her home community and shed an international spotlight on the issue. As a result, key stakeholders withdrew from the dam project. Buendía won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2014 and continue to fight for land rights for the Asháninka people.
Achala Abeysinghe (Sri Lanka)
Abeysinghe serves as the legal advisor of climate change negotiations to the Chair of Least Developed Countries. In this position, she represents 48 nations that are among the most impacted and vulnerable nations to climate change. Abeysinghe played an instrumental role at COP 21 in 2015 advocating for these countries as the Paris Agreement was crafted.
Kimberly Wasserman (United States)
Wasserman, a Chicana resident of the Little Village community of Chicago, realized that something was wrong when her 3-month-old son suffered an asthma attack in 1998. One of the dirtiest coal plants in the nation, located less than a mile from her home, was causing a myriad of health effects for the people of Little Village. Wasserman began talking to her neighbors and organized a coalition to campaign for the plant to shut down, along with the adoption of a Clean Power Ordinance in Chicago. In 2012, the plant was closed, and in 2013, Wasserman received the Goldman Envrionmental Prize.
Phyllis Omido (Kenya)
After realizing that her baby had lead poisoning after drinking her breast milk, Omido set to work to shut down the smelter that was contaminating the water and air in her neighborhood of Mombasa. She launched a letter writing campaign and nonviolent protests, and was once jailed for her efforts. Omido succeeded in getting the plant to close, won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, and is now working to establish a legal framework for Kenya to provide a clean and safe environment for all of its citizens.
Aleta Baun (Indonesia)
As a woman of the Mollo people on the island of Timor, Baun relies on the forest for food and medicine, and to collect dyes that she and her fellow women use to weave. To the Mollo people, the forest is their livelihood and spiritual identity. But in the 1980s, illegal permits were issued for extracting marble, and deforestation and mining threatened to destroy the forest on which her community depended. Baun organized a group of 150 women to sit peacefully at the mining site, weaving their cloth, for one year until the mines were closed in 2010. She won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2013.
Rachel Kyte (UK)
Kyte is one of the most influential people in global climate policy, having served as Vice President and Special Envoy for Climate Change at the World Bank Group, and now serving as CEO of Sustainable Energy for All and Special Representative to the UN Secretary General. She played a very important role at COP 21 and continues to push international policy groups to incorporate climate change in everything they do. She continues to advocate for sustainable development, which she believes that we can achieve by eliminating poverty through improving access to renewable energy.