Significant Women in Foresty

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Society of American Foresters                                                                               International Society of Tropical Foresters


Significant Women in Foresty:

Nancy Langston, University of Wisconsin

One might expect an entry titled “Significant Women in Forestry” to be quite short, because few women have been particularly significant in professional forestry. Histories of forestry have paid little attention to women, for women have rarely worked as foresters, loggers, or CEOs of industrial forestry operations. Forestry has traditionally been one of the most ‘manly’ of professions, and until quite recently, many forestry schools and forestry positions were open only to men. Protestations that the physical nature of the work precluded women from forestry persisted long after such arguments dwindled in other professions (Wazeka 1984).

In the last three decades, more women have entered forestry schools and employment, yet concerns about women and forestry run much deeper than a simple question of career opportunities. Forests have been of fundamental economic importance to the lives of women throughout history, and they continue to be so, particularly in developing nations. Yet professional forestry has all too often excluded women from decision-making about these resources, while also eliminating women’s access to those resources. Most families in the developing world depend on fuel wood for cooking and for heating, and women collect nearly all that fuel wood. Forests provide the foods that sustain families with protein, minerals, and vitamins lacking in grains, and women collect those forest foods. Forests provide habitat for the medicinal plants that women collect, and forests provide the fodder that sustains the small livestock that women tend. Trivial as many of these forest uses have seemed to professional foresters, who have tended to dismiss them as ‘non-timber forest products’, women have indeed been the major consumers of forest resources throughout history.

Women and the Development of Professional Forestry

With the professionalization of forestry in the 19th century, women lost many of their customary rights to forest access, and the diversity of forest life that sustained these uses also diminished. As foresters transformed complex forest communities into professionally managed, sustained-yield forests, the diversity of women's work vanished in the forests, just as did much of the diversity of plant and animals that had supported their work—and the traditional tenure rights that gave women access to forests. Likewise, the very idea that women had anything important to do with forests vanished as well. With the increasing growth of sustained-yield forestry, "working forests" had room only for timber – not for medicinal plants, mushrooms, firewood, fish and insects and herbs. "Working forests" became the province of "working men": of loggers, professional foresters, and corporate accountants. In the process, women lost many of their customary rights to forests, and women were increasingly defined as peripheral to the concerns of forestry.

Changing tenure relations structured these changes in women’s access to forests. Across the world, it is a reasonable generalization to state that, before the 18th century, most forests were traditionally some form of common property, with no single person owning all the rights to a forest. Unlike agricultural fields, which were often private property in many cultures, forests had broader—but not unrestricted—access. Customary tenure systems traditionally regulated access to common property resources. Women’s work was critical in shaping forests under these customary tenure regimes, through gathering, fishing, and other activities that altered forest disturbance processes and plant communities. In turn, even as women changed forests, forests changed women as well, affecting their family’s health, welfare, and food. Forests were important to women, not because of some supposed “closer connections to nature inherent in female nature” that ecofeminists have proposed, but because forests provided critical economic resources for women (Argarwal 2001). While customary tenure regimes were not necessarily equitable toward women, women did have important access to forest resources under these tenure systems.

The links between women and forests were often invisible to the cadre of professional foresters who followed colonial powers around the world. By the 19th century, with the deterioration of customary tenure systems under colonial regimes of taxation and land allocation, forests lost many of their traditional protections from overuse. Professional foresters saw the forests being depleted, and being almost completely ignorant of the complex tenure systems that had traditionally regulated access to the forest, they made the erroneous conclusion that the problem was the customary tenure systems—not the breakdown of these tenure systems. In an effort to slow the deterioration of forests that resulted from the deterioration of tenure systems, colonial powers called on a new generation of technically trained foresters who attempted to use forest science, quantification, and conservation laws to slow forest destruction. Ironically, these attempts at forest conservation ignored the root causes of depletion, and so the result was often increased exploitation, accompanied by a centralization of decision making that often led to ecological simplification and a failure to protect forest resources or communities dependent on forests, particularly women (Scott, 1998).

As forestry emerged as a profession, its practitioners defined their work in explicitly gendered terms. In trying to transform a chaotic, wild, tangled disorderly wild nature into an ordered, regulated forest, professional foresters saw themselves doing the work of men (Langston, 1995). Or, as James Lewis argues about the US Forest Service, “The job of forester itself-a combination of lumberjack, frontiersman, explorer, and Old West sheriff-provided an opportunity for men to live the ‘strenuous life,’ that most masculine of lifestyles,” (Lewis, 2005). During its first six decades, the Forest Service resisted hiring women as professional foresters. As an agency leaflet from around 1950 explained, “The fieldwork of the Forest Service is strictly a man's job because of the physical requirements, the arduous nature of the work, and the work environment,” (Lewis, 2005). As Lewis argues, “This argument set up a Catch-22: Forestry was man's work because they had only hired men to do it. To hire women would be to deny that it was "a man's job."

However, the Forest Service has diversified substantially in the last few decades, with a steadily increasing cadre of women at all levels. In fact, in 2006, Gail Kimbell, was appointed as the first woman Chief of the Forest Service. Furthermore, women students in forestry are increasing slowly, and often gain leadership roles in the student chapters of the Society of American Foresters far in excess of their proportional membership.

Women’s Clubs and Forest Conservation

Even though the profession defined itself as man’s work, women were important in the development of forestry—but their contributions have remained largely invisible. Women’s clubs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, spearheaded American forest conservation efforts. The Forest Service might have had few forests to manage if it weren’t for the determined efforts of such women’s clubs. Just as men defined forestry in gendered terms, women defined their conservation interests in equally gendered terms. Jennifer Price writes that “The ‘woman club movement’ grew out of the Victorian-era middle-class doctrine of ‘separate spheres,’ which defined women as superior moral creatures. The doctrine limited women by assigning them to the domestic sphere, where they tended to the moral education of children. But it at once empowered them to devote their moral talent to more public causes,” (Price, 2004). Clubwomen led campaigns to protect wild areas and managed forests both, justifying their public efforts by calling attention to their ‘feminine’ interests in health, children, and education.

For example, the University of Minnesota professor Maria Sanford led the Minnesota Federation of Women's groups in their efforts to protect 400,000 acres of forestland near the headwaters of the Mississippi River, which eventually resulted in a reserve that became the Chippewa National Forest. The Federation had as its central goals better public education and better public health, and these traditionally feminine concerns motivated its efforts to protect forests. “The salubrious effect on lungs, heart, and head of a visit to a pristine natural setting was a well-established notion in the rapidly urbanizing America of the 1890s….Florence Bramhill, who would head the federation’s Forest Reserve Committee, argued that the forest was ‘precious for beauty, for health-giving ozone, for influence on climate, breaking as it does the high winds sweeping down from the North and West.’” The federation of women’s clubs initially envisioned complete protection of a wild forest, but when that effort stalled, its members promoted scientific management, proposing for the reserve “a ‘rational cut’ of timber, where foresters would practice ‘the latest in scientific forestry.’” In 1902, in response to the women’s efforts, President Roosevelt signed into law the Morris Act, which enabled the creation of the first congressionally managed national forest (Brady, no date).

In the eastern United States, under the leadership of State ForestCommissioner and clubwoman Mira Lloyd Dock, the State Federation of Pennsylvania Women played a major role in both the state's forest conservation and municipal improvement movements (Rimby, 2005). These women’s clubs weren’t just concerned with setting aside forests for protection and admiration; they envisioned forests that were fully integrated with urban communities.

Women’s clubs were particularly concerned with forestry education for schoolchildren. They believed that forestry was not something for specialists alone, but something all children should learn to become more responsible citizens. Mary Eno Pinchot, the mother of Gifford Pinchot, headed the conservation committee of the Daughters of the American Revolution. When state governors told members of her conservation committee that what women might best do for conservation was to "mind the children," her group responded by promoting forestry education to school children. Women’s clubs were soon promoting professional forestry education as well. In California, for example, Mrs. Lovell White (who helped found the Save the Redwoods League in 1918) was active in the California Federation of Women's Clubs, which led the effort to have a forestry school established at the University of California, Berkeley.

Women’s interests in forests grew, in part, out of their interest in watershed concerns, which they justified by framing watershed effects within the feminine sphere of children’s health. One of Mary Eno Pinchot’s central causes became the protection of Appalachian forests to protect watersheds, reduce flooding, and sustain clean water. Similarly, Margaret March-Mount, who began working for the Forest Service in 1913 as a clerk on the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming, soon became the “ambassador of trees” for the entire Forest Service, promoting tree planting on private and public lands to lessen watershed degradation. March-Mount had grown up in the erosion-scarred lands of southern Illinois and Kansas, and she was determined to reverse this erosion, envisioning “a nation of healthy trees” and happy tree-planters. In her years with the Forest Service, she worked with both women’s clubs and school children to encourage tree planting and fire prevention.

Some women were important voices in defining the value of forests in less material ways, as sources of spiritual refuge from rapid industrialization. For example, consider Emily Carr, the Canadian landscape painter of the early 20th C, whose “ecstatic identification with the spirit of nature" helped create an image of a primeval forest “from which humans have vanished,” (Udall, 2000). Her images of a wild forest separate from culture continue to frame the ways many Canadians view the old growth forest. Her primeval forest whose spiritual value lies in its isolation from people has been a powerful motivation for forest preservation efforts in British Columbia, even as they have helped to marginalize the human communities that depend on these forests. Moreover, “by holding onto Romantic fantasies of natural stability and appealing to a scientific position that few ecologists would support today, environmentalists trying to defend the old-growth forest leave themselves vulnerable to a forest industry aware of advances in ecological science and capable of arguing that the disturbance clear cutting represents is not inconsistent with ecosystem viability,” (Stuart, 2004).

Women and Communities

Outside of the United States, women’s interests in forest protection have also been motivated by concerns with watershed protection and human health. The Chipko Movement in India originated as a protest by village women against forestry activities in Uttar Pradesh in the Himalayas which were altering forested watersheds and leading to increased flooding. Professional foresters had been promoting the clearcutting of native banj forests (Himalayan Oak) and their replacement by Chir Pine to benefit the logging industry. Yet these forest conversions were reducing the amount of forest undergrowth, and as women argued, leading to increased flooding.

The Chipko Movement originated through the efforts of local village women, while also gaining support from Indian women who had long called attention to the effects of deforestation on watershed health. In 1952, Mira Behn had argued in her essay Something Wrong in the Himalaya: “Year after year the floods in the North of India seem to be getting worse, and this year they have been absolutely devastating. This means that there is something radically wrong in the Himalayas, and that 'something' is, without doubt, connected with the forests. It is not, I believe, just a matter of deforestation as some people think, but largely a matter of change of species.” Her concern with the transformation of Banj forests to Chir pine forests was ignored by the Forest Department, and she insisted that this was because “the Banj brings them in no cash for the coffers, whereas the Chir pine is very profitable, yielding as it does both timber and resins.” A series of disastrous floods, including the Alaknanda flood of July 1970, the 1977 Tawaghat flood, and the 1978 Bhagirathi floods, motivated protests by thousands of village women, who in non-violent demonstrations, hugged trees to protect them from loggers (thus leading to the term ‘tree-huggers’ for environmentalists (Shiva, 1991). Since the late 1980s, thousands of village women in the Chipko movement have won bans on clearcutting and influenced forestry policy across India.

In Africa as well, women asserted their interest in watershed protection and forest restoration. Winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her reforestation efforts in Kenya, Wangari Muta Maathai was the first woman in East Africa to earn a Ph.D. When she returned to Kenya in 1966 after earning her undergraduate and masters degrees in the United States, Maathai was horrified by the degradation of her homeland’s forests. She believed that deforestation was leading to erosion and depletion of critical farmland, and she decided to solve the problem by having village women plant trees. She created the Green Belt Movement in 1976, developing it into a grassroots organization which taught women’s groups to create nurseries and plant trees to improve their local quality of life.

Throughout the Americas, women have become prominent voices in community forestry movements. Marina Silva, appointed Environment Minister of Brazil in 2003, grew up in the Amazon helping her father, a 'seringueiro' or rubber-tree tapper, to collect latex in the forests of the northwestern state of Acre. Too poor to attend school, she didn’t learn to read or write until she was 17. She eventually earned a degree in history, studying at night and working during the day as a maid, while also working with Chico Mendes to found a rubber-tappers union. Her work has led to land tenure reforms, including the establishment of community forest reserves such as the Riozinho do Anfrision reserve and the Verde Para Sempre reserve, which together protect nearly 5 million acres and provide livelihood for thousands of families.

Women’s opportunities and achievements in forestry have increased enormously since the 1970s. In many forestry schools across the world, women are now a significant portion of the student body, and more professional foresters in both private and public sectors are now women. Women form more than half the staff in many non-governmental organizations devoted to forest conservation, (although most leaders of these organizations are male). Yet women continue to be excluded from many key decisions concerning forest resources, particularly at the community level in developing nations. As Robert Wazeka argues (1984), “When foresters seek local advice they turn, as men, to the men in the household or village - men whose perceptions of what is needed or suitable will often be quite different from those of the women….By failing to involve women, foresters not only fail to meet their needs but also lose the opportunity to benefit from their unique knowledge of what trees are appropriate.” Bina Agarwal (2001) shows in her analysis of village community forestry groups in India that “women's exclusion from decision-making can negatively affect the long-term efficiency and sustainability of these initiatives (whatever the immediate gains). Since it is typically women who have to collect firewood and grasses regularly, their lack of involvement in framing workable forest use rules often compels them to violate the rules, in order to fulfill essential needs.” Until foresters recognize that non-timber products are key elements of forest diversity and forest economies, and that women are key players in forest resource decisions, significant improvement will be slow, but progress has been achieved in federal agencies. The challenge will be to extend these gains to all spheres of forest management and protection.

See also: Tenure Rights and Responsibilities; Women in Forestry: Latin America; Women in Forestry: USA and Canada

References and Further Reading

Agarwal, Bina. “A Challenge for Ecofeminims: Gender, Greening, and Community Forestry in India.” Women & Environments International Magazine 52/53 (2001):12-16.

Brady, Tim. “The Real Story of the Chippewa National Forest“ (2004).  : Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. URL: (2 May 2006).

Langston, Nancy. Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox of Old Growth in the Inland West. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995.

Lewis, James G. “The Applicant is No Gentleman: Women in the Forest Service.” Journal of Forestry 103 (2005): 259-263.

Price, Jennifer. “Hats Off to Audubon.” Audubon Magazine (2004). URL: Audubon. (2 May 2006).

Rimby, Susan. "Better Housekeeping Out of Doors.” Journal of Women's History 17 (2005): 9-34.

Scott, James C. Seeing Like a State. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Shiva, Vandana. Ecology and the Politics of Survival: Conflicts Over Natural Resources in India. New Dehli and New York: Sage Publications, 1991.

Stuart, Richard. "Review of Bruce Braun, The Intemperate Rainforest: Nature, Culture, and Power on Canada's West Coast." H-Environment, H-Net Reviews, February, 2004. URL: (2 May 2006).

Udall, Sharyn. Carr, O'Keeffe, and Kahlo: Places of Their Own. New Haven, Yale University Press: 2000.

Wazeka, Robert. “Editorial.” Unasylva 146 (1984). URL: (2 May 2006).

Posted: 22 April 2007

Updated: 23 August 2007

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