“Voices of the Marsh: Uncovering Gender in Environmental Activism” by Hana Ferronato

Despite the mid-April snow on the ground, it was a warm day. The earth felt like a sponge beneath my step, oozing chocolate-colored water beneath the tangled weeds. Walking with me was my guide, Nancy Child, speaking softly about old memories of the marsh that she had helped to save. I am not sure how long I was mesmerized by her voice, but quite suddenly she broke my focus. “What a ruckus!” At first I did not know what she was talking about—compared to the bustling chatter of St. Olaf students in the cafeteria on a Friday afternoon (where I would normally have been) Sibley Marsh was noticeably silent. Upon entering the marsh I had immediately taken note of its location nestled in between Sibley Elementary School and an older suburban neighborhood. In my mind I had tried to “read the landscape” by observing the tension between natural and human spaces. This place told both a story of the threat of urbanization alongside the awe and wonder expressed in the large eyes of small children learning about tadpoles in their outdoor classroom. However, in my attempt to analyze the layout of the marsh, I had neglected to observe what was surrounding me.

It had been such a quiet place upon my arrival, but after hearing Nancy’s words I was forced to stop for a moment and be still. At first I became conscious of a soft but persistent chirping not unlike the sound of summer cicadas; slowly this hum intensified until I could make out individual voices—croaking of numerous leopard frogs accompanied by the melodic calls of robins and other unidentified birds. Where there was once silence was now a loud chorus of voices and activity. There is a certain sense of empowerment in being able to hear these voices, and once you start you cannot stop hearing them—they shape what the marsh is and though they had been ignored until now, they had always been a part of it.

This transformation of silence into a wild chorus of unrelenting voices humbled me, serving as a reminder that the unheard is still a force that shapes and molds. It suggested that perhaps I should do more to listen to the silence. Not unlike the marsh, history has many voices—yet so often they go unheard. The history of Sibley Marsh provides a case in which one may attune their ear to hear a story that has been traditionally marginalized: that of gender and environmentalism. The preservation of Sibley Marsh is a story of women’s leadership and initiative—a narrative that is often overshadowed in the larger history of green activism. My research attempts to show how environmental issues may be shaped by gender in several overlapping ways. In exploring this story, it is clear that gender does not create a simple or uniform experience. In some respects, Northfield women broke gendered roles while at other times their gender was used to promote their cause or in creating their understanding of nature. What is clear is that gender has been a part of this environmental history, whether acknowledged or swept under the historical table.

Image from HATPIN collection courtesy of Northfield Historical Society.

September 23, 1971. Image from HATPIN collection courtesy of Northfield Historical Society.

Housewives Alert to Pollution in Northfield (HATPIN) was founded in 1969 to deal with environmental concerns in Northfield, particularly with the introduction of recycling. It was the first environmentally conscious organization in town and as one could infer from the name, HATPIN started as an all-women’s group. Soon after its birth, HATPIN realized that the children attending Sibley Elementary School were using an adjacent marsh (with permission of the owner) to study plant life and ecology. At the urging of Paul and Marie Jensen, HATPIN members became concerned with the preservation of the marsh in face of oncoming urban development. They strongly felt that the area should be preserved in its natural state and that it should continue to be a source for environmental education. They launched a fund drive on Earth Day in April 1971 to purchase the property. After much work and collaboration with the Northfield Community Memorial Foundation and the city council, on November 12, 1971, five and a half acres of prairie and marshland were purchased and presented to the Northfield Board of Education. According to an indentured trust dated on November 11, 1971 Sibley Marsh was to be “kept as a nature preserve for scientific, educational, and aesthetic purposes.”[1]

The activism demonstrated by the women of HATPIN reflects a broader national and historic trend of female involvement in leading environmental efforts. In the late 19th century, female activists fought against the in-vogue bird-hat fashions by using gendered conceptions in the defense of the birds—they portrayed the style as violent and unfeminine.[2] This national movement successfully changed fashion trends to better align with emerging conservation ideals. Female involvement in environmental issues may also be traced back to urban and public health reforms.[3] As historian Jack E. Davis has written, “Many women’s organizations, particularly the more influential white, middle to upper class groups, integrated social concerns—child welfare, school reform, and pure-food regulations—with conservation agendas.”[4] These agendas were often justified as an extension of domestic duties or maternal values.[5] Activism was framed to fit traditionally feminine responsibilities regarding health, safety and family, which continued to inform the environmental movement throughout the 20th century. Even in the Love Canal scandal, women consciously used gendered ideology to increase media coverage by emphasizing children’s vulnerability.[6] However, critics have also taken the opportunity to dismiss female environmental activists as “overemotional” women or “hysterical housewives.”[7] This gendered reaction appeared even after the popular publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, a book that prompted President John F. Kennedy to demand for further federal investigation into the danger of pesticides. Despite this endorsement, allegations that Carson was just a “hysterical woman” appeared both in chemical and agricultural trade journals, as well as in the popular press.[8]

Around the time of the preservation of Sibley Marsh, cultural feminists were beginning to make use of an essentialist conflation of woman and nature. In the mid-1970s, ecofeminist writings claimed that women had an inherent connection with nature, and were thus uniquely equipped to speak out against environmental degradation.[9] While HATPIN’s activities must be considered in regards to this historical inheritance, it is notable that the local level does not perfectly align with macro-patterns. While a radical feminist perspective was forming during this time, the women I interviewed made no allusion to ecofeminist ideology. However, it is clear that HATPIN both used and challenged gendered conceptions to promote the preservation of the marsh.

In my conversations with past members of HATPIN, none were particularly focused on the feminist perspective but rather on the aesthetic and ecological value of nature, its importance in an environmental education, as well as its value as a resource of refuge and escape. In the words of Cynnie Buchwald, “we mainly came from a common passion to preserve a natural area.” Most of the women described previous exposure to environmental values from their parents as they were growing up. If childhood passion for the outdoors was absent, then networks of friends and families brought these women together. HATPIN was referred to fondly by past members as “a group of friends” coming together to make a difference. Some of the women expressed awareness for the broader national environmental movement, but most did not place much emphasis on it.

While gender may not have been at the forefront of these women’s minds, it certainly still played a part in the formation of HATPIN. When asked why they thought HATPIN started as a women’s group (rather than a men’s group), interviewees responded that they had had more time than their husbands. They expressed how most women during this time did not have jobs outside the home; they focused on raising their families but could fit volunteering or group meetings into their afternoon schedules when the children were at school. Gendered labor divisions thus enabled their involvement. During the formation of HATPIN, most women were self-described housewives and very few talked about either they or female friends obtaining professional careers.

It is interesting to note how class position may have played a role in the formation of this environmental group. While never explicitly addressed, it is reasonable to guess that HATPIN’s agenda was shaped by the ideals and values of its middle class constituency. The women interviewed made no mention of working class women, but did point out that most members were married and had children. Some had husbands teaching at Carleton College. While HATPIN started out with concerns about pollution, in the end it was largely focused on preservation in the face of suburbanization. The sense of urgency to protect a “natural” space seems to suggest that nature provided an escape from development. This sentiment is echoed in Cynnie Buchwald’s running column “The World of Nature in Northfield” on August 4, 1977 as she describes feeling “angry to see the big machinery at the edge of what I have considered a retreat [Sibley Marsh].” While it is beyond the scope of this piece, it is worth noting that this perspective may be a uniquely middle-upper class concern as manifested in the larger “back to nature” movement.

Beyond questions of class, it is clear that their positions as women enabled HATPIN members more availability to become involved in activism. While the formation of the group was influenced by gender, the focus of HATPIN on the use of the marsh by Sibley Elementary School for education also plays into traditional ideas surrounding femininity and motherhood. Many old members of HATPIN admitted thinking of the interest of their children when becoming involved in the preservation of the marsh. While many members had a personal passion for nature, it is clear that their positions as mothers also influenced their involvement. Corinne Heiberg urged that environmental education should “be a part of every school,” conveying a larger belief in the importance of having children understand, take care of and nurture nature. Describing HATPIN’s efforts to foster an environmental ethic, Corinne spoke with pride when recounting the behavior of a high school group that went to visit Holden Village—they never stepped off the path, aware that it could take hundreds of years for the delicate vegetation to recover. This focus on developing an environmental consciousness in youth fits with the traditional conception of women as moral and nurturing characters—indeed, motherhood may be considered one’s most important duty. “By tending to children’s moral education, Woman maintained the morals of all American society.”[10] HATPIN’s emphasis on an environmental education thus fulfills this gendered conception regarding the role of mothers in instilling ecological ethics and morality.

Though HATPIN may have conformed to particular gender norms, it did provoke varied reactions within the Northfield community. In general, the women described feeling that their actions were welcomed in the community, and that once the funding was acquired there was relative ease in acquiring the marsh. Several mentioned Maggie Lee, a sympathetic staff member of the local newspaper who generously provided publicity for HATPIN’s efforts. However, several comments pointed to a more subtle story. When asked about any resistance HATPIN might have faced, Nancy Child remarked that she did not remember much but that “there might have been something about it being an all-women’s group.” Early in an interview Nancy Cantwell said, “nobody really questioned it…but I suppose a lot of jokes were made about it.” Later on she admitted that people “disregarded it, laughed at it, or thought it was a great idea.”  However, Corinne Heiberg remembers that the emergence of a women-led group led to some surprise. In particular, she recounted how Cy Sorghum (a columnist for Northfield News) bluntly expressed that he could not believe a woman was capable of leading HATPIN as well as the Elm Tree Project. Heiberg admitted that while well meaning, Sorghum was a “chauvinist of that era” who often gave snarky commentary on the activities of the group. It is clear that to an extent gender did shape the community’s perception of HATPIN’s activities and legitimacy. Eventually HATPIN did allow men into the group, changing their name from “housewives” to “households.” However, this does not erase the legacy of female participation and activism represented by the formation and efforts of HATPIN. Clearly, gendered conceptions played a role in the preservation of Sibley Marsh, whether through initial group membership, professed values and goals, as well as within the reactions of the community towards HATPIN.

SAMSUNGGender has always played a part in environmentalism, though how it has been manifested or used has changed over time. Sibley Marsh enables us to see how traditional ideas of maternal and domestic responsibilities translated into a feminized environmental agenda, but simultaneously broke gender norms of female passivity as women pushed their way into the public sphere. The marsh was not just an ecological location, but also a social and political tool that could be used to work with and against gender normatives.

As my walk in the marsh revealed, one can learn to hear the voices that were once ignored. I can still remember Nancy Child’s youthful curiosity and wonder as she showed me the bright neon blades of grass hidden by the dry, brown brush. Before there had been nothing but dead winter weeds, but a closer look revealed the first signs of spring—reflecting upon my research, I am struck by how vital it is to see the invisible and hear the voices within the silence. You can learn so much just by listening.

[1] “Sibley Marsh and Prairie,” http://nfld.k12.mn.us/sibley/about/marsh/.

[2] Jennifer Price, Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 57-109.

[3] Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 157-172.

[4] Jack E. Davis, “Conservation is Now a Dead Word: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the Transformation of American Environmentalism.” Environmental History 8 (2003): 56.

[5] Adam Rome, “Political Hermaphrodites”: Gender and Environmental Reform in Progressive America.” Environmental History 11 (2006): 440-463.

[6] Barry Ross Muchnick, “Love Canal Revisited: Race, Class, and Gender in Environmental Activism.” Environmental History 14 (2009): 578.

[7] Steinberg, Down to Earth, 254-255.

[8] Mark Stoll, “Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, A Book That Changed the World.” Environment & Society Portal, last modified 2012, accessed May 14, 2013. http://www.environmentandsociety.org/exhibitions/silent-spring/overview

[9] Jill Ker Conway and Yaakov Garb, “Gender, Environment, and Nature: Two Episodes in Feminist Politics,” in Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Humanistic Studies of the Environment, edited by Jill Ker Conway et al. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), 6-9.

[10] Price, Flight Maps, 67.

Works Cited

Buchwald, Cynnie. Interview by Hana Ferronato. Digital recording. Northfield, MN, April 25, 2013.

Cantwell, Nancy. Interview by Hana Ferronato, Jessica Guzman and Lizzie Carlson. Digital recording. Northfield, MN, April 22, 2013.

Child, Nancy. Interview by Hana Ferronato. Digital recording. Northfield, MN, April 26, 2013.

Conway, Jill Ker and Yaakov Garb. “Gender, Environment, and Nature: Two Episodes in Feminist Politics.” In Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Humanistic Studies of the Environment, edited by Jill Ker Conway, Kenneth Keniston, and Leo Marx. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.

Davis, Jack E. “Conservation is Now a Dead Word: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the Transformation of American Environmentalism.” Environmental History 8 (2003): 53-76.

“HATPIN’s campaign to obtain Sibley Marsh began on Earth Day.” Northfield News. April 16, 2003. Accessed May 6, 2013.http://www.southernminn.com/northfield_news/archives/article_e0a39718-7efe-5454-b9da-d0ee33185583.html

Heiberg, Corinne. Interview by Hana Ferronato and Jessica Guzman. Digital recording. Northfield, MN, April 29, 2013.

“Maggie recalls continued importance of HATPIN to all of us.” Northfield News. April 9, 2003. Accessed May 6, 2013. http://www.southernminn.com/northfield_news/archives/article_492038d5-e077-5324-840c-f7d23fa79c2e.html

Muchnick, Barry Ross. “Love Canal Revisited: Race, Class, and Gender in Environmental Activism.” Environmental History 14 (2009): 577-579.

Northfield Public Schools. “Sibley Marsh and Prairie.” Accessed May 6, 2013. http://nfld.k12.mn.us/sibley/about/marsh/

Price, Jennifer. Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Rome, Adam. “Political Hermaphrodites”: Gender and Environmental Reform in Progressive America.” Environmental History 11 (2006): 440-463.

Steinberg, Ted. Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Stoll, Mark. “Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, A Book That Changed the World.” Environment & Society Portal. Last modified 2012. Accessed May 14, 2013. http://www.environmentandsociety.org/exhibitions/silent-spring/overview

One thought on ““Voices of the Marsh: Uncovering Gender in Environmental Activism” by Hana Ferronato

  1. Thank you for your well-written, informative narrative. You understood the goals of HATPIN to preserve Sibley Marsh Prairie as a valuable outdoor classroom.
    I still wonder what the current state of environmental education is in the Northfield elementary schools.

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