Gender and Environmental History

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to respond to a 'provocation' by Austrian environmental historian Verena Winiwarter about the place of gender in environmental history for the White Horse Press Blog. This was my response: 

 The New York branch of the national group Women Strike for Peace mobilised around the issue of chemical contamination of milk from nuclear testing, raising awareness and staging consumer boycotts. Image Info: Women Strike for Peace, 1962; New York SANE, 1964, Courtesy Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Women Strike for Peace Records and SANE, Inc. Records. Available:  Activist New York, 2017 .

The New York branch of the national group Women Strike for Peace mobilised around the issue of chemical contamination of milk from nuclear testing, raising awareness and staging consumer boycotts. Image Info: Women Strike for Peace, 1962; New York SANE, 1964, Courtesy Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Women Strike for Peace Records and SANE, Inc. Records. Available: Activist New York, 2017.

‘Where is gender in environmental history?’ That’s the question that my Australian colleague Katie Holmes and I pondered last year. Three decades after Carolyn Merchant’s provocative 1990 article on gender and environment in the Journal of American History, it remains an under-developed area of inquiry. There is even less in work on gender and technology in environmental history. Keen to contribute something on this theme, and to find out who else was interested in the role of gender in environmental history, we circulated a call for panellists to join us at the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) conference in Zagreb. We tentatively titled the panel, ‘Gender, Technology and Environmental History’, and hoped to stimulate a discussion about gender in environmental history by focusing on the intersections of gender and technology, and their environmental consequences.

We waited. And we waited. We were surprised (and even a little bit embarrassed) that only one person responded to our call. Perhaps this lack of interest was because colleagues working on these themes might have already found other avenues for their research, or were not intending to travel to Zagreb, or preferred to present with people they already knew. But still!

By the time the conference began, we were back to where we started – just the two of us. Thankfully our panel chair, the indefatigable Dolly Jørgensen, kindly agreed to act as a discussant of our papers. In our papers, we both studied the role of masculinity in agriculture and irrigation engineering in Australia at the turn of the twentieth century. We aimed to illuminate the tangled web of relationships between technological knowledge, ideas about environmental control and nation building, and the impact of mechanized labour on the bodies of men and the environments in which they worked. But would anyone come to listen?

I am happy to report that, yes, they did. We were pleasantly surprised to find that our fellow environmental historians from Europe and North America were interested in our panel after all. And they wanted to know more – not just about the Australian context in general, but also how histories of masculinity were related to histories of women, femininity, motherhood, nationhood, and domesticity. They asked about the place of whiteness and race in our work, and identified similarities with their own work on household energy use, migration, and the Anthropocene.

Certainly, we were comforted by our colleagues’ enthusiasm and engagement. But the question remained, where was gender? No other panels at the ESEH were explicitly focused on ‘gender’. No other papers referred to terms such as gender, women, femininity or masculinity in their titles. The only reference to gender across the entire conference program was the Women’s Environmental History Network reception, sponsored by the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH).

But it’s not just women who need to think about gender in their professional lives and in their research. Gender analysis is a project for all of us studying environmental history.