Besieged or Emboldened: Women’s and Environmental Movements under the Trump Administration

By: TANJA SREBOTNJAK, Director of the Hixon Center

The 2016 presidential campaign was full of headline-grabbing stories about the war on women and the environment that a Trump Administration would wage. President Trump’s appointees to key positions at the Departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other agencies are certainly increasing my level of anxiety and frustration.

Moreover, I feel that as a woman and an environmental advocate, my opinions and hopes are not only under attack on both fronts, but also that these threats align to form a even more significant hybrid. The likely reason for my impression may be found in the fact that women have consistently expressed greater support for strong environmental protections and concerted action on climate change.

According to a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center, 83% of women versus 66% of men in the U.S. view climate change as a serious problem. The gender gap widens further when asked whether they believe that climate change will harm them personally: 69% of women versus 48% of men. Thus, not surprisingly, women call for more action and major lifestyle changes to solve the problem (75% versus 57%), whereas men tend to rely on technological solutions alone.

These differences cannot solely be explained by political affiliation. While 52% of women identify as Democrat, the party more strongly advocating for environmental and climate protection, 44% of men do as well. The question is thus what other factors tend to motivate women to care more about the environment?

Research shows that the environmental attitudes and resource use patterns are shaped by gender (see references below). While individual theories such as eco-feminism, ecological feminism and feminist political ecology differ in their frameworks and approaches, there is agreement that women traditionally, and in many developing economies continue to, have the responsibility to feed their families by working in the fields, collect water and gather fuel wood. At the same time they often are denied the right to own the land, the tools to farm it and the access to credit to invest and increase their productivity. This gender inequality places women in the vulnerable position to secure the family’s survival without the ability to make long-term decisions and investments. The division of labor also means that women tend to accumulate detailed knowledge of crops, soil conditions, optimal crop rotation patterns and more – knowledge that connects them closer to their environment and promotes sustainable land management practices. Men, in contrast, are more likely to seek jobs in cities and to view land and natural resources as tradable commodities and less as a livelihood.

In industrialized countries such as the U.S., agricultural automation and large-scale farming have led to dwindling employment, and property rights are equally accessible to men and women. However, gender roles with respect to raising children and caring for family members have shifted to a far lesser extent, allowing for continued differences in the ways women and men perceive environmental and climate change.

Scholars also point to the persistent lack of gender parity in decision-making positions in government and business, which prevents women from articulating and implementing their perspectives on environmental issues to the same extent as men. And as men continue to dominate these positions of power, so will their attitudes towards controlling nature and exploiting it primarily for economic gain as opposed to creating a more gender-balanced systemic identity around protecting and cooperating with nature. Case in point are the Scandinavian countries, where strong feminist and women’s movements developed greater participatory opportunities for women after World War II. These movements helped improve gender parity, and with it the integration of naturalism and sustainable economic systems into policymaking across the political spectrum.

Returning to the U.S., the risk of losing hard-fought progress on gender equality (e.g., reduced gender gaps in pay and power, access to free family planning resources and women’s health screenings) and watching the Trump Administration’s emerging assault on environmental protections and climate change policies, I’m probably not the only woman who perceives that a dual attack on my identity and beliefs is emerging.

Yet, I also draw hope from research on women and the environment: looking at how the feminist agenda reignited and once more spread from its intellectual corners into the mainstream since the presidential campaign and how environmental groups are gearing up for their biggest fights yet, I believe that these two formidable forces can join ranks and become too significant for the Administration to ignore. Then, perhaps there might actually be an opportunity to create a new societal identity around gender empowerment in coexistence with nature.


More resources on women and the environment:

Agarwal, B. (Spring 1992). “The gender and environment debate: lessons from India”. Feminist Studies. 18 (1). doi:10.2307/3178217. JSTOR 3178217.

Agarwal, B. (2000). “Conceptualising environmental collective action: why gender matters” (PDF). Cambridge Journal of Economics. 24 (3): 283–310. doi:10.1093/cje/24.3.283.

Jiggins, J. (2004). Changing the boundaries: Women-centered perspectives on population & the environment. Covelo, Ca: Island Press.

Schultz, I., Hummel, D., Empacher, C., Kluge, T., Lux, A., Schramm, E., Schubert, S., Stiess, I.(2001). Research on gender, the environment, and sustainable development. Studies on Gender Impact Assessment of the Programmes of the 5th Framework Programme for Research, Technological Development and Demonstration.

Shiva, Vandana. The Impoverishment of the Environment: Women and Children Last. Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology (Fourth Edition). 2005. Pearson Education Inc. Upper Saddle River, NJ.