March is Women’s History Month. It was 100 years ago this month that women marched in Washington, D.C., demanding equal voting rights. The suffragists’ struggle resulted in the 19th Amendment, making the left out half of the population a full part of the political process.
Equally important has been the work of women toward environmental conservation. A look at the history of the 20th century shows that beyond the standard knowledge which most people remember from high school, there are great stories of women playing a crucial role in the events.
For example, the search for prominent polar explorer Roald Amundsen, who disappeared while himself on a search mission for Umberto Nobile, the Arctic aircraft pioneer. It was Louise Arner Boyd, a private citizen from California, who led the 1928 expedition in icy waters to rescue Amundsen.
After more than two months of search in challenging conditions, the project had to be called off. But in the process, Boyd produced a huge amount of priceless film footage and photography, documenting conditions in the Arctic and contributing to our understanding of this unique environment. The government of Norway awarded her the order of St. Olaf, First Class.
Her later contributions to earth science included film and photo documentaries as well as mapping expeditions, supplying precise surveys of previously uncharted lands. Even today, a glacier valley is named Weisboydlund, or “Miss Boyd Land,” an honor bestowed on her by the Danish government.
On the warmer side of the world, environmental degradation was reaching critical mass in the 1970s. Clearcutting of forests, the resulting soil erosion and the pollution of drinking water sources were especially bad in Kenya.
It fell to one woman, Wangari Maathai, to initiate a multinational movement that would ultimately reverse the trend. Her “Green Belt” project planted more than 40 million trees in an area of Africa that was plagued by drought and threatened by “desertification.” That’s a process in which a former woodland slowly turns into desert, losing its topsoil and becoming infertile and uninhabitable.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sunday and at gainesvilletimes.com.