Rachel Carson's Legacy and Today's Green Ceiling for Women's Leadership

Women have long played a pivotal role in environmental conservation in America, yet far too few women today hold top leadership positions in America's environmental and conservation organizations.
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Women have long played a pivotal role in environmental conservation in America, yet far too few women today hold top leadership positions in America's environmental and conservation organizations. It's especially disappointing when you consider that Rachel Carson is one of the three most important and influential figures in American conservation history, along with Sierra Club founder John Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Carson's death and an appropriate opportunity to recognize the remarkable legacy of this iconic environmentalist and bestselling author. It's also a time to recall that her national leadership emerged during the 1950's when American women were given little credence for their professional opinions -- particularly about science.

Carson's first book, The Sea Around Us, published in 1951, won the National Book Award, was on The New York Times Best Seller List for 86 weeks and has been translated into 28 languages. But it was Carson's seminal book, Silent Spring, published in 1962, that transformed the nation and the world.

Carson's clear scientific data and steadfast voice greatly affected the American people and created a first-time dialogue about environmental concerns at office water-coolers and suburban kitchen tables. Her work even catalyzed an unprecedented Presidential Commission on the Environment established by John F. Kennedy. Americans, for the first time, were alerted to untold dangers of pesticides being used in the world around them, affecting water quality, air purity and food toxicity. Silent Spring stunned the American public with the prospect of serious long-term damage to human health and mobilized thousands to counteract these threats.

As CNN reported on the history of the environmental movement, "Silent Spring ... lit the spark." The decade following its publication saw enactment of the Clean Air Act (1963) and Air Quality Act (1967); the founding of Friends of the Earth (1969), Earth Day (1970), the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), the Natural Resources Defense Council (1970), Greenpeace (1971) and enactment of the Clean Water Act (1972).

But five decades after Rachel Carson's death, despite the enormous legacy of influence she brought to bear, women are still under-represented in top positions in American environmental organizations. A recent review of 41 leading environmental or conservation organizations revealed that just seven women serve as CEOs and only 11 are Board Chairs.

Does a green ceiling exist for women hoping to mobilize upward within organizations and Boards devoted to American conservation? Has the prominence of Rachel Carson not translated into opportunities for American women environmentalists at the top of our organizations devoted to the environment? Isn't it time that executive search committees and non-profit environmental managers widen the net and look more closely at the tremendous talent that exists among American women environmentalists?

In addition to Carson, American women have led some of the most important environmental battles of our time. Consider Harriet Hemingway who, with three other women over one hundred years ago, founded the National Audubon Society, now with 500 chapters and over one million members. Or Marjory Stoneman Douglas who made her life's work a battle to save the Florida Everglades, one of the largest sub-tropical wetlands in the world and today the source of drinking water for eight million south Floridians. Or Mardy Murie, the "Grandmother of American Conservation," whose efforts contributed to the preservation of over 20 million acres of Alaskan wilderness. American women have delivered these and other extraordinary achievements, yet in 2014 where is their representation at the top as environmental non-profit CEOs and Board Chairs?

One light that exists among the darkness is the recent appointment of Jaime Berman Matyas, President and CEO of the Student Conservation Association (SCA), now the eighth woman to lead a major American environmental organization. Proposed as a modern-day version of the 1930's Civilian Conservation Corps, founder Elizabeth Titus Putnam (another great American woman environmentalist) created the SCA in 1957. It is now the single greatest provider of conservation volunteers in the nation's parks, and this year it reached the extraordinary milestone of having inspired 75,000 young Americans in total to volunteer with SCA. Additionally, of SCA's alumni, some 70 percent go on to conservation-related careers -- another testament to the vast impact of a woman on a mission originating in the 1950's.

In this tradition, Jaime Matyas joins the significant legacy of female environmental achievement in America. She represents the on-going effort of American women everywhere striving to maintain a continuum of good will and effort on behalf of the environmental movement, a movement where a professional green glass ceiling is quietly maintained but must be revealed and ultimately broken.

The author is former Chair of the Board of the Student Conservation Association and Founding Chair of the National Audubon Society's Women in Conservation Program.

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