Earth Mothers: Women have long history as leaders in region's environmental movement

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

Michelle Madoff likes to tell how, in 1969, at the first gathering of the Group Against Smog and Pollution in her Squirrel Hill living room, she went to the kitchen to get cold drinks for everyone and returned to find she'd been elected its first president.

It's a story that may to some degree be apocryphal, but also one that highlights both the maternal nature of the environmental movement in Rachel Carson's hometown and the female leadership that persists even as it has evolved from the grass-roots, apron-string activism of the early years to something more established, professional and diverse.

"Housewives were very important in the early days. They could come to meetings, did all the work and got paid nothing," said Ms. Madoff, 82, who was the charismatic queen bee of the movement in Pittsburgh through the 1970s and then went on to be elected Pittsburgh city councilwoman from 1978 to 1993. She now lives outside Phoenix in Surprise, Ariz.

"My ammunition came from technical people at the universities, mostly men. But women were in the forefront."

In a city where the powerful have forever worn pants, Ms. Madoff and the environmental movement she helped lead pushed their way to a seat at the table with a sheaf of scientific studies in one hand and a plate of cookies, shaped like GASP's mascot, "Dirty Gertie, the poor polluted birdie," in the other.

Ms. Madoff and a full-throated procession of strong and knowledgeable female leaders used those air quality and public health study findings to argue for tighter air pollution regulations and healthier air, often using the powerful opening phrase, "As a mother ... "

According to "Citizen Environmentalists," a book by James Longhurst that examines early trends in environmentalism and citizen activism, the women of GASP were young, energized, mostly college-educated, middle-class and white, who organized in a reasonable, non-threatening way through traditional female networks in garden clubs, schools and civic organizations.

They raised money and the organization's profile by selling cans of "Clean Air" in the old Jenkins Arcade, Downtown, and cookbooks that contained recipes for party cookies side by side with those detailing how to clean up Pittsburgh's industrial pollution.

And they took advantage, Mr. Longhurst said, of the rising wave of citizen involvement in the civil rights and women's rights movements that built throughout the nation in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as new provisions in the nation's environmental laws that required public hearings and public comment periods.

"Pittsburgh wasn't unique when it comes to women's involvement in environmental and health concerns," said Mr. Longhurst, an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. "We see them arguing for the health of their family and home and against coal smoke and for clean drinking water in a lot of places, including Chicago, New York and St. Louis."

"But what was unique in Pittsburgh was the severity of the air pollution problem and the incredible scientific expertise at the universities. Add the highly motivated, highly skilled and underemployed activist women who used the language of caring for family and home, and you have activist groups credited with huge successes."

Walter Goldburg, a University of Pittsburgh physics professor emeritus and a GASP co-founder, said women had both the time and connections four decades ago to lead the region's environmental organizations.

The first three presidents of GASP and four of the first six -- Ms. Madoff, Pat Newman, Ann Cardinal and Joan Hays -- were women, even though women made up only a third of the membership.

"At the time, knowledge about the air pollution technology was almost entirely the domain of men, often male engineers at CMU, but the women had the energy and time to work on the problem," Mr. Goldburg said. "They learned the technology fast and became good writers and speakers. They were also long on courage."

The involvement of women in southwestern Pennsylvania's environmental health issues predates even the most famous crusader from the region, Rachel Carson, whose long-term concerns for the planet and seminal 1962 book, "Silent Spring," get credit for launching the modern environmental movement.

Pittsburgh's Ladies Health Protective Association organized in 1889 to combat impure water and smoke pollution, according to "Devastation and Renewal," an environmental history of the Pittsburgh region, written by Joel A. Tarr, the Caliguiri University Professor of History and Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, and published in 2005.

Mr. Tarr said another generation of Pittsburgh women formed what was known as the "Good Housekeeping Movement," which organized around health and air quality issues during the Progressive Era, a period of social activism from 1900 to 1920 during which many domestic reforms occurred.

More recently, other examples of women calling attention to environmental issues across the nation include Lois Gibbs, whose involvement began in 1978 when she discovered her son's elementary school and their entire neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y., had been built on a toxic waste dump called Love Canal, and Erin Brockovich, who in 1993 helped build a case against Pacific Gas & Electric that showed it had contaminated the aquifer under the small town of Hinkley, Calif., with toxic hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen.

In the Pittsburgh area, less famous but locally important volunteer work was done by Marie Kocoshis, a GASP president in the late 1990s who now lives in Cincinnati, and Marilyn Skolnick, the Sierra Club's air quality chairwoman. Another noteworthy environmental volunteer is Patricia Ameno, an Apollo native who founded Citizens Action for a Safe Environment in 1989 to fight for cleanup of the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Co. nuclear waste landfill and other nuclear sites in the Kiski Valley.

Also, Wyona Coleman, who died in 2006, was the Sierra Club Allegheny Group's mining chairwoman and vice president of the Tri-State Citizens Mining Network, and did much work to help pass the U.S. Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977.

Mr. Tarr said women are continuing to work and volunteer on environmental issues involving air quality, women's health and Marcellus Shale gas drilling, especially in rural and suburban areas.

Some of those include Ann McGuinn, a community volunteer with Women for a Healthy Environment; Heather Arnet of the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania; Lee Lasich, a Clairton resident and leader of the grass-roots group Residents for a Clean Healthy Mon Valley; and Lucille Prater-Holliday, president of the Action Alliance of Neighbors United, who has spoken about the link between air pollution and asthma.

"I still see today, on Marcellus Shale, women from rural and suburban families that are working on this and are still concerned about its health aspects," Mr. Tarr said.

But many environmental organizations have matured, and social, economic and professional changes have had a significant impact on environmental volunteers, reducing their ranks but creating opportunities, too, for more schooled and professionally trained women.

"Times have changed and in most households both the man and woman work. That's pushed women who care about environmental issues to get an education so that what they are working at is still something they're committed to," said Rachel Filippini, GASP's executive director, one of the organization's three full-time paid positions.

She said women working in leadership roles at paying jobs involving the environment, but not necessarily advocacy, include Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, executive director of Women for a Healthy Environment; Patricia DeMarco, director of the Rachel Carson Institute at Chatham University; Lydia Konecky and Patricia Himes at the Frick Park environmental center; Jayme Graham, head planner in the Allegheny County Health Department's Air Quality Division; Caren Glotfelty, director of the Heinz Endowments' Environmental Program; Devra Davis and Evelyn Talbott, epidemiologists at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health; Jan Jarrett, president and chief executive officer of Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future; and Joy Braunstein, the new executive director at Rachel Carson Homestead Association.

On coal issues there's Aimee Erickson at the Citizens Coal Council and Raina Ripple with the Center for Coalfield Justice. In Fayette County, Beverly Braverman and Krissy Kasserman are longtime advocates on mining and water issues with the Mountain Watershed Association.

The list is not meant to be all inclusive, but Ms. Filippini said it shows that women are filling more professional, academic and scientific positions related to the environment than they did before.

Jeanne Clark, PennFuture's communications director, said women in the environment are "professionalizing," and women not only make up most members in nonprofit organizations but also are the fastest-growing group making donations to environmental causes.

"Women donors regard the money they give to these organizations as part of their social justice work," Ms. Clark said. "As people's lives get busier it's harder to get them to join organizations but they look at the [donations] as their activism."

While family and children continue to be strong parts of the message, Ms. Clark said other groups are focusing on promoting good economic choices to help the environment.

GASP is different, too, Ms. Filippini said, more mature as an organization than it was 10 years ago when she started with the group.

"Today we have a seat at the table. We're on every board and task force about air quality there is, and we're sought out to participate because there's a realization that we have expertise and leadership on this issue," she said.

The fundraising is different, too. Gone are the cookie sales and cookbooks.

"Thank God we don't need to do that any more," she said. "I'm a terrible cook."

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983.


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?