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Environmental History

Environment And Gender

One sign that environmental history is still an evolving field is an awareness of gaps in coverage of its subject matter. As William Cronon notes, environmental historians need to do more "to probe below the level of the group to explore the implications of social division.… In the face of social history's classic categories of gender, race, class, and ethnicity, environmental history stands much more silent than it should" (cited in Jacobs, p. 17). It is not enough to document the role of irrigated rice production in South Asian economies, Americans' changing perceptions of nature, or the benefits to Argentina of commercial wheat and beef production. One must always ask who dug or maintained irrigation works and who appropriated the harvest; who wrote and read books on wilderness; and which Argentines owned or worked the fields and factories.

Analyzing class and race or ethnic relations in these and other settings clearly strengthens environmental history, as recent studies show. Perhaps the most crucial analytical category for environmental history is gender, and not only because this "minority" actually comprises a majority of humankind. Past discussions of gender and environment mythologized men as hunters or exploiters of nature and females as mothers, nurturers, and protectors of nature, with the latter an especially problematic class-and race-based notion. Merchant provides much data on women's work in New England agriculture and industry, but this issue emerges still more clearly when examining the lives of women beyond modern Europe and America. For the vast majority of non-Western women, living with nature involves hard, unrelenting work: fetching water and wood for fuel, growing and preparing food, craft and commodity production to generate income, in addition to the demands of childcare. Enjoying nature's beauty is an unaffordable luxury in such circumstances. One recent study does much to bridge the gap in understanding by revealing the history of women in U.S. national parks, with a strong oral history component linking their activities as tourists and conservation advocates to professional careers as National Park Service employees. As Kaufman shows, accurately reconstructing past lives requires using sophisticated and multilayered levels of analysis.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Electrophoresis (cataphoresis) to EphemeralEnvironmental History - Development Of The Field, What Is Environmental History?, Interdisciplinary Methods, Environment And Gender, Genre, Scale, And Narrative