FPESA Research Paper Assessment: Identity as Mothers, Appalachians Key to Environmental Justice Activism

FPESA Research Paper Assessment: Identity as Mothers, Appalachians Key to Environmental Justice Activism

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Shannon Elizabeth Bell and Yvonne A. Braun, “Coal, Identity, and the Gendering of Environmental Justice Activism in Central Appalachia,” Gender & Society, vol. 24, no. 6 (December 2010), pp. 794–813, https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243210387277.

Women in the environmental justice movement in the coalfields of central Appalachia, in the eastern United States, act in large part out of an identity as mothers, these authors argue based on 28 in-depth personal interviews with women and men in the region. (The other major influence on women’s activism is the interviewees’ strong sense of identity as “Appalachians,” based on deep roots in the region.) A commitment to solidarity with perceived masculine values and other attributes of “true manhood” discourages men from participating in the movement, the researchers found. Both women and men who were interviewed associated women’s environmental justice activism with the defense of their homes and children, while they believed that men in the region worry more about the security of their jobs and incomes and their standing with other men. Although specific to the region studied, these differences in attitude may shed light on gender differences evident in the environmental justice movement generally.

Key quotes: All quotes are from individuals interviewed, each of whom permitted the authors to use their real names.

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“As mothers of future generations of Appalachian boys and girls, we can’t allow them to steal this from our children.”

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Maria Gunnoe, whose house near a mountaintop-removal coal mine suffered a severe flood and after a later rainfall awoke to find her daughter dressed and ready to evacuate: “I found out one morning at 3:00 in the morning, it was thundering and lightning, and I go in, and I find her sitting on the edge of her bed with her shoes and her coat and her pants [on]. [Pauses, deep breath, voice cracks] And I found out then [pauses] what it was putting my daughter through. [Crying] And that is what pissed me off. How dare they steal that from my child! The security of being able to sleep in her own bed. The coal companies now own that. They now own my child’s security in her own bed. [Pauses] And how can they expect me as a mother to look over that? . . . All I wanted to do was to be a mother . . . in order for me to be a mother, and in order for me to keep my children safe, . . . I’ve had—it’s not an option—I’ve had to stand up and fight for our rights. . . . As mothers of future generations of Appalachian boys and girls, we can’t allow them to steal this from our children—it’s too precious. And it can’t be replaced. . . .”

Bill Price: “Men were the coal miners, so it’s a little harder for them to let go of that sense of, you know, this is how I put cornbread on the table.”

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“Men were the coal miners, so it’s a little harder for them to let go of that sense of, you know, this is how I put cornbread on the table.”

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Bo Webb (like Price, a rare male environmental justice activist): “For women—I think it’s a natural instinct to protect your children . . . you know, you gave birth to that child. And if someone is going to do some harm to your kids, you’re gonna rip their face off. . . . [Men] want to be in the old boys’ club. And they don’t want to mess with the status quo.”

Assessment: Based qualitatively on views expressed by just 28 women and men in one small part of the United States, this paper nonetheless contributed some of the most stimulating reading among the papers we found exploring gender connections with environmental attitudes and behavior. Although it is hard to extend these viewpoints beyond the participants’ region, this paper demonstrates that some women, and men familiar with them, connect their activism on environmental justice with motherhood—and, by extension, to healthy and successful motherhood. This opens a door to the question of how reproductive health and rights, including family planning, might relate to attitudes about the environment and the capacity to become active in such movements as environmental justice. (While some might argue that the focus of environmental justice is people rather than the environment per se, we would counter that the environmental issues involved make women’s engagement in the environmental justice movement relevant to our research.)

The authors stress that the women they interviewed had to adjust to the concept of working outside the home to defend those inside it. Family planning facilitates this type of “extra-domestic” expenditure of time and energy, we would note. It allows women to avoid unplanned births or delay planned ones that would limit their ability to take time away from parental duties. The paper also notes that around the turn of the 20th century, middle- and upper-class women “initiated and led most environmental campaigns in the United States.” If accurate, this fact could be explained in part by these women’s relatively greater capacity to manage the timing and frequency of childbearing. This paper does not explore these possible connections, however, and we have not yet identified others that do, leaving a research gap to be filled.

Banner photo: StopMTR

 

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The following annotation and assessment is excerpted from the just-released report of the Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA) project. The report contains selected annotations from 939 peer-reviewed articles reviewed for potential relevance to the hypothesis that family planning supports environmental sustainability. The annotations are written by project director Robert Engelman with input from members of the project team and, where indicated, members of the project’s international network of research assessors.

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