In the 1980s and '90s, Britain's Greenham Common protests against cruise missiles symbolized the power of feisty women to champion a cause.
After a brief, reactionary lull, women campaigners are once again intent on being at the vanguard of the fight to save the earth. London-based charity Women's Environmental Network (WEN) works exclusively for women and the environment. It takes the view that women are most likely to be affected by any environmental damage and the most motivated to do anything about it.
"For many women, their environmental awakening comes when they have children. They begin to think about the kind of world they are bringing their children into," says WEN spokeswoman Liz Sutton. "I think there is a resurgence in women's activism. There is a new generation of younger women that is realizing that despite all the supposed equality, it's still a very unequal world. They are getting angry again and that has combined with growing interest in the environment."
Instead of patrons, WEN has a group of matrons who include politicians and media personalities. One of them is Penney Poyzer, presenter of a BBC television programme, 'No Waste Like Home', who has guided her audiences on how to save money by living a greener lifestyle. She is aiming for a lifetime of raising the profile of her cause. "My concern grows as to what state our planet will be in when my grandchild reaches 50," she says. "In 50 years, I hope to be an active, annoying 95-year-old, still campaigning and still annoying the marketing men."
WEN was started in 1988 by a group of environmental campaigners - including Anita Roddick (founder of Body Shop, retailer of ethical beauty products) - who felt women's concerns were being overlooked within the wider green movement. The organization decided to focus on the practical differences women can make towards the environment. Among its successes is the "Real Nappy Week", which raised awareness about the environmental impact of disposable nappies and "Wrapping is a Rip Off", a campaign to increase the pressure on supermarkets to minimize packaging.
At the same time, it is also fighting to widen women's sphere of influence, as well as to increase its own clout by drawing in more members. Despite the fact that, currently, the organization has only 2,000 members, the 40,000 hits on its website every month suggest it has the potential to grow significantly.
Earlier this year, WEN teamed up with Britain's largest women's organization, National Federation of Women's Institutes (NFWI). The NFWI brings together more than 200,000 members, spread across 6,800 separate Women's Institutes in the UK that campaign on issues important to women and their communities, including the environment.
"Women have the power to be hugely influential in tackling climate change. NFWI members are informed and want to make a difference," said NFWI Chair Fay Mansell in a statement. In May this year, the two organizations produced the Women's Manifesto on Climate Change, which concluded that women had a vital role in tackling climate change as consumers, educators and "change agents" in homes, but noted their importance was not matched by their representation.
Accordingly, it urged the government to involve women more in decision-making, so that policies on climate change reflect women's ideas and priorities. The manifesto also included the findings of a survey of more than 500 women carried out in February and March this year.
Eighty per cent of women questioned were very concerned about climate change and 85 per cent of them were concerned about the effects of climate change on future generations. The vast majority was already making significant efforts, with 98 per cent recycling, 87 per cent minimizing the use of plastic bags and excess packaging, and 86 per cent being more energy-efficient in their homes.
Though the survey did not take into account views of men, other research suggests women are the more environmentally friendly sex. For instance, a survey of 3,000 consumers by UK-based Emap Advertising, carried out in February, found that 84 per cent of women, compared with only 68 per cent of men, were worried about climate change. Successive research has shown that women have very sound reasons for being more anxious than men are. As they are more likely to be poor, women are also the most exposed to anything, right from rising energy costs to the natural disasters that can result from climate change.
In Britain alone, one million more women live in poverty than men, according to British government statistics. In the world as a whole, 70 per cent of the world's poor are women, according to figures quoted by WEN from academic research, and 85 per cent of those who die in climate-induced natural disasters are women.
Their heightened environmental concern might well be linked to their natural role as care-givers, but it could just be a matter of self-preservation.