Mothers of the Movement: Rachel Carson and Her Sisters
You may have heard of Rachel Carson, but have you heard the story of Martha Maxwell? Maxwell married a miner 20 years her senior and followed him through the west, panning for gold. When their claim was jumped by a German taxidermist she was inspired to pursue taxidermy and began shooting and stuffing animals on her own, building a large collection of species, from foxes to bighorn sheep, which she displayed at museums around the country. A staunch vegetarian she addressed those who would call her a hypocrite by asking, “Which is the more cruel? To kill to eat? Or to kill to immortalize?”
Maxwell is just one of many inspiring women profiled in Robert Musil’s book Rachel Carson and Her Sisters. Musil had several goals in writing this book. One was to contextualize Silent Spring as the culmination of decades of work by other women in science, who were consistently overlooked, underappreciated and dismissed by their male peers and institutions.
These ladies ranged from Victorian garden observers to die-hard chemists and marine biologists. “They are tied together by a fierce sense of activism” and beautiful writing, says Musil. Compelling writers like Rachel Carson and Terry Tempest Williams bred curiosity and bridged the civilian-scientist gap by presenting scientific evidence in a ‘readable’ format. Indeed, their writing is what drew Musil in. He too wants “people to connect with science in an approachable way.”
These women were not writing for the sake of writing, they all had political motivations.
One of Musil's most intriguing subjects is Ellen Swallow Richards, the first woman admitted to MIT. She quickly established herself in chemistry and focused on sanitation. Not one to mince words, she accused the American Public Health Association of murder for their shoddy upkeep of Boston Public Schools, which until then, had no ventilation or clean toilets. This speech rendered her unemployable, but she continued to teach chemistry and lobby for better sanitation in schools despite being blacklisted.
Women like Richards and Maxwell shattered the idea of the lady as a ‘shrinking violet.' Their dogged activism paved the way for Carson’s crusade against pesticides, argues Musil. Carson’s work has opened the doors for countless other female environmental activists.
Rachel Carson and Her Sisters is a Rutgers University Press publication and is available on bookshelves and as an ebook now.
--top image courtesy of The Colorado Women's Hall of Fame, the second courtesy of Robert Musil and the third courtesy of The Vassar College Observatory