Visionary Science, Ethics, Law and Action in the Public Interest

A Women’s Congress for Future Generations: Women’s Voices as an Ecological Matter

Carolyn Raffensperger

By Carolyn Raffensperger

In almost every field of influence in the United States men hold more positions of power and often by significant percentage points. Women’s voices are silenced in most political spheres. The question is what difference does that make? On occasion I have been told that I should take a back seat to my male counterparts because they are more credible spokespeople on the environment than I am as a woman. If so, then my stepping back is a service to the Earth and future generations. On the other hand, what if I and other women have something to be said that is different than men and what if that voice is necessary in some way for the protection of the Earth?

The emerging field of acoustic ecology has shown that a healthy ecology has a full and complete symphony of sound. A damaged ecosystem has holes and gaps in the vast sonogram. From coral reefs to prairies to forests, healthy ecosystems are full of sound that varies by time of day and season.

Imagine that the health of the political ecology is also measured by sound. If that is true, we know what is missing: women’s voices. By any indicator women’s voices are missing in media, higher education, science and the environmental movement.

Most of the time the absence of women’s voices is described in political terms like patriarchy, feminism, inequality. But it is also an ecological matter. A woman’s voice in those higher octaves has a different place and function in the cultural landscape. The lullabies, warnings, songs, joys, are different than those of our beloved male friends, family and allies.

At the Women’s Congress for Future Generations (cosponsored by SEHN) we believe we can help restore the ecology of the Earth and of the culture by restoring women’s voices. We believe men and women are both necessary, and equally so. Equality is a central theme in social justice work of all flavors. But equality doesn’t mean “the same”.  The planning team of the Women’s Congress is running an experiment. What if women have a unique responsibility as the first environment, the sanctuary, for future generations? Can we speak out of that authority?  We believe that women claiming that authority and acting out of it on behalf of future generations is to assert a power on behalf of future generations of women and men, of nature, of future generations. It is to fill that ecological niche that is uniquely and beautifully women’s.

We have invited men to participate in this experiment by being sacred witnesses. We seek a fierce and elegant equality that allows all voices at the table.

The implications of this are not just about the things that women say, but the things that women do. Can the preparation, serving and eating of food be integral to the very fabric of the Congress? Traditionally cooking has been separate from the rest of valued work in large part because it is women’s work. Can every ripe tomato and every ear of corn be offered with the same respect as the next legal idea? We know at a visceral level that food is sacred. It is harder to see the law as sacred. What would the law look like if it was born out of that authority of women speaking as the first environment for future generations? Similarly, if women put their bodies on the line in direct action, would that look different than the kind of direct action that has been used in the civil rights movement and the climate justice movement?

We don’t know the answers to these questions yet. But we believe that a civil rights movement for future generations will be galvanized by finding answers. Our male allies in the social justice movement have voices that are so deep and so beautiful. We are thrilled by the possibility of having women’s voices soar with the descant that only they can sing. We will work together in concert for a whole and health world.

A coda.

My friend Ilene Evans, historian, singer, storyteller, told me that at the time of the Civil War women said that the soul of the nation was at stake.  Women were not able to vote.  They couldn’t own property.  They were disenfranchised.  But women presided over the dinner table.  They saw that every child, black or white, needed enough to eat.  It was the conversations over those meals that changed the politics of the day.

The soul of the nation and the fate of the Earth is again at stake.


  1. Marie Chan says:

    Carolyn, I am inspired by your vision to elevate women’s voices in the ecological landscape. Thank you for your leadership and dedication.


  2. Monica Perez Nevarez says:

    Dear Carolyn,
    In the search for environmental heroines you set me on, I came across the Forbes 100 most powerful Women list. There were heads of state, politicians, entrepreneurs, CEO’s, heiresses, self-made billionaires, but not one single powerful woman dedicated to saving the environment. (Angela Merkel comes close, but she’s a politician first).

    It struck me as an opportunity to identify these women as potential future supporters if a concerted effort were made to reach out to them. It also struck me as an opportunity for the women already in our circle of allies to think of ways each one of us could become somewhat more ‘powerful’ (visible?) within the mainstream culture, in order to better attract more interest from the community for our cause. This would be a great topic of discussion. Thank you for your article!!

  3. Dear Carolyn,
    I realized only a few days ago – in my 63rd year on the planet, that a big part of the reason that I have never felt threatened by or better or lessor than women in my working and other relationships is tied directly back to the environment in which I was raised. I had the gift of an intelligent, creative, loving, competent, politically and socially active and articulate mother and an intelligent, creative, loving, competent, politically and socially active and articulate father. There relationship was a true partnership. There was no power struggle between them, no attempt by either to dominate or command the other, and similarly, none toward their children. I grew up without knowledge of the misogyny and sexism that is so common, though I was very aware, because of my parents’ activism in civil rights and their diverse friends and colleagues of racism in all its forms. It wasn’t until I started seeing and experiencing it that I realized that there are many men who are afraid of women. They seem to be afraid of women’s power, afraid and angry at the prospect that a woman might be as good or better than they are, might bring a different perspective, might introduce caring and reverence and love – love of life and of children that might not even be their own – into discussions and decision-making processes. I have great respect and gratitude for strong women, brilliant women, outspoken women, courageous women. I am grateful for you, Carolyn, for your voice, vision, heart, fierce adherence to what is true and what is just and healthy for all beings – those here now and those yet to be born.

    It is my hope that someday most, if not all, men will mature beyond their adolescent fear of women into the ability see them as different but equal partners in all endeavors – not prejudged as inferior or superior because of their gender. This would be a blessing with beautiful consequences stretching far into the future.