Steve Haycox: Alaska women have played vital role in conservation

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

Pioneers of Alaska and the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies held an unusual event in Homer recently, "Meet the People," where women who had come to the community decades ago shared stories of their Homer lives. The event was unusual because most pioneer stories are about men.

Women often do not get their due. Republicans in the U.S. Senate this past week, for the third time, blocked passage of the Fair Paycheck Act, designed to equalize pay for equal work. When men and women with the same experience are paid differentially for the same job, women have a just complaint. Perhaps a majority today would agree that generally women are not treated equally, and often suffer gender discrimination. Yet some assert that such discrimination is appropriate, claiming various deficiencies in women, or argue that men and women have different roles, and that male roles are more important.

To strengthen the few, often unenforceable, laws prohibiting unequal treatment of women, in 1972 feminist leaders persuaded the U.S. Congress to pass an equal rights amendment to the Constitution. The Alaska legislature ratified the ERA less than a month after it passed the Congress, the tenth state to ratify. But ratification fell three states short of the required 38, even with a three-year extension. Five states later rescinded their ratification, Alaska not among them.

Women certainly have made gains. There are today 102 women serving in the 113th Congress, 20 in the Senate (16 Democrats, 4 Republicans), 82 in the House (63D, 19R); in the 92nd Congress in 1972 there were 15. The list of women in cabinet and leadership positions in the Obama administration is long. The possibility of a woman who is more than symbolic as a candidate for president looms large on the political horizon.

Though they are less common as business leaders, women hold 4.6 percent of CEO positions in companies in the Fortune 500. But there is unfinished business.

Events such as the Homer "Meet the People" are important in advancing women's equality. In historical accounts, women have been more ignored than recognized, and their roles often poorly understood. An example is the role of women in the rise of modern environmentalism, between 1956 and 1980.

The men in the major conservationist organizations that lobbied the 1964 Wilderness Act, the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (which established the EPA), and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980 (ANILCA) through Congress are somewhat known: Howard Zahniser and Stewart Brandborg of the Wilderness Society, David Brower and Edgar Wayburn of the Sierra Club.

Virtually unknown is the critical work of such national women leaders as Cathleen Douglas Stone, an indefatigable lobbyist, Cynthia Wilson of the Audubon Society who was central in organizing the Alaska Coalition, and those like Sally Kabisch who helped manage Sierra Club's Washington office, then moved to Alaska.

Alaskans have fared better. Mardy Murie, Fairbanksan and first woman graduate of the University of Alaska, was named "Grandmother of the Conservation Movement" by both the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society for her work on the Wilderness Act, NEPA and ANILCA, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Founders of the Alaska Conservation Society Celia Hunter and Ginny Wood, who established Camp Denali, are virtual icons of Alaska environmentalism; Hunter was the first woman president of the Wilderness Society.

Much less known is the work of women such as Mark Ganopole of Anchorage who organized the group that produced the first detailed maps of proposals for ANILCA, and who served on the Sierra Club's national board, and also Pam Rich of Friends of the Earth. There were many others, including those who organized and held together the Alaska Conservation Society and the Alaska Center for the Environment: Tina Stonorov, Dee Frankforth, Helen Nienhauser, Odette Foster, Sharon Cissna, Mary Pat Brudie, Peg Tileston, Lanie Fleischer, Barbara Caraway, and in southeast Dixie Baade, noting only some.

Without their dedicated, selfless work, the map of Alaska would be far different today.

Many women continue environmental work in Alaska. Events such as Homer's "Meet the People" help raise awareness of women's historical roles as planners, organizers and executors, both in and outside the home, and thus authenticate and legitimize women in public consciousness.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.