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Women's Leadership in Climate Activism

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

Ever since the impressive actions of the Suffragettes in the early 20th century, a standard has been set for women activists. Women have occupied key positions in every social movement; be it anti-war movements, revolutionary protests in Arab countries or the fight against racism and police brutality. Although their work has sometimes been overshadowed by the presence of their male counterparts, women have been gradually overcoming the gender hurdles to leadership and influence in activists spheres.  

In the particular case of environmental activism, women have been a force and a key element in the fight for sustainability from the beginning on. Female activists from across the globe have brought the subjects of the climate crises to the attention of all, making climate change segments an 8 o’clock-news must. Leaders like Greta Thunberg, Anuna De Wever and Luisa Neubauer are particularly young, though their age doesn’t impede them from shaking global politics in an astonishing way. 

Images of these young activists at marches, in political campaigns, or at environmental summits, have been common in the news in the last two years. In the struggle they face, these young women have shown a great sense of solidarity and unity; demonstrating their fight together and support each other. This was illustrated best at the 2020 Davos Summit, where Vanessa Nakate, a young black women activist from Uganda was cut out of a photo with other white climate activists. The story was immediately shared on social media and the young women received the immediate support of her peers. But what are the reasons for there being a majority of women leaders in the movement? How does female leadership influence climate activism and what does that mean for the movement? 

Under the current situation, women are and will continue to be the first victims of the climate crises. Climate change disproportionately affects them because they are more likely to live in poverty than men, have less access to basic human rights like the ability to freely move and acquire land, and face systematic violence that escalates during periods of instability. The patriarchal system is exploiting the female workforce to create profit in industries that are destroying their environments. A strong example of this is the fast-fashion industry, where women constitute the vast majority of employees. They work in sweatshops under highly unsuitable work conditions, in one of the most polluting industries and often suffer health damages. This reveals the dire need to include women from the global South in the fight against climate and ecological breakdown.

Lisa Neubauer, climate activist inspired by Greta Thunberg’s actions and one of the leaders of the German school strike for climate movement, says the climate crises is a feminist issue. She is fighting among many other strong women, which gives her hope and encourages her not to give up. This allows her not to back down when she is facing the many sexist attacks she receives for her activism because she admits that most of the hatred she receives is rooted in sexism. Her leadership is influenced by the feeling of sorority that surrounds her and other women climate leaders in their actions. She links the fact that the climate crisis is a man-made crisis, created by men structurally in power with her wish of wanting to overthrow current power systems and to engage even more in this protest. 

The fact that there is a majority of women leaders is an opportunity for the movement to promote an inclusive and intersectional vision of activism. It can highlight the particular link between the exploitation of women and the exploitation of the world’s resources by men in power. It’s an opportunity to create a space where women and especially young women are encouraged to embrace leadership positions without feeling the need to step over others. On the contrary, women leadership can promote a more equal division of power between all actors of the movement in the fight for climate justice. The youth climate movement in Europe has been an example of this, with a largely horizontal structure and emerging leaders acting as the public voices of the movement rather than decision-takers. 

With this in mind, it is no wonder that women account for the majority of leaders in the climate movement. If the movement continues to be a welcoming place for them, where they can express themselves and develop leadership without fear, it might inspire activists to embrace this new form of activism, more focused on solidarity than ego. Global climate justice can only be achieved if we fight for a more sustainable world without reproducing the inequalities of today’s system, and this must be taken as a chance for the success of climate actions. It is an opportunity to further challenge power structures and create a truly different alternative organisation of society, which we desperately need to achieve in the coming years. 

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