International Women's Day - The Most Inspirational Women In Conservation

International Women's Day - The Most Inspirational Women In Conservation

Posted by Leanne Sturrock on Mar 8, 2018

In celebration of International Women’s Day, we’d like to pay homage to the incredible women who’ve played an integral part in conservation efforts. There have been some awesome instances of women changing the face of conservation while helping the world's wildlife, and we're kicking off the list with one of the most politically-active members of the list: Bethine Clark Church.


Bethine Clark Church

Bethine Clark Church

(Picture courtesy of boisestatepublicradio.org)

The name ‘Bethine Clark Church’ may be familiar to those with interested in politics, but make no mistake – she was far, far more than ‘just’ a senator’s wife (contrary to Wikipedia’s chosen definition of her). Nicknamed ‘Idaho’s third senator’, Bethine Church matched her husband’s efforts in the political realm, besting him in many areas – including conservation.

Church hailed from a political family: 2 generations of the Clark family (her father’s side) had previously served as mayor of Idaho Falls, and both her uncle and father were elected as Governor of Idaho. A political environment serving as a backdrop to Church’s formative years, it comes as no surprise that the young Bethine would go on to participate in the debate club and student government. Her influence over her classmates carried on throughout her years in education, and she took on roles such as Vice President in her freshmen year. Shortly after, she met her eventual husband, Frank Church.

Bethine Clark Church was present through each of her husband’s four years in the senate, using her position as his wife to her advantage: she became chairwoman for numerous committees and organisations throughout the years, also pursuing an active role in many of her husband’s campaigns. Such was Church’s prevalence in the world of politics, she was urged to run for senate in 1986, something she chose to decline and instead continued to commit time to the countless organisations that were close to her heart.

One of the most prominent organisations Church worked with was The Wilderness Society, a non-profit organisation dedicated to protecting natural areas. Church championed one of the Society’s most influential actions, the Wilderness Act: a law which clearly defines wilderness in the United States, and which offers protection to some 9.1 million acres of federal land. The legislation was passed in 1964 and lead to the creation of the National Wilderness Preservation System, which today protects nearly 110 million acres of public wildland across all 50 states.

Church worked tirelessly in countless other areas, playing a vital role in organisations including, but not limited to, The Sawtooth Society (as founder and president) and The Idaho Conservation League (as a member). She also supported the passage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and fought for the protection of areas such as Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Her involvement in the passage of the Wilderness Act, however, remains as one of her most memorable roles, and somebody who would have been familiar with her efforts is none other than the ‘Grandmother of the Conservation Movement’, Margaret Murie...

Margaret ‘Mardy’ Murie

Mardy Murie

Born on August 18th, 1902, Murie’s involvement with conservation seemed to be predestined. Moving away from Seattle at the age of five years old, Murie was raised in the Alaskan wilderness and, as such, gained quite the affinity for her natural surroundings. As a young woman, she attended Simmons College in Massachusetts before transferring to the Alaska Agricultural College And School Of Mines, becoming the first female to graduate with a degree in business administration: a qualification which would surely come into good use later in life, as Murie would go on to be instrumental in forming and promoting one of the most influential conservation projects of all time.

Following her marriage to fellow conservationist Olaus Murie, Margaret and her new husband spent their honeymoon conducting caribou research while traveling over the upper Koyuk River Region. A fascination with wildlife formed a strong foundation for the couple’s enduring relationship, and throughout their lives they would continue to give back to the world around them: most notably, in the instance of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In 1956, Murie led an expedition into the Upper Sheenjek Valley in Alaska to study wildlife, gathering data in the hopes of providing federal protection for 8 million acres of land. Murie began her campaign to protect the area in the same year, eventually persuading President Dwight Eisenhower to federally protect the region – this was a success, and Murie’s work in creating the area now known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge proved her to be a formidable force in the world of conservation. But this was just the beginning of her legacy.

Following her husband’s death in 1963, Murie took on the sole responsibility of the family’s conservation work. She would write letters and articles designed to educate others about the importance of conservation, and would travel tirelessly to both hearings and conferences to give passionate speeches about the cause. She served as a consultant to numerous organisations (such as the Wilderness Society, the National Park Service and the Sierra Club), and returned to Alaska to work on the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation act (eventually being signed by President Carter in 1980.) That particular legislation lead to 104,000,000 acres of Alaskan land being set aside, more than doubling the size of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and becoming the greatest act of preservation in U.S history.

Murie’s legacy is impressive, to say the least – during her life, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton, as well as receiving numerous honours and medals throughout the 80’s and 90’s. In 1997, the Murie Centre Nonprofit was established and housed on the Murie Ranch. Created to carry on the work of Olaus and Mardy Murie, the centre is now considered a National Historic Landmark. Finally, at the age of 100 years old, Murie received the Conservationist of the Year award 2002 from the National Wildlife Federation; a fitting acknowledgement for a lady who had achieved so much over the course of one dazzling century.

Celia Hunter

(Unfortunately there are no images of Celia Hunter for use, but her story is utterly inspiring and deserves a place on our list.)

One person who had worked alongside Murie is fellow conservationist, Celia Hunter. Like Murie before her, Hunter fought hard to safeguard the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She was similar to Murie in other ways, too: born in 1919, a young Celia was raised around agriculture and wildlife, learning compassion and a set of values that she would carry throughout her life. It would be worth noting here that one of the values that Hunter held true, was to have the confidence to follow her dreams…regardless of whether they were ‘conventional’ paths for women.

Hunter’s life was peppered with elements of non-convention, from her time as a pilot serving in the military during World War II, to rebelling against the US Ferrying Division and their opinion that women in fighter planes should not travel on the Northwest Staging Route to Fairbanks (as a tidbit of information, Hunter and her friend Ginny Wood decided to go to Fairbanks on their own, ‘just to see what the males had been talking about.’ The women travelled for 30 hours over 27 days, arriving in the midst of a thick snowstorm – not only proving to the men that women were capable of such a journey, but marking the beginning of a decades-long friendship with Wood.) Of course, Hunter is well-renowned for her efforts in conservation: interestingly, the lady herself did not consider herself much of a conservationist or environmentalist in the beginning, but these two terms are almost synonymous with Hunter today, and for good reason.

After returning to Alaska with Wood, the two decided to start ‘Camp Denali’: a site allowing guests to experience the great outdoors through activities, while staying in simple accommodations. The pair wanted to select a location that would give their guests a greater appreciation for the natural world, providing ‘healthy, sustainable meals, with fresh baked bread and pastries (…) refusing to handle either soft drinks or beer (…) we didn’t want to see the throw-away cans littering the roadsides.’ The pair began their business venture on the western boundary of Denali National Park, known today as Denali National Park And Preserve.

Of course, the pair’s involvement with their business also lead to a deeper respect and love for the natural world and, as such, they began to get increasingly involved with Alaska’s issues (notably, the way the then-unprotected landscape was changing: ‘Flying across bush Alaska, the entire landscape was a seamless whole, unmarred by man-made boundaries. Alaskans assumed it would always be like this, and they resisted strenuously the setting aside of particular lands to protect them.’)

Throughout her life, Hunter worked hard to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, forming the Alaska Conservation Society in 1960 and testifying on the behalf of the range, playing a major role in the passage of legislation to protect over 100 million acres of Alaskan Land. She remained as the executive secretary of ACS for 12 years, also becoming the first president of The Wilderness Society in 1976. Towards the end of her life, had truly begun to embrace her position as an environmentalist, and even on the night of her death she had been up late writing letters to Congressmen in support of protecting the ANWR from oil drilling. A fighter until the end, Hunter was a trailblazer of the conservation movement in Alaska and is remembered as a compassionate and effective leader, able to open minds and even change the course of history, thanks to her unwavering strength and persistence.

Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall

Perhaps the most renowned name on our list, Jane Goodall has worked since the age of 26 years old as a primatologist, and is considered as the utmost authority on the topic. Her studies have provided us with one of the most momentous scientific discoveries of the 20th century and, despite working tirelessly for almost six decades, this wildlife wonderwoman shows no signs of slowing down.

Born in 1934, Jane is another perfect example of somebody whose love of nature began at a very young age. She attributes her fondness for animals to a lifelike chimpanzee stuffed animal named ‘Jubilee’, given to her by her by her father, Mortimer. Even today, ‘Jubilee’ still sits on Jane’s dresser at her home in London.

Jane expressed an intense interest to someday live in Africa ever since she was a child, telling her mother about her dreams and aspirations to watch and write about animals. In 1956, this dream began to take formation after a friend invited the young girl to visit her family’s farm in Kenya. Fascinated by life in this unfamiliar part of the world, Jane returned to London with a sense of determination. She took up work as a waitress to enable her to save enough money for boat fare back to Kenya and, at the age of 23, she embarked on a journey that would change the course of her life.

While in Africa, Jane was encouraged by her friend to reach out to the acclaimed Kenyan archaeologist and palaeontologist Louis Leakey. Jane’s initial desire to speak to Leakey stemmed no further than a want to talk about animals; however, after impressing him with her vast knowledge of nature, Jane soon found herself in Leakey’s employ. Before the pair had met, Leakey happened to be in the midst of putting together plans to study great apes (to provide indications of the behaviour of early hominids) and, impressed with Jane’s knowledge, this was the true reason for him hiring her.

Goodall spent a number of years gaining valuable experience under Leaky’s guidance, studying primate behaviour and anatomy in London, eventually heading to Gombe Stream National Park. It was here that the majority of Goodall’s work was done, including her studies of chimpanzees for which she is most well-known. Goodall actually lacked collegiate training when directing her research, which incidentally enabled her to observe things that could have otherwise been missed by somebody under strict scientific doctrines. Goodall began studies on the Kasakela chimpanzee community in Gombe in 1960, choosing to name the chimps throughout the study (a highly unusual idea at the time) and noting that every one had their own unique personality. She observed that the animals would engage in such behaviours such as hugging, kissing, pats on the back and even tickling, insisting that these so-called ‘human’ actions were evidence of the ‘close, supportive, affectionate bonds that develop between family members and other individuals within a community, which can persist throughout a life span of more than 50 years.’ Goodall’s observations would go on to suggest that we as humans have more similarities with chimps than once thought; sharing not only genes, but emotions, intelligence, and the capability to form relationships too.

During her time at Gombe, Goodall dispelled two long-held beliefs of the time: that chimpanzees were vegetarian, and that humans were the only species able to construct and use tools. The latter belief was squashed when Goodall spent time observing chimpanzees feeding at a termite mound: the animal would repeatedly place stalks of grass into termite holes, before withdrawing the stalk covered in termites. This was, effectively, an intentional method comparable to fishing – and was only the first instance of the chimpanzees using tools that Goodall had noted. She also noticed that the animals would take twigs from trees and strip off the leaves: a form of object modification which is the rudimentary beginnings of toolmaking. Impressed by her findings, Leaky declared that we ‘must now redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human.’ In addition to this, Goodall was also able to dispel the notion that chimpanzees did not eat meat, observing somewhat disturbing instances of the apes systematically hunting and eating smaller primates such as the colobus monkey. In instances like this, she would also note how the animals would hunt together, taking on particular roles within their troop and even sharing the carcass depending on rank.

Goodall’s unconventional and attentive methods of study won her not only the respect of her peers, but a global audience too. Most famously, however, Goodall was able to win a close bond and level of respect with the troop at Gombe – to this day, she is the only human being ever to have been accepted into the chimpanzee’s society, ranking in the troop for a period of 22 months.

Elsewhere in life, Goodall has been credited for her activism and advocacy on the behalf of chimpanzees and the environment, travelling for nearly 300 days year on year. She also manages the Jane Goodall Institute, a community-focused organisation that works with villagers across five chimpanzee range states in Africa (its ‘Roots and Shoots’ youth movement has 150,000 members across 130 countries.) Jane’s enduring influence is certainly felt by millions of people across the globe, and her studies have done much to enable us to understand such a complex primate species. As such, is one of the most honoured and awarded conservationists in history.

Virginia McKenna

Virginia McKenna

The final lady on our list is none other than Virginia McKenna. Born in 1931, McKenna was raised as part of a theatrical family, attending the Central School of Speech and Drama from the age of 14. Her passion for acting eventually lead to a most memorable role in the 1966 film, Born Free, in which she played the part of Joy Adamson, the real-life naturalist who wrote the book that inspired the film. Inspired by her part in the film (and, indeed, by Joy and George Adamson themselves), Mckenna developed a strong interest in animal conservation, actively offering support for their rights and pushing for the protection of their natural habitat.

As well as developing this new passion for animal welfare, McKenna embarked on a lifelong friendship with George Adamson, with whom she would work with again on a travelogue named ‘An Elephant Called Slowly.’ The film featured appearances from three young African elephants, including one named Pole Pole. Tragically, Pole Pole died prematurely at London Zoo, which inspired McKenna to launch the Zoo Check campaign in 1984. The campaign aims to provide animals from suffering in captivity, as McKenna rightfully believes that animals should not be used for our entertainment: in circuses, animal shows, marine parks and so forth. The Zoo Check campaign still exists today, and is at the heart of the Born Free Foundation – which, of course, was founded by McKenna herself.

Established in 1998, the Born Free Foundation was, indeed, named after the film which has ignited McKenna’s passion for conservation (and, as such, the story of Elsa the Lion being returned back to the wilds of Africa.) Despite its close ties to Africa, the Born Free Foundation serves as an umbrella organisation for other causes such as the Zoo Check Campaign, Elefriends Campaign, Wolf Campaign, Dolphin Campaign, Primate Campaign, and the Bear Campaign. Animal welfare is at the centre of the foundation, and McKenna continues to work in conservation and towards public awareness for the cause. She firmly believes in putting an end to animal abuse, and aims to keep wildlife within its natural habitat. As such, the foundation hosts two big cat sanctuaries in South Africa, and you can visit one of the centres on the Shamwari Conservation Experience!

Do you have any conservation heroes of your own? Join us in celebrating International Women's Day by sharing your favourites!


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Nora commented 1 year ago
Thank you for this great educational piece! I enjoyed reading about these inspirational women and their stories. So important that we remember them and their impact on nature conservation. Often overshadowed by their male colleagues, but women's influence is unmeasurable. Thanks for celebrating their involvement and achievements in conservation!

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Linda commented 1 year ago
What an interesting and educating way to celebrate International Women's Day - celebrating the women that have shaped animal science for decades now. I love that I got to read about important female figures like this when TV shows are always just full of male 'zoo experts' who sometimes can't even answer the simplest facts. And this article in particular makes it easier to understand how these women shaped the way humanity sees and treats the animal world. Gonna save this for the future! x

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