Schroeder researches intersections of feminism, sustainability activism

Years ago, when Emma Schroeder was managing a small organic farm, she started to ask herself, “How did women in the past combine feminism and ecological activism? Why do we see homes as places to care for the Earth and how does that affect women?” 

Schroeder, now a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Maine, asks such questions in her current research. She focuses on women in the 1960s and 1970s who were early innovators in what are now considered sustainable or green technologies — passive solar design, organic agricultural practices, and energy conservation practices. She examines what types of citizenship these women could assume when they became creators of scientific knowledge and what demands they made for governments to take responsibility for environmental crises. She also looks at how responsibilities fell unevenly on women as they became caretakers of the planet through their care of homes. 

“It’s great to imagine home as a place we can save things, but it really goes beyond. It has to be an actual political structural change,” says Schroeder, who is advised by Richard Judd, professor emeritus of history. 

Advertisements for sustainable products make people think that they can prevent ecological devastation with their consumption habits. In contrast, many of the women Schroeder looks at were trying to change policies related to energy production. They looked to social and political changes that linked human well-being to environmental protection.

Schroeder found that while some women may have been empowered by such activism, others were not. She found that caring for the Earth was represented by white, middle-class imagery. Therefore, this activism may have supported specific roles for women in society rather than changing them. It also meant people’s general understanding of how to care for the Earth omitted activism by people whose race or class did not fit with white, middle-class ideals.

Schroeder earned an M.S. in geography from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where her interest in studying the relationships between humans and the non-human world began. After she completed her degree, she went on to work on farms throughout New England. Through her own experiences on farms, she began to think more about the gendered dimensions of ecological activism. 

According to Schroeder, the 1970s were a time when people began to speak out about global ecological crises — similar to the way people are speaking out about climate change now. The current changing political landscape, economic uncertainty, and public conversations about humans’ reliance on the well-being of the environment are all aspects that resonate with what happened in the 1970s.

As for the future? Schroeder hopes that individual choice does not continue to frame environmental debates. Schroeder says the issue of sustainability starts with the individual — but it is a problem that goes beyond that. She continues to study this history in hopes of learning more about social equity issues in relation to the environment and how the history of sustainability impacts women versus men.

Contact: Cleo Barker,