Theme Environment Movement

Written by Jane Elix and Judy Lambert, Australian National University

The environment movement, like many other social change movements, is not easy to define or delineate. Individuals within a movement may hold extremely diverse views on goals, strategies and even philosophies, but 'a shared sense of moral outrage' provides the stimulus to build alliances within and between the different organisations that form part of the environment movement.

As shown in Table 1 , women have been active in seeking protection of the environment since Federation and even before 1900. Those in the historical record include Georgiana Molloy (1805-1843) (Hasluck, ADB; Morrell, 'Molloy', AWR) and Elizabeth Gould (1804-1841) (Chisholm, 'Gould', ADB), who both played a significant role in supporting the scientific endeavours of their male colleagues, while Jane Franklin (1791-1875) (Woodward, ADB), Ellis Rowan (1847-1922) (Hazzard, ADB; Heywood, 'Rowan', AWR) and Amalie Dietrich (1821-1891) (Gilbert, ADB) were explorers and scientific adventurers in their own right. We might fairly assume that other endeavours went quietly unrecorded. After them came a string of women who were enthusiastic bush walkers, either with other women (Ethel Lun and her two friends) or in mixed company (Marie Byles (Radi, ADB; Lemon, 'Byles', AWR), Dorothy Butler and Jessie Luckman).

The research informing this entry on female environment movement leaders is built around interviews with thirty-four women who have filled leadership roles in the movement since its emergence in the 1970s as a force for social change. The personal stories of these women and their relationships to wider perspectives on leadership guide this analysis.

Consistent with the findings of Hutton and Connors (1999, 4), the environment movement has a different meaning for almost every person interviewed. So, in using the term 'Australian environment movement', this research focused on the work of leaders in

  1. organisations that have either originated in Australia, or;
  2. have been embedded in Australia for a long time and have a specific Australian identity; and
  3. organisations that have a clearly stated objective of changing political and industry policies and practices on environmental protection and management;
  4. organisations with a membership base-either individuals or organisational (the latter being peak bodies).

Generally not included are women in

  • organisations whose principal activities are educational, scientific investigation, recreation, networking and information exchange or planning;
  • organisations that have a very recent presence in Australia but whose base lies overseas.

Many of the women leaders who have been part of this project have moved between organisations that fit the four criteria above and those that do not. While there are many other women who meet these criteria for leadership, the intention of this research was to gather a representative sample of environmental leadership across the decades since Federation.

Defining Leadership

Definitions of leadership vary widely over time and context. One of the more generic definitions is that drawn from the work of Martin Chemers, which presents leadership as 'a process of social influence in which one person is able to enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task'. There are, however, many ways in which leadership may be achieved. While many women in the environment movement have sought an inclusive, collaborative approach to leadership, ample evidence exists suggesting that many remain bound by societal expectations aligned with a more directive leadership style usually associated with men.

Leadership Styles

Participatory democracy was a catchcry of social change in the 1960s. Carol Mueller (79) identifies three key elements of this early push for 'participatory democracy': (1) grassroots involvement in decision-making, (2) minimisation of hierarchy 'with expertise and professionalism as a basis for leadership', and (3) a call for direct action. In their entry on social movements for this online encyclopedia on Australian Women and Leadership, Marian Sawer and Merrindahl Andrew identify the hopes and expectations of feminism of the 1970s that hierarchical male-dominated leadership styles would be replaced by a new collective-based approach in which functions were shared democratically within the organisation or group. This change in leadership was expected to replace male management or leadership styles in business, in government, in politics, and in the non-government (third) sector. Areas of social change that held similar or complementary values, including in the environment movement, were expected to become part of this change.

Male styles were described as 'command and control, using organisational status and manipulation of rewards' and called transactional. By contrast, Judy Rosener (4) and others describe the female collaborative approach as transformational, 'enhancing other people's sense of self-worth and energizing followers'.

However, in her Leadership for the Disillusioned, Australian scholar Amanda Sinclair describes how, over recent decades, 'transformational leadership' has been adopted by mainstream leadership trainers and gurus: 'A sizable genre of leadership writing, from the 1980s through to the present, pines after leadership that is fused with goodness, caring and a "servant" mentality'. In this literature, the 'transformational' leadership model has been linked not to the outcomes that are envisaged by feminists, but rather to the capitalist values of large material achievement, competition and conquest. The transformational model of leadership has been co-opted and bastardised by what Sinclair refers to as 'McDonaldized leadership'.

Sinclair identifies an important place for charisma in leadership in recent times. Like leadership, charisma may derive from a diversity of qualities that inspire others. Perkins et al., in their examination of leadership based on Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, emphasise the importance of optimism in the charismatic leader. In the environment movement, high value is placed on charismatic leadership-for men at least-and allowances made for charismatic leaders who can inspire optimism even when they are not good managers. It is not unusual for a male leader to surround himself with women with high interpersonal skills to buttress his organisational roles.

'Male' Leadership in the Environment Movement

The language attached to male-dominated 'command and control' transactional leadership and its contrast with the more collaborative transformational leadership style posed as an alternative may seem simplistic and bound to stereotypes that feminism was seeking to overcome. However, when asked about differences between men's and women's leadership in the environment movement, the language used by many of those interviewed reflects these assumed characteristics of female and male leadership.

Margaret Blakers commented that: 'Men are more prepared to put themselves in the front row of representing the group or being recognized. And that's society's expectation too, I think it's very deeply embedded-still'. This is a view reinforced by comments from Brigid Dowsett: 'Women come in hoping and believing that the environment movement is going to be different-less hierarchical-but in the end it's really no different from the way the rest of society functions'.

Hannah Aulby, a much younger environmental leader, says: 'Women push their agenda along a bit more quietly and carefully … It's hard to generalise, but men are maybe a bit less conscious of the consequences of their decisions, more single focused, more focused on the few things that they've decided to pursue'.

That this may be changing is reflected in Louise Crossley's comments that:

Increasingly the concept of leadership of being out front and having everyone else follow is not the way it works. Usually two or three brains are better than one, and it's that kind of collaborative leadership that works best, and the sum becomes greater than the parts, and that's the excitement of it.

The leadership that women are quite good at is cooperative, collegial and it's not leadership by command.

Barriers to Women's Leadership

That the concept of 'leadership' is problematic for many women from the environment movement is perhaps one of the barriers to their greater uptake of traditional leadership roles. When interviewed, many expressed views such as 'I never thought of myself as a leader'. Few stepped forward to claim identified leadership roles. Most who took on such roles did so only after being persuaded by others.

Typifying this pathway is Beth Schultz (b. 1936) who for the past thirty-six years has worked in a voluntary leadership capacity for the Western Australian environment movement, many of those years as chair of the Conservation Council of Western Australia. Beth is now an icon for younger women environmentalists, but her comments still reflect discomfort with the label of leadership: 'I've never thought of myself as a leader-you don't put yourself out there-it just happens. You wait to be invited or there's nobody else doing it'.

To this reluctance can be added the influence of family circumstances. Among the almost three-quarters of interviewees currently in a long-term relationship, support from partners varied across the spectrum from working together in an organisation, through extensive support and encouragement, to partner perceptions of commitment to environmental campaign jobs as being 'selfish' with little support being provided in household activities and caring for children.

The challenges of juggling environmental leadership roles and caring for children constituted a significant problem for many interviewees. Some chose to take up more local roles so that they could spend time with children, while, for others, this challenge was identified as a factor contributing to the breakdown of marriage or long-term relationships.

Fourteen of the women interviewed (44 per cent) were childless by choice or circumstance, and none had four or more children. Each of these is a significantly higher proportion than in the general population (ABS 2008). For some, this was a deliberate choice made for environmental reasons. For others, it was a response to a perceived need to make a choice in life.

One interviewee captured the sentiment of others in her comment that: 'The challenge is trying to incorporate the nurturing, family-oriented role that most women aspire to with the focus that you've got to have if you're really trying to make a difference'.

Conditions Under Which Women Have Assumed Leadership

Those interviewed often said that they fell into leadership, either by filling a gap, or by working harder than others. For example, Margaret Blakers described the way that she operates as: 'I see a gap-something that needs to be done-and then, if I can, I work out how to make it happen'. Brigid Dowsett explains further:

For me, it was never assuming a leadership mantle. It was more being ready and willing to take on responsibility at a certain level and make some decisions about the way I felt things should be managed, or volunteer to do something that no one else was available to do.

Millicent Chalmers (b. 1934), who has been included on Australia's Honours List for her service to the community, is also very reluctant to identify herself as a leader: 'I'm really a nursemaid. People say-Millicent will fix it. Millicent will do something'.

Hard work comes through clearly as a strong personal value for many of the women leaders interviewed, and it is to hard work that much of their success as leaders is attributed. Several long-term and well-respected leaders said that they work up to eighteen-hour days almost every day of the week. In some cases, this relates to paid work, while in others it refers to work as a volunteer, and, for many, it is a mix of both.

Another more emotive driver for these women who are leaders in the environment movement is a sense of outrage at the loss of special places (the 'shared sense of moral outrage' identified by Hutton and Connors in their history of the Australian environment movement). Long-time Environs Kimberley coordinator Maria Mann was moved to action for the environment because she 'felt a sense of outrage … at the proposal to dam the Fitzroy River'. Similarly, co-founder of the Wilderness Society's Victorian branch, Karen Alexander, says her involvement was 'built on the anger of the loss of Lake Pedder'. And peace activist and former senator Jo Vallentine (Francis, 'Vallentine', AWR) described being mobilised by her anger at Premier Charles Court's announcement that Western Australia would be the first state in Australia to have a nuclear power plant.

At a deeper level, and consistent with Amanda Sinclair's observations about the influences of early childhood on our leadership styles and aspirations, an early appreciation of the natural environment resulting from bushland experiences or a rural upbringing played an important role for a third of the women interviewed.

Role Models and Mentors

Few of the women interviewed as leaders in the environment movement identified formal mentors, but those who did so felt that they had gained significant benefit from the relationships. Several of the interviewees mentioned individuals (both male and female) as role models.

Twenty-seven of the thirty-four women interviewed identified one or more aspects of their early life as having influenced their involvement in the environment movement. These factors varied widely, with mothers, fathers and grandmothers identified as important in shaping their environmental awareness. School and/or teachers were also influential for almost half of the interviewees; for a majority of these women, this came from the values Catholic schools or the nuns imbued in their young charges. Although many of these women later moved away from their Catholic upbringing, values persisted.

For instance, Colma Keating sees her time at a Catholic school as 'giving her the impetus to think of others, but also understanding that women are not second-rate citizens'. She says the nuns instilled in her 'a sense of being capable of doing things in the world'. Christine Milne (Francis, 'Milne', AWR) reinforces this perception, indicating that her time under the guidance of the nuns who taught her instilled 'a strong work ethic, a belief that one should have the courage of one's own convictions and a very strong sense of social justice' but also 'a stoic capacity for incredible self-contained resilience'. Jo Vallentine sees her education in Catholic boarding school as 'one contributing factor in [her] sense of self-identity'. And, although from a younger generation, Gemma Tillack also sees her current values as still influenced by the values of community and giving that come from her time growing up in a strong Irish Catholic family.

Female or Feminist Support Groups

Informal networks such as ad hoc Green Girls Drinks groups that met informally for breakfast in Canberra or after work in Sydney played an important supportive role for some in demanding positions in the environment movement. However, little emphasis was placed on either female or feminist support. Nor is there evidence of women acting for women as they campaigned for the conservation of special places in Australia's environment. In the interviews conducted for the Australian Women and Leadership project, women in the environment movement more frequently focused on conserving the environment for present and future generations-for their children rather than for other women.

Critical Moments and Changes

The decade from 1983 was a period of substantial gains for the environment movement. This period began with the High Court decision to stop a proposed hydro-electric power supply dam on Tasmania's Franklin River. It included the early 1990s when the Australian government showed leadership at the United Nations Rio Earth Summit, signing on to Agenda 21, and also the Conventions on Biological Diversity and Climate Change. At that time and well into the 1990s, there was a significant, perhaps close to equal, involvement of women in designated leadership positions both at national level and in state-based peak bodies. However, the previous gender imbalance in recognised leadership of the movement has now returned.

Despite the significant contribution that the environment movement has made to social change in Australia, it is in the second decade of the 21st century just as male dominated in its recognised leadership as it was in the late 1980s. Mirroring government and industry, the environment movement's involvement of women in identified leadership positions has a long way to go before equality is achieved.

Nevertheless, many women in the environment movement provide significant leadership outside the mainstream perspectives of most Western cultures currently embodied in the concept of 'transactional' leadership. For these women, social influence directed to accomplishing a common task is achieved through the collaborative approaches characteristic of 'transformational' leadership.

Some have moved into Greens politics (Christine Milne, Rachel Siewert (Francis, 'Siewert', AWR), Giz Watson (MacKinnney, AWR), Janet Rice (Francis, 'Rice', AWR), Margaret Blakers), others into international and national philanthropic organisations operating in Australia but not generally seen as part of Australia's environment movement (for example Imogen Zethoven and Philippa Walsh) and some (Karen Alexander, Judy Lambert (Alafaci, 'Lambert', AWR), Judy Henderson) into more collaborative local and regional environmental initiatives, frequently working closely with local government and younger women in local communities. It is in these other areas, rather than in the mainstream environment movement, that these women seek leverage for the greatest level of change for their efforts. However, at a time when the environment movement faces increased pressures from the resources and other sectors, and from government agendas, it is important that the contribution of women to the movement's leadership should also be strengthened.


Jane Elix (Morrell, 'Elix', AWR) conducted the research and prepared an initial overview of this chapter in 2011. In December 2011 Jane became seriously ill and was unable to complete the project. She briefed her friend and former business partner, Judy Lambert, who took up the challenge of completing Jane's commitment to the project. The work is a tribute to Jane, who passed away in July 2012, and whose own contribution to leadership by and mentoring of women in the environment movement is worthy of powerful recognition.

Jane would not have allowed this chapter to go to publication without an expression of appreciation to the wonderful women who made this project possible by giving generously of their time and experiences.

Additional sources: Sawer, Marian and Andrew, Merrindahl. In preparation. 'Collectivism, Consensus and Concepts of Shared Leadership in Movements for Social Change' (Canberra: Australian National University).

Published Resources

Australian Women's Register Entries


  • Chemers, Martin. M., An Integrative Theory of Leadership, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, United States of America, 1997. Details
  • Hutton, Drew and Connors, Libby, A History of the Australian Environment Movement, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1999. Details
  • Perkins, Dennis N.T; Holtman, Margaret P; Kessler, Paul R; and McCarthy, Catherine, Leadership at the Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition, AMACOM, New York, United States of America, 2000. Details
  • Sinclair, Amanda, Leadership for the Disillusioned: Moving Beyond Myths and Heroes to Leading that Liberates, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 2007. Details

Book Sections

  • Mueller, Carol, 'Chapter 7: Ella Baker and the Origins of "Participatory Democracy"', in Bobo, Jacqueline; Hudley, Cynthia; and Michel, Claudine (eds), The Black Studies Reader, Routledge, New York, United States of America, 2004. Details

Journal Articles

  • Rosener, Judy, 'Ways Women Lead', Harvard Business Review, vol. 68, no. 6, November - December 1990, pp. 119 - 125. Details

Online Resources

Digital Resources

Table 1: The Environment Movement: An Evolving Force for Social Change in Australia
Digitised Paper Resource