From Placing Gender to the Responsibilities of Practice: ‘Doing’ and ‘Being’ in Environmental History

by Karen R. Jones, editor of Environment and History

Since Carolyn Merchant’s famous study on science, patriarchy and ‘the Death of Nature’ (1980), scholars have successively refined the lens of gender analysis to effectively deconstruct the historical relationships between humans, environments and other species. In their introduction to a recent special issue of Environment and History (May 2021) on ‘Placing Gender‘, editors Katie Holmes and Ruth Morgan discuss the evolution of the field from its initial focus on feminist recovery to studies of reproduction, masculinity, agency and colonialism, and point to an important task for future historians of disentangling the complex networks that enmesh people, place and power across a global geography.  

There is another context to this ‘unfinished business’ of gender and environment, however, one focused less on the content and analytical rigour of our scholarship (the ‘doing’) and more on the nature of our academic habitat and the values and processes we endorse as practising historians (‘the being’).  By the way of example… Environment and History prides itself on a long tradition of interdisciplinary, globally focused scholarship which has engaged with issues of race, gender, class, imperialism and the politics of ecocide.  No problem there.  Likewise, in terms of publishing practice, we have tended to follow a ‘first-come first-served’ system in choreographing the publication timetable – again, equitable enough as an approach.  Hiding in plain sight, however, is a continuing problem of gender imbalance in who speaks as the voice of environmental history.  In selecting contributions for a recent issue this hit me head on – my ‘long list’ of choices for inclusion were great research papers, but all were by men.  

Gender imbalance is a product of many things – from the long-term structural inequalities in education that mean that female identifying and minority groups are under-represented to the contemporary dynamics of COVID that place extreme pressure on care-givers, who statistically tend to be women (ISIS, a journal focused on the History of Science, for instance, found that the male authors outnumbered female authors three to one in papers submitted from January-August 2020).  

So…..what can we do – and what are our responsibilities – as practising environmental historians to make our community more inclusive?  Firstly, take notice.  Make the invisible visible.  Admit there are problems.  Secondly, do something about it.  This short blog piece represents a kind of provocation, perhaps an incendiary, to think through some useful points of action. 

At Environment and History, we are currently crunching some data about our publication lists over the last few years – published papers, declined papers, peer review teams, books reviewed and reviewer lists – to see where immediate action points might lie.  As editor of the journal, I’m working up some draft guidelines for the editorial board to consider at our next meeting this autumn. I’d welcome thoughts on what might be useful to suggest, for instance:

  • Ensure a gender balance in peer review where possible
  • Encourage authors to foreground work on recent scholarship/from minority scholars over the established canon
  • Promote a way of editorial reading that recognises the additional barriers faced by scholars working in a second language
  • Issue a special invitation for submissions from female-identifying and minority scholars

Such questions are – thankfully – occupying the attentions of concerned practitioners across a global academic landscape.  In institutions and organisations, many colleagues in environmental history are engaged in creative and powerful conversations about ways to positively transform our craft and provide excellent examples of good practice.  Discussions at the recent ESEH Diversity Committee workshop ‘Call yourself a Feminist?: Gender, Allyship and Environmental History’ (May 2021) in which a panel of speakers discussed issues of inequality, invisibility and inclusivity in academia, were hugely important in distilling the draft guidelines noted above.  Similarly, the Women’s Environmental History Network is doing amazing work on representation, networking and career development for scholars in our field and their website contains useful analysis and active approaches.  This is a collective conversation and an ongoing one.  Moreover, it is up to each of us to critically examine our practice and think about the “being” as well as the “doing” in environmental history.  What are the (big and the small) things we all can do to make our community more inclusive?



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