Rachel Carson and Her Sisters: Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped America’s Environment
Reviewed by Gwen Gosney Erickson
By Robert K. Musil. Rutgers University Press, 2014. 328 pages. $26.95/hardcover; $23.95/paperback; $15.98/eBook.Buy on FJ Amazon Store
Silent Spring author Rachel Carson is credited with spearheading the environmental movement in the second half of the twentieth century. Robert K. Musil sets Carson’s life and contributions within the context of accomplished women who share Carson’s dual strengths as scientists and as writers able to communicate findings to a wider popular audience. Some are more recognized in one area, such as nature writing, conservation work, industrial safety, or public health advocacy, but all, like Rachel Carson, represent the interrelated threads of love of nature and care for community health.
Musil is clear at the outset that this book is written for general readers rather than experts in the field. It is a tribute and introduction rather than a definitive biography or critical analysis of Carson or “her sisters.” There is no bibliography, but those wishing to dig deeper can follow up on references in the endnotes. Musil bases his research primarily on secondary sources that are readily available (especially the published writings of the women themselves), and supplements later chapters through interviews with the contemporary women he features.
Robert K. Musil is likely a name recognized by many Friends Journal readers due to his long tenure as executive director and CEO of Physicians for Social Responsibility and work as a scholar and activist in areas relating to the environment, public health, and nuclear disarmament. Currently president and CEO of the Rachel Carson Council, the author is not an objective bystander. He has been a part of the network he writes about—perhaps accurately described as a brother to Carson and her sisters.
The sisters profiled include Quaker women Graceanna Lewis and Anna Botsford Comstock, who show up in the first chapter on nineteenth-century women. Ellen Swallow Richards and Alice Hamilton stand out as impressively accomplished scientists and social justice advocates whose work holds up more than a century later. The writings of Terry Tempest Williams highlight the sacred element of environmental advocacy. Later chapters uphold the more recent work of Quaker and biologist Sandra Steingraber, Devra Davis, and Theo Colborn.
This is a book to whet the appetite for more. The author selected individuals who piqued his interest, yet acknowledges that there are others who could have been included. Often outsiders due to their gender, these women chose to illuminate injustices and work for structural changes rather than pursuing promotions and industrial support. Women reformers, best remembered for their nineteenth-century advocacy for women’s rights and abolition, also have an enduring legacy working on behalf of the environment.