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Book review: ‘Empowering Female Climate Change Activists in the Global South’ by Peggy Ann Spitzer

Published: 16 February 2024

Spitzer marshals a strong case for giving unheard women’s voices a platform, so that they can “help hold up half the sky”, writes Christopher Walker.

‘Empowering Female Climate Change Activists in the Global South’ by Peggy Ann Spitzer

In brief

  • Spitzer makes the case for “foregrounding both women’s potential and their achievements”.
  • The academic language can be off-putting, but these previously unheard testimonies are important.
  • They demonstrate the importance of bringing the developing world’s women as stakeholders into the climate debate.
  • There are several solutions recommended, including some very interesting observations on the digital and media role

Peggy Ann Spitzer is a research professor at the State University of New York, focused on women’s leadership in global climate change adaptation. She has a particular affinity and understanding of rural women’s perspectives, learnt at her grandparents’ farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

She also has a particular expertise in their oral histories which demonstrate “a troublesome truth”. All too often “women’s opportunities to lead movements to change agricultural practices and adopt eco-friendly approaches are severely limited by patriarchal social structures and dominant cultural practices”.

In this book, she makes the case for “foregrounding both women’s potential and their achievements”.

The fact that “rural women in developing countries suffer disproportionately from the disastrous effects of climate change” as Spitzer puts it, has been accepted by the UN.

The Women and Gender Constituency (WGC) is part of the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC). It has established a network of 33 women’s organisations and developed awards programs to showcase women-led environmental projects.

They are needed to “hold up half the sky”, an old saying of Chairman Mao’s. Or as award recipient Jeanette Gurung argues the benefits of women’s intellectual capacities and perspectives must be taken on board to “radically change the hierarchical, male-dominated status quo”.

Challenging words, but new voices

Like a lot of contemporary American academics, this sort of language can sometimes appear obscure, if not positively Orwellian. The author calls for  “reflexive feminist methodologies” and cites Gina Cortés Valderrama’s two ‘living concepts’ names 1) “Womxn” – that women are not one homogeneous group, and 2) “Extractivism” – that underlying structures support “a persistent mechanism of colonial plunder and oppression over time”.

And there is an underlying assumption that reverses a core traditional feminist belief that men and women are the same. Instead: “Gender schema theory indicates that organisations and communities may benefit from those who are task oriented (M, a masculine trait) and relationship oriented (F, a feminine trait); engage in directive decision making (M) and engage in participative decision making (F); and make quick and efficient decisions (M) and make mindful, measured decisions (F).” Confusing. Perhaps sexist?

Nevertheless, much of the material Spitzer has assembled does give a platform to previously unheard voices. These new expert witnesses are important because they have “realized what many environmental sociologists have long noted –  that the dangers of climate change are a reality in many areas of the world”.

One in-depth study in rural Kenya found how at the community level, women often “are hindered by insecure land rights and limited access to capital, which empowers men in their communities to pursue agroforestry and conservation agriculture”.

Spitzer calls to the stand Trupti Jain, one of the founders of the Bhungroo irrigation technology program in India, that “recognized the value of women’s deep agricultural knowledge”. The author advocates that the Bhungroo program and its technology should be picked up outside of India.


Indeed, Spitzer suggests many solutions in line with historic COP recommendations such as ‘Encourage Youth’, ‘Involve Women Farmers,’  and ‘Listen to Latin America.’

Some are straightforward such as ‘Focus on Africa’. Literature reviews and field studies in the first half of this book indicate that “past government programs in Africa overall have not supported women leading climate change initiatives nor have they encouraged women to become involved in decisions relating to energy consumption and climate policy”.

Others stand out, such as ‘Include Climate Migrants’. In the book, Spitzer demonstrates this is necessary given the clear evidence of climate migration. She writes: “Hazara women were displaced from Afghanistan and migrated to southeastern Australia; undocumented Syrian families settled in refugee camps in Türkiye and received technical training to earn an income; and women in rural Guatemalan villages became sole providers for their families after their husbands migrated to other countries.”

Regarding ‘Use Digital Technology’, another of the solutions cited by Spitzer, she mentions work by F. O. Makanaise and S. E. Madima highlighting the important role social media can play in giving women a voice. “With recent killings experienced by female youth in South Africa, [the] majority of youth have Twitter handles with #MeToo #AmINext #stopkillingus …. This suggests that the access to digital media gives [the] majority of rural based female youth an opportunity to stand against societal oppressions they had endured for years.”

The work predicts that, within the next decade, the massive growth of smartphone and internet use will enable Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp to bridge the digital divide and increase gender equality. Spitzer observes: “More broadly, in most climate change initiatives, reliable data (collected digitally and analysed at the national level) are necessary to create gender equity policies.”

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