Canada's Green Leader on Women and Green Politics

Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada. Paul Darrow / Reuters-Landov

Elizabeth May has been an environmental activist for 40 years. The lawyer, author, and grandmother served as the executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada from 1989 until 2006, when she became the leader of Canada's Green Party. NEWSWEEK's Azriel James Relph spoke with her about the role of women in green politics. Excerpts:

You started fighting against aerial insecticide spraying in Nova Scotia in the 1970s. What was it like getting attention as a female activist back then?
I was very insecure; I was very aware that as a young woman, I was not going to be taken as seriously. So I kept my role in the background. I wasn't trying to push myself forward at all. But year after year we kept winning, and it wasn't until 1978 that I was outed by the media.

Have you seen a lot of hostility toward women in politics?
I didn't encounter anything that one would describe as sexism through the '80s and '90s. Now there's a different treatment of women by the media which one could describe as sexist. I tie it to the advent of the anonymous quality of online posting. Nasty stuff is said about men too, but if you pick up that rock, the nastiest comments—all the creepy crawlers—appear online. Although I find Sarah Palin's politics beyond reprehensible, I did find it quite wrong that her mothering style was making it into the media—no one ever asked what kind of dads George Bush or John McCain were. Recently we've seen an increasingly nasty, poisoned, and partisan culture in our politics. The excessively combative testosterone-driven politics is not an environment women enjoy. But here I am desperately encouraging young people—especially women—to get involved.

What are the biggest environmental issues for women globally?
When Jesus Christ was born, there were 200 million people on the planet; the doubling to 400 million took 1,200 years. So it's more than a bit disturbing to realize that in my lifetime we've gone from 3 billion to 6 billion, and the changes we've brought to the face of the earth outstrip anything in the previous millennium. But no matter how concerned you are about population, you can't imagine violations of a person's most intimate right of self-expression: the ability to have a child. What works to level off population growth is to make sure that women have access to health care, family planning, literacy, and political empowerment.

Is there something in particular about women that make them effective green leaders?
It's always risky to speak about how women and men are different. But it would be wrong for me to ignore that a lot of the good that comes in the world is from motherly instincts. We cannot have any notion that our children are going to have a livable world if we don't apply ourselves to political decisions—like making sure our governments ease our addiction to fossil fuels. A big part of urban concerns is to have healthy, locally grown food—a lot of that comes from moms going to the stores and seeing that the food is full of pesticides and doesn't come from around here. Perhaps it is motherly.

A fierce desire to protect the vulnerable certainly comes from wanting to protect kids, but I wouldn't want to portray women in green politics as more caring than men. Many men are great feminists, and many women are not. I see [Canadian politician] Stephen Lewis as a strong feminist, then I look at Sarah Palin and I think, oh dear, oh dear.