International Women’s Day 2021: The role of women in National Parks

  • Contributor information: CNP

8 March 2021

Today is International Women’s Day and we wanted to mark it by celebrating inspirational women from the world of National Parks. Women have played – and continue to play – an integral role in National Parks across the world. As staff, volunteers and campaigners, as advocates, ambassadors and leaders.

Next month, the Peak District National Park celebrates its 70th anniversary. Campaign for National Park (formerly the Standing Committee on National Parks) played a significant role in the creation of the first National Parks here, and we were in good company with the likes of Ethel Haythornthwaite – founder of what is now known as CPRE Peak District and South Yorkshire. She was appointed to the UK government’s National Parks Committee, and helped to make the successful case for the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949, which led to the founding of the Peak District National Park in 1951. Read more on the Peak District National Park’s #70People70Years series.

Pauline Dower, along with her husband John Dower, also played an important role in the designation of Naitonal Parks – particularly the Peak District National Park. She was a renowned expert on National Parks and went on to become Deputy Chair of the National Parks Commission, was a member of Northumberland National Park Committee and went on to become the first woman President of YHA England. Find out more here.

Dame Fiona Reynolds is another important woman whose leadership and work has shaped the countryside we see today. She was Secretary of Campaign for National Parks when we were Council for National Parks and went on to become Director of the Council for the Protection of Rural England (now CPRE) and Director General of the National Trust. She was appointed CBE for services to the environment and conservation in 1998, and DBE in 2008 and wrote ‘The Fight for Beauty’ in 2016 – mapping out a path to a better future.

Similarly, cross the Atlantic in USA, several trailblazing women played key roles in the establishment of National Parks. Minerva Hoyt, advocate for Joshua Tree National Park in California and founder of the International Desert Conservation League. Photographer and conservationist Susan Thew – the ‘unsung hero of Sequoia National Park – travelled into the wilderness to document the High Sierra, action which helped secure an extension of the Park.

An insightful BBC World Service podcast, ‘The Climate Question’ explored the issue of women’s empowerment being at the heart of solving the climate crisis – from educating women to give them life choices which aren’t bound up with bearing children to more action at government level under leaders such as Germany’s leader ‘Climate Chancellor’ Angela Merkel. At a grass roots level, with Greta Thunberg leading the charge, we’re seeing a big movement of women environmental campaigners in towns and cities across the UK – inspiring others and sparking conversations to affect change.

Our successful Mosaic initiative helped inspire people to experience and connect with National Parks for the first time, and one of our Mosaic alumni Yvonne Witter went on to head up her own Mosaic group in the Peak District, inspiring hundreds of women in the process. It came as no surprise to us that Yvonne was named in Radio 4 Women’s Hour’s Power List.

As we write this, Campaign for National Parks is an all-women team under the leadership of Chief Executive Anita Konrad – most of the leaders of Campaign for National Parks have been women. Our Board is led by a woman too, Janette Ward, and women have played a key role in shaping our organisation over the years – including lifelong campaigner Kate Ashbrook and Marian Spain, now Chief Executive of Natural England.

Conversely, just three of our current National Park Authorities’ Chief Executives are women – Sarah Bryan in Exmoor, Alison Barnes in the New Forest National Park and Sarah Fowler in the Peak District National Park; so, as with many areas, there is still some work to be done when it comes to representation.

In the broader environmental sector, more progress is needed to ensure women are enabled to lead the way. 400 women added their names to an open letter to the Government calling for more women in decision-making roles at COP26 summit in Glasgow in November, after it was revealed that the UK was set to put forward an all-male team for the hugely important event.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge – and we will continue to do that and support women to join us in protecting and enjoying National Parks.