Inspiration for Women's History Month: Wangari Maathai

PHOTO Wangari_Maathai (c) Patrick Wallet

(c) Patrick Wallet

Born: April 1960 in Kenya

Occupation: Environmental and Political Activist, known for the Green Belt Movement

Awesome Quote: “In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.”

Why should you know about her? Maathai’s Green Belt Movement planted more than 30 million trees in Africa and helped about 900,000 women. She overcame obstacles, politically and personally, to be an agent of change for her children, her peers, and all women.  Her activism started from a dream when she lived in rural Kenya as a child.  She would dream about running next to a stream that no longer existed, and that dream inspired her to create an environmental grassroots organization that transformed the lives on many women and children. Some people, including the Kenyan government, viewed her candidness and criticism as detrimental and unnecessary to Kenyan citizens, yet she pursued her passion and made a long-lasting impact on the world to her loved ones and her family.

Brief Biography: Wangari Maathai was born on April 1, 1940 in Nyeri, Kenya.  She won a scholarship to study biology at Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas.  In 1971, after receiving her master’s degree in science, she earned her doctorate degree—becoming the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn it. It is important to note that this was a great accomplishment for a woman to pursue higher education.  In the 1970s, elite white women were the main women earning degrees.  Maathai was an African woman from a poor background and despite the odds, she was able to earn her degrees and set a precedent for African women. Maathai was part of the National Council of Women and was the chairman from 1981 to 1987.  It was in this position where she introduced the idea of planting trees to serve people.  This idea developed into a grassroots organization, the green belt movement, dedicated to planting trees in order to conserve the environment and improve quality of life.  This movement responds to the needs of Kenyan women who stated their streams were dried up, their food supply decreased, and they walked great distances to find firewood for food and supplies.  Maathai would pay poor women to plant trees to reforest Kenya.  The mission of the movement is to empower the community through environmental management (find more information here: This form of community empowerment is a different form of feminist activism to serve the needs of women and children. It was so effective and successful that in 2004, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to environmental sustainability, democracy, and peace, which fueled her passion to continue to vocalize her dissent about the close connection between environmental degradation and poverty.  Her outspokenness was not well-received by everyone, including the then-president of Kenya.  He did not believe in her movement, calling it “subversive” and ordering the police to beat her unconscious during a protest where she was wrongfully arrested.  While her work life was in turmoil, her home life was in turmoil as well.  Her husband, Mwangi, whom she married in 1969, told her on a number of occasions that she was too strong-minded for a woman, and he stated that he was unable to control her.  She did not agree with her husband and divorced him in 1977.  The divorce was costly and with the lawyer fees and loss of her husband’s income, she found it difficult to support herself and her children on a low wage income.  Despite this, she was able to find an opportunity to work for the United Nations.  Unfortunately, she could not bring her children with her because it required a lot of traveling.  She made a tough decision about sending her children to her ex-husband so that she could get the job. She visited them frequently throughout the duration of the job.  She moved forward in home life and political life despite the challenges and continued to make an impact in her country.  In 2002, she was elected to parliament with 98% of the vote and was appointed Assistant Minister of Environment, Natural Resources, and Wildlife in Kenya by the president.  In 2011, Maathai died of cancer.  She is survived by three children and a granddaughter.

This biography relies on two key sources: Jeffrey Gettleman, “Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Laureate, Dies at 71.New York Times 26 Sept 2011 and “Wangari Maathai– Biographical.”