Dr. Danielle Wirth is somewhat of a legend in the WGS program. For nearly 20 years she led the program’s Ecofeminism course. Now that she is moving on to new projects and into retirement, she reflects on her time at Iowa State and how she came to ecofeminism.
In 2000, Dr. Wirth co-created the ecofeminism course for the women’s studies program with sociology professor Betty Wells. Dr. Wirth says she loved teaching with Dr. Wells because they held many contrasting views and would have passionate arguments in front of their classes.
“Certainly we would agree on the major issues,” said Dr. Wirth, “but we would perhaps disagree on how to carry through projects.”
Dr. Wirth attested that her students appreciated this lively discussion because it taught them about healthy, respectful debate, something Dr. Wirth believes is lacking in society today. Unfortunately, Dr. Wells became so busy with the graduate program in sustainable agriculture that she could no longer team teach with Dr. Wirth. So for the following 16 years she taught the class solo.
As a “blue collar accidental academic,” Dr. Wirth says she happened upon the concept of ecofeminism unintentionally. Prior to becoming a professor, she worked as a federal park ranger. She also worked for the state department of natural resources as a naturalist and environmental educator for 18 years. She saw an opportunity to attend a conference in Wisconsin on environmental ethics. Should her work superior fly her out the conference, she said she would bring it back to Iowa. With the help of some naturalist friends— “co-conspirators,” Dr Wirth called them, that dream became a reality.
“We started a rumor that the conference was moving to Iowa. We had an environmental education center where we could host it.”
At that very conference, Dr. Wirth met the incredible scholar Dr. Karen J. Warren, a name Dr. Wirth’s students recognize, as her Ecofeminist Philosophy text informs much of her course. Wirth says at that conference, in 1988 or so, she learned about the principles of Ecofeminism from Dr. Warren. Her conservationist knowledge began to blend with feminism. According to Dr Wirth, ecofeminism examines the “demeaning, disrespectful, harmful behaviors that happened to the planet” which are very much tied to abusive behavior towards women and children. The combination of women’s and ecological issues is where ecofeminism begins.
“I believe I’ve used the metaphor from Liz Dodson Gray, where you have two rivers floating along the landscape. One river holds the concern that we have for the natural world. Another river flowing in, holds the concerns for women and women’s issues. And when they, when rivers come together, that intersection is called the confluence.”
Dr. Wirth was determined to integrate her newfound knowledge into her work in parks. She had no intention of becoming a scholar, but she said the opportunity presented itself and she decided to get a master’s degree.
“I was told by one park ranger, who thought that when I had more education, I could tell him how to manage the park,” said Dr. Wirth. “So I got a master’s in natural resource management, and then I did know more than he did.”
After acquiring her master’s Dr. Wirth she left her job with the department of natural resources and the environmental protection division to work for a friend at Iowa State, Judy Lovings. Together they created the first web-based curriculums for children. Eventually she started taking more courses at Iowa State and earned a Ph.D in environmental ethics, then leading her to becoming a professor at ISU.
Since starting the Ecofeminism course in 2000, Dr. Wirth has had a clear impact on her students. But she says she learns from and is inspired by her students as well. Their resiliency, determination, and passion for change are all qualities she says she admires in her students. She also says her students have given her more of a willingness to accept help.
“When I go out into the field and to do wildland fire management,” said Dr. Wirth, “…I had to go into the field wearing PPE. You’ve got to carry it on your back. I’m five-foot-two and a half. And I train for this kind of field work with people who are six-foot-four. So I was at a disadvantage in taking what are called pack tests and red card certification. On my frame, that much weight has taken its toll on my knees and my joints. So I need to step back a little bit. I’m still doing that, but what I have learned from students when someone offers to carry my pack, I no longer get defensive. I accept the help and I say thank you. So it’s allowed me to graciously and enthusiastically pass on the torch.”
Now that Dr. Wirth is heading into retirement (from professorship, anyways), a new face, Sandy Andrews will take over her ecofeminism course. According to Dr. Wirth Sandy brings an international perspective that is vital to ecofeminism and the WGS program as a whole.
According to Dr. Wirth, Dr. Andrews grew up in Romania under the Soviet block and a dictatorship. She also has experience being an organic farmer and has taught at the Michael Fields Institute for sustainable agriculture.
“She has the science and the activism,” said Dr. Wirth, “She’s very well-spoken and she’ll bring that international perspective.”
Now that Dr. Wirth will have more leisure time, she will continue working on conservation projects. She remains passionate about water quality issues, and when COVID-19 is less pervasive, hopes to visit legislatures and do some face-to-face lobbying. Dr. Wirth and her husband also own a Savannah and are working to foster a return of native vegetation around her home and the state of Iowa.