Social Identity as Grammar and Rhetoric of Motives: Citizen Housewives and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring

Tara Lynne Clapp, Iowa State University


Literature is not only equipment for living, but equipment for social organization. In this paper, I propose the construct of a ‘social identity’ to name a grammatical interpretation of the world that is used rhetorically in social organization, identification and division. The worldview of the ‘citizen’ in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is an identity for organizing against contamination, came to life through the media, and has been activated in the environmental justice movement. First published in 1962, Silent Spring was an attack on the large scale use of pesticides and herbicides without regard for ecological consequences. The war on insects is a war against our own bodies. Through an innovative ecological application of the pastoral, Silent Spring created ambiguity in the boundary between the ecological scene and the (scene)-agent of the housewife. This ambiguity of substance provides resources for identification between the ecological scene and our ecologically scenic selves. The social identity of Silent Spring was taken up almost immediately in the immediate fight against DDT. Since then, the basic grammar of Silent Spring has been taken up in several characteristic types of environmental activism. I argue that a Citizen Housewife social identity – innovative in its ecological identification – can be traced from Silent Spring through to its uses in local environmental justice organizing. 

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring drew on the familiar resources of cultural pastoral attitudes of a natural order, and redrew the boundary of the natural order at an ecological self that needed to be protected from contamination. In the world of Silent Spring, a Citizen Housewife shared her substance with the natural order, had the legitimacy of rights and knowledge, and she exercised political agency. This identity resonated in political and social life, and created an identification for social action. In this paper, I trace the adoption and use of a Citizen Housewife identity in the environmental justice movement over time.
First published in 1962, Silent Spring was an attack on the large scale use of pesticides and herbicides. Pesticides had been used without due regard for their interrelated effects on natural ecosystems and human health. Building on a clear and involving introduction to ecology and natural systems, Silent Spring shows how the supposedly safe use of pesticides and herbicides causes harm at every level of organization of life, from the cell to the ecosystem. The war on insects is a war against our own bodies.

Silent Spring created a social identity – a grammatical interpretation of the world that has been used rhetorically in social organization, identification and division. A Burkean social identity is the intersection of the Grammar of Motives and the Rhetoric of Motives. As ideal organizations of a dramatistic world, social identities can be analyzed in the terms of the Grammar for the way they structure the world and place motivations. Insofar as these grammatical ‘philosophies’ are taken up by various social groups as rhetorically constitutive and distinctive, they function as potential grounds of identification and distinction, supplying a rhetoric of consubstantiality for understanding, organizing and action.

The world of Silent Spring presents a fully worked out grammar of interpretation crafted for a particular situation in the world. The central pastoral scene-agent ratio identifies the good agent with the scene, and motivates action against contamination (Burke GOM 1945/1969, p. 7-9).[1] A complex and beautiful world of life – the well-known ‘small town in America’ is threatened by an evil that silences the birds and eventually brings disease, mutation and death to people. The sources of this evil are eventually located in the motivations of agency – the simple and brutal chemicals of war – seeking new applications. They are aided by ineffective and arrogant regulators and corporately funded science. Housewives and a few perceptive jurists and scientists must work against this rain of death that is promulgated by narrow-minded and arrogant regulators and pesticide scientists. The agency of the good housewives that care about their own small worlds are the agencies of citizens – letter-writing and political organization.

The key innovation in Carson’s use of the familiar environmental pastoral is in the ambiguity of the boundary between the ecological scene and the (scene)-agent of the housewife. Our bodies, our cells, our reproductive capacities are one with the environment that is threatened. This ambiguity of substance provides resources for motivation through identification.
The interpretive resources provided by Silent Spring were immediately useful in the situation in the world. Silent Spring rang true, and explained the inexplicable in a host of nuclear and chemical post-war situations, from Strontium-90 in breast milk in New York to the horrors of the unwise use of thalidomide. The media event that followed the release of Silent Spring was unprecedented. The chemical industry orchestrated a counter attack, but the furor was not contained.

The social identity of Silent Spring was taken up almost immediately in the immediate and partially successful fight against DDT. The political reaction included a Congressional investigation, and widespread support for greater environmental regulation. The identity of Silent Spring provided resources for many kinds of environmental organizing and action.

The social identity of Silent Spring has since been taken up in several characteristic types of environmental activism. Along with the more responsible regulation of pesticides, the social identity of Silent Spring can also be seen in the organizing and activism that led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. In the immediate aftermath, the organizing identity of the Natural Resources Defense Fund was established as a defensive body using rights-based and legal agencies. The identity is visible in attenuated form in toxic chemicals regulation and in opposition to official ‘claims to safety’ of industrial foods. The social identity is a resource for many kinds of organizing against a host of technological hazards to our bodies and environment.

In this paper I trace one rhetorical lineage of the Citizen Housewife identity from literature to life: the Citizen Housewife as it is used and interpreted over time in environmental justice social movements. The social identity explains the territory at stake, and the sources of threats. The social identity also explains the special legitimacy of women, why claims to safety should not be trusted, and what forms of agency are available to the politically disempowered. The identity also helps to explain the attacks from scientific and regulatory identities, as predictably gendered and predictably attacking the focus on the local territory. The social identity can be taken up differently, at times as a ‘consubstantial’ identification, and at times as an identifying device. For those ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, the social identity helps audiences to characterize situation and to recognize new instances of the identity.

Social Identity

I developed a Burkean concept of social identity to link the Grammar and the Rhetoric in public discourse. A social identity is an interpretive form that is available for rhetorical use, a set of terministic resources that interpret and explain the motives of a potential situation and recommend forms of action in acting-together. The form can be translated from ‘literature’ to life as the appropriate situation arises. A social identity can function as a constitutive and distinctive rhetoric that allows adherents to organize and that can be seen as distinctive by adherents and by outsiders.

The Grammar of Motives investigates the ‘philosophies’ of explanations of the world in their ideal forms. The language of the Grammar is a language of systems of ideas, without users or opponents. Dramatistic analysis after the Grammar allows us to understand the ‘internal logic’ of an explanation or a system of ideas. The key term in the Grammar is ‘form’. Every system of thought or ‘philosophy’ has its characteristic formal structure of motivations (Burke GOM 1945/1969).

A social identity is first a dramatistic form: a constellation of identity, knowledge, goals and purposes, and modes of action. A social identity is structured from a perspective and a worldview, a position in the world and a way of looking at the world. The form explains actions in dramatistic context, by concepts of the identities, abilities, agencies and purposes in relation to the scene and other actors (Burke GOM 1945/1969).

For symbol-using animals in the ‘Scramble’ of the ‘Human Barnyard’ (Burke ROM 1950/1969, p. 23), the forms of language are part of our interpretive equipment. We translate between situations or generalize among them using form. Form helps us to recognize what kind of a situation we find ourselves in. In this way literary forms are applied in social action (Burke CS 1931/1968; Burke PLF 1941/1973). At the same time, forms help us to understand what we should do and what we are capable of doing (Burke CS 1931/1968; Frye 1957/1990). Particular social identities can be dramatistically described through form, ways of naming, and metaphors.
We can imagine systems of thought that exist at any one time as a literature without an audience. A particular social identity may have no current application to any situation, may have no living adherent. Yet, these forms of interpretation exist, ready for use by a new adherent encountering a new situation that requires interpretation. These are the resources of ‘literature’. Their use in a particular wrangle by a particular group is the application of literature as ‘equipment for living’ (Burke PLF 1941/1973).

Carson crafted a social identity through Silent Spring to help her audiences interpret a new situation of chemical threat. In order to connect with that audience, Carson drew on shared resources of form and interpretation. Silent Spring generalizes from past forms, from old and existing literatures, to offer a new interpretive form. Silent Spring creates an audience that understands what kind of situation this is, what is it that we need to know, and what is it that needs to be done, and by whom. In the world of Silent Spring, a social identity is fully articulated.

Social identities are unlikely to be permanently constitutive of an individual’s self-identity. An individual may use a given social identity to ‘see things differently’ (Anderson 2007, p. 6-7). The perspective offered through the adoption of a social identity may result in a permanent conversion. However, a rhetorical consubstantiality that allows an acting-together in the public realm does not require a full transformation of the self-identity claimed by the individual – except in relation to the shared situation.

In public life, we draw upon this interpretive equipment, this vocabulary of form, to understand where we are in relation to others, as in the Rhetoric of Motives. We may identify with others or define ourselves as alienated from them. As we use socially available words to define ourselves, we draw on a vocabulary of available identities or perspectives in relation to a situation. Our identities are socially defined (Burke ROM 1950/1969).

Our vocabularies of social identities function as organizing devices for both adherents and opponents. A familiar social identity allows an adherent to understand their own position in the world, and to be understood by others as representing a position that is understandable. Social identities allow social organization. Externally, social identities function as ‘stereotypes’ that allow those external to the social identity to recognize, understand and categorize the identity.

A given social identity will draw on existing interpretive resources, including literary forms, and use these to construct a worldview and an identity in relation to a problem or situation. This constellation of interpretation can then be traced as it is used by others in subsequent situations.

The Grammar of Motives of Silent Spring: the Ecological Scene/Agent

Silent Spring represents reverence for life in all its variety and complexity; pesticides are simple and brutal. Life ought to be revered and respected; there is much that is unknowable and uncontrollable in an ecological order. Profit and the domination of life ought not to be the overarching goals of society. The pesticide problem is a manifestation of a larger societal problem; the narrow-minded simplifications of a technological society. We, the good agents, must claim the powers of citizenship and wrest control away from the technological agents of a war against our own bodies.

The social identity created in Silent Spring aligns humans with the natural through ecology. Silent Spring realigns the boundaries of the familiar pastoral. Rather than locating the good in the rural or the wild, Silent Spring locates the good in an ecological scene. The scene of ecology includes earth, water, life and our bodies in cycles of life. This realignment is accomplished through metaphor, scientific evidence, and institutional critique. Through form, contrast, terminology, and perspective, the world is organized into an identification with an ecological, natural, domestic, and feminine “We” and alienation from an institutional, foreign, commercial, militaristic, and masculine “They” (Harris 2000).[2]

The Scene/Agent Ratio: Pastoral Motivations/Innovations in Silent Spring

Silent Spring places an ecologically involved Citizen Housewife – along with certain wise ecologists, perceptive jurists and a few responsible scientists – in a world that ought to be free of contamination by toxic chemicals. This world is threatened from several quarters by foreign and militaristic toxic chemicals, the agencies of commerce, industrial agriculture, and arrogant regulators (Lutts 1985). A pastoral boundary between the world of good and the sphere of evil is drawn not between the rural and the urban, but between an ecological-human body and the institutions, commercial and regulatory, that poison us.

Through an overall pastoral frame, the good characteristics of actors are related to the good characteristics of the scene. The scene-agent ratio is characteristic both of the pastoral form and of environmental writings in general, and relates the motivations of agents to the environmental scene.[3] The pastoral is a form of rejection; the sphere of the good must reject the sphere of evil (Buell 1995; Burke CS 1931/1968).

In the pastoral, the good identity of agents is related to the good character of the scene (Buell 1995; Burke CS 1931/1968; Williams 1973). The first chapter of Silent Spring is a fable that begins with a pastoral image of rural harmony. Initially, the fable proposes an interwoven pastoral harmony between a domestic, rural, agricultural human world and the environment.

There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. ... Then foxes barked in the hills and deer silently crossed the fields, half-hidden in the mists of the fall mornings… (Carson 1962, p. 1-3).

In making use of the pastoral, Silent Spring is both echoing and recommending its interpretive frame.

As a scheme of symbolization, in the pastoral form there is “a preference for the apparently ‘simple’ world of ‘nature’ ... over the complicated life of ‘civilization.’”(Scheese 1996). The pastoral form is a longstanding cultural form, and appears in Roman literature (Williams 1973). Originally, the pastoral scene was rural and agricultural. In the pastoral, the good scene is the setting for the good life. In American literary traditions, the pastoral form has been important in the identity of American exceptionalism, along with nature writing and earlier environmental writings (Marx 1964; Smith 1950/1970). The pastoral scene is given its good character through a divine or natural order: a scene with purpose. The character of the actors is related to the character of the scene (Buell 1995; Burke ATH 1937/1984; Marx 1964; Smith 1950/1970; Williams 1973).

The pastoral form embodies an attitude of rejection. In the traditional pastoral, civilized or urban society is the shadow that gives pastoral narrative its attitude of rejection or refusal. The evils of society are rejected through the imposition of a boundary (Buell 1995; Burke CS 1931/1968; Williams 1973). The location of the boundaries between the scene of good and the scene of evil are important since the characters of agents are related to the scene. The hierarchy of order equates the natural with the good, the good characters gain their qualities from the scene. The purpose of the pastoral agent is to maintain or defend this natural order, against civilizing or urban forces of corruption.

As the symbolic boundary has typically been placed between the urban and the rural, and later between the wild and the social, the pastoral has traditionally not been a critique that can illuminate the interdependencies between the two scenes, and the source of economic and social orders is at best ambiguous. The pastoral has drawn on a past that never was, and been blind to and supportive of social institutions of inequality and their rural linkages and interdependencies. Property relationships have been one of those institutions; in the pastoral these were right and proper and should have been defended. But through the pastoral we have typically mourned a social/natural order of domination (Burke ATH 1937/1984; Buell 1995; Williams 1973).

In American frontier and wilderness pastorals, the boundaries of the preserve of the good have excluded (white) humans, except as observers of the divine or natural order. Human/European society is necessarily corrupt. An agent can visit the divine order that is located in the wild, but he cannot become part of the order (Buell 1995; Marx 1964; Smith 1950/1970).

In American pastorals, the ‘scene of the good’ that had to be protected has been aligned with the natural, bringing the feminine into the equation of terms. The feminine, the inviolable, and the virginal had begun to be aligned early in the industrial age. Similarly in American wilderness pastorals, these gendered boundaries should have been inviolable. In order to protect and defend a virginal feminine nature against a seemingly inevitable ruination, we must maintain the boundaries of the natural against the trespasses of (masculine) human society – against persons (Baym 1981; Buell 1995; Kolodny 1975; Williams 1973).

In Silent Spring, the boundaries of the pastoral are realigned to relate an ecological wild to an ecological human body through a feminine order of nature, physical process and reproduction. The innovation in Silent Spring was to draw the boundary of natural inviolability at the molecular, cellular, biological and reproductive levels – the levels of the body. The pastoral alignment between the scene and the agents uses femininity as a common property; both are gendered as feminine. A permeable, natural body with a place in natural cycles and in the eternal reproductive order is primarily feminine. The human body is identified with the natural world. Carson’s ecological pastoral incorporates the “common salad bowl,” the garden, the housewife, her sense of hygiene and her concern for reproduction into the world of natural order.

Manmade poisons threaten the natural body and the natural order. This agency of war crosses the pastoral boundary through the actions of the guilty: chemical corporations, public agencies, and financially captured scientists. The source of the threat to the feminine ecological purity through contamination is “man’s arrogance” writ large through technological agency.

The contrasts between the ecological world and its rightful ecological occupants are established through metaphor and terminology. The natural world is described in ecological terms, and in terms that emphasize feminine concepts such as cycles, fabrics, weaving, wisdom, and light. Complexity and diversity are stressed.

The transformation of matter into energy in the cell is an ever-flowing process, one of nature’s cycles of renewal, like a wheel endlessly turning. ... The changes are made in an orderly fashion … each step directed and controlled by an enzyme of so specialized a function that it does this one thing and nothing else. ... (Carson 1962 p. 200-1).

Contrasts between shortsighted technological contamination and the delicate and complex natural world are used frequently. This contrasts a feminine humanity in cellular, biological, reproductive, and domestic terms against a masculine humanity in militaristic, regulatory, political, and technological terms. “Babies in the womb” and “mother’s milk” are contaminated by poisonous weapons (Glotfelty 2000).

Reverential descriptions of ecological complexity explain the hierarchy of natural order. The brutality of harm to the natural order shows the evils wrought by contamination: squirrels, robins, cats and humans in postures of painful death. Persistently, Carson contrasts an attitude of reverence and wonder that infuses her explanations of the complexity, interconnectedness and evolved orders in the living world with attitudes of anger, pain, impatience and sarcasm that color her explanations of the destructive workings of poisonous chemicals and the carelessness of their use.

The current vogue for poisons has failed utterly to take into account these most fundamental considerations. As crude a weapon as the cave man’s club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life -- a fabric on the one hand delicate and destructible, on the other miraculously tough and capable of striking back in unexpected ways. The extraordinary capacities of life have been ignored by the practitioners of chemical control who have brought to their task no ‘high-minded orientation,’ no humility before the vast forces with which they tamper (Carson 1962, p. 297).

The evidence of harm is contrasted with official claims to safety. Carson shows that the official claims are made in the absence of knowledge, in the absence of appropriate research funding, and sometimes against existing evidence of harm.

Contamination is an evil in itself, a transgression and a source of guilt whether or not specific health effects are proven in particular cases.

These sprays, dusts and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes -- nonselective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad,’ to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in soil -- all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called ‘insecticides’ but ‘biocides’ (Carson 1962, p. 7-8).

The consequences of not protecting the inviolability of the ecological scene/agent are apocalyptic.

Silent Spring takes up the pastoral attitudes that equate the natural with the good and the artificial with the bad, and the pastoral feeling that equates character with scene. Politically, this ecological pastoral can provide a far more penetrating critique of economic and social institutions than the wilderness pastoral can be. In the ecological pastoral humans have a place in the natural order. The natural order is not determined solely by location, but by a connectivity of shared ecological origin, changing the terms of substance from placement to ancestry (Burke GOM 1945/1969, p. 24-29).

As the pastoral boundaries of the good include humans -- children, mothers and farm workers -- the boundaries enable a social critique. Those most exposed to harm have the least political voice and the least economic benefit from the intensification of industrial technologies. The overall effect is a call to protective action by and for good people. This order does not preclude humans from a place in the good; it precludes contamination of humans.

An incomprehensible evil has fallen into the scene. In the introductory fable – into the “town in the heart of America” – poison falls out of the sky without any purposive connection to the humans in the pastoral scene, a transgression of the pastoral boundary. The conclusion that “the people had done it themselves” (Carson 1962, p. 3) inspires guilt without explaining the action. Somehow, ‘the people’ have brought disorder, death and evil into the good scene. The evil is eventually explained. The source of toxic chemicals is narrow institutions, narrow worldviews, and economically driven decision-making.

The sphere of evil is dominated by specialists, regulators, and corporations; these act as a coalition (Harris 2000). This coalition systematically ignores or avoids examination of the consequences of its actions on the natural world and discounts the ethos of citizens and their cares. The coalition is sometimes scene, sometimes agent, and chemicals are their agency. As scene, the coalition is the temper of the times, as “This is an era of specialists ... an era dominated by industry ...” (Carson 1962, p. 13). Also as scene, the ‘ecology’ of the coalition is given its generative substance by the excess agencies of war.

All this has come about because of the sudden rise and prodigious growth of an industry for the production of man-made or synthetic chemicals with insecticidal properties. This industry is a child of the Second World War. ... The result has been a seemingly endless stream of synthetic insecticides. ... (Carson 1962, p. 16).
As the scene for the action, the industry is an offspring of war, which grows prodigiously. But the situation is also populated by agents that act.
The crusade to create a chemically sterile, insect-free world seems to have engendered a fanatic zeal on the part of many specialists and most of the so-called control agencies. On every hand there is evidence that those engaged in spraying operations exercise a ruthless power. ... The most flagrant abuses go unchecked in both state and federal agencies (Carson 1962, p. 12).
Here the problem is caused by bad agents with ‘fanatical zeal’ and ‘ruthless power’ in the context of ‘state and federal agencies’ that are themselves both agents and scenes.

The Good Agents

Transgression of the ecological boundaries introduces guilt and motivations action in the world of Silent Spring. In the opening pastoral scene, “the people had done it themselves” (Carson 1962, p. 3). The victims of contamination can and must act to stop it. As these agents partake in the identity of the natural world, they are feminine and ecological. The agency of these agents must work within the terms of a gendered agency.

The authorial voice is a primary agent of the social identity of Silent Spring. Supporting the pastoral boundaries and contrasts, the authorial voice in Silent Spring is gendered as feminine. This gendering, as both representation and performance, is accomplished through tone, formal association, and an acceptably feminine approach to evidence (Jehlen 1995, p. 265-266). Our identification with the authorial voice or our alienation from it is key to our ability to adopt the social identity of the text.

In representing a public and speaking femininity, Carson faced the same rhetorical problem that women rhetors had faced before her. She needed to represent the narrative voice as sufficiently and acceptably feminine while speaking in public, which was itself an incongruous activity in this gendering.

In the context of the early 1960s, crafting a voice that was both acceptable and authoritative while also feminine depended on resolving several contradictions (Campbell and Jerry 1988; Campbell 1973). While using the equation of femininity with the natural as a resource, the authorial voice also needed to express anger, authority, and political agency.

The authorial voice in Silent Spring resolves the contradiction in acceptability between femininity and anger through tone. The incongruity between femininity and authority is resolved through the use of quotations and attributions. At the same time, this contradiction is also challenged through the use of quotations from women, often represented as housewives. Similarly, the contradiction between femininity and the agency of citizenship is challenged by the representations of women-as-agents within the text as well as by the text itself as the product of a woman (Campbell 1973).

The tone that later critics called ‘overemotional’ and ‘hysterical’ is most often clipped and tight-lipped, a lady taking offense. One example of this clipped tone is in her reference to the exclusion of the right not to be poisoned from the Bill of Rights, “surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem” (Carson 1962, p. 13). The tone deepens into sarcasm:

Our attitude toward poisons has undergone a subtle change. Once they were kept in containers marked with skull and crossbones; the infrequent occasions of their use were marked with utmost care that they should come in contact with the target and with nothing else. With the development of the new organic insecticides and the abundance of surplus planes after the Second World War, all this was forgotten. Although today’s poisons are more dangerous than any known before, they have amazingly become something to be showered down indiscriminately from the skies (Carson 1962, 155-6).

The change she reports is hardly ‘subtle.’ The tone of voice is reserved and ladylike, as ladylike as one can be in such a situation.

The acceptance of the social identity of Silent Spring depended on the acceptability of the character of its authorial voice, as a woman representing science. The trustworthiness of this voice is established formally by careful presentation of evidence. The overall structure of the text is a claim to reasonableness through the use of an expository and scientific form. As well, in resolving the contradiction in acceptability between femininity and holding strong opinions, the feminine authorial voice defers to the voice of good experts, and to the voices of others. Formally, this deference is represented by the use of extensive quotations. At the same time that the use of quotations claims standing and authority for others, this usage appears to defer to the voices of others in a collaboration (Campbell and Jerry 1998; Dow and Tonn 1993).[4]

The authorial voice defers to the voices of experts; the layers of attribution can be complex. To preface her explanation of cancer causation, the authorial voice explains:

When this question is put to Dr. Heuper, whose years of distinguished work in cancer make his opinion one to respect, his reply is given with the thoughtfulness of one who has pondered it long, and has a lifetime of research and experience behind his judgment. Dr. Heuper believes ... (Carson 1962, p. 240).

The feminine authorial voice is careful to present her evidence and her authority as if solely in representation of the opinions of a known and usually male expert. Her reticence to claim her own authority is crafted so as to minimize the appearance of a woman speaking out of turn.

And yet, the direct voices to which the authorial voice defers are often presented as those of housewives. These quotations claim a right to speak for housewives, who are simultaneously presented as having expertise as “seasoned observers.” The direct quotations themselves also recommend action, and implicitly and explicitly suggest letter writing as an appropriate action for housewives to take.

From the town of Hinsdale, Illinois, a housewife wrote in despair to one of the world’s leading ornithologists ....

Here in our village the elm trees have been sprayed for several years {she wrote in 1958}. ... After several years of DDT spray, the town is almost devoid of robins and starlings; chickadees have not been on my shelf for two years, and this year the cardinals are gone too; ...

It is hard to explain to the children that the birds have been killed off, when they have learned in school that a Federal law protects the birds from killing or capture. ... The elms are still dying, and so are the birds. Is anything being done? Can anything be done? Can I do anything? (Carson 1962, p. 103, quoting).

While using ‘direct’ evidence to describe a problem, this use of a housewife quotation embodies a claim that housewives ought to have standing to speak, that their voices ought to be heard. Within the text, this kind of quotation serves both as evidence of harm and a model of identity, agency and action. Women as citizens should write letters. For those who identify with this housewife and the birds she cares about, it recommends action.

The coalition that threatens us with contamination involves regulators and governments. The agents in the world of Silent Spring must claim their identity as citizens. Citizens need to write letters against toxic chemicals, support ecological research, and reject contamination of their world. Adherents of this social identity need to claim their rightful role as citizens, their right to speak and their right to know.

The social identity of Silent Spring names the problem and what to do about it, and creates potential selves that share this familial ecological substance. We need to take political action to protect our selves and our world, like the ecological citizens and scientists of Silent Spring. We need to reclaim our authority from the chemical and agricultural industries and from the irresponsible and ignorant regulators, some of whom are in the pockets of the chemical industry.

Silent Spring as Social Identity: Resonance and Resource at Publication

In order for a particular grammar from literature to function in the world as a social identity, it must achieve several things. The new interpretation must resonate with the situation in the world, addressing some discomfort or recalcitrance in existing interpretations. The new interpretation must draw on existing cultural forms in order to be recognizable. To be a recognizable identity for both the organization of identification and division, the new identity must be widely represented in the media of social life.

The grammar of Silent Spring resonated with many current news stories. The worldview of the text and its authorial voice yielded a perspective that made sense of several stories of contamination. These stories of contamination - with chemicals, with the byproducts of nuclear testing, and with pesticides – needed a new explanation. The grammar of Silent Spring gave voice to a new discomfort with the cultural faith in technological progress and faith in corporate and governmental authority.

My argument is that the social identity of Silent Spring became widely available in the culture as a resource for organizing social action. The ecological and politically active Citizen Housewife – and those that organize against her – must then be able to recognize her whether or not they have read the book. For this persona to spring into political life, she and her opponents must be widely recognizable. Potential adherents must be able to recognize ‘what kind of situation this is’ and to lay blame and take action accordingly. The opponents of the social identity of Silent Spring and of later organizing also continue to use similar epithets and defenses.

The publication of Silent Spring, serialized in magazine form and then released in book form, created a considerable and widespread commotion. The book was a best seller. Its publication was treated as an event in various media including the new medium of television. Silent Spring and its author were vehemently and vociferously attacked by the chemical industry and by some scientists. Silent Spring had an almost immediate political impact, leading to hearings on pesticide regulation and increased funding for pesticide research (Dunlap 1981; Graham 1970; Lear 1997).

It is perhaps surprising that a book on toxic chemicals and cancer would be greeted with such attention. Carson was well known as a nature writer, and Silent Spring is beautifully and gracefully written. However in understanding the furor surrounding the publication of Silent Spring, the context of its exigency must be understood. As well, the widespread attention afforded to Silent Spring was a marker of how well the book connected with its audience through form and metaphor. The book drew on existing interpretive resources in presenting its thorough condemnation of the systemic power of the agricultural and chemical industries and their regulators.  The combination of the exigency and the skillful use of interpretive resources helped make Silent Spring resonate with its audiences and draw counterattacks from its detractors.

The publication of Silent Spring struck a chord of popular suspicion with new chemicals and new technologies. Along with Cold War prosperity, there was an undercurrent of what might be called Cold War angst. Large scale public pesticide spraying programs had met some resistance in some regions of the United States. The fire ant program in the south, in particular, had already met with considerable citizen opposition including the governor of Louisiana himself. Spraying programs on Long Island, in New Jersey and in Massachusetts had also met with growing citizen opposition (Andrews 2000; Bosso 1987; Lutts 1985).

There had also been a great deal of publicity when the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning against the possible contamination of cranberries with the herbicide amniatriazole in 1959, just prior to the holiday season (Andrews 2000; Wang 1997). Publicity surrounding the cranberry warnings had brought chemical risks to the public table. The Food and Drug Administration was also responding to the then-recent Delaney Amendment that prohibited the addition of carcinogens to food. Later findings had cleared the cranberry supply, but the consumption of cranberries was far below normal levels that year.

Silent Spring also resonated with the other ‘chemical story’ of 1962. Reporting of the horrific effects of thalidomide had come to public notice just as Silent Spring was being released in serial form (Dunlap 1981; Graham 1970, p. 50). As well, the appearance of Strontium 90 in the milk supply had been announced through the newspapers (Andrews 2000). Public attitudes towards new technologies in general and nuclear technologies in particular had been darkened by a growing awareness of the effects of nuclear fallout on human health (Dunlap 1981; Lutts 1985).

The stage had been set for a new and encompassing explanation for these events - previously disparate but disturbing. Silent Spring captured and gave focus to public concern over new technologies. The book made use of the specific concern over nuclear fallout through the comparison of the risks and effects of chemical pesticides with fallout and through the metaphorical equation of pesticides with weaponry, drawing on existing metaphors (Lutts 1985; Russell 1996).

Silent Spring made metaphorical and interpretive connections between various kinds of contamination. In naming the situation, Silent Spring featured the threat of contamination and set it in the context of a larger explanation. In the face of growing suspicion and a growing record of technological harm, the pastoral attitudes of Silent Spring struck a chord.

In constructing the social identity of Silent Spring, Carson was able to present a coherent interpretation of a new situation using many familiar existing interpretive resources in innovative ways. Her interpretive innovations were successful at least in part because they involved realignments and adjustments of widely accepted interpretations. In making use of familiar interpretations to structure a new worldview, Silent Spring was able to attract adherents to see the world according to its perspective.

As this perspective prescribed an increased activism from a new ecological citizenry, it also demanded a response from the adherents of the social identity it attacked. The chemical industry organized a media campaign. The media presence of the debate over Silent Spring helped this social identity to become a recognizable identity for organizing through identification.

The New York Times called the event that was Silent Spring the ‘Noisy Summer’ (Graham 1970). The event began even before the release of Silent Spring in serial and then in book form. On one side of the debate, Carson created a network of scientific collaborators through the process of her years of research. On the other side, chemical corporations developed strategies of defense. The chemical corporation Velsicol threatened both the magazine and book publishers with lawsuits (Brooks 1972; Graham 1970; Lear 1997).

The release of Silent Spring was followed almost immediately by a public relations attack by large chemical companies, beginning with Velsicol and later involving a coalition of corporations. This program involved the publication and distribution of informational brochures. Monsanto published an article called “The Desolate Year” picturing a world without pesticides. As well, economic entomologists and other pesticide researchers spoke out against Silent Spring. Scathing reviews were published in trade magazines, science, and engineering journals and in magazines with broader circulation, such as Time (Dunlap 1981; Graham 1970; Lear 1997; Matthiessen and Sancton 1999; Stauber and Rampton 1996).

As a broad cultural event, Silent Spring took place through the public media of newspapers, magazines, journals, and television. Two CBS broadcasts were influential in public perception of the issues. The second was broadcast nationally in April of 1963 as “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson.” The program included a debate between Rachel Carson and a scientist from American Cyanamid. These broadcasts framed a public image of Rachel Carson in relation to the scientist. Public reaction to the show seemed to favor Carson by a wide margin. The identity of Carson as calm, reserved, and insistent only on ‘better knowledge’ had greater appeal to the audience than the identity of the scientist.

The scientist represented himself as an authority, represented pesticide interests as public interests, and claimed the issue for the realms of expert knowledge. He also seemed far less calm than Carson, casting doubt on the character of those who had termed Carson hysterical. In the light of circumstances, it had become difficult “to defend pesticides by evoking the authority of the expert” (Wang 1997). Reaction to these broadcasts was “like a second printing of Silent Spring,” as far as they captured public attention (Lear 1997; McCay 1993). Book sales rose. The media event created social images of identity with wider circulation and a different kind of generality than did Silent Spring as a book.

The Kennedy administration gave the Life Science subcommittee of the President’s Science Advisory Council (PSAC) the task of investigating the claims of Silent Spring, the safety of pesticides, and their regulation. While other government agencies were perceived as dominated by chemical and pesticide interests, the PSAC was perceived as disinterested. The PSAC had investigated the ‘cranberry crisis,’ whichwas seen as a similar situation (Dunlap 1981; Graham 1970; Wang 1997).

The PSAC report of March 1963, was taken as vindication of the documentation and many of the conclusions of Silent Spring. It recommended tighter governmental control and regulation of pesticides and the eventual elimination of persistent pesticides, DDT in particular. However, the recommendations of the PSAC report were largely unimplemented. While the PSAC report had relatively strong administrative support and some support in Congress, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture objected to the conclusions of the report. Both agencies were concerned that the report might raise concerns with the safety of the national food supply both domestically and internationally (Bosso 1987; Dunlap 1981; Wang 1997).

While the PSAC report lent legitimacy to Carson’s arguments in Silent Spring, it narrowed the framing of the problem. Silent Spring had criticized the fundamental sources of contamination in human society and the involuntary risks to cells, genes and ecosystems. While Silent Spring had attacked a whole range of persistent chemicals and an attitude to life, the regulatory debate over the elimination of persistent pesticides narrowed initially to DDT itself. In later Senate hearings, the debate narrowed further and the burden of proof was shifted from proving safety to proving harm.

In attenuated form, and through further hearings, the claims of Silent Spring were dampened to technical questions. Immediate threats to public safety that could be directly attributable to pesticides were dealt with in accordance with available research, scientific institutions and regulatory norms. The burden of proof was shifted back on scientifically proven harm rather than proven safety under conditions of suspicion.

The immediate controversy over Silent Spring was incorporated into political institutions as a problem of the regulation of pesticides. The philosophical position of Silent Spring was not, and could not be, addressed by the better regulation of pesticides. The framework of the pesticide critique rests on a much larger critique of technological society, economic decision-making, and claims about the proper role of humans in nature. For example, Silent Spring suggested an ecological approach to agriculture rather than large-scale monocultures. Not only would this reduce the need for pesticides, it would embody human respect for natural processes and subordinate the profit motive to the desire to live in harmony with the natural order.

Some historians have emphasized the genuine concerns of the coalitions of interest against Silent Spring: agri-business, economic entomologists, and other supporters of modern science without direct financial ties to the chemical industry. As a whole, these coalitions felt that agricultural chemicals such as DDT were essential to modern agriculture and safe when applied properly. Silent Spring, it was felt, was irrational and reactionary. The latter group -- supporters of modern science -- reacted to the critique of modern technology, progress, and the institutions of scientific and regulatory authority (Dunlap 1981; Hynes 1989). As Silent Spring drew on the growing distrust of new technologies and official reassurances, this group felt the threat to scientific progress, to the authority of science in society and to modern civilization itself. This authority, they felt, was properly theirs. Silent Spring claimed that authority for ‘housewives’ and other citizens.

Silent Spring as Equipment for a Right to Know Identity

While the furor over Silent Spring was partially contained through existing political and scientific institutions, it had and continues to have influence in the environmental movement. Its themes continued to be presented and promoted by environmental groups, as ‘equipment for living’ that can be used to suitably interpret each new unnamed malaise and to frame meaningful action (Burke CS 1968, 31; Burke PLF 1973).

One of the earliest and still influential identities that makes use of the identity of Silent Spring is the identity of the citizen, claiming standing to speak and the attendant Right to Know. This legalistic and rights-based identity is featured in Silent Spring as a core image. It has been mobilized against the control that industry is seen as having over regulators.

This identity draws on the legalistic, citizen based claims in the text of Silent Spring. Citizens gain legitimacy from their status as citizens, and the perspective this brings. Citizens are not subject to the claims of special interests nor to the arrogance and narrowness of specialists. Rather, they are more qualified than experts to judge the risks of pesticides. Citizens have a claim to legitimacy based on rights that outweighs the claims of experts. The constitutional status of citizens as well as their status as the bearers of risk both contribute to the larger importance of citizens than ‘industry’ or the ‘insect controllers’ and their calculations.

In the first years, a Right To Know identity was mobilized in the fight against DDT. It embodies the claim that citizens should have standing and the right to speak. Their central opponents were regulators and their expert postures. In this social identity, legal and regulatory institutions must be reformed to grant proper standing to citizens. In the Right To Know identity, as in Silent Spring, the value of science is ambivalent (Harris 2000). Citizens must mobilize good science, featuring ecological understanding and environmental causation, against bad science that features narrow and individualistic ideas of causation. Initially, this citizen identity is represented by masculine means and actors and makes greater use of traditionally masculine pursuits such as science.

An identity that organizes around the status of citizen recommends citizen forms of agency. That is, when one sees oneself acting primarily as a citizen, one uses the means or agencies that are in accordance with this identity. For Right to Know citizens, public fora and legal avenues of action should be and were used against pesticides. In relating the history of the eventual successful ban of DDT, a small group of lawyers working against the use of DDT in Minnesota used the forum of the courts to present their claims (Dunlap 1981). Their claims featured ‘good’ scientific evidence against DDT by taking an ecological perspective to present risks to human health and ecological systems. These citizens worked to expose the dangers of contamination and addressed the environmental causation of health problems due to DDT. This group organized itself into the Environmental Defense Fund, a group that continues to mobilize a citizen identity and use the courts as a forum to argue against the regulatory discourse of balancing of costs and risks and a still-pervasive individual approach to causation.

This social identity also sees the reform of legal and regulatory institutions as an important avenue for action. Using many of the same resources as the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council also mobilizes a citizen identity through judicial channels against the regulatory, ameliorative discourse. They too have a legalistic, mandamus emphasis, stressing the duty of protection. The Natural Resources Defense Council takes credit for having citizen standing incorporated into the Clean Water Act (NRDC 2001). This provision institutionalizes a right to speak into an institutional form.

The Citizen Housewife: A Social Identity in Action

Initially, the social identity of Silent Spring was adopted by a landslide of letter-writing citizen housewives. Carson and her secretary received thousands of letters after the publication of Silent Spring. These letters reported the health effects of pesticides, and the problems that citizens had had in having their concerns about pesticides and health taken seriously (Hazlett 2004). Many of these letters came from individuals whose concerns about pesticides and their health, or the health of the ecosystems around them, had previously lacked a public voice. Carson herself was limited by her declining health from playing a leading role in the fight to ban some of the clearest chemical villains; she died of breast cancer only eighteeen months after the publication of Silent Spring.

The constellation of terms in the dramatic scene of Silent Spring - scene, actors and their agencies and acts, structured by an overall pastoral attitude of rejection - is distinguished as well by its gendering, use of metaphors and sphere of attention. The ecological agent of Silent Spring may undertake environmental activism indoors, or in urban environments. Sometimes these forms of organizing are not even recognized as environmentalism by those in the more masculine nature-conserving traditions, where the environment is typically outdoors.

In some cases, the social identity of Silent Spring was used in near-complete form to make sense of the world and to motivate social action. In other cases, its use was partial, changing some elements in accordwith a new situation or to recommend different actions. Subsequent groups have made use of the social identity of Silent Spring to structure their interpretations - both because it is a cultural identity with the familiar ring of truth, and in hopes of galvanizing action in a wide audience.

The social identity of Silent Spring has been used primarily against environmental hazards that link clearly to public health. The clearest and most thoroughgoing application of the Silent Spring social identity is in the Citizen Housewife tradition. This tradition has been characterized in previous research in hazardous waste discourse (Williams and Matheny 1995), and as a feminist form of environmental activism in environmental and feminist histories (eg. Gottlieb 1993; Seager 1993).

Citizen Housewife forms of activism enact the threatened ecological body of Silent Spring. One of the most striking images of Silent Spring is that of our intimate connection -- chemical and biological -- with the natural world. The boundaries between ‘people’ and ‘nature’ are made permeable and sometimes invisible. We are threatened, and our selves include our environment. We are threatened against our will and without full knowledge by toxic contamination. This contamination is the dangerous product of economic shortsightedness, narrow worldviews and judgments of relevance, arrogance, and a lack of respect. We must act to refuse this. The agencies that should be responsible are incapable of protecting us from harm.

The social identity of Silent Spring is activated in many situations of ecological threat, such as genetically modified organisms and pesticide residues in food, pollution and technology that affects childrens’ health, and the industrial pollution of water. This identity is most fully employed in the Citizen Housewife tradition of what has come to be known as environmental justice activism. The metaphorical gendering is most thoroughly applied by women. Our bodies are permeably natural, reproductive and feminine. We are threatened in the same way as the soils, water, insects, fish and mammals are threatened, as we share a cellular vulnerability.

The most widely-familiar national media image of the Citizen Housewife identity is Lois Gibbs with her child on her hip, symbolizing the disaster of Love Canal. Local organizing in Love Canal included a national media presence and influence in national Superfund legislation. Since Love Canal, Woburn and other toxic community events, anti-toxic activism developed into the movement known as environmental justice (Andrews 1997; Brown and Mikkelsen 1990; Gottlieb 1993; Krauss 1993; McGurty 2007; Williams and Matheny 1995; Wellin 1996). More typically, the battles have been local.

The movement against hazardous waste and toxic contamination that came to be called environmental justice developed in the 1980s (McGurty 2007). Aspects of race and class added a dimension beyond gender to the power dynamics and claims to legitimacy. Accordingly, the Citizen Housewife social identity has been developed beyond that of Silent Spring. Yet, the Citizen Housewife is still a recognizable social identity within the movement. The Citizen Housewives of environmental justice continue to employ the metaphors of femininity available in Silent Spring to shape claims, agencies, organizing, and purposes. In environmental justice, the Citizen Housewife identity is even more oppositional as it is used against local ecological threats by many otherwise unrelated community groups in grassroots mobilization.

The Citizen Housewife identity of environmental justice is similar to the Citizen Housewife identity as it was in Silent Spring in the structure of feeling and the position of self in the world. The ecological pastoral continues to structure a consubstantial relationship with family and community, a proper freedom from environmental contamination, an attitude of rejection and an explanation of power. This is rounded out with the importance of gender for rightful citizenship.

Toxics from industrial processes or waste provide a similar situation to synthetic pesticides and herbicides. The risk is unknown and may be large, and damage may take considerable time and effort to document. The institutions of science are unprepared and unable to take local effects into account. Those who bear these risks are not those who benefit, nor are they typically those involved in regulatory decisions.

The Citizen Housewife identity of environmental justice and of Silent Spring build on longer traditions in women’s organizing identities. An organizing identity for women had to justify legitimacy and standing internally and externally. In the dominant culture, women were properly housewives, and the proper place of housewives was in the home. The private sphere was their domain. Women had little access to political agency. Their husbands were the public citizens and political actors (Campbell 1995; Hawkesworth 1990).

From the beginning of the 20th century, many women’s groups had organized around two related perspectives that reconciled political activity for women through their role as housewives -- caretakers of the domestic sphere. One enlarged the concept of the domestic sphere, where women were already credited with legitimate authority. Examples include the Municipal Housekeeping movement and the Settlement House movement (Blum 2001; Hoy 1980). The other used the idea of a closer natural connection to care and nurture to necessitate a public role for women; this approach was used in the suffrage movement and the peace movement (Hawkesworth 1990; Swerdlow 1993).

In Silent Spring, the two related claims are joined. Women are naturally related to concerns about reproduction and nurture, through a global domesticity of ecology. Women (should) have a greater responsibility for and a greater legitimacy in decisions that concern the care of their worlds. In environmental justice, the Citizen Housewife continues to build on this combination of rhetorically resonant claims. We who have been excluded should have a claim to a public role through our status as Citizen Housewives, and that the environmental sphere an extension of our domestic sphere. Citizen Housewives have special claims to legitimacy. In their communities, this status goes beyond mere equality.

Womens’ local activism against environmental hazards has been explained using both social and essentialist ideas of maternalism and ecofeminism (Blum 2001; Merchant 1995). From a rhetorical perspective, the nature/culture argument about the source of womens’ identifications with caring, family, community and the environment is less important (Anderson 2007). The claim to greater legitimacy over the fate of one’s community is a persuasive identity for acting-together for communities – and especially for women – threatened by contamination.

The locality-based nature of this activism has been said to build on women’s local social networks and concern over children (Brown and Mikkelson 1990). The Citizen Housewife identity claims special legitimacy over bodies, communities and localities. Citizen Housewives have immediate knowledge; their perception is not limited by an uncaring institutional distance. In this identity, distance from a situation would lessen one’s legitimacy.

The Citizen Housewife identity, and therefore its organizing power, depends in part on an alienation from dominant epistemologies, existing institutions and political organizations. Just as physical distance lessens one’s legitimacy as a Citizen Housewife, so objectivity and emotional distance are not to be trusted. Risks and hazards are taken personally, and much of the ‘objective’ discourse of scientists is discounted. Risks and hazards are threats from ‘outside’ to the ‘inside’ sphere that Citizen Housewives claim as their own.

Citizen Housewives are ambivalent towards science and scientific evidence. On the one hand, science is needed to show the presence of risk or harm. On the other hand, the norms of a science such as epidemiology typically prevent the creation of useful local knowledge where there may be multiple symptoms and disorders and a highly variable population. ‘Science’ and scientists are subject to capture by economic interests. Science can be one of the powerful institutions against which Citizen Housewives organize. In Woburn and in Love Canal, residents and scientists together practiced ‘popular epistemology’ to document harm. Citizen Housewives must balance a need for information with the ethos of science without the moral hazards of excessive objectivity.

Roles as wives and mothers are emphasized in the self-representation of Citizen Housewives (Krauss 1993; Wellin 1996). These roles bring legitimacy as they give actors responsibility for health, reproduction, children, neighbors and the environment. Claims to the properties of citizenship, such as the right to know and the right to speak, are central.

The Citizen Housewife identity is politically ambivalent both for those who use it and for those against whom it is used. An identity as ‘housewife,’ ‘mother’ or ‘woman’ is understood as central to legitimacy and authority by Citizen Housewives. These terms are often used in professional risk assessment literature as emblematic of irrationality and ignorance. From the external perspective of this literature, the resistance to objectivity is represented as self-interest. Citizen Housewife groups are typically minimized and delegitimized with the catch phrase NIMBY (not in my backyard). From within the identity, the ‘backyard’ is the sphere of legitimate action; the answer to NIMBY is “Everybody’s Backyard” (CHEJ n.d.).[5]

The Citizen Housewife identity does include defenses. Just as Silent Spring was written in the expectation of attack from official and corporate sources (Lear 1997), the Citizen Housewife identity incorporates defenses appropriate for their situations. One preventative defense is the presumed discount that should be afforded expert and regulatory discourse. The frequently gendered and racialized discounting of Citizen Housewives and their opinions is also ‘anticipated’ and is an organizing resource. Self-representations of environmental justice activists include narratives of put-downs and discounting by public officials (Wellin 1996); these support and build the identity.  

The Citizen Housewife identity is oppositional in form; effective political and institutional influence is alien to it. This is consistent with the claim that the pastoral is a frame of rejection. The pastoral cannot accommodate acceptance as a dominant form must (Burke ATH 1937/1984). The Citizen Housewife has no way of accommodating the sin of power or the sin of pollution through casuistry. Its use in social cooperation is therefore limited -- by its own terms and by its own success. Political and institutional influence belongs to those against whom the Citizen Housewives organize. While the identity supports coalition-building for wider influence, it does not accommodate ‘necessary evils.’

This is not to say that Citizen Housewife activism has met with no success. Citizen Housewives can be credited with winning many battles. These include federal legislation such as Superfund in 1980, and the Community Right to Know provision instituted in the Superfund Amendments of 1986 against toxic byproducts and hazardous waste (Williams and Matheny 1995). More recently, the federal government adopted a requirement for administrative review of environmental justice impacts. A whole series of local and regional waste treatment facilities have gone unsited.

A Citizen Housewife identity itself cannot become ‘regulatory’ or ‘administrative’ or ‘bureaucratic’ identity as long as the industrial system depends on toxic materials and waste disposal. An individual may ‘cross the contamination line’ and become a regulator, or accept that a certain level of contamination is inevitable given ‘economic realities’, but the Citizen Housewife identity rejects contamination. 


Speakers and selves make use of the resources of social identities in order to interpret a situation, and in order to be understood. The Citizen Housewives of environmental justice activism are understood both characteristically and stereotypically through a socially shared identity that yields the perspective on oneself and the situation for interpreting the situations of environmental injustice.

Like the identities of identity politics, social identities are constrained from overly rapid innovation by the audience demands for expectation and familiarity, not by essential or determined selves. A social identity is an interpretive resource available for use by individuals and for organizing attitudes into political action. Social identities provide a basis for political action – and they may equally constrain political action, through constraining innovation.

A Citizen Housewife identity can be traced ‘through’ Silent Spring. A form of this identity predated Silent Spring, in Municipal Housekeeping and in the natural mothers of the peace and suffrage movements. Through Silent Spring, the Citizen Housewife acquired an ecological identity.

The Citizen Housewife identity and its attitude of rejection would not be tenable for women in positions of power. On the other hand, the identity enables and demands individual political action and organizing.

There are difficulties, both internal and external, with the Citizen Housewife identity. Distrust of official opinions is important and helps give the identity coherence, as is an emphasis on uncertainty. As a Citizen Housewife, there is no way to accommodate or forgive exposures that may be safe. Accordingly there is no consistent way to judge between risks. Many individuals find that they must use other resources to make these judgments.

The political engagement with the larger environmental sphere that the Citizen Housewife identity demands is draining. The Citizen Housewife demands a commitment parallel to one’s family be extended to neighbors, community and environment. It is difficult for the identity to sustain this commitment outside of immediate threat. Once the threat subsides or is perceived as lessening, many Citizen Housewives groups lose members. Within the literature that names Citizen Housewife groups as not-in-my-backyard groups, this feature is often interpreted as parochialism.

There are also applications of Citizen Housewife groups to other situations that are amenable to interpretation through the ‘contamination’ metaphor. The boundaries between ‘purity’ and ‘contamination’ and local claims to greater legitimacy have also been used successfully in local organizing against other facilities such as group homes and even affordable housing. Just as the Citizen Housewife identity has generalized in this way, planners and regulators also generalize, and have created a ‘type’ of facility that includes waste facilities with group homes. These are named as ‘LULUs’ or locally unwanted land uses.

The Citizen Housewife identity within environmental justice is more ambivalent towards science, and more distrustful of institutions of science and regulation than it was in Silent Spring. For one thing, Silent Spring sought to involve a large audience with the environment; accordingly some of its critiques were stated in gentle ways to increase its appeal to ‘common sense.’ For another, some of the concerns represented by Silent Spring have been partially addressed through regulation. For example, pesticide regulation has banned some specific pesticides, and attention has turned to the proper management of wastes. However, these concerns have been addressed in ways that dampen or attenuate the full implications of Silent Spring (Hynes 1989).

The Citizen Housewife identity continues to represent the more systematic critiques of Silent Spring. Our regulatory institutions continue to use utilitarian and statistical approaches to risk and its distribution, in effect denying the importance of both persons and citizens. Our industrial processes continue to be ever more dependent on new and unfamiliar chemicals; 500 to 1000 new chemicals are introduced each year (Kraft 2001). Citizen Housewives see the inherent risk for our selves and our children of environmental contamination by industrial and agricultural chemicals, through industrial and economic institutions of power. For Citizen Housewives, the simplicities of science and the complexities of life mean that testing cannot prove contamination safe for our children or our worlds.

Tara Lynn Clapp is an Assistant Professor in Community and Regional Planning at Iowa State University. She teaches sustainable communities and environmental planning.


  1. A ‘scene-agent ratio’ is a dramatistic equation between the scene and the agent, certain kinds of scenes are the settings for certain kinds of agents. The two may set expectations and provide motivations for each other.
  2. Harris uses a terminological analysis of Self-words and Other words to explain this alignment, rather than a formal analysis.
  3. Not all writings that link scene/environment to agent/character are pastoral. Here the term ‘environmental writings’ is used more broadly than its specific political meaning of the last forty years as ‘environmentalist.’ A link between scene and agent is characteristic of many other ‘environmental’ traditions such as environmental determinism, social Darwinism, and behaviorism, to name a few.
  4. These strategies have been used widely by women rhetors over time. The rhetorical strategies adopted by women rhetors that have come to be seen as the feminine style include using masculine expository styles in combination with feminine presentations of evidence, feminine concerns and personae.
  5. The quarterly newsletter of the Center for Health and Environmental Justice, founded by Lois Gibbs, is called “Everybody’s Backyard. Other frequently used internal terms are NIABY (not in anybody’s backyard), or NOPE (not on planet earth).


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