Michael W. Childers

A Culture of Fear: Sexism’s Ugly Role in Federal Land Agencies

Introduced in 1970, the NPS offered seven different women’s uniforms, all included short skirts made of thin material. Most infamous were the go-go boots, when combined with the skirt offered a highly sexulaized and rather unprofessional look.

There is no doubt that for many, a career working in the West’s vast public lands is a dream job. From the sublime beauty of Yosemite to the sagebrush flats of Wyoming, federal employees spend their lives managing and protecting our national heritage.

But while recent events in Oregon have focused attention on the struggles between rural land users, recreationalists, and local and federal governments, a darker, more troubling story has begun to emerge concerning the culture of sexism and intimidation within federal land management agencies.

Last week, the Huffington Post’s online magazine Highline published “Out Here, No One Can Hear You Scream.” Written by journalist Kathryn Joyce and producer Emily Kassie, the multimedia piece exposes the pervasive culture of sexism within every federal land agency, telling the stories numerous women and their struggles with unwanted advances, intimidation, cronyism, and rampant misogynism. It is a powerful condemnation of a culture too long accepted, and well worth a read.

A longtime friend emailed me the story. With nearly two decades working for various federal land agencies primarily in the West, the women’s stories in the article struck a deep chord within my friend. “And here I thought it was just me being a “damn feminist,” she wrote before launching into a testimonial of her own experiences. Needless to say, they mirrored many within the Highline article.

Reading, and then rereading both the article and her testimony, I went from being enraged to deeply concerned. When combined with the growing violence, or threat of violence, against federal land managers as chronicled by the High Country News, the rhetoric calling to “return” public lands to states, the incredible pressures federal employees face in trying manage millions of acres of land while under attack from all sides that believe that their use/view has primacy over all others, and the good ol’boy-networks that often run most rural western communities, it is frightening what dangers women face when simply attempting to do their job.

What am I supposed to tell my eager young students who dream of someday working in a National Park, National Forest, or on BLM lands who romanticize long days under a western sun, hiking, four wheeling, and protecting our western public lands? It is difficult enough to express the complex politics, laws, and histories of these places. What about the daily struggles of simply being seen as an equal? Fending off unwanted, and often unprosecuted, sexual advances? The inequities in promotions, access, and acceptance?

I am not sure what the answers to these questions are, but I do know that they should start with an acknowledgement that these women are a part of our western communities. They are our neighbors and friends, and so should be treated as such. We need to demand accountability from local, regional, and even national land management offices in rooting out such behavior. And we need to combat the often red-hot anti-government rhetoric that targets federal employees and has led to events such as the illegal occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by armed criminals. All of these untenable situations have helped create a climate of fear and intimidation in which we ask our land managers to not only protect our national lands, but also to preserve them for future generations. This is a tall order under the best of circumstances, and an impossible one if half of our land managers are marginalized, harassed, and out-in-out ignored because of their gender.



1 comment on “A Culture of Fear: Sexism’s Ugly Role in Federal Land Agencies

  1. In one of the best articles of the past several years, Lyndsey Gilpin at High Country News provides a much more in depth look into the systemic problems of sexism within the National Park Service at http://www.hcn.org/issues/48.21/how-the-park-service-is-failing-women.

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