September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
From its sandals-and-jeans beginnings and heated platitudes about saving the earth from rapacious humankind, environmentalism has devolved from a cutting-edge protest movement i to a warm, fuzzy, and suburban issue. Everybody is an environmentalist now, from clearcut developers who preserve a bit of wetlands to sportutility-vehicle owners who recycle their newspapers. And when everybody is green, nobody is green.
Sure, greater environmental awareness has worked small wonders: Air quality in urban America has improved, you couldn’t start a fire in the Cuyahoga River now if you tried, and fish have returned to Lake Erie and the lower Hudson River. Still, if you had told environmentalists in 1975 that one of the most popular vehicles in early-twenty-first-century America would i be an eight-cylinder behemoth that burns a gallon of gasoline every dozen miles, they surely would have given up. The protesters who were inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the students who ran Earth Day teach-ins in the 19705 grew up to become SUV owners. How serious can they have been?
A tie between two movements led by women and directed at the male culture of drinking: temperance and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
From the Public Broadcasting Service to thousands of women’s history Web sites, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are celebrated for their heroic role in winning women suffrage. Less well known is their agitation for temperance. Along with other prominent women, like Lucretia Mott, Stanton and Anthony saw temperance as an essential part of the fight for women’s rights. Prohibition and women’s suffrage became part of the Constitution within a year of each other (1919 and 1920, respectively).
Today, temperance is preserved in folk memory and popular history as a slightly goofy venture presided over by Carry Nation types who axed open barrels of demon rum and let it flow into the gutter. In fact, temperance was an integral part of the modern women’s rights movement, as sure a sign as any that many women saw the world differently than men did.
Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton would have recognized the passion of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a group that has done nothing less than change the way we live—the ultimate goal of any social protest movement. Founded in tragedy and outrage, MADD has done more than simply raise consciousness about the dangerous combination of alcohol and automobiles. Its women have lobbied, successfully and without cadres of lawyers and power brokers, to see their vision of a saner society written into law. The legal drinking age has been raised nationwide from 18 to 21, blood-alcohol limits have been lowered and are getting lower still, drunk drivers go to jail when they kill or maim people, drunk-driving fatalities are down, and nobody younger than 35 remembers a time when drunk driving was winked at. In 1990 MADD declared its intention to reduce alcohol-related accidents to less than 40 percent of all auto accidents by 2000. That goal was realized in 1997, three years early.
MADD proved that a few ordinary people with no power other than moral force can change the way we live. But you won’t find it in the index of most chronicles of social protest.