Ask Jeff Slade if his mother was a “typical housewife” and he’ll say, “There was nothing typical about my mother.” Karenlin Madoff will tell you the same about her mom. She wasn’t a housewife, she was “a force of nature.”
Both Madoff’s and Slade’s mothers were clean air activists in the 1960s, when “clean air activist” wasn’t really a thing. But those 1960s “housewives” had plenty of sisterly company in the cause. In fact, American women had been agitating for clean air well before they could vote.
“Women’s activism was critical in getting the conversation started,” says historian David Stradling, author of “Smokestacks and Progressives: Environmentalists, Engineers and Air Quality in America, 1881-1951.”
For decades, coal smoke “had been seen as a sign of progress,” Stradling says. “But by the beginning of the 20th century, women are beginning to complain in an organized fashion about the effects of smoke on their home and on the health of their children. So they begin to redefine smoke as problematic.”
Jump ahead 60 years. Now, smog was the problem. Michelle Madoff was a young mother in Pittsburgh, married to a heart surgeon. She’d developed asthma after moving to the polluted city from Canada. So she decided to take action.
“She started hosting meetings in our living room,” her daughter says. “My mom said she went into the kitchen to get more drinks for people who were in the living room, and that’s when they voted her president of GASP.”
GASP was short for Group Against Smog and Pollution. What sounds like a clunky, if not obvious, name for a clean air group probably sounded both new and aggressive back then. So did women’s activist groups like S.O.S. or Stamp Out Smog in Los Angeles.
Afton Slade, wife of a Beverly Hills ad man, joined with other well-to-do women in that city in the late 50s to start protesting Los Angeles’ notoriouisly bad air. Another group of women in Pasadena, dubbed themselves the “Smog-A-Tears,” a spoof on Disney’s Mouseketeers.
“There they are dressed up in their little June Cleaver, you know, the pearls and the dress and so forth, wearing gas masks,” says historian Nancy Unger, author of “Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History”.
Unger and Stradling say women in both the Progressive Era and the 1960s were often ignored if they started talking about technical solutions or specific legislation to combat air pollution. “Those weren’t seen as women’s realms,” Stradling says.
They were more accepted if they “stayed within the issues that women are expected to speak on - children, health, cleanliness of the home, aesthetics of the city and moral standards.”
Women realized that. So sometimes they played the gender card. Housewives dragged their kids to anti-smog marches. They partnered with male scientists and politicians.
Slade’s mom went straight to the top. She consulted with Arie Haagen-Smit, the pioneering chemist who connected the dots between smog and cars in Los Angeles.
“My mom was on the phone all the time, I remember that, with Dr. Haagen-Smit,” Slade says. “So here she was, on the one hand, working with the Caltech scientist who really isolated the reasons behind ozone, and on the other hand, bringing her children to demonstrations with gas masks on.”
Stradling says today, the ranks of environmentalists are filled with both women and men. But today’s activists still get some of the same pushback the “anti-smoke” ladies got in 1900. They “continued to be assailed for not understanding the economic repercussions of environmental regulations,” Stradling says. “And that’s something that persists to this day."