Nancy Unger

Associate Professor, History

Phone: (408) 554-4000 X 6889

Current Work

My new book, Beyond Nature's Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History, examines the intersection of political and social reform, women's history, gay and lesbian history, and environmental history.

From pre-Columbian times to the environmental justice movements of the present, women and men frequently responded to the environment and environmental issues in profoundly different ways. Although both environmental history and women's history are flourishing, explorations of the synergy produced by the interplay between environment and sex, sexuality, and gender are just beginning. Offering more than "great women in environmental history," this book examines the intersections that shaped women's unique environmental concerns and activism, and that framed the way the larger culture responded. Women discussed include Native Americans, colonists, enslaved field workers, pioneers, homemakers, municipal housekeepers, immigrants, hunters, nature writers, soil conservationists, scientists, migrant laborers, lesbians, nuclear protestors, and environmental justice activists. As women, they fared, thought, and acted in ways complicated by social, political, and economic norms, as well as issues of sexuality and childbearing.

The housekeeping role assigned to women has long been recognized as important in environmental history. But that emphasis ignores the vast range of their influence and experiences. Enslaved women, left to do the fieldwork in disproportionate numbers, used their environmental knowledge to subtly undermine their masters, hastening the coming of the Civil War. Many pregnant women, faced with childbirth on the western trails, eyed frontier environments with considerable apprehension. In more recent times, lesbians have created alternative environments to resist homophobia and, in many economically disadvantaged communities, women have been at the forefront of the fight against environmental racism.

Women are not always the heroes in this story, as when the popularity of hats lavishly decorated with feathers brought some bird species to near extinction. For better, and sometimes for worse, women have played a unique role in the shaping of the American environment. Their stories feature vibrant characters and shine a light on an underappreciated, often inspiring, and always complex history.

My award-winning biography Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer, details the life of progressive giant Robert M. La Follette (1855-1925) and includes a chapter on his equally progressive wife, Belle Case La Follette. Upon her death, Belle La Follette was hailed by the New York Times as "perhaps the least known, yet the most influential of all the American women who have had to do with public affairs in this country."See:

Additional work focuses on Lesbian and Gay American History.


Representative Publications

Book:Beyond Nature's Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History(New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)

Journal Articles:

1. "The Two Worlds of Belle La Follette." Wisconsin Magazine of History Vol. 83, no. 2, (Winter1999-2000): 82-110. (Cover feature)

2."How did Belle La Follette Resist Racial Segregation in Washington D.C., 1913-1914?"Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1775-2000, vol. 8, no. 2. Edited by Kathryn Sklar and Thomas Dublin. New York: Alexander Street Press, June 2004.

3. "The 'We Say What We Think' Club: Rural Wisconsin Women and the Development of Environmental Ethics," Wisconsin Magazine of History, Autumn, 2006: 16-27. (Cover feature)

4. "Teaching 'Straight' Gay and Lesbian History," Journal of American History, 93 (March 2007):1192-99.

5. "The Role of Gender in Environmental History," Environmental Justice, September 2008, (vol.1 no. 3): 115-120.

6. "Women for a Peaceful Christmas: Wisconsin Homemakers Seek to Remake American Culture," Wisconsin Magazine of History 93, no. 2 (Winter 2009-2010): 2-15.

7. "Wisconsin's League Against Nuclear Dangers: The Power of Informed Citizenship,"Wisconsin Magazine of History, Winter 2012-2013.


1. "Women, Sexuality, and Environmental Justice in American History." In New Perspectives on Environmental Justice: Gender, Sexuality, and Activism, introduction by Winona La Duke,edited by Rachel Stein. Rutgers University Press, 2004, pp. 45-60.

2. "Gendered Approaches to Environmental Justice: An Historical Sampling," Echoes from the Poisoned Well: Global Memories of Environmental Injustice, Sylvia Washington, ed., Rowman and Littlefield/Lexington Books, 2006, pp. 17-34.

3. "'When Women Condemn the Whole Race': Belle Case La Follette Attacks the Color Line." InWomen in Print. James P. Danky and Wayne Wiegand, eds. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006, Volume in series: Print Culture History in Modern America, pp. 281-96.

4."The Role of Nature in Lesbian Alternative Environments in the United States: From JookJoints to Sisterspace," Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Biopolitics, and Desire,Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson, eds.,(University of Indiana Press, 2010), pp. 173-198.

5. "Gender: A Useful Category of Analysis in Environmental History," Drew Isenberg, ed., Oxford Handbook of Environmental History, (Oxford University Press, 2013).