Anne M. Keller, Ph.D., is a 2016 graduate of the PhD Program in Environmental Studies at Antioch University, New England

Dissertation Committee:

  • Joy Ackerman, Ph.D., Committee Chair
  • Alesia Maltz, Ph.D., Committee Member
  • Ann Durkin Keating, Ph.D., Committee Member


women environmental activism, environmental activism, conservation, Chicago, Illinois, landscape

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Women's environmental activism prior to the early 1960s in America focused on women's roles as municipal housekeepers or emphasized wilderness conservation. I offer in this dissertation the story of the Illinois Prairie Path, the country's first rails-to-trails conversion to apply for National Recreation Trail status, and the innovative women who fought for nature preservation in a suburban setting rather than in a wilderness area. Led by renowned writer and naturalist, May Theilgaard Watts, these women built support for the public footpath project by fostering an ecological awareness throughout their region. I place them in the tradition of Chicago female reformers as a bridge between women of the Progressive Era and members of the modern environmental movement. My aim in this research is to show the ways in which May Theilgaard Watts and the Illinois Prairie Path founders cultivated a new post-wilderness era model of environmental thinking through their emphasis on the restoration of a suburban open space. These women scientists and naturalists worked for democratic equality through ecological restoration and access to nature. Through an interdisciplinary focus on ecocriticism, the politics of place, and the history of the suburban landscape, specifically in Chicago's metropolis, I examine how these women redefined space by linking communities across a region. By analyzing the documents, letters, speeches, and photos generated by founding leaders of The Illinois Prairie Path not-for-profit corporation, I demonstrate that this community of women challenged the hierarchies of the day. Their vision for conservation and connecting people to nature continues to serve as a model for the future of the Illinois Prairie Path and other rails-to- trails conversions.


Anne M. Keller

ORCID Scholar ID# 0000-0002-6324-4948