For and Against in Women—& Wangari Maathai

Can a Woman Make Sense of the Way She’s For & Against a Man, the World, Herself?

By Nancy Huntting

Wangari Maathai (1940-2011)
Wangari Maathai (1940-2011)

Including a consideration of aspects of the life & work of Nobel Prize-winner Wangari Maathai

I wanted to think I was just for a man who I cared for, that he was wonderful, and in fact much of the time I acted that way, as if I just admired everything about him. But, if he did something that I took as against me—didn’t call me, didn’t listen, forgot me, then it was: “how dare he disappoint me, that selfish, mean .…!” The truth was, I went from being for a man to being against him very fast, and my relationships did not fare well. I assumed it was the men’s fault.

For instance, in my mid 20s, I’d just broken up with Jay Matthews, a theatrical set designer whom I’d hoped to marry. I’d been intensely against him—feeling he was not interested in or understanding of what I called my struggle to find myself. But I also wanted him back, and in an Aesthetic Realism class, I’m grateful Eli Siegel enabled me to make sense of how I was for and against him. Mr. Siegel asked:

Eli Siegel:  Where are you proud of how you see Mr. Matthews? [In Shakespeare’s play,] Juliet was very proud of being interested in Romeo.
Nancy Huntting:  I like his energy, his desire to know things.
ES:  The way he sees an art adds to the way you see the world?
NH:  Yes, his interest in set design. I’ve learned a lot.
ES:  He has the desire to construct, and you’re more verbal? There are three things in being affected by a person: 1) What he knows; 2) What his heart is like, and 3) His manner. Do you feel you have a true picture of him?
NH:  Maybe not.
ES:  Do you see him too eulogistically, and also as a beast? Does your anger give him no qualities at all?
NH:  Yes, I think that’s true. 1

I remembered that I threw a book at Jay—seeing him as an enemy I wanted to hurt. Mr. Siegel gave me some of most valuable criticism I ever received when he said to me: “I see you as a person who wants to love something securely, and at the same time not give up your disdain.” 2

I was disdainful. While most of the time I acted adoring with Jay Matthews, I simply assumed I was superior—sensi­tive, faith­ful, smart—and he, like other men—con­ceited, selfish, unseeing. I was attracted to men that were energetic, interested in art. However, I equated love with a man making me central, more important than other things. But if someone did this I thought less of him, had contempt for him—and became increasingly bad-tempered.

Mr. Siegel enabled me that day to begin to see Jay Matthews with good will. He showed me I needed to be for his existence in the whole world, not as some prize or disappointment for me. Like every person, he had possibilities of good and bad, and both were real, to be understood. Mr. Siegel asked:

Eli Siegel: Do you feel Jay Matthews is kind enough?
Nancy Huntting: No.
ES: It’s important. I think he wants very much to be kind. The purpose of education is to be kind without mush. He doesn’t believe in it yet. Does he have enough good will for you?
NH: No.
ES: Is it good for him? 3

I had never thought of that, and I was learning the purpose that puts for and against together truly. Aesthetic Realism shows good will is not the gushy, soft thing it’s been seen as at all—it takes intelligence. It’s wanting to know what’s best in someone, and encouraging it with energy and steadiness.
In an issue of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Ellen Reiss explains why I and women and men everywhere are so painfully mixed up in love: ” People don’t know that they way they are for and against other human beings arises from how they are for and against the world itself.” 4 She continues:

Aesthetic Realism shows that there is an actual hope in a person to be against the world, despise it, see it as…unworthy of oneself. Aesthetic Realism is the study of how to put for and against truly together: to oppose what is unjust in a person out of respect for that person; to be terrifically against what is ugly in the world out of love for that world. 5

For & Against in a Woman of Africa Today

Kenyan women collect the young trees they’ve cultivated for planting.

In 2004, Wangari Maathai of Kenya became the first environmentalist and first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She got it for 3 decades of hard work in the Green Belt Movement she founded, which has planted 30 million trees in Kenya, help­ing prevent soil erosion and desertification and providing edu­ca­tion and jobs for people who desperately need them. The Green Belt Movement encouraged in people who’d felt powerless an active interest in justice, in fighting for what they and the environment deserve and against “land-grab­bing” and exploiting of natural resources.

There was a deep care for the land and people of Africa in Wangari Maathai which enabled her to persist against formidable opponents—corrupt government officials and corporations, being lied-about and jailed. Unbowed is the title of her 2006 memoir. Meanwhile, she had the question of how to see the very people she was encouraging—how to make sense of ways she was for them and against them.

Traditional dwelling in Kenya

Wangari Maathai was born in 1940 in the central highlands of Kenya, the third of six children, and grew up in a traditional dwelling of earthen walls and thatched roof in her family’s compound, on land that belonged to a British wheat farmer for whom her father worked as a multi-lingual driver and skilled mechanic. Kenya, once called British East Africa, didn’t achieve independence until she was 23 years old in 1963; meanwhile, foreign investors continue to control and profit from its resources. In her 2009 book The Challenge for Africa, a chapter is titled “Land Ownership: Whose Land Is It, Anyway?” in which she writes:

Colonial governments forcibly displaced large numbers of native Africans to make way for European settlers….They also brought with them a concept of landownership that was alien to much of the African continent….Traditionally, land was owned not by an individual but by the family or the community. 6

When Wangari was growing up near Mt. Kenya in the 1940s the fertile land provided them shelter, food, clean water, and fuel; in the winter their earthen dwellings were actually warmer than the stone buildings of the Catholic school where she lived in her teens. Yet, like many other native Kenyans forced to be “squatters”—if, for instance, they grew crops beyond their needs, they had to sell them to the British landowner at a price enabling him to resell at a profit.

In many lectures Mr. Siegel gave he showed that how the land is owned is central to history. Because a few people have claimed ownership of vast tracts, millions of others have been robbed. In 1923, in the Modern Quarterly, Mr. Siegel wrote:

Now if nobody made the land, it is evident, to a really normal human, that everybody living has a right to own it and should own it. And the land is what everything comes from—the one means of industry.7

For and Against in the Education of a Child

Children have a strong desire to learn, and to find the world pleasing, Aesthetic Realism shows—and meanwhile these desires have met tough opposition, often economic. The British didn’t want the native people, their cheap labor force, to be educated, so when Wangari was a child there were still very few schools, with girls rarely attending. Her mother had not had this chance. She tells how, when she was 8, a decision was made that was profoundly for her life:

My brother Nderitu (who was age 13) posed a question to my mother: ‘How come Wangari doesn’t go to school like the rest of us?’….My mother could easily have said, ‘We don’t have enough money, I need her at home. What is the point of a girl going to school?’ Yet, although she had al­most no formal education, she agreed with my brother. How grateful I am that she made the decision she did…it changed my life!8

She walked three miles to the Ihithe Primary School, went on to a Catholic missionary high school, and received a scholar­ship through “The Kennedy Airlift,” to attend Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas. She then got a masters in biologi­cal science at the University of Pittsburgh and returned to research, teaching, and her doctorate at the University of Nairobi.

People have gotten degrees, yet have used education against the world—for superiority. To a large degree Wangari’s academic study made for greater feeling in her for people and what they endured.

Illustration by Claire Nivola from Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai
Illustration from Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Claire Nivola

She observed the livestock she was studying were too thin, her country not as fertile and green, water more scarce, women’s lives harder—and she wanted to know why. She saw that the many trees cleared for the planting of crops exported for profit, like coffee and tea, had caused soil erosion. In her home­land in Nyeri, a fig tree she was in awe of as a child, which her people, the Kikuyu, saw as sacred, was gone, and she writes:

When the fig tree was cut down, the stream where I had played with the tadpoles dried up….I mourned the loss of that tree. I profoundly appreciated the wisdom of my people…. Whatever the original inspiration for not cutting these trees, people in that region had been spared land­slides, as the strong roots of the fig trees held the soil together in the steep mountains. They also had abundant, clean water. But by the early 1970s, landslides were becom­ing common and sources of clean water for drinking were becoming scarce.9

She was angry, and in 1977 she began the Green Belt Move­ment in order to encourage women to see they could do something to improve their own lives: by planting trees, and also by fight­­ing to save forests and stop public lands being usurped for private profit. Shamefully, they had to fight their own govern­ment, which was working, not for their benefit, but for the persons making large profits from the land which rightfully belonged to these native men and women.

For and Against in Love

Every woman needs to know how to put together being for and against a man, and how to criticize our own desire to be against that is contempt. We can see that Wangari Maathai has this danger, as she tells about the discrimination against women in her University department, where she rightly fought for equality of pay. However, in the following sentences she shows a desire to be superior:

I found myself challenging the idea that a woman could not be as good as or better than a man.…Indeed, I found myself wanting to be more than the equal of some of the men I knew. I had higher aspirations and did not want to be compared with men of lesser ability and capacity.10

In 1969 she married Mwangi Mathai; she was 29 and he was 34, and together they were to have three children. She writes that “he was a good man, very handsome, and quite religious,” adding “he was always a very good businessman.” At this time she was becoming one of the Kenyan elite. Her husband had also gone to college in the U.S. and returned to work for Colgate Palmolive in Kenya; then he ran for Parliament—she worked with him, and he won his second campaign. This made for a crisis in her life—she writes:

Mwangi promised that he would create more employment for people if they voted for him. This worried me a lot….’Where will he get these jobs from?” I thought to myself, ‘There are no jobs these days….After he had taken his oath of office, I raised the issue of his promises. ‘What are you going to do with all the people you promised the jobs to?’ I asked. ‘That was the campaign,’ he replied. ‘Now we are in Parliament.’”

‘How can we face these people in another campaign?… Don’t you think they’ll ask, ‘Where are those jobs you promised?’ Mwangi old me not to worry. But I did. I refused to accept that we should break our promises so easily.11

She attempted to start a business which would employ many people called Envirocare—gardening and landscaping for persons in the wealthier areas—which didn’t succeed. In the course of trying, though, she came to know a forester from whom she purchased her first tree nursery.

Two years later in 1977 she came home to find that Mwangi Mathai had left her and wanted a divorce. Her writing shows she felt that he was encouraged by traditional ways not to like having a strong, successful wife. And she says angrily, “It had never occurred to me…to deny any of my God-given talents to prove he was in command.”12 I thought of questions that Wangari might be asked in Aes­thetic Realism consultations:

Consultants:  When you were five years old, and perhaps ran faster than a boy your age—do you think you might have felt pleasure, imagining you were superior to him?

WM (smiling):  Yes, I certainly could have.

Cons: You should be as good as you can be—but that is different from getting pleasure thinking you’re better than someone else—which is the kind of pleasure Aesthetic Realism explains is contempt. This contempt is the same thing you’re fighting against in officials who look down on people living in the villages, and exploit them for their own profit.

WM:  I’m learning something new. Thank you.

Cons:  All prejudice comes because someone gets pleasure thinking they’re superior to someone else. Do you think you ever felt this about your husband?

WM: Oh, my. I’ll have to think about that. Yes, I think so.

Cons:  It seems you rightly objected to your husband not keeping his campaign promise, but do you think he himself felt ashamed?

WM:  He acted sure of himself. But I think he must have.

Cons:  Does that mean there was something better in him than what he was going by?

WM:  Yes, I see the logic.

Cons:  Aesthetic Realism says everyone has an ethical uncons­cious—it’s the world in us insisting we be fair to it or we can’t like ourselves. Could you have fought for that: for what was best in him? Could you have said, with that directness you have: Mwangi Mathai, you’re being un­true to yourself, the ethics in you. I love you, and I’m going to fight for that. And you know what a good fighter I am.

The Education that Makes Sense of For & Against

I want Wangari Maathai, who is so admirable, to know the education we’re presenting tonight, and which women are studying in Aesthetic Realism consultations. For example, Lacy Warren, a science professor from Minnesota, was, like Wangari, a world-traveler with academic degrees, and she’d also been married and divorced. She told us she moved to New York hoping to start a new life. She said:

When I arrived here I was a bitter and disappointed woman, thinking I would stay ‘independent’ for the rest of my life and not care for anything or anybody too deeply. 13

Now she had begun seeing Patrick Fisher, a lawyer, but she was ill-at-ease. Like Wangari Maathai, for and against in her were intense: an anger with her father, her ex-husband, and men as such, yet she wanted to love someone. We asked: “What was your husband’s biggest criticism of you?

Lacy Warren: He said I wasn’t honest. I wanted my own way, and didn’t want to see what he felt.

Cons: What do you think you were most dishonest about?

Lacy Warren: Showing my feelings. Why have I wanted so much to arrange my response to things?

Cons: Because you haven’t trusted reality too much. Are people good enough to show your feelings to?

Lacy Warren: I haven’t trusted people.14

Meanwhile, as she spoke about Patrick Fisher, she presented herself as utterly for him. Hints came through—little smiles at how he was awkward, and about things he didn’t know—that she felt she was intellectually superior, and didn’t value his care for the law. We asked: Do you want him to be intimidated by your keen mind?

Lacy Warren: Maybe I do.
Consultants: Have you liked to punish men?
Lacy Warren: I think I have.
Consultants: Do you still have cynicism about reality itself? Because cynics don’t fare too well in love—if the world isn’t seen as worth liking, you’re not going to want to like it through a man, you’re going to want to punish it.

And we asked: “Do you think that men have criticism of themselves? Is this real to you?”

Lacy Warren: It could be more real.
Consultants: How are your thoughts about your former husband?
Lacy Warren: My thoughts are better. I don’t feel they are just about wanting to get revenge on him—but, I don’t feel I’m kind in my thought about him.
Consultants: Do you feel a man deserves to suffer? That he doesn’t deserve good to come to him? That’s a terrible thing to play around with—it’s what makes bombs fall. The matter of good will Mr. Siegel saw as the biggest emergency in the world.15

We told her that she should try to see the inner life of men; one book we suggested was Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. There was an important change in her when she wrote:

You have encouraged me to be fair to my former husband, and to look honestly at my regrets….I feel my life is more hopeful….I see people more deeply, [and] I don’t feel alone anymore—this is very large. Aesthetic Realism enables me to be a better and kinder person, something I thought would never be possible.16

A High Point of For and Against

In 1989, when the Green Belt Movement was in its 12th year, Wangari learned the government planned to build a huge skyscraper complex with shopping mall, parking for 2000 cars, and statue of the president in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, equivalent to our Central Park. She wrote passionate, critical letters, and kept on writing them though she never received replies: to President Moi, to the Kenya Times for whom the complex was to be named, the British, and the UN. She gave copies to journalists who reported on her campaign, and led demonstrations in the Park. She writes about its large significance:

I was distressed at the audacity with which the government was violating people’s rights, quashing dissent—often brutally….Ordinary people had become so fearful that they had been rendered nearly powerless. Now, they were begin­ning to reclaim their power….17

It began losing financial support, and finally in 1992 the complex was dead! Winning this fight, she writes, gave many people “more confidence, courage, and speed.”18

After this, however, the government sought revenge—the Green Belt Movement was evicted from their offices and lost crucial funding, and so she housed the organization and its 80 employees in her home, along with her teenage son. She heard she was one of many in pro-democracy groups targeted for assassination; then police came to her home. Charged with sedition and treason, she was taken to a cell where she had to sleep on the floor: “wet, freezing cold, filled with water and filth….I was 52 years old, arthritic in both knees, and suffer­ing from back pain…my joints ached so much that I thought I would die.”19

By the time of her court hearing her legs had com­pletely seized up; she had to be carried, and she was crying from pain and weak from hunger.

As she was taken from court to the hospital, a banner carried by friends and supporters read WANGARI, BRAVE DAUGHTER OF KENYA, YOU WILL NEVER WALK ALONE AGAIN.20 Her son Muta fought for her release, and American friends at the U.N. called on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to act: eight U.S. senators, including the late Paul Wellstone, brought pressure to bear through telegrams. Several months later the charges were withdrawn.

I want Wangari Maathai and people everywhere to know what Aesthetic Realism has explained: there is a fight for and against the world in everyone which we have to make sense of, and through Aesthetic Realism, we can!

Wangari Maathai and the Obamas plant a tree.


1. Ethical Study Conference taught by Eli Siegel, November 26, 1974.
2. General Lesson taught by Eli Siegel, October 5, 1974.
3. Ethical Study Conference, November 26, 1974.
4. The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, #1128
5. Ibid.
6. The Challenge for Africa by Wangari Maathai, [Pantheon Books, NY, 2009], p. 227.
ss, NY, 1997 ] p. 34.
7. The Modern Quarterly Beginnings of Aesthetic Realism, by Eli Siegel [Definition Press, NY, 1997 ] p. 34.
8. Unbowed by Wangari Muta Maathai, [Anchor Books-Random House, NY, 2007], p.39-40.
9. Ibid. p. 122.
10. Ibid. p. 117.
11. Ibid. p. 126, 127
12. Ibid. p. 140
13. Aesthetic Realism consultation document, [Aesthetic Realism Foundation, NY].
14. Transcription of Aesthetic Realism consultation, [Aesthetic Realism Foundation, NY].
15. Ibid.
16. Aesthetic Realism consultation document.
17. Unbowed, p. 195.
18. Ibid., p. 205.
19. Ibid., p. 214.
20. Ibid., p. 215.