How One Woman Made a Difference–And So Can You

I remember sitting in high school history class, learning about our founding fathers and being in awe of what they were able to accomplish. I also remember thinking, “What did women do?” There were so few profiles and I was curious to know more. Thus began my quest to find female heroes—in and out of history books.

That was over forty years ago, since then I have “met” many inspiring women—Rachel Carson, Francis Moore Lappé, Jill Ker Conway just to mention a few. Then, several years ago, I was introduced to a remarkable woman from my community. This month, Women’s History Month, is a particularly appropriate time to take a look at this local woman’s significant and ongoing contribution. Allow me to introduce you to Marion Stoddart.

In the 1960s, Marion spearheaded the environmental clean-up of the dying Nashua River. The short form of Marion’s story focuses on the tasks she directed to save one of the world’s most polluted waterways. The larger picture unfolds to reveal a woman who overcame gender roles of the 1960s to become a leader of potent political force thus changing the status quo. Picture a typical suburban housewife in the 60’s–now picture that person commanding attention of political leaders, organizing community action, and forging a new mindset of environmental responsibility. Marion’s story is so powerful that it provides a model for citizen activism and leadership we can use today.

Who was Marion Stoddart? In the late 1950s, Marion was raising her three children and living the relatively quiet life of a housewife in then rural Groton, Massachusetts. She was busy, her days filled with many activities, but an inner voice was telling her that she could be more, contribute more, do more. Living so close to the Nashua that she could smell the noxious fumes emanating from it, she chose her mission: she would save this dying river–and she did just that.

She achieved her dramatic success by mobilizing the community and showing people that change was possible, even though they’d lost hope. Through her efforts, attitudes shifted, clean water laws were passed, and an organization was founded to sustain the health of the river into the future. In her own words, “People make a difference! One person can do the work of a thousand but strength lies in numbers. The more informed people are, the greater the power of change. We can choose to make things better.”

Who is Marion Stoddart today? In many ways, she is the same woman she has always been, the impassioned determination evident when she talks about her goal of securing a greenway all along banks of Nashua. Although she has been lauded for her accomplishments, winning a United Nations award, being profiled in National Geographic, and having a widely-read children’s book written about her, she does not rest on her laurels. Marion’s advocacy for the Nashua evolves as circumstances change. “The work will never be done,” she says. “We will always need stewards and vigilance.”

Marion is an inspiring environmental activist, community organizer, everyday citizen, and yes, to me, a female hero. Marion herself eschews labels; she is a self-proclaimed ordinary person. “The secret to making a difference in the world is caring and passion and discovering for ourselves what matters most. You don’t have to start out knowing how you are going to do something. You can just be an ordinary person who first has a vision of what you would like to have happen who then makes a commitment to that vision.”

I was so moved by Marion and her story that I decided to embark on my own adventure and make my first film, with Marion as its focus. I wanted to show how Marion inspired collective action leading to positive change for her, the river, the community, the environment, and the world as a whole. I also wanted to reveal the human side of this female hero, a reflection of so many women, to convey an empowering message of how each of us can and do make a difference in this world.

The film, called Marion Stoddart: The Work of 1000, made possible in part by a preproduction grant from Mass Humanities, is garnering national accolades and has recently won the “Best Call to Action Film” at a festival in California. The film is available for organizations to host their own screenings. Groups are getting creative using the film as a civic engagement or leadership tool to discuss the impact that each individual can have on a cause.

To help audiences use the film and take action, there are learning materials via the project website and at screenings. Discussion packets for community and grade 8 – 12 screenings are offered and Marion Stoddart, me, or Dorie Clark, my filmmaking partner, can attend screenings and talk about environmental organizing and civic engagement. I can also talk about independent filmmaking and its impact. To attend or host a screening visit

Author: Susan Edwards

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