• Catherine

Where Did The Women Go?

Determination, communication and teamwork - celebrating the legacy of women in conservation

The impact of the current ecological crisis is unequal, and today as you read this, women are suffering disproportionately from the effects of extreme, climate change induced weather events. This disparity in impact is because in the face of extreme weather events, many women’s socio-economic position leaves them at greater risk of suffering negative consequences that range from food shortages to gender violence, thus taking a significant toll on their mental and physical health.

Yet in the face of unfair odds, the determination of women continues to win out. Today we want to talk about the contribution of some inspiring women to the conservation movement.

We'll begin with bird conservation because it's a topic close to our hearts. We were recently shocked to find out that we had, despite being keen birdwatchers, been completely unaware that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) was founded by a woman - Emily Williamson. This is the largest nature conservation charity in the UK we are talking about!

However, this shouldn’t have come as a surprise, considering that the RSPB itself has long downplayed the role of its founder. You need look no further than the commemorative plaque installed at Emily’s former home in Manchester - and the birthplace of the organisation - for the organisation’s centenary. It notes the name of the RSPB’s male president at the time of the unveiling in 1989, but it makes no mention of Emily herself!

It was only 30 years later, in 2019, that the RSPB finally unveiled a second plaque commemorating Emily at the site. Even more remarkable is the fact that her own descendants, in spite of being involved in ornithology themselves, were totally unaware of the important role their ancestor has played in the history of bird conservation in the UK.

Emily Williamson. Source: RSPB

So how did Emily Williamson spark such a lasting movement back in 1889, before the Internet was a thing and when women did not even have the right to vote?

The answer is determination, communication and teamwork.

In the late 1800s, feathers were the must-have item in women’s fashion. In London alone, hundreds of thousands of exotic bird feathers were being imported every year to support demand, and native species weren’t faring much better. Great crested grebes, one of the best-loved birds of our waterways today, were in such high demand that they were pushed to the brink of extinction. And they were only one of 60 species facing the same dire prospects globally.

Emily founded her society as an act of protest against this destructive trend and quickly chose to join forces with Eliza Phillips and Etta Lemon, the founder of a similar Croydon-based group.

Together they convinced thousands of other women to join them in speaking out and taking action against the incredible cruelty of the plumage industry. Members would agree to never wear bird-feathers and to do their part in protecting birds and raising awareness of the issue. The society went from strength to strength - even being granted a Royal Charter in 1904 - until at last, in 1921, the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act came into effect, banning the import of feathers in the UK.

And the best thing is that Emily, Eliza and Etta were by no means an exception. On the other side of the Atlantic, a very similar story of female cooperation was unfolding. The United States hadn’t escaped the craze for feathers and, at its peak, feathers became worth more than gold - an attractive prize to hunters who would slaughter birds in their millions.

In 1896, two Boston cousins and socialites - Harriet Hemenway and Minna B. Hall - learnt about the effects of the plume trade and made it their mission to put an end to it. Without access to the traditional male spaces of power such as clubs, they turned instead to tea parties to connect with other women and persuade them to boycott wearing feathers for fashion.

Harriet Hemenway. Source: Massachusetts Audubon Society

By building up a network of like-minded women, they were able to get the attention they needed and eventually went on to form the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the oldest Audubon Society - the American equivalent to the RSPB - in the United States. Through the power of their work, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed in 1918, putting an end to commercial hunting and the sale of migratory birds.

The determination, communication and teamwork of women has left a rich and lasting conservation legacy that we are all benefitting from today. Women are uniquely situated to lead the charge on tackling some of the world’s most pressing issues.

Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize and founder of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, was the absolute embodiment of a wonderfully determined woman taking the lead on tackling climate change and empowering women to take action in their local communities.

Born in 1940 in Kenya, she witnessed the changes to her native landscapes from a young age. Later on, whilst studying for her masters in Biology in Pittsburg, Maathai had her first encounter with environmental activism when she saw local environmentalists fighting against air pollution in the city, and understood that change starts at a local level.

Wangari Maathai. Source: The Nobel Prize

Her passion for conservation and women’s rights had a huge impact, both in her community and beyond. Since its inception, the Green Belt Movement has trained over 30,000 women to take action against climate change and planted over 51 million trees.

Sometimes the weight and scale of the current ecological crisis can feel overwhelming, but we hope that this small celebration of women in conservation will help you feel excited for what the future holds thanks to the incredible women who have paved the way for us. Even if we start small, in Wangari Maathai’s own words, we can all “work hard, collaborate with each other, and make ourselves better agents of change.”