MRS PANKHURST’S PURPLE FEATHER
ISBN: 978 1 78131 654 2
Review by Janet Mackinnon
A battle on plumage amidst women’s protest movements
For those considering gifts for female friends and relatives, this fascinating and beautifully presented tale of “Women’s Fight for Change” should be kept in mind. Subtitled “Fashion, Fury and Feminism”, Tessa Boase interweaves the stories of the British suffragette movement and the creation of what was to become the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The RSPB was spearheaded by women to stop the trade in feathers from exotic wild species used for hats, of the kind once favoured by the leading suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and some of her followers. This is the story of a culture clash between fashionable ladies fighting for women’s right to vote and others, led by the anti-suffrage Etta Lemon, shunning female adornment and seeking to save birds.
The narrative extends from the late nineteenth century to the years preceding WW2, a time of extraordinary social upheaval as well as the cataclysm of the Great War. Its main protagonist – Boase helpfully includes a list of “leading characters” – is Mrs Etta Lemon, the “driving force behind the RSPB for 50 years, 1889-1939”. Etta comes from the Christian evangelical movement, which ran three quarters of voluntary societies in the Victorian era. Her avian activism begins in 1887 with letters to church-going “feather bedecked women” pointing out the error of their ways. At the time, campaigners estimated that London’s feather markets threatened 61 bird species around the world with extinction.
Within a few years, Etta had joined forces with the other main female protagonists in what would become the RSPB, Eliza Phillips, Emily Williamson and Winifred, Duchess of Portland. The original Society for the Protection of Birds was initially provided with offices in central London by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, another cause that would remain close to Etta’s heart, before shortly moving in to its own headquarters. Boase highlights the populist success of the campaign against “murderous millinery” whose supporters pledged not to wear ornamental plumage, with the exception of farmed ostrich feathers. The new society soon included men amongst its members, but there were tensions between the egg “collecting mania of male ornithologists” and the “ladies’ sensibilities”.
This tension pointed to a wider and ongoing conflict amongst nature conservationists in which an “emotional relationship” with wild animals is seen by some as “backward, non-scientific and unserious”, according to Tessa Boase. It is, therefore, noteworthy that one of the most enthusiastic recipients of her book has been University of Colorado Emeritus Professor Marc Bekoff1 who included an extended interview with the author in a recent blog for the US Psychology Today website.2 Bekoff advocates a more emotionally engaged study
of animal behaviour and ecology, and he is one of the leading proponents of so-called “compassionate conservation” 3 to which the RSPCA has added its support.4
There is also transatlantic interest in the story of Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather as US legislation against the trade and wearing of feathers from protected bird species is enacted between 1910-12. Whereas, ironically for the anti-suffrage Etta Lemon, the British Plumage Act only received Royal Assent in 1921: a bill having been re-galvanised by the newly elected MP, and American heiress, Nancy, Lady Astor, after women had won the right to vote and stand for election in 1918. Although the bill’s much delayed passage through Parliament and the act’s subsequent weaknesses provided deep frustration for the RSPB, the society’s grass roots work throughout the British Isles represented some of its greatest achievements. This success was in a large part due to the work of the redoubtable Etta with the support of husband Major Lemmon who shared her profound enthusiasm for conservation.
Ultimately, however, the “aggressively dictatorial” lady, according to a fellow (male) member of the Kite Committee – an initiative to protect red kites in Mid-Wales – was at first edged out of and then unceremoniously removed from the organisation she had so loyally served, inviting Boase to make comparison with Mrs Thatcher. Yet, as we all know, the RSPB’s story by no means ends there. Although the society endured some 60 years of male domination, the Epilogue describes how the appointment of Barbara (now Baroness) Young in the 1990s took the organisation into a new era. In conclusion, this book is a fine social history of the British conservation movement. Its only real shortcoming is the absence of a chronology or timeline to help the reader follow the interwoven narratives.
References and notes