One of my favourite stories is that of the Scottish artist Jemima Blackburn (1823-1909). Rather than shoot, stuff and then study the birdlife in her garden, she spent long hours outside, sketching from nature. This was how she made the startling discovery about how the cuckoo hatchling ejected all other chicks from the host parent’s nest. Not even Darwin had witnessed this.
But being a woman, and therefore banned from the scientific ornithology societies, Jemima chose to publish her findings not in a paper, but in a book for children: The Pipits (1871). Darwin hastily included her observations in his sixth edition of The Origin of Species, a year later.
Women’s more emotional connection with birdlife earned them no end of contempt from the rational men of science – such as the Reverend Orpen Morris, author of A History of British Birds, who referred to female bird-lovers as ‘sentimental’ and ‘embarrassing accretions.’
So when a group of ladies banded together in 1889 to save the birds from the plumage trade, they were roundly scoffed at by the men. Mrs Lemon was acutely aware of the slur of ‘sentimentality,’ and she fought it for the 50 years that she ran the RSPB. She and her female local secretaries were jeered at as ‘plumage cranks’, ‘feather faddists’ and ‘frothy fanatics’. Yet their greatest campaign of all – to save America’s snowy egret from extinction – worked by appealing directly to women’s emotions.
The egret was hunted systematically for its fine, airy, nuptial feathers, used to create the ‘osprey’ or aigrette – the avian adornment lusted after by every woman, of every class, in every civilised country in the world. The parent birds were killed for their feathers during the nesting season, which meant that their chicks were left to starve to death. In 1903, an ounce of egret feathers could fetch $32: twice as much as an ounce of gold. To the RSPB, this was a watershed moment.
The egret campaign of 1911 used a series of explicit photographs of a heronry shoot, taken by Australian wildlife photographer Arthur Mattingley. Those images of starving chicks struck straight to the Edwardian woman’s maternal heart.
Mrs Lemon won her campaign, and the snowy egret was saved from extinction. But she herself was now in danger. With the advent of modern, systematic, observation-based ornithology in the 1930s, the RSPB’s Council felt they needed a male ornithologist at the helm, rather than a possessive and irrational woman. ‘Baited and bewildered,’ Etta Lemon was purged in a bloody coup in 1939.
The men took over at the RSPB – and it took some 50 years before they dared to put another woman at the helm: Barbara, Baroness Young, in 1991. By appealing to ‘robin strokers’ (sentimental women) as opposed to ‘twitchers’ (scientific men), Young achieved her goal of one million members. More recently, in 2019 another woman took up the reigns as CEO: Beccy Speight, a woman with a refreshingly direct style and approachable manner. There is a feeling that the RSPB has come full circle, as the women are setting the tempo once again.
Victorian campaigner Emily Williamson was so incensed by the millinery trade’s use
Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 4
Hear all about Etta Lemon, the ‘Margaret Thatcher’ of the birding world. How did this remarkable character hone her campaigning skills, and why was she stabbed in the back by the men who took over the RSPB? It’s the first item on the programme (later featured on Weekend Woman’s Hour, best of the week).