THE WOMEN OF THE EARLY FLORIDA AUDUBON SOCIETY
Agents of history in the fight to save state birds
Reflecting back on the first 25 years of the Florida Audubon Society, President Hiram Byrd described its early founders as "a little group of people who had a vision for the future." In particular, Byrd noted that Clara Dommerich, at whose home the first meeting was held in 1900, was "probably the leading spirit in the movement, but as so frequently happens in this world of affairs, the hand that presses the button is not seen."
In the course of Florida’s history, all too often the unseen hand was that of the women whose stories often were ignored or relegated to short references or footnotes. At first glance, the story of the Florida Audubon Society appears to follow that same course. Its early presidents were well-educated and prestigious men who easily mixed with business and government officials in making pleas for greater protection of the state’s non-game birds.
However, their FAS successes were built upon the work of many progressive-minded women whose energy and club-women connections were vital to the founding, organization and early achievements of the organization. With passion and diligence, these women, many of them winter visitors, worked with year-round residents to gain public support for the FAS mission, leading to bird protection laws, the creation and operation of bird preserves, and extensive school programs. In addition to helping launch FAS, women held long-term leadership positions, kept track of its finances, records, and correspondence, led meetings, wrote articles and pamphlets, and worked with people in other organizations to further the cause.
Their efforts reflected the growing American conservation movement that blossomed in the early 1900s during the reform-minded Progressive Era – a time during which many middle-class women felt compelled to step outside their homes and pursue activities that improved their communities in a gendered sphere commonly labeled as "municipal housekeeping" by historians. "The idea that women as the center of home life were responsible for the moral tone of a community did not vanish, but increasingly it was said that such responsibility did not end with the four walls of a home, but extended to the neighborhood, the town, the city," notes historian Anne Firor Scott. Although they were unable to vote until 1920, these women had the financial stability, aesthetic appreciation, leisure time, and desire to spread their wings in activities that ranged from creating parks to fighting for pure food to improving child welfare – efforts that were considered to be within the woman’s realm. In addition, the women of this period were "indispensable in every environmental cause in the United States," states historian Adam Rome.
Saving Florida’s birds from hunters who wanted their plumes for the millinery trade was a top environmental issue and the FAS women attacked it with zeal, carrying the organization into the state and national arena. Conservation historians have mostly ignored them, but women were central to that cause, transforming "the crusade from an elite male enterprise into a widely based movement," according to environmental historian Carolyn Merchant. In her groundbreaking 1984 article, "Women of the Progressive Conservation Movement: 1900-1916," Merchant describes how preservation of the environment became a rallying cause for Progressive women and specifically charts the Audubon movement. Although Merchant notes how women in many states were involved in organizing and publicizing the plume hunting problems, she fails to mention the integral work in Florida, the ground zero for much of the bird destruction, where FAS female members helped shape the debate, pursued legislation, supported the national organization, and financially aided warden activities. Their FAS activities also reflected the shifting national consciousness which would move in the early nineteenth century from a focus on conservation, namely the largely science-based development and use of natural resources, into the modern environmental movement, which was "far more widespread and popular, involving public values that stressed the quality of human experiences and hence of the human environment," notes historian Samuel P. Hays in Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985. The Audubon ladies wanted a world with beautiful, singing birds – an aesthetic value that would help spur the future environmental movement.
The feminine desire for hats adorned with long plumes and bright bird wings, heads, and bodies arose in the post-Civil War decades and by the 1880s had accounted for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of birds. There was a great demand for Florida’s exotic wading birds such as flamingos, herons, ibis, roseate spoonbills – some 42 species – that inhabited coastal areas, wetlands, and the Everglades. Hunters especially wanted "aigrettes," the showy plumage that appeared on egrets during mating and nesting season. Nesting birds were easy targets for hunters because they roosted in large numbers, sometimes in the hundreds, in small areas called rookeries and refused to abandon their nests and young when danger appeared. After shooting into rookeries and removing feathers and skins from adult birds, hunters left their bodies and crying orphaned chicks to decay or become easy meals for crows, predators, and ants. The desirable feathers and bird parts were then shipped to northern millinery markets for processing into large, showy hats that might contain everything from elegant plumes to the bodies of dead mockingbirds. One New York wholesaler was reported to have bought $200,000 worth of plumes for fashions – part of the $17-million-a-year New York millinery industry that employed 20,000 people. This was big business and it extended into international trade.
The results were nothing short of tragic. In Some Kind of Paradise: A Chronicle of Man and the Land in Florida, Mark Derr recounts tales of rookeries being wiped out along the Florida west coast, from the Tampa area all the way south to the Everglades:
White ibis, roseate spoonbills, pelicans, and herons and egrets of every hue and
size were gone. Many hunters thought survivors had fled to rookeries inland or
farther south: They couldn’t conceive that the birds would not come back. A
similar situation existed on the east coast above Lake Worth. So thorough was
the destruction of plume birds that within several generations collective memory
of the rookeries was as dead as the birds themselves.
Early efforts to curb the plume business came in 1883 with the creation of the American Ornithologists’ Union, founded by professionals who concerned themselves with bird studies and protection. An AOU committee, which included George Bird Grinnell, a hunter and editor of Forest and Stream magazine, created a "Model Law" in hopes of inspiring state legislatures to enact provisions to protect non-game birds and their eggs and nests. In an attempt to end the destruction through changing human attitudes, Grinnell in 1886 founded the nation’s first Audubon Society, named after John James Audubon, the famed painter of America’s birds. As a boy, Grinnell knew the painter’s widow. Grinnell hoped that public opinion could be swayed to stop the bird deaths without the need for legislation and he found widespread support. He launched The Audubon Magazine, but it folded after its second issue in 1888 and with it the Audubon Society. Although the organization was short-lived, Grinnell continued to be an important player in conservation efforts, having a year earlier helped found the Boone and Crockett Club, an organization of 100 wealthy sportsmen that included Theodore Roosevelt, who later became the U.S. president. They worked to preserve large game in the United States, particularly in the west, and promote natural history research. This conservation idea would move from this masculine arena to capture "the hearts and minds of suburban women across the nation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries" and the reemergence of Audubon Societies was an important factor, according to author Daniel J. Philippon in Conserving Words: How American Nature Writers Shaped the Environmental Movement.
At the same time that concerns about plume birds were arising, Americans witnessed the demise of native creatures they never expected would disappear – the bison and the passenger pigeon. Bison, estimated to have numbered anywhere from 40 million to 60 million in North America, had been the staple of American natives who prized them for their meat and hides. Commercial demands for hides led to huge slaughters, placing the creature on the brink of extinction by the end of the 1800s. Perhaps no creature defined the Audubon supporters’ fears as much as the passenger pigeon, which once blackened the skies of North America for hours with enormous traveling flocks. Hunters had easy pickings with the birds which were easily captured or shot and shipped to food markets. Once numbering around 5 billion birds, passenger pigeon populations were decimated in the late nineteenth century. The last of the species died in 1914 – an extinction that alarmed bird lovers and conservationists alike. "At the turn of the century, many species of birds, mammals, and fish carried a price tag," notes Kurkpatrick Dorsey in The Dawn of Conservation Diplomacy: U.S.-Canadian Wildlife Protection Treaties in the Progressive Era. As species became scarcer, their value rose, driven by market forces, Dorsey writes. As the price for wading bird plumage rose, the slaughter in Florida’s wetlands also continued.
Americans worried about waning numbers of species such as bison, elk, game birds, and wading birds banded together to advocate for wildlife conservation, leading to the revival of the Audubon movement. Harriet Hemenway, a wealthy and well-connected Bostonian, was an early leader, gathering influential women and male ornithologists to found the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 1896. Its goals were to "discourage the buying and wearing, for ornamental purposes, of the feathers of any wild birds" and to further bird protection, according to Frank Graham Jr. in The Audubon Ark: A History of the National Audubon Society. Almost 1,300 adults and children were members at the end of the year, which also marked the beginning of a Pennsylvania society. In its early days, Massachusetts Audubon was a place where women leaders could shine – they held an equal number of posts and 114 of the118 local chapters were led by women, according to Mary Jo Breton in Women Leaders for the Environment. Hemenway worked "mostly behind the scenes, providing financial support and advice" but also hosted groups of up to sixty people in her home and arbitrated disagreements, Breton notes. In 1897, New York, New Hampshire, Illinois, Maine, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and the District of Columbia formed Audubon societies, with six more the next year. By 1900, five states had enacted laws based on the AOU Model Law. The Audubon movement was alive once again and growing, thanks in large part to its female membership.
An important player in the national scene was Mabel Osgood Wright, a founder of the Connecticut group and a later leader in the national group. As did many other authors at the time, Wright wrote extensively about nature to a receptive national audience. She also served as an associate editor of Bird-Lore, a national bird-lovers’ magazine that later became Audubon magazine. Author Daniel Philippon argues that Wright’s work, which appealed "to the patriotic sentiments and untapped energies of suburban women" spread the conservation message to a much larger audience – "from the disappearing frontier of the sportsman and into the backyard gardens of suburban America." Her articles and books, which included an 1895 bird guide, were widely read and were lauded by her literary peers, including heralded naturalist John Burroughs and other women writers and readers. At the same time women, who considered the home and garden their realm, used it as a means to enter the public sphere with Audubon activities, Philippon notes.
Although Florida was the scene of much of the plume destruction, it was not until 1900 that the Florida Audubon Society (FAS) was created by a group of Central Floridians, several of them winter residents from northern states where Audubon activities were vibrant. Nine women and six men gathered informally on the afternoon of March 2, 1900, at Hiawatha Grove, a 210-acre estate and bird sanctuary located on the shores of Lake Minnehaha in Maitland, Florida. It was a large, spacious mansion suiting the status of Louis Dommerich, a prosperous New York City silk importer and textile manufacturer, and his wife Clara. There the family wintered, spotting wild birds such as cranes, owl, quail, doves, and turkey and indulging cardinals, blue jays, and juncos with feeding boxes on the porch. Louis Dommerich would fill the feeding stations each morning and blow a whistle to summon his eager avian guests.
The group of fifteen was a small who’s who of the Maitland-Winter Park area, located north of Orlando. They included the Dommerichs; Dr. G. M. Ward, the president of nearby Rollins College, and his wife; Harriet Vanderpool, wife of a local citrus grower who was a Maitland founder; W. C. Comstock, a Winter Park businessman and civic leader; Lida Peck Bronson, wife of Sherman Bronson, a businessman and former Maitland mayor; and Laura Norcross Marrs and her husband, Kingsmill, a wealthy Massachusetts couple who wintered in Maitland. The community was a small one at the time and many of these FAS founders would be involved in other civic activities, from founding a public library to establishing a church to serving in various leadership capacities at Rollins College.
At the meeting, Clara Dommerich made the case for founding the organization, noting the growing decimation of Florida birds and remarking on the work "done in other states in protecting our feathered friends," according to FAS minutes. Dommerich, who was chosen to be the fledgling group’s secretary-treasurer that day, stated that "liberal subscriptions" already had been received to financially support a society. Her leadership included a successful motion to appoint a five-member committee to create a constitution and by-laws as well as a list of officers to govern FAS. In recounting the creation of FAS in Bird-Lore, the first FAS President, H. B. Whipple, Bishop of Minnesota, wrote that the society owed "a debt of gratitude" to Dommerich "for the interest which she has awakened for the protection of the birds of Florida. No state or territory in our country has been as richly endowed in plumage and song birds as this state."
The early founders, as with other Audubon societies, were ardent bird lovers. Author Kurkpatrick Dorsey notes that humans have long held an affinity for birds because the two species have much in common, including the fact that they "build homes, raise young, and then head south to avoid the cold weather." As renowned evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson notes, "birds have been the most pursued and best known of all animals" for centuries, perhaps owing to biophilia – a word he uses to describe a phenomenon in which humans emotionally bond focus with certain life forms.
An avian affection for was shared by the FAS founders who made it their mission to emphasize disseminating information about the value of birds, publicizing the destruction in the state, and discouraging the use or purchase of bird feathers. They also sought to start classes in public schools and encourage the establishment of local Audubon societies. Memberships were $1 per year, $5 per year for sustaining members, 25 cents for children, and free for teachers. A $25 payment would make someone a patron. Whipple, an Episcopal Church bishop who wintered in Maitland, was named president and as honorary vice-presidents FAS selected Florida Governor William Bloxam, New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt (who became president the next year), and Kirk Munroe, a nationally known author of children’s books who lived in Coconut Grove, Florida. Of the twenty-eight vice presidents, most of whom came from many areas of Florida, twenty-two were male, including journalists, clergy, presidents of nearby Rollins College and Stetson University, and Frank Chapman, of the American Museum of Natural History and editor of Bird-Lore. Six women, including Marrs, Evangeline Whipple, wife of the bishop, and Rose Cleveland, sister of the former president and a close friend of Evangeline Whipple, were named vice presidents. However, half the executive committee, which would be the guiding force of the organization during the next two decades, was female, including Marrs, Bronson, and Vanderpool.
Before the year’s end, there was sad news with the death of Clara Dommerich, whose influence and leadership skills were lauded in posthumous praises. Dommerich, 43, died November 8, 1900, of a lingering illness in New York City. In December, new FAS Secretary Vanderpool wrote: "This society owes its existence to her loving interest in our feathered friends. … She had watched with righteous indignation the wanton destruction of the beautiful birds which in the park added so much to the charm and beauty of our Southland. It was this womanly love which led her to ask others to unite in the creation of a society whose object is the protection of birds in Florida. We cannot speak too highly of her wise thoughtfulness and earnestness in this blessed work." A memorial Bird-Lore article commented that "under her leadership" FAS "promised to be an organization of more than usual influence, and it is hoped that in its ranks there is some one who will carry on the work which Mrs. Dommerich so successfully inaugurated."
As FAS began a new year, it worked diligently for the enactment of bird-protection laws. The state had little legislation to accomplish this except for an 1877 statute that protected mockingbirds during breeding season. That law also forbade the destruction of nests, eggs, and young of plume sea birds, but it was repealed two years later. In 1891, the state offered protection for wading birds, but it had little effect on the plume trade. In May 1900, the federal government provided some hope when it adopted the Lacey Act, which prohibited interstate commerce in birds that had state protections. Florida needed to adopt the AOU Model Law to be under that umbrella. The organization called in the heavy hitters for help. William Dutcher, then chair of the AOU’s committee on bird protection, came to Florida in May 1901 to fight along Audubon leaders for the model law passage. Although the legislature approved a new statute, it excluded certain birds that FAS had hoped to protect, including robins, shore birds, meadow larks, and hawks. Nevertheless, the group was off to a strong start, having made a statewide impact in its first year.
Although men would hold the title of president for the first two decades, the women of FAS carried much of the organizational workload, reflecting their passion for their mission and their work in municipal housekeeping. As group members divided up duties, women became prominent leaders. Lida Bronson was elected treasurer in 1901 and served in that role until 1915, gathering contributions and dues and disbursing funds for projects. After her 1926 death, she was remembered by Audubon leaders for her efficiency, devotion, and regular attendance. She "was one of a small group in Maitland whose constancy and faith kept the Audubon movement alive in Florida," according to an FAS resolution reported in The Maitland News.
Vanderpool’s contribution to the organization was invaluable. From 1901 to 1917 she served as the FAS secretary, which entailed a great deal of work. Vanderpool was in charge of much of the correspondence and record keeping for FAS, which included keeping hand-written minutes of annual and executive committee meetings. She also corresponded with different Audubon groups around the state, gathering reports from each, and read them at executive committee meetings. In addition, Vanderpool also tirelessly sent mailings to newspaper editors around the state, mailed thousands of leaflets to school board heads to encourage school participation, gathered information about school programs, and helped send warning posters about bird regulations to all Florida post offices. Since many of the early FAS members had northern residences, she took charge of much of the business during the summer months. It was a multi-faceted job but perfectly suited for Vanderpool, a community activist who came to Maitland in 1876 with her husband, Isaac, to live on property homesteaded on Lake Maitland and planted as an orange grove. Isaac, who had helped plan the city of Maitland, served as its mayor in 1887 and helped establish the nearby African American city of Eatonville. Like her progressive sisters, Harriet Vanderpool was involved in many aspects of improving her community, helping Bishop Whipple with the founding of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Maitland and working with Clara Dommerich to establish the Maitland Public Library. She also wrote the official song of Maitland and at her death in 1937 was mourned as one of the city’s founders.
In a 1901 report of the founding of FAS, published in Bird-Lore, Vanderpool showed her passion for the cause. "It may be of interest to some of your readers to know that Florida, the land of sunshine, flowers and balmy breezes, has at last awakened to the fact that these combined are not all that make their state so attractive and so different," Vanderpool wrote. "They find (even the most unconcerned) that their rivers, lakes and woods are strangely silent, and that some of the old-time charm and beauty has gone." FAS founders, "to whom these feathered songsters are real friends, and who grieved to see them so wantonly destroyed," had started work, including distribution of "literature and leaflets," member numbers were growing, and "we trust in a few years our eyes and ears will be gladdened as of old. Sunshine, flowers and the happy song of our thousands of native birds, and Florida is Paradise indeed," she added.
As integral to FAS success as Bronson and Vanderpool were, perhaps no woman – or, arguably, man – was as influential as Marrs, whose efforts impacted the direction of FAS as well as other national bird groups. Marrs, daughter of Otis Norcross who was elected mayor of Boston in 1867, was a member of the Massachusetts Audubon when she became a founder of FAS and chairman of the executive committee – a position she held until her death in 1926. She and her husband, Kingsmill, a wealthy traveler and art collector, wintered at "Maitland Cottage," in the same town as Evangeline Whipple, the wife of the bishop and sister to Kingsmill. With a background much like that of Harriet Hemenway at Massachusetts Audubon, Marrs was just as important to the Florida group, taking up an even stronger leadership role. According to a 1926 FAS resolution reported in The Maitland News, Laura Marrs "gave continuously and unstintedly of her time, sympathy, council and money to its (FAS) work as long as she lived" and at her death left $25,000 to the National Association of Audubon Societies to promote bird study and protection. Despite spending only part of her year in Maitland, Marrs also was busy in other local community issues, leading a women’s club and supporting the Hungerford School in the Eatonville community. In later years, the Marrses traveled extensively in Europe and Egypt and later lived in Florence, Italy, where Kingsmill died in 1912.
Unless she was traveling, Marrs led the executive committee meetings, often at her home, where the operations and structure of FAS were discussed. Marrs also wrote annual reports for Bird-Lore and traveled to national meetings to represent the group. In 1901, Marrs attended a conference of Audubon societies held in New York City, in which groups discussed organizing a national group but no actions were taken until the next year when a National Committee of Audubon Societies was created. She continued attending annual meetings and, as an important Audubon member, was consulted personally by the AOU’s Dutcher and concurred with his desires to create a formal national group. That led to the 1905 incorporation of the National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals, the present-day National Audubon Society. Mabel Osgood Wright, the influential writer and founder of Connecticut Audubon, also was part of the newly formed national group.
Marrs was also instrumental in the hiring of Guy Bradley in an effort to stop plume hunters in south Florida. In 1902, Kirk Munroe, a FAS vice president, wrote to Marrs about the shooting that was damaging bird populations in the Florida Keys and along the southern coastline. Munroe suggested that Bradley would be the right person to serve as a game warden in the area, since Bradley had grown up there and was a former plume hunter. Marrs sent the letter to New York to Dutcher, who had hired lighthouse keepers to protect rookeries. Dutcher put Bradley, at a salary of $35 per month, in charge of patrolling Florida Bay and the Everglades. It was a 140-mile area full of wetland marshes, tiny islands, rookeries, and poachers who were willing to ignore state and federal laws for the opportunity to make money in the hard-scrabble area. Bradley worked hard, sending Dutcher lists of New York companies he believed acted illegally in the plume trade. To help Bradley, FAS in 1903 raised money to purchase Bradley a boat, named Audubon. Marrs worried that he might be in danger and advised Dutcher of this. She was right. On July 8, 1905, Bradley was shot to death after responding to what he thought was poaching on an island near his home. A man was arrested, but a grand jury refused to indict him. Bradley had become America’s first martyr in the plume wars and FAS would erect a monument to his death. "The murder of Warden Guy M. Bradley fills not only our Society in Florida, but the people of the United States, with horror," wrote Marrs in Bird-Lore. "A brave man shot at his post, defending the helpless against brutality, and all for what? A feather, to adorn the head of some woman!!" Three years later, a Florida west coast warden also was killed.
With these deaths, the Audubon movement gained momentum. FAS reports from its early years showed growing membership and activities, much of it supplied by the female members. By 1901, the society had published seven leaflets for distribution throughout the state, of which five were written by women. Marrs wrote two: "John James Audubon" and "Katie’s Pledge," the latter for children. Her sister-in-law, Evangeline Whipple, wrote one entitled "A Letter to the Boys and Girls of the Audubon Society" and her friend Rose Cleveland penned "The Rights of the Man Versus the Bird." The group also worked with Orange County school representatives who agreed to have half-hour bird lectures weekly in classes. In coming years, the society sponsored essay contests for children in many areas of the state, offered prizes, and provided educational materials about birds – all part of a national push to influence the adults of the next generation. FAS also paid for traveling lecturers and sent articles to local newspapers and national publications. Educating the Florida public would take much time, Dutcher noted in a 1904 report in The Auk, the AOU journal. "Progress in this direction must be slow. Prejudices and instincts of generations must be overcome; all the signs, however, are encouraging," he wrote.
In 1903, FAS lauded the creation of the first national bird refuge in the United States. On March 14, President Theodore Roosevelt, at the urging of FAS members, particularly George N. Chamberlin, an executive committee member from Daytona Beach, established by executive order the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge to protect a prime bird roosting and nesting islet on Florida’s east coast in the Indian River. It was a momentous occasion – the first of fifty-three federal sanctuaries that Roosevelt created. However, there was no money for enforcement, leading Dutcher to ask FAS for financial help for the warden there.
Roosevelt’s creation of the national wildlife refuge system was federal acknowledgement of the plight of birds but also of the growing American conservation movement. At the end of the 19th century, it had become clear to Americans that their much-loved natural resources were jeopardized in many ways. People were concerned about dwindling wildlife but also about the diminishing amount of timber and arable land, caused by exploitative uses such as overgrazing, mining, and monoculture farming. In response, Americans embraced the conservation movement, which advocated protection "right use" of natural resources to benefit humans. Roosevelt was a prime figure in the conservation movement as well as in the concurrent Progressive Era of the early 1900s, during which citizens demanded government-led reforms in areas such as business and public health. The conservation movement melded well with the progressive reform agenda, advocating better use of resources and controls over the actions of business and exploitative individuals, such as plume hunters.
Although they were unable to vote and participate in the political process until 1920, Progressive Era women activists exerted indirect influence through volunteer and charitable groups to pursue their civic interests, which extended from their domestic agenda and included providing safe, proper homes for their families. They pressed for public sanitation, orphanages, and hospitals. They also proved to be very effective in tackling conservation issues around the country. The Florida Audubon women were part of this movement, exercising power in the civic arena through their activism in the organization – a true blending of public and private life that historians often have neglected. According to historian Sara M. Evans, women of this era found in voluntary groups "a new kind of free space, which offered the possibility of action outside the domestic sphere but not in formal governmental arenas from which they were banned. They practiced the basic skills of public life – to speak and to listen, to analyze issues in relation to structures of power, and to develop agendas and strategies for action."
Progressive women were so effective in their conservation work that like-minded men often felt the need to preserve their masculinity by distancing themselves from protection arguments considered to be "feminine," observes historian Adam Rome. "Though some men were comfortable arguing for environmental reform in the same terms as women, many were not," Rome writes, noting that arguments for "beauty, health, future generations" were seen as the "province of women." The movement to save birds, culminating in the 1900 Lacey Act, stands out because it was achieved through a "cross-gender alliance" that many men were reluctant to enter in other conservation realms, Rome states.
The Audubon movement also galvanized women because it was female fashion that was driving the plume hunting and destruction. In Bird-Lore, Chapman wonders, "Is there no appeal from fashion’s decree? Women alone can answer these questions and the case is so clear she cannot shirk the responsibility of replying." Not only was it a question of conserving resources, but the issue had become a moral one that called into question the vanity and responsibility of women. This gender-driven argument hit home with the female populace, although it ignored the fact that men were hunting the birds and running the millinery trade that profited from the bloody slaughter. Both sexes were responsible for the plume trade, but women were assigned greater guilt. In a 2004 article for Audubon magazine, environmental scholar Jennifer Price notes: "At a time when many people were ready to embrace conservation as a moral issue, the glaring complicity of the distaff half, who were supposed to be the moral caretakers for all society, made this issue resonate at a higher moral volume than any other. …Throughout the rancorous debate that raged in newspapers and legislative halls and clubhouses and hat shops across the country, outraged Audubon activists proclaimed reasons to save not only birds but also the moral guardianship that women were supposed to ensure."
In Florida, the battle between females could be fierce. In her history, The Florida Audubon Society: 1900-1935, Lucy Worthington Blackman tells of south Florida’s Mary Barr Munroe, wife of author Kirk Munroe, "probably our most militant power:"
Wheresoe’er Mrs. Munroe’s keen eye saw an aigrette waving, there she followed, and cornering the wearer – be it on the street, in the crowded hotel lobby, on the beach, at church or entertainment or party – there compelled her to listen to the story of cruelty and murder of which her vanity was the contributing cause. And Mrs. Munroe was eloquent. It was not unusual for women to be reduced to tears, whether of anger or humiliation or repentance, and several were known to have taken off their hats and destroyed their aigrettes as a result of their encounter with Mrs. Monroe (sic).
Florida Audubon worked hard to garner female support. In 1908, FAS started a campaign against wearing plumage and distributed a pledge to women around the state, especially women’s organizations, asking them to refuse to adorn themselves with bird products. Audubon members asked Miami authorities to enforce prohibitions on plume trade during tourist season, particularly that of "Indians who brought their spoils by the boat load from the interior of the Everglades, and spread a veritable bargain counter before the women at the hotels and boarding houses," according to Blackman. Audubon women "preached their holy war," she writes, until "after a time the tourist women became shy about wearing their aigrettes and plumage ornaments in Florida. But it did not prevent them from receiving Indian emissaries in their rooms, where they hid their bargain treasures until they went north."
In an effort to garner grassroots support, FAS worked closely with the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs, which early on had a subcommittee for the preservation of birds. From its beginning in 1895, the FFWC led conservation efforts such a "tree planting and bird protection" and later turned its attention to endangered species and wetlands preservation, according to Jesse Hamm Meyer in her FFWC history. At the 1905 FFWC annual meeting, the chair of the bird preservation committee "urged clubs to encourage their members to put out food and water for birds and boxes for martins, bluebirds and wrens" and read a letter from FAS asking for support, Meyer notes, adding that the delegates were entertained at Mary Munroe’s home. By its second decade, FFWC members were attuned to the loss of birds, not just from plume hunting but also from sportsmen who traveled up the state’s waterways, particularly the St. Johns and Ocklawaha rivers. "They had killed not for good or even for the feathers of these birds but just to prove their marksmanship or for the fun of seeing live birds fall…" Meyer writes, adding that although "there were not a great many environmentally minded people working in organizations during those years," the FFWC had a strong, effective response that resulted in campaigns to preserve birds as well as efforts to conserve forests and plant trees in urban areas. "Their efforts intensified as they witnessed the further degradation of Florida’s natural beauty and resources," she adds. Other FFWC efforts mirrored Progressive Era initiatives: self improvement, domestic science, drug education, libraries, health care, and food for the poor.
The addition of FFWC as a sustaining member of Florida Audubon was a strategic triumph, which increased the Audubon base around the state. The FFWC represented 1,600 women in 36 clubs by 1910 and grew to more than 9,000 women by 1917, making it one of Florida’s largest and most influential groups. Among its accomplishments were the creation of Royal Palm State Park, which would be the nucleus of Everglades National Park, and the preservation of forest state reserves.
Florida Audubon Society members also networked through local women’s clubs to gain female attention and spread their message. In an article in the 1904 edition of The Rosalind, a publication distributed to members of the same-named Orlando women’s club founded in 1894, Laura Marrs pleaded for support for FAS work, noting that of its 600 members, six were also members of The Rosalind Club:
For it is not from sentiment nor a mere personal delight in the song or beauty of
our birds that we ask this of you, but that there may be a general expression of
disapproval of the merciless slaughter of these innocent creatures, which not only
lend a charm but are of economic importance to our land.
FAS members also extended their appeals to the most influential of the Progressive Era women’s groups - The General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC), whose members were two million strong by 1915. Created in 1890, this umbrella group, composed of clubs of diverse interests and actions, galvanized America’s women into a forced with which to be reckoned. GFWC members formulated platforms that covered a wide range of issues – from conservation to public sewage to factory conditions to women’s rights and suffrage. A number of their programs would become government agencies, which "attests to clubwomen’s creativity in both improving the public sphere and making themselves prominent within it," writes Karen J. Blair in The Clubwoman as Feminist: True Womanhood Defined, 1868-1914. At its 1910 biennial, the GFWC, which had committees that studied conservation issues such as forestry and the Hetch-Hetchy Valley dam proposal in California, adopted a resolution endorsing Audubon bird protection work.
The rise of the women’s club movement in the South followed several paths but generally started with literary and self-help groups with information "rarely available to women in the South" in the 1880s, according to historian Anne Firor Scott. Clubs then evolved to focus on community social concerns and became "a training school for women who wanted to serve in public life." They were so successful that when states looked for female participation, they sought club women to fill that role, states Scott. Members who attended GFWC conventions often returned with new ideas for community work developed by talking with women from other areas.
Many FAS women fit this club-woman mold and the progressive activist impulse, acting to spread a vision of a better home and community to others and then acting to achieve it within local, state and national organizations. Marrs, Vanderpool, Bronson, and Dommerich were all wealthy women with political and civic ties in their communities. They addressed their concerns about conservation through FAS, which gave them opportunities to exercise their talents for leadership and grassroots organizing through public speaking, handling of finances, correspondence, and publications. Although state membership numbers were not available, national Audubon membership showed a strong female component. By 1909 its leadership may have been all male, but forty percent of National Audubon was female – a number that grew to more than fifty percent by 1915. At FAS, the presidency was held by men for the first two decades, but women were part of the executive committee and served in many top roles, including leadership of local groups. Many were also GFWC members and leaders, including Mary Munroe, who helped found the Coconut Grove and then the Miami Audubon societies and later served on the FAS executive committee. Munroe also spread her attention to other issues, helping start the Housekeeper’s Club, an early Dade County women’s club, and was the first president of the Dade County Federation of Women’s Clubs. Lucy Worthington Blackman wrote the early Audubon history and was active as a FAS vice president and member of the executive committee (where her husband was president). Blackman was a charter member of the Woman’s Club of Winter Park, founded in 1915, and she established the first domestic science program at Rollins College which sought to improve women’s cooking and sewing as part of their college education. Blackman also authored a two-volume work, The Women of Florida, in 1940 to pay homage to other activist females in the state and show "the part individual and organized women have played" in the state’s history.
Perhaps the best examples of progressive women were politically connected May Mann Jennings, wife of a former governor and a powerful conservationist who served on the FAS executive committee from 1919 to 1924, and Katherine Bell Tippetts, a community activist who founded the St. Petersburg Audubon Society (SPAS) in 1909 and served as its president until 1940 – the longest tenure of any SPAS president. Tippetts also was the first FAS female president.
Jennings was born into the political life. Her father, Austin Shuey Mann, was a successful businessman who was very involved in Florida politics, helping draft the state’s 1885 constitution and serving in the state senate. Her husband, William Sherman Jennings was Florida governor from 1901 to 1905, a period of Progressive politics in which his administration achieved more education funding and created laws that offered protections for birds and timber, and regulations for drugs and food. Gov. Jennings also succeeded in gaining state control of Everglades lands and pressed for draining and reclaiming them – a step seen as good conservation stewardship at the time. Ironically, May Jennings would become a driving force in the efforts that eventually led to the establishment of the Everglades National Park. After her husband’s gubernatorial term, Jennings became very active in club women work, serving in a variety of leadership roles at local, state and national levels. She also served on the state Chamber of Commerce and worked on forestry conservation initiatives in the state, earning the title of "Mother of Florida Forestry." By age 42, with her unanimous election as president of the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs, Jennings "had become the most politically powerful woman in the state," according to Linda D. Vance in May Mann Jennings: Florida’s Genteel Activist. One of her first acts in office was to use the organization’s strength to press for state preservation of Royal Palm Hammock on Paradise Key, a hammock island in the Everglades, a cause Mary Munroe also advocated, Vance notes. Two years later, the hammock was named Royal Palm Park. The state park became the nucleus of Everglades National Park, dedicated in 1947 and a testament to the tenacity of the women’s clubs and Jennings. Along with a long list of credentials, Jennings also held several high level posts in the GFWC, worked extensively on World War I savings stamps efforts, and fought hard for passage of the suffrage amendment in Florida, which failed. After the amendment was approved nationally, Jennings wrote to Tippetts, a fellow clubwoman and expressed her hopes that women’s votes and the strength of FFWC would make a difference in the group’s agenda for state improvement. "…I believe the State Federation is one of the strongest factors for reforms of all kinds in the State, and I believe it is to wield a stronger influence now that women have the ballot than ever before," Jennings wrote.
From the outset, Tippetts was a strong leader in the local conservation movement – a role that eventually would influence state and national drives to save the nation’s wildlife. Well-educated and the widow of a foreign correspondent, Tippetts was a business woman who had the time and energy to be involved in many aspects of her community. In 1909, the same year her husband died, Tippetts took over his business interests and then followed one of her own, founding the St. Petersburg Audubon Society, which followed the FAS example of working to get information out to the public about imperiled bird populations. The group emphasized the economic value of birds "to agriculture and to the welfare of man generally," according to SPAS archives. SPAS started Junior Audubon classes in local schools and offered annual prizes to children who participated in the programs. Tippetts, an essayist and novelist who was dubbed "The Florida Bird Woman," used her skills and connections to win local and state protections, including bird sanctuaries and the passage of a 1913 law to establish the Florida Fish and Game Commission. That same year, SPAS secured passage of a city ordinance requiring licensing of cats, considered a scourge to bird populations. In 1920, Tippetts became the first female FAS president. Two years later she became the second woman in Florida to run for a seat in the state legislature (she was unsuccessful but the race was so close it forced a recount) – an indication of her political interests, accomplishments, and support base. Like many women of her era, Tippetts was involved in a host of other groups, including the National Park Association, the Boy Scouts of America, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, local and state women’s clubs (she served as FFWC president from 1926-28), and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs where she served as Bird Chairman. She succeeded in getting the mockingbird named the official Florida state bird, encouraged similar bird campaigns in other states, and worked to have the wild rose named the national flower.
In its second decade, Florida Audubon continued to pursue the objectives it first set – education, public awareness, and increased protection. By 1911 almost every state in the U. S. had adopted the AOU model law and had an Audubon society. Florida had new legislation that outlawed target shooting of live birds. A New York state law forbade plume sales, hurting the millinery trade in illegal plumes, and in 1913 two federal laws – a migratory bird law and a non-importation law - went into effect as broader attempts to end the bird extermination business. Marrs worked three months to secure the non-importation law, which drew some 200,000 letters and telegrams to Congressional leaders. When it passed, the price of plumes, bird skins, and feathers in London and Berlin dropped dramatically but sales did not cease. That same year, Florida passed legislation creating a state fish and game commission, which used law enforcement officers as ex-officio game wardens. The state also passed safeguards for the robin, which had been left out of the 1901 law. Unfortunately, both laws were repealed two years later and the legislature decided that game and bird enforcement was county business. "There followed an orgy of lawless hunting and fishing and shooting under the system of county wardens appointed all too largely for political favors, which made the most optimistic Audubonist to lose heart and hope," according to Blackman’s FAS history. "This is the sort of legislation under which and against which the Audubon Society had to work for the next decade." That all the birds were not "annihilated" was due to changing public attitudes that FAS had molded, she notes.
The FAS leaders labored on, determined to continue its battle with persistent, although illegal plume hunting. Dr. William F. Blackman, FAS president and president of Rollins College (and Lucy Blackman’s husband), traveled around the state giving Audubon talks to stop the plume-related deaths. However, tragedy struck in 1916 with the destruction of the Alligator Bay Rookery in southwest Florida, then the largest egret rookery in the state. Poachers shot an estimated eight hundred birds and torched the rookery to force the colony to move to more accessible grounds – all because there were not enough funds to pay for patrolling wardens to guard the nesting area. Not all state birds were lost, however, thanks in part to FAS help that had increased rookery numbers. By 1920 there would be ten federal bird refuges in Florida in coastal nesting areas and the National Association of Audubon Societies had preserved an additional island in Alachua County as a reservation. It was the first state refuge to be maintained by the national group. With a change in fashion - by 1917 prostitutes were using plumes in their hats, leading many women to stop wearing them – the demand for feathers diminished. Still, many species were in serious peril.
The American involvement in World War I sapped some of the FAS strength from 1917 to 1919, but the group stayed active, developing a four-page publication for quarterly mailings to all FAS members. The end of the war and the election of Tippetts as FAS president in 1920 – the same year women won the right to vote and move into a broader political arena - signaled a new start for FAS and acknowledged the powerful role that women had come to hold in the organization. "She brought to the new office enthusiasm, knowledge of bird life and experience not alone in Audubon work, but in the Woman’s Club interests," Blackman wrote, adding that Tippetts, who had led the effort to create eleven bird sanctuaries in Pinellas County, would emphasize the sanctuary movement in coming years. By her third anniversary, Florida had thirty new sanctuaries and Volusia County became the first county in the country to be designated a sanctuary by a state legislature.
It had been a remarkable twenty years for the Florida Audubon Society. From a founding group of fifteen, the gathering inspired by Clara Dommerich had grown into an organization with a membership of more than one hundred times that amount, pressing for legislation, education, and public awareness. Although it took two decades before a female became its elected leader, FAS had many women in critical leadership roles. They used their talents to handle the finances, keep records, communicate with many different groups, write brochures, and lead meetings. They traveled to meet with national leaders and kept the emphasis on educating the public about the needless destruction that women’s fashions and plume hunting were bringing to the state’s aesthetics and resources. They also brought with them invaluable connections with other groups, particularly women’s clubs, where they rallied grassroots support from other progressive women for FAS initiatives at the local, state and national levels. In short, FAS gave women the opportunity to shine as grassroots organizers and civic leaders. In return, the women breathed vibrant life into the Florida Audubon Society and made it a force with which to be reckoned from its infancy into its adolescent years. Theirs was a large hand on the button of affairs in the state of Florida and on the progressive pulse of the United States and its growing conservation movement. Although it was largely unseen, the tireless work of these community minded women would be felt well into the next century.