The Brave Women Who Saved Birds from "Murderous Millinery"

An interview with Tessa Boase, author of "Mrs Pankhurst's Purple Feather."

Posted Jun 12, 2018

"Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather is a unique journey through a society in transformation...a highly original story of women stepping into the public sphere, agitating for change – and finally finding a voice."  

Bird feathers belong on birds, not on hats

A few weeks ago I received a wonderful book by Tessa Boase called Mrs Pankhurst's Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism -- Women's Fight for Change. The title immediately caught my attention and I began flipping through it. A few hours later, I came to realize not only had it gotten dark out, but also that I was totally absorbed in Ms. Boase's incredibly interesting and important book about an amazing women named Etta Lemon, who, it turns out, was anti-fashion, anti-feminist – and anti-suffrage. I really wanted to know more about how the book came to be and to put out the word to a broad audience who I knew would be interested in the work of Ms. Lemon and other women who wanted to stamp out the use of feathers for fashion. I asked Ms. Boase if she could answer a few questions, and gladly she agreed. Below is our interview, and I hope it will stimulate others to read the entire book and to think about the many important messages it offers.

"When Mrs Pankhurst stormed the House of Commons with her crack squad of militant suffragettes in 1908, she wore on her hat a voluptuous purple feather. This is the intriguing story behind that feather."

Why did you write Mrs Pankhurst's Purple Feather? and how did you pick this title?

Three years ago I was having lunch with my old editor, a keen birder, and we were talking in a roundabout way about natural history writing. It’s ‘hot’ at the moment, he said. ‘H is for Hawk’, etc etc. Could I write that kind of book? I confess that my heart slightly sank, as my interest in storytelling is in human beings rather than creatures. But when he mentioned, in passing, that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – the RSPB – was founded by Victorian women campaigning against the fashion for feathers in hats, I was instantly intrigued. I was also astonished. Why doesn’t anybody know this?

Courtesy Tessa Boase
Source: Courtesy Tessa Boase

The RSPB is our biggest conservation charity, but I associate it (not entirely unfairly) with men. Celebrities such as Bill Oddie – bearded, dressed in Goretex, binoculars slung round their necks, rather proprietorial about the birds. Yet here was somebody telling me it came into being because of women. That it was an anti-fashion campaign!

A week’s research was enough to tell me that this was the book I had to write. This story would have it all: invisible women, fashion, politics, social extremes, commerce, creatures dead and alive.  I wanted to bring to life every link in this commodity chain, as every bit of it fascinated me – from the hunter, to the feather workers, to the milliners, shop girls, fashionistas – and those women who fought against the plumage trade and heartless wearers of ‘murderous millinery’, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Yet after many months of hard work and research, my proposal was rejected by countless publishers because (as they said) ‘bird people are very hard to sell books to’. Really? I think it was because this book was not straightforward: not a bird book for the boys; not really a natural history book; not strictly a fashion book…

Etta Lemon; Courtesy Tessa Boase
Source: Etta Lemon; Courtesy Tessa Boase

 I went back to the archives. And then I stumbled upon something that seemed to change everything. It was a letter written to the Surrey Mirror by the RSPB’s main dynamo, Etta Lemon, about her role in the Women’s Anti Suffrage League. She was soliciting support to fight this ‘menace’ to society. I then saw that I had to tell the story of Edwardian women’s political activism more broadly, without just focusing on the birds.

 As I looked at picture after picture of suffragist and suffragette rallies, my eyes were drawn again and again to the top of their heads. These magnificently hatted women were decked out in bird parts. The elaborately feathered hat was the flourish of the emancipated woman. And yet, as one American columnist wrote, ‘who would give the vote to a young woman sporting an entire herring gull on her head?’

Here was a story far more complex, more dramatic – and perhaps more palatable to the publishers. I was right. I quickly got a deal for a book that twisted the two stories together, but my intention was always to put the RSPB story at the forefront, and for my heroine Etta Lemon to gain her rightful place in the canon of women who shaped the 20th-century. The title came to me when I visited the Museum of London, and discovered a lavish hat ornament once worn by the leader of the suffragettes, kept in a spot-lit glass cabinet. It was a symbolic object: redolent not just of Mrs Pankhurst’s femininity and power, but also (ironically) of female abuse.

Budgerigar Hat; Courtesy Tessa Boase
Source: Budgerigar Hat; Courtesy Tessa Boase

The purple ostrich feather would have been ‘finished’ by exploited female ‘feather hands’ working close by where the Museum now stands, in the City of London. This museum exhibit nicely linked my story to another collection of feathers I had discovered, in a box buried in the archives of the RSPB, labeled ‘contraband’. Egret, grebe, bird-of-paradise… These had been taken from milliners, examined, authenticated and kept by Mrs Lemon as evidence of a despicable trade.

 I might have preferred the book to be called ‘Mrs Lemon and the Birds’ – but Pankhurst’s name sells books… and writers, in the end, must bow to their publishers’ wisdom.

How does it follow up on your earlier work?

My previous book The Housekeep's Tale was also about invisible women: housekeepers of great English country houses; a handful of women who had (mostly) fallen foul of their employers, between 1830 and 1970. I wanted to tell their side of the story, and put their contribution back in the narrative. Doing this taught me that I love the process of research, and enjoy bringing a moment in history to life in great detail. I’m an English Literature graduate and a features journalist, not a historian. My journalistic interest is in society, the environment, sustainability and the food chain. I don’t do celebrities, but real people, and love to uncover hidden stories.

"The recent Royal Wedding did make me wonder if all fashion really is cyclical, as there were a lot of feathers on display – and then a flurry of concern in the press about their provenance. Is wearing feathers cruel?"

What are your major messages?

It’s not a polemical book; I didn’t write it with a message in mind. But the neglect of these women really is shameful, and I’ve enjoyed the slight squirming of some of those older men historically responsible for this neglect (who have been very gracious about it!). ‘An uncomfortable read for men,’ said Mark Avery in his blog ‘Standing Up For Nature’ (he’s an ex RSPB long-time employer); ‘or at least, this man. But I’m pretty sure that reading this book did me a lot of good’.

The recent Royal Wedding did make me wonder if all fashion really is cyclical, as there were a lot of feathers on display – and then a flurry of concern in the press about their provenance. Is wearing feathers cruel? I hope these debates will never go away. 

I would also like to educate people, so that they’re conscious that their instinctive recoil or unease over the use of feathers in fashion goes directly back to those RSPB founders, who changed our sensibilities. 

And finally: remember, all fashion comes at a cost. It did then (I go into this, in detail, in my book – from the birds to the impoverished feather workers and milliners) – and it does today. Is it ok to wear cheap clothes? Is farmed fur really ethical?

Can you please tell readers why Etta Lemon was "forgotten by history" although she and her "local secretaries" were fighting against "murderous millinery"?

"I think the women were neglected by history due to science replacing sentiment in bird protection, between the wars; and then due to sexism in later decades."

I was asked to answer the same question by BBC Wildlife Magazine, so I’ll reproduce below some of what I said. I think the women were neglected by history due to science replacing sentiment in bird protection, between the wars; and then due to sexism in later decades. There was also the problem of no photographs: nothing for the Manchester founder of the Society for the Protection of Birds, Emily Williamson, nor for the Croydon founder of the Fur, Fin and Feather Folk, Eliza Phillips. From 1891 (when the two groups merged) it was a collaborative collective, its strength lying in its local secretaries. No one woman pushed herself forward, or sought personal fame (in the Emmeline Pankhurst way). Etta was the dynamo who took the society forward, but without making herself a chief, or drawing undue attention to herself. She just worked very, very hard.

Extract from BBC magazine piece here:

Etta Lemon was ‘never much of an scientific ornithologist,’ wrote James Fisher in the 1960s, ‘but a woman of tremendous drive and a humorous ruthlessness and courage.’ By then she had passed into folklore, a Victorian fanatic considered fair play for pot shots. She was unattractive with ‘a mouth like a rat trap,’ thought one old RSPB staffer of her portrait. In the official history of the RSPB published for its 1989 centenary, For Love of Birds (known in-house as ‘FLOB’), Tony Samstag dubbed her the ‘Fulminator in Chief’ – ‘one of those whose Christian name was once and forever “Mrs”.’

I wondered when exactly the men of science had turned against the women, in a reflex that seemed to then become ingrained. This moment came about, as far as I could tell, between the wars. In 1926, the rigorously scientific young birdwatcher Max Nicholson attacked the RSPB’s core as ‘an elderly and passive group of amateurs’ who ‘say too much and do too little,’ in his book Birds in England. The female founders of the RSPB, with their early policy of women-only membership, had unfortunately had the effect (so he thought) of sharply dividing the growing bird protection movement from its ‘natural scientific base’.

Leading ornithologist Julian Huxley was next to criticise the Society in the early 1930s for its ‘blindness to the intellectual, as opposed to the emotional side of the bird-lovers’ activities’. Etta Lemon was well known for her suspicion of modern birding practices: the ringing of nestlings, census taking, the intrusion of long camera lenses into nests. She felt that these practices had human, rather than the birds’ interest at heart.

The extraction of the widowed Mrs Lemon from her own charity was painful to witness. I found highly personal letters in the archives telling the story – how first she was ‘relegated to a very inferior position in the Society’s office’, then ‘baited’ at a committee meeting – ‘there’s no other word for it’. In May 1939, just after the RSPB’s 50th anniversary celebrations, she was informed, by post, that her services would no longer be required. She was eighty years old. How callous – but also, perhaps, how necessary. She was the Margaret Thatcher of the bird world – visionary, forthright, divisive and, in the end, out of touch. For her society to grow and evolve, Mrs Lemon had to let go.

But because of the unpleasant nature of her extraction, in the face of her stubborn possessiveness, Mrs Lemon has lingered in the collective memory like a bad smell ever since, rather than getting the heroic Hudson treatment. [a portrait of WH Hudson, the naturalist, is in prime position at headquarters.]

Mike Clarke, current chief executive of the RSPB, describes Etta’s predicament as ‘founder syndrome.’ ‘When a society starts small, the individuals have a huge influence on the early culture,’ he told me. ‘But the culture has to change with the times.’ By 1939 the spat over feathered hats was long over. The Plumage Importation (Prohibition) Act had been passed in 1922, and there were more pressing nature conservation battles to fight. Oil spills, egging, the persecution of birds of prey – none of them straightforward, some highly divisive. If tactics and personnel had not changed, the charity would have alienated its members.

I asked Clarke why he thought his charity’s early history has never been celebrated. As an ‘armchair historian,’ he said that he’d always imagined devoting his retirement to investigating the stories of Emily, Eliza and Etta. ‘I haven’t really got the time now. But it pains me that we haven’t devoted our own charity resources to celebrating our history. The time to write it should have been the centenary, in 1989; this was a moment when we could have invested a lot of effort pulling it together.’ But with so many claims on the RSPB’s time and money, they didn’t, and the moment passed. The ‘FLOB’ book has a slim chapter on ‘Those Formidable Women’ – women who ‘in different times would have given suck to giants’ – written in the sort of breezily chauvinistic tone that might have raised chortles in the Eighties, but does not find much traction today.

Surprisingly, when a plaque was erected on Emily Williamson’s house in Didsbury in 1989, it failed to even mention her by name. ‘Action for Birds – 100 Years’, it reads. ‘The unveiling was perfomed by the Society’s President MAGNUSS MAGNUSSON.’

Clarke points out that ‘history is always written through the cultural lens that we have at the time.’ Happily that lens is now coming to bear on the women; pulling them slowly into focus. I’m delighted to report that since the publication of my book, the people of Didsbury have funded a handsome new plaque putting Emily Williamson back into the narrative. Her image is now public property, too. I was sent an old family photograph by Emily’s ancestor, Professor Melissa Bateson (ethologist and starling specialist). Manchester’s early animal rights heroine now has a face.

And at the RSPB headquarters at Sandy, an old oil painting of Etta Lemon has been unearthed from the attics and is currently being restored. It is destined to hang opposite the portrait of W. H. Hudson: the man who gave the ladies the courage to go forward with their fight. Eighty years after she was purged from her own society, Mrs Lemon is coming home to roost.

Who are some of the other forward-thinking women who were important in the formation of the RSPB?

Three other women:

Emily Williamson of Didsbury, a middle class solicitor’s wife who invited ladies to tea at her home in 1889, and urged them to sign a pledge to wear no feathers. ‘Women are mostly timid in inaugurating anything,’ said Emily, ‘but they are very ready to give their help to a good cause when they are shown the way.’ 

Mrs Eliza Phillips, elderly widowed founder of the Fur, Fin and Feather Folk of Croydon. The all-female Folk merged with Emily’s campaign in 1891 to create the SPB, keeping the name of the Didsbury group, while drawing on the energy of the Croydon women. As head of publications, Eliza’s trenchant voice springs off the page in numerous pamphlets and articles: ‘This is above all a women’s question,’ she writes in 1891. ‘It is women’s vanity that stimulates the greed of commerce, and women’s money that tempts bird-slaughterers to continue their cruel work at home and abroad.’

Winifred, Duchess of Portland – RSPB president from 1891 until her death in 1954. Her patrician voice rings out from scrawled letters of instruction to those women beavering away in the office. ‘Literature on the subject might do Lady Drummond some good! Will you send her some – by my express desire!’

Are you hopeful that Ms. Lemon and her colleagues will be adopted as role models among people who currently are working on animal protection? 

There has been great and heartening interest among the younger generation in these unsung heroines, from birders, from feminists and especially from women in conservation. Perhaps women from the past speak more readily to people today than their male counterparts. We can empathize with their sentiments more easily. There is now, once again, a more emotive, less scientific vibe around animal protection; emotions are no longer scoffed at as they once were. As the great moral philosopher and animal rights pioneer Mary Midgley said in 1983 (Animals and Why They Matter) – ‘What does it mean to say that scruples on behalf of animals are merely emotional, emotive or sentimental? What else ought they to be?’

I would love to see Etta Lemon accrue followers and a reputation. I see she’s now on Wikipedia, since my book’s release. That’s a start.

What are some of your current and future projects?

Right now I’m getting out on the road and publicising the book. I love giving illustrated lectures, and this is a hugely visual subject. When I show people pictures of the hats, their jaws drop.

I’m returning to journalism, writing as much as I can around this subject to raise awareness of this forgotten story, while making links to current topics of debate (such as Royal Wedding hats!). 

But long term I hope to write another book. Upper class Edwardians and their penchant for exotic pets I find a fascinating subject. I had a great, great (great?) aunt who kept a cheetah. I’d maybe like to explore what that was all about, and bring to life some of those strange relationships. 

Is there anything else you'd like to tell your readers?

I’ve been delighted that reviewers have honed in on the unexpected humor in Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather.  Black humor, or ironic humor perhaps, but you cannot write about such a preposterous fashion – or about such an ego-maniac as Mrs Pankhurst – or about the anti-suffrage movement and its female leaders made for politicking – without humor. 

Thank you so much, Tessa, for a detailed interview about your fascinating and most important book. I'm sure the birds would also be very thankful for your book and for the hard work of Etta Lemon and her colleagues. I hope Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather will enjoy a broad global audience because nonhuman animals need all the help they can get, and it's essential to inform people of who did the hard work in the past and to let them know the power of the brave women who took on huge projects and formidable opponents. 

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