Women writing birds

by Clara Contreras Ameduri, postdoctoral researcher in literary ecocriticism, University of Extremadura

Haz clic aquí para leerlo en español

On January 21st, I was pleased to see my exhibition on Victorian women ornithologists published on Europeana. As a researcher in environmental humanities, I consider the nineteenth century a particularly fascinating era. Despite being often remembered as an age of industrialization and urban expansion, this period also witnessed the dawn of organized environmental activism. From the craze for natural history to the rise of early movements for nature conservation and animal welfare, Victorian responses to radical transformations in the Anthropocene adopted diverse shapes, including science, literature, activism, and educational reforms. Such views were often manifested through passionate ornithological activities. Birds are notable elements in Victorian women’s writing, ranging from objects of scientific scrutiny to the symbolic use of avian imagery to reveal the confinement and marginalization of women in nineteenth-century culture. Most importantly, birdwatching constituted a bridge towards environmental awareness and political advocacy. It was also a crucial tool for female participation in the public sphere at a time when women were expected to comply with the domestic ideal of the “angel in the house”.

Advertisement against the use of feathers in fashion from The New York Times, 1897
Audubon Society bird protection advertisement, The New York Times, 1897 / PBS© John N. Hyde / Library of Congresss.

By stepping outdoors into the male-dominated field of scientific research, nature writers such as Susan Fenimore Cooper, Olive Thorne Miller, Graceanna Lewis, Florence Merriam Bailey, and Fannie Hardy Eckstorm paved the way for future generations of bird-lovers and environmental activists. This exhibition focuses on pioneering ornithologists from the United States who documented their ornithological activities in order to denounce the decrease of bird population due to hunting, cruelty towards animals, and Victorian taxidermy fashion. Just like their British allies Emily Williamson and Etta Lemon, these brave American authors led a relentless bird-protection crusade against the plumage trade, which was responsible for the mass annihilation of five million birds every year. Despite their exclusion from formal academic circles, they contributed to female participation in natural science, as well as to the eventual prohibition of feathers in the fashion industry. I hope this exhibition will help recover their largely forgotten stories: https://www.europeana.eu/en/exhibitions/women-writing-birds.

Leave a Reply