Hats off to the RSPB's female founders

Wednesday 19 October 2016

Hats off to the female founding members of the RSPB

In celebration of International Women's Day (8 March), the RSPB champions the courage and determination of its female founding members, who changed the face of wildlife conservation in a time when women's voices were rarely heard.

All women have heard of Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett, who lead the suffragette movement, resulting in women gaining the vote in 1918. But what about Emily Williamson and Eliza Phillips?

In Victorian England, women in Britain couldn't vote or own property, but this didn't stop a group of passionate individuals challenging the status quo and standing up for a cause they believed in. It's thanks to these female pioneers that one of the world's largest charities, the RSPB, is saving wildlife across the world, every day.

It began in Manchester, where Emily Williamson established The Plumage League from her home in 1889 to oppose the use of feathers in fashionable hats. The group quickly gained popularity and, in 1891, Williamson joined forces with fellow campaigner Eliza Phillips - head of the Fur and Feather League in Croydon - to form the Society for the Protection of Birds. Just 15 years later, in 1904, the organisation was granted a royal charter.

In the 1880s, feathers were the height of fashion. The UK imported exotic plumes from hummingbirds, vultures and birds of paradise from around the world. Our own native birds such as herons, kingfishers, owls and great crested grebes were also highly sought after for their colourful and attractive plumes. A single order of feathers placed by a London dealer during this period included 6,000 bird of paradise feathers, 40,000 hummingbird feathers and 360,000 feathers from various East Indian species. The trade was worth an annual £2 million and London was its capital city.

Methods of 'harvesting' the feathers were barbarous: gulls had their wings pulled off while still alive and the trend for using soft grebe feathers as a fur substitute caused the great crested grebe to come close to extinction in Britain and Ireland by 1860.

In 1899, the RSPB's key messages stipulated:

• That Members shall discourage the wanton destruction of Birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection.
• That Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for purposes of food, the ostrich only excepted*.

The fledgling society, whose original members were all women, was initially mocked by men, with cartoons appearing in Punch undermining the seriousness of their cause. Undeterred, between 1891 to 1899 membership rose from 1,200 to over 20,000. In 1899, as a result of the RSPB's growing influence, Queen Victoria decreed that certain military regiments should discontinue wearing osprey feathers as part of their uniforms. Then in 1921, the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act was passed, forbidding plumage from being imported to Britain.

Over the decades, the RSPB has also had a female president for longer than it has had a male president. Miranda Krestovnikoff, current RSPB president, says:

'That the RSPB - the largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe - owes its very existence to the vision of two Victorian women is something we're immensely proud of. It is inspirational to think that these women, who were deemed second-class citizens, living very much in a man's world, were able to make themselves heard in a time when women had very little voice. Despite these challenges, they succeeded in influencing world leaders and changing attitudes towards fashion and wildlife conservation on a global scale.

'Let's hope that Emily Williamson and Eliza Phillips leave another great legacy - to inspire women today to make a stand for what they believe in.'

The RSPB today helps protect wildlife and its habitats worldwide - from the UK's garden birds to tigers in Sumatra. It has successfully pulled species such as red kite, osprey and albatross back from the brink of extinction and manages over 200 nature reserves in the UK. The RSPB is now the largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe.

*Ostriches were the exception on account of it not being necessary to kill them for their feathers.

Last Updated: Tuesday 28 August 2018

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