#International Women’s Day: Protesting Fashion

harriet hemenway by john singer sargent
Harriet Hemenway by John Singer Sargent, 1890.

Some women defy fashion trends. Like in the late 1890s when Boston socialite and visionary Harriet Hemenway would go birding—wearing white sneakers.

The woman didn’t stop with footwear. She refused to wear hats with feathers, wings, or taxidermied birds, and this time, instead of flouting the fashion of the day, she outright fought the killing of birds for the millinery trade—and got 900 other women to join her.

Hemenway’s concern for the plight of birds wasn’t some fanciful fear. In 1886, plume hunters were setting their sights on some 50 North American bird species for the millinery trade. This was about the same time the passenger pigeon, once numbering in the billions, was headed straight down a dead-end street to extinction, and the snowy egret, a favorite of milliners, wasn’t far behind. Hemenway wasn’t about to let that happen.

Because she cared.

Hemenway’s society would lead to the creation of the National Audubon Society and, eventually, the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that would outlaw the killing of migratory birds for commercial purposes, one of the United States’ first federal environmental laws.

It’s amazing what inspired action can do.

My friend Christa—a bird biologist—shared this story with me yesterday as we drove to Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, a seabird sanctuary. And, today, is International Women’s Day, so I am taking this opportunity to celebrate Harriet Hemenway.

Birds have become a big part of my life these days. I didn’t plan it. It just happened.

So, I wasn’t much surprised when a friend texted me a photograph of a baby bird as I was writing this. Charlie found the chick in his yard, no parent around, looking very weak.

I called a few of my ornithologist friends while Charlie did some research on the Internet. We think the bird is a dove, not native to Hawaii. I see hundreds of these as I go about my everyday life. And, yet, Charlie is doing everything he can to save this one bird. One very common bird.

Because he cares.

Harriet and Christa and Charlie are what I call Mothers of Nature. People who want to see this great diversity of life on earth go on. People who do not want to see a life lost or a species go extinct. People who care about nature, our environment, and the big blue-and-green speck of a world in which we live.

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