American Women Conservationists: Twelve Profiles, A Review

I received American Women Conservationists: Twelve Profiles by historian, Madelyn Holmes, as a gift from my friend Barbara a year ago and was immediately intrigued. However, last summer was filled with editing of the book we were writing and I had no time to read. It sat on my end table and finally went to the bookcase in my spare bedroom – until last month.

As I began to read the preface, I became excited. Not only were these women who had made significant contributions to conservation, they were chosen to profile because they were all writers.

The earliest of the women featured was born in the mid-nineteenth century. Each came from families where they were encouraged to learn about the natural environment and to pursue higher education. Holmes points out that women from families like theirs “stayed at home and didn’t do anything. When describing Florence Merriam Bailey,and a handful of women who were her contemporaries, whose lifelong focus was birds, Holmes commented that “No one told them that it was unladylike to study birds, but many male writers called their writing amateurish.”

The first six profiles featured by Holmes describes how each of these women were influenced by their time and place in history. Each in turn provided a legacy that influenced the women of the next generation. Through their writings, each guided current thought and practice and contributed to major conservation milestones.

Through her prolific writings on birds, Bailey was able to help the public see the value of birds that led to their protection from rampant slaughter, including those killed soley for their feathers. Rosalie Edge worked with others to create citizen environmental activism which in turn promoted expansion of national parks and the creation of wildlife sanctuaries on private land. Marjory Stoneman Douglas used her editorial skills to educate and advocate for the everglades. Helen Nearing contributed to the knowledge base of purposeful sustainable living. And, of course, the best known of the women featured is Rachel Carson who not only impacted public policy, but introduced the concept of ecological basis of environmental practice.

These women, all born prior to World War I, laid the groundwork for those that Holmes describes as contemporary women conservationists and includes women writers with whom I am familiar: Faith McNulty, Ann Zwinger, Sue Hubbell, Anne LaBastille, Mollie Beattie and Terry Tempest Williams. Their writing has all occurred since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

The Appendix lists the published writings of the twelve women conservationists. As Holmes discussed the writing style of each of these women, she commented on each’s ability to write clearly, and often lyrically, in a manner that enabled the general public to grasp the passion each felt about her subject matter. While Holmes uses quotes from the writings of each, my biggest disappointment was that she didn’t provide more generous writing samples.

As I read about the contributions of each of these 12 women, I was both grateful and inspired. Holmes has certainly whetted my appetite to seek out and read the books many of the women have written.

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2 thoughts on “American Women Conservationists: Twelve Profiles, A Review

  1. You should also read the book on Rosalie Edge, Hawk of Mercy by Dyana Z. Furmansky (2009). It is an excellent read and combines her initial work as a suffragette with her conservation efforts and founding of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania.

  2. The “old ladies in tennis shoes” can be credited with ending the slaughter of egrets for their feathers. In my experience as a member of a local bird club in the 1940s and 50s, men seemed to dominate the ranks of birders– many of them somewhat older, meaning they were born around 1900. Then it seemed that women began to share more equal status among the serious bird watchers and conservationists– a sort of second wave, part of the movement that followed publication of Rachel Carson’s book. Of course these are only my perceptions, and I could be dead wrong.

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