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2018: The year of women

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Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

2018: The year of women

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One hundred years ago today, women first won the right to vote in the UK. Today, we will be celebrating this milestone, as my colleague, Alison Enticknap, looks back at the RSPB’s own female pioneers and their relationship with the suffrage movement.


The Representation of the People Act of 1918 enabled women to vote for the first time. It wasn’t all women at first, but it was a start. The more militant “suffragettes” get most of the publicity but it is possible that the more moderate “suffragists”, such as Millicent Garrett Fawcett (who this month will become the first woman to be commemorated with a statue in London’s Parliament Square), had a greater influence on the outcome.


The RSPB’s pioneers

Of course, the RSPB is one of many charities to have been founded by pioneering women. The Society for the Protection of Birds (SPB) was founded by Emily Williamson in Didsbury, Manchester in 1889. Mrs Williamson was active on a range of women’s issues, also setting up the Gentlewomen’s Employment Association in Manchester, and the Princess Christian Training College for Nurses. Her Loan Training Fund was also created to help support more women into further education.

The SPB later merged with the Fur, Fin and Feather Folk, formed in Croydon by Eliza Phillips and her neighbour, Margaretta “Etta” Smith. Etta Smith married the barrister Frank Lemon in 1892 and it was the formidable “Mrs Lemon” who was a driving force of the RSPB for more than 50 years. Mrs Lemon was a tireless campaigner and was deeply mistrustful of ornithologists, believing them to be hostile to the efforts of the RSPB to curb the activities of egg and skin collectors.

Picture: Mrs Lemon, a tireless campaigner and a driving force of the RSPB for more than 50 years

The RSPB and the suffrage

Do not assume, however, that philanthropic women like Mrs Williamson and Mrs Lemon, or that other leading light of the RSPB, the Duchess of Portland, were automatically supporters of women’s suffrage. The truth is more complex and nuanced. Many well-meaning champions of women such as Mrs Williamson are better described as “maternalistic” and their support and patronage of women’s issues stopped short of thinking that women should be granted the vote, as this was a radical point of view at that time.Mrs Lemon, for example, was quite outspokenly and actively anti-suffrage. In fact, she was the Chair of the East Surrey branch of the Anti-Suffrage League, feeling strongly that women should be recognised and celebrated on their own terms, not by becoming more like the men. Indeed, it was some of the RSPB’s pioneering men, including the likes of sometime Foreign Secretary Lord Edward Grey, who were ultimately more prominent on the votes for women issue.

This was not unique to the RSPB. The National Trust’s founder, Octavia Hill, was also implacably opposed to women’s suffrage.

Another awkward truth is that the RSPB’s primary cause – to end the use of threatened species’ feathers as fashion accessories – occasionally pitted them directly against the suffragettes. Feathers, and especially feathers in hats, were part of the suffragettes’ identity and “brand” (photographs of Emmeline Pankhurst frequently depict her sporting hats topped with an ostentatious plume). Mrs Lemon doubtless fired off an acerbic letter, as was her custom, to any suffrage campaigner seen wearing the wrong type of feather.

 

Celebrating diversity

What should we take from this? That we should be somehow ashamed of our founding women because they weren’t on the frontline of the fight for the suffrage? Not at all. As with most campaigning issues, people don’t divide neatly into camps. If two people take the same position on one issue, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be in agreement on another. They may even agree on the issue but disagree on the ideal outcome, or how to achieve it.

So, in 2018, let’s celebrate that great step towards equality that was made in 1918, thanks to the efforts of those brave and progressive women (and enlightened men) who made it happen. And celebrate the philanthropic pioneers, like Emily Williamson and Octavia Hill, who not only worked tirelessly to improve the education and living conditions of women, but also broke new ground on other issues and causes.

But don’t assume they were all chaining themselves to railings or hurling themselves in front of horses. Some of the more influential ones were writing letters to newspapers and advocating change via quiet and rational debate on the “inside track”. There’s more than one way to skin a cat and it’s important to recognise that the defining characteristic of effective social movements is an inherent diversity of people and approaches.

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