Note: the accompanying images are not from this book, but much of what I learned, is. Any reflections about parallels with current events are mine, and mine alone. This book made me think.
I’m sorry I took so long to review this book; I loved reading it, and I’ve raved about it to friends, but it is so jam-packed with fascinating information that I was tempted to quote something from every other page — which would not be fair to other readers; it’s too much fun to discover surprising facts for yourself! [Even so, I couldn’t resist sharing a few. My enthusiasm carries me away. A shorter review can be found at The Vintage Traveler 🙂 ]
In her previous book, The Housekeeper’s Tale, Tessa Boase poured through old account books, legal proceedings, letters and diaries, and used her research to unearth the life stories of several women servants over a period of nearly two centuries. I confess that history was the class that bored me the most in high school — although I was a good student, I hated “history.” But history vividly told though the lives of ordinary women — that is fascinating, and suspenseful, reading.In Mrs. Pankhurst’s Purple Feather, the women central to her story are not ordinary — most of them are women who achieved great things: They changed the laws of England in the early twentieth century. And they did it against all odds:
“Right up until the First World War, the idea of bird protection was as laughable to the general population as the concept of female emancipation.” — Boase, p. xiii
Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst was the very vocal leader of the movement for women’s suffrage, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU.) Mrs. Etta Lemon was the primary founder of the Society for the Preservation of Birds (SPB,) seeking to prevent the extinction of birds which were being hunted for women’s hat trimmings. Both of them were up against an all-male parliament, male voters, and a public perception that women should stay home and keep their opinions to themselves.
But, surprisingly, the crusading Mrs. Lemon, — like many of her supporters — was an “Anti:” she was opposed to women getting the vote.
Did you know? In 1913, the Antis had 33,000 members; “the Pankhurst’s WSPU just 2,000.” [Boase, p. 237.]
It’s very hard for a modern woman to identify with Etta Lemon, — and this conflict between two successful, activist women is the paradox that shapes Boase’s book. It twines together two stories about women: the campaign for wildlife conservation and the campaign for voting rights. [The large cast of characters is helpfully listed and described early in the book — a very good idea!]
Wisely, Boase uses the gripping story of working woman Alice Battershall, ” a lowly feather washer,” to plunge us into the very big business of millinery and the feather trade in late Victorian and Edwardian England (and the world.) Alice was tried for the crime of stealing two ostrich plumes from her employer.
Alice Battershall earned 5 shillings a week — not a living wage even by the sweatshop standards of 1885. Her employer would have sold the feathers for 7 shillings each. Alice sold them to a “fence” for 1 shilling apiece. I had to stop and think about these figures: one ostrich plume was worth more than a week’s wages. Even by selling them to so cheaply, Alice increased her starvation wages by 40% — a powerful temptation.
And ostrich plumes were not the most valuable; ostrich were farmed, and the ostrich didn’t have to be killed for its feathers.
The bird that faced rapid extinction was the snowy egret. (Milliners called its feathers “Osprey.”) In 1903, a single ounce of Osprey feathers cost almost twice as much as an ounce of gold. [Boase, p.124] But snowy egrets only sported these long, delicate feathers (their nuptial plumage) while mating and raising their young. Egret nestlings need to be fed by both parents over a long period of time; whenever a plume hunter shot and skinned the parent birds, the next generation of snowy egrets died of starvation. When a colony was hunted two or three years in a row, it became extinct.
One famous hunter, David “Egret” Bennett, first wiped out egret colonies in Central America, then moved on to the colonies in Mexico and Baja California. He, too gets a chapter. He was aware that he was driving the species to extinction, but “I have never found any occupation as profitable,” he explained.
[Personally, I see a parallel with the fossil fuel industry today. For me, history — brought to life in Mrs. Pankhurst’s Purple Hat — keeps informing and illuminating the present.]
Mrs. Lemon and her friends began a campaign against the wearing of osprey; they sent letters to newspapers all over England; they wrote to parish newsletters and to clergymen citing biblical passages in support of their views; they wrote (and spoke) to other women and of course, to members of Parliament. But, while Mrs. Pankhurst was leading demonstrations and being arrested (repeatedly) for advocating votes for women — always while elegantly dressed and wearing hats bedecked with feathers, the anti-suffrage ladies of the [eventually Royal] Society for the Protection of Birds hired men to carry the placards in their most effective education campaign. And, although Mrs. Lemon actually ran the SPB until she was forced out in 1939, on paper her husband Frank was its “honorary secretary.” She did not assume its leadership — officially — until he died.
The sheer numbers of birds killed and skinned and transported to auction in New York and London boggles the mind. An undercover reporter from the American Ornithologists Union slipped into a plumage sale in London in 1888.
“Here were birds by the shipload,” writes Boase, listing about 7,000 parrots, 1,000 woodpeckers, 14,000 quail, grouse and partridge, 4000 snipes and plovers and other domestic birds like the 7,000 starlings, jays, and magpies. There were 5000 tanagers; hundreds (each) of birds of paradise, gulls, finches, orioles, larks, toucans; and 12,000 hummingbirds from all over the world. [It’s a mercy that my mind simply cannot picture a pile of 12,000 dead hummingbirds.]
Until I read this book I knew very little about Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst; I didn’t realize that she was a widow who had to support herself and her daughters, while trying to maintain the appearance of a respectable and “womanly” woman of the upper classes. Cartoonists often depicted suffragettes as mannish women with ties and cigars or as frustrated spinsters. Mrs. Pankhurst was determined to break that stereotype. As in all things British, social class came into it. She didn’t believe that the exclusively male Members of Parliament, who were middle class by virtue of inheritance and/or wealth, would pay attention to the pleas of working class women. This led to a painful break with her socialist daughter Sylvia, who championed “equal pay for equal work” and an end to the “sweating trades” (e.g., ostrich feather curlers) in 1918. [That was 100 years ago….]
The women who worked in the millinery and feather trades were exploited in wretched, health-destroying working conditions, and often reduced to prostitution during the regularly occurring months when their trades were dormant.
This is an ostrich plume that has been “willowed.” An ordinary ostrich feather has been made longer, fluffier and more luxurious by having extensions tied to every flue — a job which the small and nimble fingers of children were good at.
“One women and two children might labour for a day and a third on a single ostrich plume — whose preparation required as many as 8,613 knots…. In 1910, this earned them 3 cents….” — Boase, p. 13.
“Pulmonary tuberculosis was a slow and steady killer of women in the feather trade.” [Boase, p. 13] Nevertheless, abolishing the trade was a political hot potato: workers often preferred the risk of slow death to unemployment and starvation. (Hunger was already part of their lives.)
[This is another dilemma we face today. Although Boase never mentions these parallels, this book offers plenty of food for thought. Silicosis and pneumoconiosis kill coal miners, and mesothelioma kills asbestos workers; nevertheless, eliminating these trades means eliminating jobs — a problem in 1910 and in 2018.]
As the new century progressed, some women — like Etta Lemon; Eliza Phillips; Emily Williamson; Virginia Woolf; and Winifred, Duchess of Portland — campaigned against the extinction of entire species for hat trimmings. Mrs Pankhurst, immaculately dressed but debilitated from her frequent protest fasts, saw her supporters’ demonstrations become increasingly violent. Then came World War I, and a great change in women’s lives….
As I have mentioned, Mrs. Pankhurst’s Purple Feather is history told by a scholar with a novelist’s touch, focusing on the small detail and the personal story to bring its events vividly to life. And, although the author does not mention their relevance to modern life, I can’t help being stimulated by many of the facts she shares.
Over 100 years ago, American Ornithologist Henry Oldys addressed the U.S. Congress on the topic of wildlife conservation, urging legislation to prevent the extinction of species:
The spirit of the age, was, he said, marked by ignorance, cupidity and supineness — a toxic combination that was steadily exterminating creation. “History will not listen to the plea, ‘It was not my business,’ ” he cried. ‘It will answer: “You were there and could have prevented it; therefore it was your business. You failed to do your duty. The only explanation is that you were corrupt, ignorant, or weak.” ‘ — from Boase, p. 226.
[In the light of my country’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, and the U.N.’s recent report that irreversible climate change is happening more rapidly than predicted, someone needs to say that to Congress again.]
Nevertheless, I also found hope from the fact that women, working together, can accomplish the near-impossible. Even the story of the troubling Mrs. Lemon gives me hope:
The RSPB began with a letter writing campaign organized by a few Victorian ladies — bird-lovers excluded from all-male ornithological societies because they were women.
“Within six months… this little ‘bird and bonnet’ society [grew] from 1,000 to 5,000 members.” In two years, it had almost 10,000, “most of them women.” [p. 74.] Today, “The RSPB is a behemoth — a charity with 1.2 million members, 200 nature reserves…, 2000 staff and 14,000 volunteers. It has an annual income of 100 million pounds and it wields great political power. Its business today is international nature conservation.” (p. xi.)
Reading that makes me feel a lot better about our chances.
Summary: By focusing her complex story on the lives of individual women, Tessa Boase has turned an extraordinary mass of scholarly research into a memorable and fascinating book, filled with surprises and startling details. I used to think history was boring. Not this one.
The publishers deserve praise, especially for the footnotes (actually endnotes) which are printed in two-column format. They never intrude, but if you want to check a source, they are easy to read without constant page flipping. Full index and bibliography; color plates; and Ms. Boase herself collected the illustrations for the end papers from period magazines. Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review.
Mrs. Pankhurst wore a purple feather because the Suffragette colors were purple (for freedom and dignity,) white (for purity,) and green (for hope.) Click here to see the (faded) feather that inspired this book.