I love interesting women in history, especially when they make a positive difference in the world. I can’t even remember now where I heard about Harriet Hemenway, but she is a badass who championed for the abandonment of using birds as a fashionable accessory. It may seem of little consequence, but this is coming off the tail end (pun intended) of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, a species so plentiful North Americans thought they could never have any affect on its numbers. It was a common affliction in the Americas, things were so ridiculously abundant that people inadvertently wiped out whole species with improper harvesting and hunting.
When Harriet comes into the picture there are dozens of indigenous bird species on the brink of extinction, all in the name of fashion. While it might seem strange for people today, wearing an entire dead bird on your head was not unheard of.
Harriet was traumatized by descriptions of the bird hunts where hundreds of breeding pairs were killed, stripped of their feathers and left to rot while their newly hatched chicks starved in the nest. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s Hemenway amassed the support of nearly a thousand socialites in a boycott against the feather trade. She started getting this support through the most obvious and perfect method, which was not speeches, protests or anything of the sort, but rather she held tea parties. When she had the women in the sway of tea and treats she spoke to them about the barbarity of the feather trade and urged them to not wear plumes on their hats or clothing.
Her plan worked and in 1900 the Lacey Act was passed with assisting pressure from Harriet and the others. This act essentially outlaws the trade of plant or animal that has been illegally acquired in any way. Harriet and her cousin Minna Hall were the organizers of the Massachusetts Audubon Society and their work has saved the lives of thousands of birds.
She’s also noteworthy because she lived to be over 100 years old, which is a feat for anyone, especially someone born in the 1850’s.
Next time you see a bird with beautiful features, hopping happily on the ground or soaring in the sky, think of Harriet and the other bird lovers that put their efforts into keeping them around for the future to enjoy.
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