How Etta Lemon Helped Save the Birds

In the United Kingdom, Etta Lemon campaigned for 50 years against the slaughter of birds for elaborate fashion.

Woman wearing a hat with ostrich feather
Woman wearing an ostrich feather hat. Culture Club / Getty Images

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a fashion war over feathers. Highly stylish women's headwear typically involved loads of feathers and plumes and sometimes entire birds. Species began to struggle as millineries needed more and more birds to decorate increasingly extravagant hats.

On both sides of the ocean, women conservationists were fighting to save birds from such a decorated demise. In the United Kingdom, Etta Lemon campaigned for 50 years against the slaughter of birds for elaborate fashion.

Lemon was the co-founder of the all-women organization that later became the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

While she was battling for the birds, a woman named Emmeline Pankhurst was fighting for the right to vote. Pankhurst waged her more newsworthy war while wearing ornately plumed headwear.

Journalist Tessa Boase was intrigued by the juxtaposition of these two crusading women and their rival crusades. She researched their stories and wrote, "Etta Lemon – The Woman Who Saved the Birds" (Aurum Press).

Boase talked to Treehugger about Lemon and her early colleagues, about feathered hats, and the battling campaigns of two determined women.

Treehugger: What is your background? What drew you to the story of Etta Lemon?

Tessa Boase: I’m an Oxford English Lit grad, an investigative journalist, and a social historian who loves the thrill of the chase. I’d heard a rumor that Victorian women were behind Britain’s biggest conservation charity, and my curiosity was immediately piqued. Could this be true? And if so, why hadn’t I heard of them? When I told the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) I wanted to write their early story, they became very secretive. I wouldn’t find enough material, the librarian told me—and certainly no photographs. The early archive was lost during the London Blitz. 

Here was an irresistible challenge. Two years of painstaking research revealed four distinct personalities, all women. Emily Williamson of Manchester was the gentle, compassionate founder who invited her friends to tea in 1889 and got them to sign a pledge to Wear No Feathers. Eliza Phillips was their great communicator, whose pamphlets pulled no punches. Winifred, Duchess of Portland, animal rights advocate, and vegetarian, was RSPB president to her death in 1954. 

And then there was Honorary Secretary Etta Lemon, a woman (and a name) to be reckoned with. This was the personality that most intrigued me. To her colleagues, she was "The Dragon," to the public, "Mother of the Birds." Determined, single-minded, and "brusque" of manner, here was an eco heroine with a rhino hide. Hard-hitting campaigns need women like Etta Lemon, then and today. 

women with feathered hats

Library of Congress / Aurum Press

Can you describe what women's hat fashion was like while Lemon was battling against feather use? 

Etta described the latest "murderous millinery" in every RSPB annual report. Here’s one from 1891: a hat made in Paris and bought in London for three shillings. "The chief feature is the lovely little head of some insect-eating bird, split in two, each half stuck aloft on thin skewers." The bird’s tail sat in the middle of the split head, the wings on either side, while a tuft of the buff plumes of the squacco heron (a small, short-necked, toffee-colored bird from southern Europe) completed the "monstrosity." 

As hats grew in diameter, fashions got more extreme. Milliners heaped their creations not just with feathers but wings, tails, several birds, whole birds, and half birds (owl heads were all the rage in the 1890s). Exotic species, known as "novelties," were particularly prized—but if you couldn’t afford a scarlet-rumped trogon, you could buy a dyed starling. 

What obstacles did she face as a conservationist at that time? 

So many obstacles! In 1889, women couldn’t even book a meeting hall. The ornithological societies of the day were male-only coteries. Emily Williamson founded her all-female society in anger at being barred from the all-male British Ornithologists’ Union (BOU). Luxuriantly bearded Victorians felt deeply proprietorial about nature, and there was much patronizing sneering. The title "Society for the Protection of Birds" was dismissed as "very ambitious" by one British Museum naturalist, "for a band of ladies who do nothing but abstain from personal iniquity in the matter of bonnets." Yet women are good at networking. By 1899, the (R)SPB had 26,000 members of both sexes and 152 branches throughout the British Empire. In 1904 it gained that all-important "R": the Royal Charter. 

The British public was utterly ignorant of birdlife at the start of the campaign. Re-educating people to watch birds, rather than shoot or wear them, was an uphill struggle. The end goal was legislation, and of course, women had no voice in Britain’s Parliament until 1921. Yet Etta Lemon was an impressive speaker, earning the admiration of male journalists at international bird conferences.

hat with parakeets
Hat with parakeets.

Aurum Press

What impact was fashion having on various bird species?

By the 1880s, as explorers and shipping routes carved up the world, a fabulous array of exotic bird skins flooded the plumage market. Brightly colored birds such as parrots, toucans, orioles, and hummingbirds were particularly prized. Weekly auctions in London, the hub of the world’s plumage market, would routinely sell single lots containing perhaps 4,000 tanagers, or 5,000 hummingbirds. 

By 1914, hundreds of species risked extinction. The plumed paradise birds, the great and little egret, blue-throated and amethyst hummingbirds, the bright green Carolina parakeet, the Toco toucan, the lyre bird, the silver pheasant, the velvet bird, the tanager, the resplendent trogon ... the list went on. 

In Britain, the great crested grebe was driven to near extinction, hunted for its head feathers, which stand out like a halo when breeding. Sub-Antarctic beaches were photographed heaped with albatross corpses, shot to satisfy the fashion for a single, long plume on a hat. 

What were some of the tactics used to dissuade women from wearing feathers?

Etta Lemon was militant from an early age, calling out any women wearing "murderous millinery" in her London church. In 1903, when an ounce of egret feathers was worth twice as much as an ounce of gold, the RSPB local secretaries were sent on a mission. Armed with visceral pamphlets and a magnifying glass, all 152 of them were to infiltrate high street stores, surprise shoppers, question shop girls, cross-examine head milliners, and lecture shop managers. The term "environmental activism" didn’t exist. Instead, they called it the Frontal Attack. 

In 1911, when most of the world’s egret colonies had been shot out, men bearing gruesome placards showing the life (and bloody death) of the egret were hired to walk the West End streets during the summer sales, and again that Christmas. Women consumers fond of wearing the aigrette or "osprey" were shocked into consciousness. This marked the campaign’s turning point. 

While she was fighting her campaign, Emmeline Pankhurst (who wore feathered hats) was fighting for the vote. Why did you find this such a fascinating parallel?

Here were two passionate women—one lionized, the other forgotten—entering the political sphere at the same moment in history. And yet each was opposed to the other’s aims and values. Pankhurst was dismissive of animal rights; Lemon was contemptuous of women’s rights. And yet both campaigns shared members and methods, borrowing each other’s tactics. 

Pankhurst was a dedicated follower of fashion, rarely seen in public without feathers and furs. She encouraged her militant followers to use fashion to further the cause, to be the most elegant ladies in the public sphere. Mrs. Lemon thought it a bitter irony that Mrs. Pankhurst’s elegant supporters took to the streets adorned in wings, birds, and feathers. 

Etta Lemon

Aurum Press

At about the same time in the U.S., Harriet Hemenway was also working to protect birds and change fashion. How did their paths collide?

The American plumage campaigner Harriet Hemenway pointed out that as well as killing birds, the fashion for feathers was also killing women’s chances of getting the vote. For who would listen to a woman with a dead bird on her head? Etta Lemon agreed. "The emancipation of women has not yet freed her from slavery to so-called 'fashion,'" she wrote witheringly, "nor has a higher education enabled her to grasp this simple question of ethics and aesthetics."

Here were two women who spoke the same language. No wonder there was a warm collaboration between the fledgling Audubon society and the RSPB. In 1896 two Boston ladies, Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall, invited eminent Bostonians to join in creating a society much like their British counterparts. Mrs. Lemon wrote to offer her congratulations and support. She admired the "Audubon hat" being promoted in Boston, trimmed with lace and ostrich feathers (confusingly, the ostrich feather was allowed, as ostriches did not die for their plumes). 

From this point on, tactics and data were shared between the two societies. British ladies were, after all, wearing American birds on their heads. America triumphed first, with its robust Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918. Britain followed with the Plumage (Importation Prohibition) Act in 1921. 

What is Lemon's legacy?

Etta taught us to feel compassion for birds. We shudder at the sight of those macabre bird hats today, thanks to her efforts. The RSPB would not have become the conservation giant it is today, had it not been for Etta’s vision, tirelessness, determination, and clarity of focus. I found it astonishing she hadn’t been remembered by the charity she built for half a century, 1889-1939. 

Happily, since my book’s publication, Etta Lemon and co-founder Emily Williamson are being propelled into the spotlight. Etta’s portrait has been restored and rehung in pride of place at The Lodge, RSPB HQ. There is to be an ‘Etta Lemon’ hide at RSPB Dungeness, the Kent coastline where she was born.

Emily Williamson statues

Emily Williamson Statue Campaign

Meanwhile, the campaign for a statue of Emily Williamson gathers pace. Four bronze maquettes were unveiled on the Plumage Act centenary, 1 July 2021 in Emily’s former garden, now a public park in Manchester. (Vote for your favorite.)