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A Bird In Her Bonnet
February | 2013


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Courageous Leadership

A Bird In Her Bonnet

It was all the rage in the late 1800's for fashionable women to wear bonnets piled high with feathers, birds, fruit, flowers and even small reptiles. Frank Chapman, the first editor of Audubon magazine, reported that on two afternoon walks through the fashion district of New York in 1886 he counted 174 birds, (40 species in all) laden on top of ladies' hats. These hats contained the entire bodies of 3 bluebirds, 2 red-headed woodpeckers, 9 Baltimore orioles, 5 blue jays, 21 common terns, a saw-whet owl, and a prairie hen. America's hat craze was in full swing.

At the same time, America's conservation movement was approaching a tipping point. There had yet to be a major incident that would push it over the edge. But that was all about to change.

On a cold winter day in Boston, Mrs. Harriet Hemenway, a prominent socialite read an article that detailed the bloody hunting of egrets, undertaken to supply feathers for women's hats. Mrs. Hemenway was appalled and decided it was time to act. She reached out to her cousin Mina Hall and together they held a series of teas for over 900 prominent women in the area, educating them of the dangers to the avian population and inviting them to give up their plumed headgear, renounce the wearing of their feathered hats, and pledge to boycott ever wearing these millinery items again.

Mrs. Hemenway and Mrs. Hall were also savvy enough to understand the importance of building the sustainability of their idea. They talked with many leading scientific and businessmen in Boston, persuading them to join their cause. Together they formed an organization and called it the Massachusetts Audubon Society (MAS) in honor of John James Audubon. Within a year, bird lovers in numerous other states organized under the banner of saving birds. Just 4 years later, in 1900, Hemenway and Hall's efforts led to the US Congress passing the Lacey Act, the first federal conservation measure that essentially stopped the interstate trading of bird feathers. Other laws followed which essentially eliminated the fashion industries use of bird feathers and in1913, the Migratory Bird Act placed all migratory birds under federal protection. In the meantime the women and men of the Massachusetts Audubon Society (which has remained separate from the National Audubon Society) undertook the acquisition of bird sanctuaries and eventually acquired over 41,000 acres of preserve, an idea that no doubt resonated with soon-to-be President Theodore Roosevelt who created the first ever bird sanctuary, on Pelican Island, Florida.

In a 2004 article in Heritage, the magazine of the Audubon Society, Jennifer Lawrence explores the issue of why it was imperative for women to lead the fight against feathered bonnets. "Dead birds on top of men's head could not possibly have triggered equivalent outrage." It was not just because women had assumed this cause celebre since the birds were on top of their heads, but it was because women were seen as the moral caretakers of this era. It was their responsibility to ensure that the right thing was done. Their actions opened the door to environmental ideas being promulgated. As one woman who joined the campaign wrote, "Without our bird friends to protect us, the insects that buzz and sting and creep, and crawl, and slime, will have their own way in the world." Arguments were heated, to be sure but the budding environmentalists won the day and their grassroots strategy demonstrated the message so well said by Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

The message to Courageous Leaders from that era to our own? Be bold in your commitments and take action in concert with other like-minded people. You may be surprised at what you changes you are able to bring about.

 

*I want to thank Al Lewis, author of the recent healthcare best seller "Why Nobody Believes the Numbers" for his persistence in recommending this Courageous Leadership article on the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

If you know about someone or something that should be shared in Courageous Leadership, please drop me a line at [email protected]

 

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TED Talks

Okay, who is this kid? It turns out that Adora Svitak has been writing short stories since she was 6 years old and now at the ripe old age of 12, she recorded this Ted video on "What Adults can learn from kids". Pay attention grown-ups!

 

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