portrait of Harriet Hemenway

During the Gilded Age, it became fashionable for women to wear plumes of feathers in their hats. Those plumes came from herons, woodpeckers, bluebirds, owls, and warblers. Thousands were killed each year.

Two Women Take Action

In 1896, Harriet Hemenway and her cousin, Minna B. Hall, became concerned about what was happening to the birds. They decided to take action by hosting tea parties for the wealthy women of Boston where they began urging them not to wear the feathered hats that were so popular in that day. They then asked these women to join a society for bird protection. After gaining the support of many fashionable Boston women, Hemenway and Hall organized meetings of leaders of high society and prominent New England ornithologists. This led to the creation of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. More than nine hundred women joined.

Egrets and other wading birds were being killed in large numbers until these two crusaders began a protest revolt. Their boycott of the trade led to the formation of the National Audubon Society and Congressional passage of the Weeks-McLean Law, known as the Migratory Bird Act of 1913. The law was a landmark in American conservation history, outlawing feather hunting and forbidding interstate transport of birds.

portrait of woman with fancy feathered hat

Massachuetts Audubon Society

In 1896, women lacked political power, nor did not have the right to vote. It was difficult for them to be taken seriously by politicians and others with power. Harriet Hemenway knew she would need help to take her message to more than just women. She convinced leading scientists as well as other prominent men in the Boston area to help her form the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the oldest Audubon Society in the country. In 1897, the Massachusetts Audubon Society played a key role in convincing the Massachusetts legislature to outlaw the wild bird feather trade. Soon other Audubon Societies formed around the United States, many founded by women. Like Harriet Hemenway, the women then recruited men to join the organizations so people would view the groups as more than just ladies clubs. These societies played a critical role in changing people's attitudes about killing birds for the feathers. And it all began because Harriet Hemenway read an article that troubled her and took action.

vintage portrait of woman in feathered hat

The movement grows

Hemenway and Hall recruited William Brewster, a leading ornithologist, to be the Massachusetts Audubon Society's first president. However, women played a critical role in the organization and provided half of its officers and the leadership of most of the local chapters. The group used its political power to have a Massachusetts law passed in 1897 outlawing trade in wild bird feathers and then the Lacey Act (1900), which prohibits interstate shipment of animals killed in violation of local laws. Today, the Massachusetts Audubon Society remains an independent organization, but helped to organize the National Association of Audubon Societies (incorporated in 1905), which later became the National Audubon Society.

Mrs. Hemenway was not unfamiliar with controversy. She came from a family of abolitionists and had once invited Booker T. Washington to stay in her home when Boston hotels refused to give him a room. In 1898, Hemenway donated $50,000 towards the construction of the gymnasium at Radcliffe College. Her home is a stop on the Boston Women's Heritage Trail and Hemenway Street was renamed in her honor. She lived to be over 100 years old, a feat for anyone, especially someone born in the 1850’s.

The next time you see a bird with beautiful feathers, thank Harriet Hemenway and the other bird lovers who put their efforts into saving them so they could be enjoyed by future generations.

portrait of woman with bird wing on hat

vintage portrait of woman with fluffy feathered hat

first migratory bird refuge