Mrs. Pankhurst’s Purple Feather is the story of two movements for change, and the two women behind the movements. One story, that of Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst, is well documented. She was the force behind WSPU, Women’s Social and Political Union, one of the groups fighting for the right of women to vote in Great Britain.
Lesser known was the other woman, Etta Lemon, the leader of the SPB, Society for the Protection of Birds. I had, in fact, never heard of Mrs. Lemon, but I was pleased to meet her acquaintance. In today’s world many of us are very concerned about the rights of animals, and so it is very fitting that Tessa Boase has brought Etta Lemon’s story into the limelight with this book.
The book begins with Etta Lemon, and how she came to be a fighter for birds in a time, the late 19th century, when birds were prized as hat decorations. It’s hard for us to believe today just how many birds were killed so that their feathers, wings, and entire bodies could be perched on top of a woman’s head. For a quick and easy introduction to this issue in the USA, listen to Murderous Millinery at the Dressed podcast.
Part of the feather story that is often neglected is the human cost. The feathers as they came from the bird were not beautiful enough to satisfy the fashionable, so many women and children toiled at rock-bottom wages to process and enhance feathers. In a very enlightening subplot, Boase tells us the story of Alice Battershall, a feather worker who stole a feather from her work, and who paid the legal price of three weeks hard labor in prison.
Mrs, Pankhurst, the champion of women’s voting rights, cared not a whit for the plight of birds. As a fashionable woman, she loved her hats which were frequently trimmed with feathers.
World War One, which started in 1914, pretty much put both movements on the political back burner. After the war ended, the world had changed tremendously. Women, whose wartime work had been invaluable were given the right to vote (not all at first, but eventually all were enfranchised). And the elaborate styles of the prewar years faded as a more modern and streamlined woman of fashion emerged. Mrs. Lemon finally got her bird law in 1921, just as demand for feathers in fashion dropped.
You know, this was exactly the book I needed to reassure me that there have been lasting changes made for advancement of women and the protection of our natural world. With so much of the news out of Washington causing concern on these issues, it’s nice knowing that justice does often win in the end.
This book was sent to me as a review copy, but those of you who know me know that the opinions expressed are entirely my own. Yes, I do recommend this book, and I want to thank Tessa Boase for arranging for me to read this fascinating story.