Today  (8 March) marks International Women’s Day which celebrates the social, political and economic achievements of women across the globe.

For 2014, the theme is ‘inspiring change’ – something which the RSPB has been doing since it was formed 125 years ago.

The story starts in the late 1700s at the French court of Marie Antoinette, who introduced a fashion for feathers, and the plumes of exotic species like birds of paradise soon adorned the head of every high-society lady.

While her demise saw the trend diminish for a time, by the 1850s it had been revived across Europe by fashion houses and the ‘celebrities’ of the day.

Huge amounts of feathers from all continents were shipped to Europe to satisfy demand and ostrich farms were developed to keep milliners supplied with plumes for more everyday items.

However, by the 1880s the trend was facing increased opposition and debate raged between the industry and those who recognised that the slaughter of birds for materialistic reasons was inhumane and unsustainable.

Ironically it was women who protested most vociferously in these early days, including high-profile figures like  Baroness Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, who was the wealthiest woman in England, and the Duchess of Portland, who was a philanthropist who campaigned tirelessly for animal welfare.

These women held significant influence and were instrumental in the formation of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 1889. Two years later, the Duchess became the charity’s first (and longest-serving) president.

By 1899 the Society had 20,000 paid up members and was a strong voice against the plumage industry, which was facing ever-louder called for a ban on feather imports.

In the same year Queen Victoria prohibited the wearing of ‘osprey’ plumes (as egret feathers were known) by the military and royal interest in the abolition of the plume trade was further demonstrated in 1906 when Queen Alexandra wrote a letter to the Society, expressing disapproval at the wearing of the plumes of breeding birds.

The year 1908 saw the introduction to Parliament of the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Bill. It met with strong opposition and the coming of war saw it sidelined but in 1921 it finally became law, marking the end of the plume trade in the UK and heralding a major victory for the RSPB and the women who dedicated themselves to the cause.

Almost a century later the RSPB still exists for the protection of birds and other wildlife thanks to the passion and dedication of its staff, volunteers and members.

Women continue to play a huge role in the organisation, from President Miranda Krestovnikoff to staff on the ground carrying out practical conservation work.

International Women’s Day is a wonderful opportunity to look back on the rich and innovative history of the RSPB and look forward to the next 125 years of men and women working as one team to help save nature.

RSPB President Miranda Krestovnikoff. Photo credit Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

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