Saving Florida by Leslie Kemp Poole: A Book Report

Saving Florida: Women’s Fight for the Environment in the Twentieth Century by Leslie Kemp Poole (2015)

About the Author

Leslie Kemp Poole is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. A writer and historian, she achieved a PhD in History from the University of Florida. Prior to academia, she was a reporter for several newspapers and is also a freelance writer. Her interests are in the role of women in the environmental movement (the subject of this book).

Methods

Saving Florida is published by the University Press of Florida. As such, the book is very academic in nature, including endnotes, a bibliography and index at the back of the book. That said, the book is written for a popular audience; the text is accessible to readers with little background and the language is engaging. Poole includes plenty of quotes in her text, not solely from academics, but also quotes contemporary to her subject. She situates the events in the book with brief consideration of national events, such as pertinent national policy decisions and the activities of national organizations like the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.

Poole writes this book using resources gathered from historical societies, women’s and garden clubs, museum and college archives, newspapers, interviews and “formal oral histories.” The focus of the book is on women and the environmental movement, as such, much discussion of the role of men is limited and lacks strong discussion of the African American community, whose goals were oriented at improving quality of life rather than protecting the environment. These missing viewpoints are acknowledged by Poole in the introduction, as well as those of the state’s Seminole and Miccosukee Indian perspectives. The missing points of view reflect not just a lack of current literature on the subject, but also the deficiency with which state and local entities interacted and discoursed with those populations during the 20th century.

Synopsis

Poole centers her discussion around numerous female leaders within their communities. Oftentimes these women have political power before starting their environmental campaigns. For example, Katherine Bell Tippetts was a “well-educated widow of a foreign correspondent” who took control of her husband’s hotel and real estate when he passed and May Mann Jennings, married to a former governor of Florida and daughter to a businessman who was very involved in Florida’s politics. In the later half of the 20th century, leading activists like Diane Dunmire Barile, who earned a master’s in ecology, had an academic background in science. The fight for environment protections started out heavily in grassroots movements that necessitated large-scale organizing and petitioning of governments. This evolved, after many federal and state laws were enacted, into fundraising for legal battles; around this time the larger organizations dwindled as single-issue, locally oriented. This shift occurred as women were gaining political power on local scales across the nation and an understanding of ecology was forming.

At the turn of the 20th century, women had a well-defined role in “municipal housecleaning.” Women, at the time, “considered the home and garden their domain,” and engaged in women’s clubs, expanding their role to wider community issues. Poole argues that this instilled an idea that women were the moral voice of the community, and their responsibility extended beyond their home. They increasingly saw the environment as part of their domain, as they saw it as their duty to ensure they lived in a clean environment. They were initially driven to maintain the beauty of the nature that compelled them to reside in the state, and later in the century, when pollution was rampant, the frame evolved into women needing to clean up men’s mess.

Saving Florida is divided into three parts. Part I, “Working through women’s groups,” deals with the start of the conservative movement in Florida and the nation, covering the early 20th century. This section is valuable within social movement theory for Poole’s coverage of the tactics used by women’s clubs to force policy decisions at a time when women were disenfranchised and largely not taken seriously by men in power. This section highlights the strength of grassroots activism and framing. Framing comes into play as different messages are needed to convince women and men for the cause due to the gendered roles of society at the time.

Part II, “Operating in Female-Male Groups,” covers the middle to late 20th century, when the science of ecology is developing and women are defining new roles within the political sphere. A rise in the prevalence of science and lobbying is immediately evident. Poole goes into more detail on a number of big projects during this section than the previous. During this time, federal regulations are passed to combat pollution. Rather than using strength of numbers, as they had done in the early 20th century, women were in public office and positioned to have a voice in traditionally male-dominated circles.

Part III, “Women Take the Lead,” is largely a closing section, wrapping up with chapters on environmental justice and important women leaders not previously mentioned. The coverage within these chapters include more national context than the in the previous sections, and are included moreso for completeness. Poole uses these chapters to discuss the role of African American women and Florida’s Indian population during the time period.

Part I: “Working Through Women’s Groups”

Poole starts the book talking about Audubon societies. Named after the ornithologist James Audubon, Audubon societies sought protection of birds. Women’s fashion of the late 19th to early 20th century included hats displaying feathers or bird parts. Because of this, birds were hunted aggressively across the nation as it was very profitable. Clara Dommerich, a wintering resident of Florida helped to establish the Florida Audubon Society (FAS) based on Audubon societies in other states. While protecting the birds was certainly on the mind of some members, many Florida residents moved there due to the beauty and nature of Florida, so loss of the songbirds directly impacted that aesthetic value. According to Poole. “women carried much of the organizational workload” within FAS. FAS distributed reports and leaflets throughout the state and had many success including establishing the first federal bird reservation in the United States through appealing to President Theodore Roosevelt (the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge).

One example Poole gives of the methods used by Audubon societies involves Katherine Bell Tippets. Tippets, with the help of other women, presented to the state legislature a seventy-foot long petition of signatures to convince an all-male legislature to pass a measure protecting the robin. Additionally, the members of societies like FAS or the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs (FFWC) worked closely with newspapers to publish articles and statements. In this way, they could educate the public or rebuke their opponents unfounded claims. Poole writes, “by contributing articles to local newspapers and women’s club publications, Tippetts kept her message at the forefront.” Other tactics involved sending letters and telegrams to congressional leaders — which would be very convincing with the large number of members within these women’s clubs. Another involved “invoking Lysistrata” whereby women threatened to withhold, in this example, pie, from those in the legislature until their demands were met.

There were many efforts at this time to designate certain plots of lands as state parks, and to preserve the state’s forests, that were disappearing due to unregulated logging. Even after winning policy and being granted funds, the women’s clubs often had to continue to fight in order to ensure that all of the funds were given to them. When presenting their argument, the women general gave two arguments: One focusing on the aesthetic value of nature, appealing to maternal senses, and another exhorting economic benefits in hopes to appeal to the male psyche.

This section concludes with a chapter on city beautification efforts. This chapter is one of the few points in the book where Poole acknowledges the African American community. She gives nod to Eartha M. M. White, for working hard to secure a playground in an era “burdened by Jim Crow laws.” An important reminder that much of the progress was won in white communities, and rarely extended to the disenfranchised African Americans.

Part II: “Operating in Female-Male Groups”

Poole makes it very clear in within this section that ecology is not well understood throughout Florida (or the United States) at this point in history. Having land set aside as a state park did not ensure that it was maintained as a natural environment with native plants. Drainage of swamps was considered acceptable; benefits of forest fires were unthinkable. This is an important realization, as what was a good conservation effort in the 1920s could be considered unacceptable nowadays and establishes the importance of the science of ecology. This section sees the rise of science in convincing legislatures to impose regulations and shifting public opinion, notably with the release of Silent Spring in 1966. Women are gaining political equity and further disrupting the dominant male hegemony.

Pollution is a major issue that arises in this section and threatened Florida’s aesthetic appeal, water supplies and health of residents. With Florida’s population booming only after the second world war, Floridians weren’t caught off guard as much as the big cities in the northeast and midwest were. Despite that, the phosphate industry was strong within the state and could devote a lot of money to lobbying, situating itself as a big opponent of the environmental movement. The phosphate industry resulted in eutrophication in many lakes and rivers, disrupting the natural balance within those ecosystems. Outside the phosphate industry, sewage dumping was very common. From Poole’s framework, women were key in changing public opinion, as the male-dominant government considered pollution as a side effect of progress. Much of the debate was conservation versus industry.

Marjorie Harris Carr was a persistent activist who sought to stop the construction of a canal through North Florida. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was constructing the Cross Florida Barge Canal. Carr used scientific knowledge, economic and legal research, expert testimony, a grassroots letter writing campaign and public education to warn the public of the dangers of this project, which was well underway by the time the public was concerned. Unconvinced, state officials voted to continue the project, and a furious Carr “turned her kitchen into  the campaign’s command center, complete with a whirring Xerox machine.” She sought support from news media and scientists. She portrayed herself as a housewife to catch politicians and engineers unaware and garner public sympathy and publicity. The media promoted an image of the mother versus a military bureaucracy, elevating the campaign to national attention. Carr became more aggressive, and with the political climate surrounding the Vietnam War, problems in the Everglades and other ongoing protests, eventually stopped the building of the canal after over $70 million had been invested in its construction.

The above is only one example provided in this section of a powerful display of women carving out a space within the public sphere. This section highlights the progress of women through the century, as opportunities for education grows.

Part III: “Women Take the Lead”

This is the shortest section of the two.The first chapter addresses the inequalities faced by African Americans and the local Indian population. The aboriginal Floridians vanished in the early eighteenth century as a result of imperialism. The tribes residing in Florida at the time were Seminole and Miccosukee Indians who migrated from Alabama and Georgia. Their populations within the state were small, however, as many of the Indians were relocated to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears. Those left lived in the surrounding areas of the Everglades. A few women rallied for support of the Indians; although, the support was often what was deemed appropriate from the white perspective, as the natives were never consulted. The lands they were granted were often not suitable for their lifestyle, or they were transplanted without consideration of their preferences. There were some women, such as Harriet Mary Bedell who directly interacted with the Miccosukee people to support them and preserve their culture, including a trip to Washington, D.C., “to prevent Japanese imitations from being sold in America.” Rightfully distrustful of the state government’s interests, the Miccosukee Indians hired legal help to fight the State of Florida on tightening pollution requirements.

Poole’s also discusses African Americans, and their propensity to live near hazardous waste (Florida Superfund) sites compared to whites. Her discussion on the issue and related transgressions are unsatisfying, however. Including the discussion in the next chapter on the Civil Rights movement, this issue isn’t addressed as thoroughly as in similar examples in Parts I and II. Nevertheless, she accurately captures the systematic pollution of African American communities with a couple of detailed examples.

Lastly, Poole talks about activists in the farmworker community. The farmworker community, she explains, is often forgotten by the public seeking local interests or overlooked in government policy. Poole paints this activist community as relatively young, citing work as recent as 2011.

Her last chapter, titled “Women Leaders,” takes another look at the progression of women in the public sphere from a broader perspective than that explored within the rest of the book. “We are the beneficiaries of [early female activists’] gritty determination,” Poole concludes. Saving Florida is certainly worth the read for understanding the efficacy of grassroots organizing and the role women played at shaping society in the 20th century. This report is certainly not exhaustive of the topics discussed.

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