IN CONVERSATION WITH CHLOE DIVERS
With the MOED team I visited Atria, the institute of Gender Equality and Women’s History and one of MOED’s partners. Because MOED aims to draw attention to the interrelatedness of different struggles for equality, I decided to delve into the archives of Atria to find out more. Art and cultural production are central to MOED, which is why I focused my research on a specific type of cultural production which is the presence of feathered hats in fashion.
Feathered hats in Britain
Starting from the image of 19th century women wearing feathered hats I wanted to explore this unusual fashion trend and its significance in British middle-class women’s lives. Amongst wealthy British women, hats made from bird feathers were an important fashion trend. From the images I came across in a book on women and fashionable headwear, I discovered that the hat’s decorations ranged from a single feather to almost an entire bird being displayed as the focal point of the hat.
What story does this image tell? Why were bird feathered hats so popular within a certain class of women? Did these women recognise the cruelty that this has caused to animals and were they all supportive of this fashion trend? What can this 19th century fashion trend teach us about the interrelatedness of equality movements?
The Animal Rights Movement
The first revelation was the involvement of middle-class and upper-class women in the Animal Rights Movement. For many of these women, their first exposure to activism stemmed from the prevention of cruelty to animals. They mobilised themselves around the animal mistreatment by the fashion industry as well as the medical establishment which experimented on living animals in a practice known as ‘vivisection’. Why did these women align themselves with the anti-vivisection movement? What motivated them to commit to the protection of animals?
Although seemingly unrelated to the lives of rich women living in Britain, the Animal Liberation Movement attracted vast numbers of them to the cause. Not only did these women participate in the anti-vivisection campaign, but they were at the forefront of the movement. The reason for this was the marginalised position of women in 19th century society and politics, which caused them to relate to the mistreatment and exploitation of animals at the hands of the predominantly male medical profession. The British feminist Frances Power Cobbe, for example, recognised the similarity between the oppressions that animals and women faced. Through this recognition, women started joining the fight for the humane treatment of animals.
Women and Animals
During the 19th century women were often likened to animals both in their status and perceived inferiority. In an article which appeared in a British newspaper at the time, a woman who called herself the Earnest Englishwomen strategically used this comparison to highlight the inequality women faced. She pointed out the laws which had been passed in order to protect animals from being abused and asked for women to be granted the same standing.
Leading the movement for animal rights spurred women to look into their own fight for equality and to examine their own position. Many members of the British anti-vivisection movement became involved in the British women’s suffrage movement, wherein women continued their activism to strive for political power.
Learning about the overlapping of British equality movements prompted me to continue investigating possible links. I wondered what other hidden connections existed, for example, how does the British experience compare to the American one?
The American Anti-Vivisection Movement
Feathered hats were also a popular fashion accessory amongst middle-class and upper-class American women. Animal Rights advocate Caroline White organised a successful boycott of the hats which inspired women’s participation in political campaigning. White’s work with the American anti-vivisection movement brought her to Britain, where she met Frances Power Cobbe who encouraged her to form a separate women’s branch of the society where she would be able to hold a leadership position. The American anti-vivisection movement became dominated by women who challenged the suitability of physicians to attend to women’s needs when they had been trained in vivisection.
Women’s active involvement in the anti-vivisection movement showed how influential they could be and allowed many to have experience in a position of power for the first time. Although the American movement did not directly evolve into the suffrage movement, which was the case in Britain, it did allow certain women to achieve an autonomy that they did not have before. Thus, the animal liberation movement gave a group of middle- and upper-class women a platform to become involved in other political campaigns and strengthen their status in society.
The activism that emerged from the 19th century fashion craze of bird feathered hats is just one example of how different struggles for different forms of equality became interconnected and informed each other. This hidden history of the unlikely link between feathered hats and feminism shows what can be unearthed from the past when one delves into an archive such as Atria and examines the historical context of images.
Bourke, Joanna. 2011. What it means to be Human. Reflections from 1791 to the present. London: Virago Press.
Beers, Diane. 2006. For the Prevention of Cruelty. The History and Legacy of Animal Rights Activism in the United States. Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press/Ohio University Press.
Buetteinger, Craig. 1997. “Women and Anti-vivisection in Late Nineteenth-Century America.” Journal of Social History, 30 (4), pp. 857-872.
De Courtais, Georgine. 2006. Women’s Hats, Headdresses and Hairstyles. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
Gaarder, Emily. 2011. Women and the Animal Rights Movement. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.