Celebrate 100 Years of National Parks!
August 24, 2016
Today is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS). Offering spaces for people to enjoy the natural beauty of America and learn about the past, America’s national parks can also teach us about GFWC’s involvement in the conservation effort. As NPS marks this incredible milestone, GFWC clubwomen have much to celebrate.
As American industrialization advanced in the 19th century, and urban centers swelled, Americans counteracted the effects with the reform movements that came to define the Progressive Era. Women became the foot soldiers behind the battles for child labor laws, education reform, and the conservation movement. The wilderness was often viewed as a masculine territory, too wild for a lady of the time. However, women used their domestic positions as a way of carving out a space for themselves in nature. In the 19th century, a woman’s role as mother was granted a more expansive definition. As the caretakers of our nation’s youth, women were seen as protectors of the national heritage, and were portrayed as the nation’s moral guides. Using these expectations as a launch pad, women across the nation embroiled themselves in the fight to maintain America’s natural landscape and resources, with the General Federation of Women’s Clubs leading the way at the local and national levels.
Clubwomen of GFWC first began expressing interest in conservation in 1896. Advocacy for green spaces rapidly became a central concern. By 1902 we had created the Forestry Committee, the precursor to today’s Conservation Committee. Clubwomen across the country became active participants in the fight for national parks, but three women standout as leaders of the movement. Lovell White, Alta McDuffee, and Mary King Sherman were lynchpins of the conservation movement, and among the most pivotal figures in securing the legislation which formed the NPS. All three women held active leadership positions within GFWC.
Mrs. Lovell White, president of the California Federation, led the movement to save California’s Big Trees. When the Calaveras Grove was bought by a timber company, White organized women throughout the country in protest, stating the deleterious effects the loss of the trees would have on California’s ecosystem, and it’s quality of life. A.D. Sharon, the California Federation’s Vice President, appealed to President William McKinley, asking for a bill to interfere with the destruction of the forest. Although Sharon convinced McKinley to send an appeal to congress, the bill for protection was never approved. Consequently, White and Sharon managed to collect 1.5 million signatures, petitioning congress to protect California’s trees. The petition helped to garner an appeal from Theodore Roosevelt, and marked the first time that a message bad been sent to Congress by an organization which was entirely run by women. Calaveras Big Trees State Park was created in 1954, over half a century after White and GFWC California begin their quest.
Alta McDuffee’s work with the New Hampshire Federation of Women’s clubs also demonstrated how GFWC’s conservation efforts operated in sync at the state and local levels. Working with the state of New Hampshire and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, McDuffe, GFWC New Hampshire’s State President, spearheaded the effort to save Franconia Notch from being developed for timber. Under McDuffee’s guidance, GFWC raised over $10,000 for the campaign to purchase 6,000 acres within the forest. McDuffe’s diplomacy earned the project an endorsement from the Maine Federation, as well as donations from across the country.
Perhaps no clubwomen embodied the ethos of extending the definition of “home” to the wilderness better than International Past President Mary King Sherman. Sherman was appointed the Conservation Chair in 1914, where she advocated for the establishment of the NPS. Nicknamed “The National Park Lady,” Sherman’s administration theme was aptly dedicated to the preservation of the American home and the American wilderness. Sherman became an instrumental force in lobbying for the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915, and the campaign fror the Grand Canyon National Park. As Conservation Chairmen, Sherman threw the full support of GFWC behind the creation of the National Park Service, which became a reality on August 25, 1916.
Today, GFWC continues our proud tradition of advocating for the formidable work accomplished by the National Park Service, and promoting conservation efforts. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the NPS, and the sacrifices made by our own clubwomen, we invite you to #FindYourPark.
Karyn McCarthy is a club-building machine. She has already helped form five successful GFWC Illinois clubs. How does she do it? A seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy certainly helps.
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