Saving Florida

Saving Florida gives long-overdue credit to female environmentalists

The significant role of women in Florida’s environmental movement is brought to light by historian Leslie Kemp Poole in Saving Florida, which we are proudly publishing today.

Saving Florida: Women’s Fight for the Environment in the Twentieth Century

“Gives long-overdue recognition to the women who shaped the state’s environmental movement and saved Florida’s water, land, and quality of life from worse destruction.”—Cynthia Barnett, author of Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis

“Highlights the overlooked role of women in Florida’s environmental leadership. This is an exciting, important book.”—Buddy MacKay, former governor of Florida

“A brilliant exposition of the varied types of talent it takes to fight the battles, wars and votes which must be undertaken if even a fraction of Florida’s heritage is to be saved.”—Victoria Tschinkel, vice chairperson, 1000 Friends of Florida

Dredge-and-fill projects, air pollution and pesticides in the early twentieth century sparked an environmental movement within the state. Many people don’t realize that those who led the fight were very often women.

Discover never-before-told stories of the women who established the core of Everglades National Park, protected Canaveral National Seashore and hosted the first meeting of the Florida Audubon Society. Celebrate the towering environmental legacy of the three “Marjories”—author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, scientist Marjorie Harris Carr and journalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

We hope you’ll enjoy our Q&A with author Leslie Kemp Poole.

Credit: Deirdre Macnab

Leslie Kemp Poole. Credit: Deirdre Macnab

“These women are a testament to the power of grassroots activism and how seemingly powerless people can accomplish great things by working with others.”—Leslie Kemp Poole

How did you develop an interest in this topic?

In my previous life as a newspaper reporter, I wrote about a number of environmental problems and solutions in Florida. Women were always active participants in such issues, but whenever I picked up a Florida history book (published pre-1980) I was surprised how few women were mentioned. This spurred my interest in women’s roles in the environmental movement, along with my fascination about how they achieved their objectives while facing an overwhelmingly male power structure that often gave them little credit—at first. Their persistence, however (one woman called it “sandspur” tactics), and working in community created change that has benefited us all.

Many of the women in your book were previously unknown despite their importance in Florida’s environmental movement. Why do you think that is?

Many of these women were prominent during their eras in dealing with conservation and environmental issues but it wasn’t until the late 20th century that historians began giving them their due. This coincides with a greater interest in environmental and women’s history, now better reflected in today’s modern histories. In 1940 Lucy Worthington Blackman complained that Florida histories “deal with men only; their authors seem to have been oblivious to the fact that in all these years there have been women in Florida, as well as men, and as many of them, and that these women have taken part—in some instances, indeed, a conspicuous and memorable part, and in all cases certainly an essential part—in the development of the state.”  She had a valid point.

Another reason is that many women were working toward the environmental good of their communities and were unconcerned about whether they were presidents of groups or could put their name on a project. They weren’t interested in getting credit—they simply wanted to get things done.  And many found power in being part of a group, which took the credit rather than the individuals involved.

This Everglades dredge was part of the effort to drain the vast wetlands, creating damage that the state and nation are now spending billions of dollars to repair. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

This Everglades dredge was part of the effort to drain the vast wetlands, creating damage that the state and nation are now spending billions of dollars to repair. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

What do you most admire about their environmental work?

I admire that they got things done, despite many obstacles. Before women could vote they were successfully lobbying state government to get protections for plants and wildlife; clubwomen created the first state park in Florida in 1916—well ahead of suffrage.  They found strength in numbers through garden clubs and women’s groups and, later, proved to be strong leaders of cross-gender alliances.

I also admire their motivations. Women worked for environmental improvements because it was the right thing to do—the right thing for their families, the community, and the state. They weren’t swayed by arguments from male-dominated business and political interests that put profits ahead of aesthetics and biology.  As one woman said, you don’t mess with a “mama bear” when she believes her health and that of her family is threatened. Many of these women were tenacious, ferocious “mama bears” who committed their time and talents to saving Florida’s environment.

You interviewed two dozen still-living activists while writing this book. Which interview was most memorable?

That is a hard question to answer—so many of these women have dedicated their lives to helping Florida’s wildlife and natural systems and I admire them all. Joy Towles Ezell stands out as a woman who has fought for decades to clean up the horribly polluted Fenholloway River. Jeannine Economos has worked for years to help farmworkers whose health has been affected, even destroyed, by exposure to agricultural chemicals. Judith Delaney Vallee found a calling in saving manatees. They are not working for the greater glory of themselves and are true heroes.

What can these Florida women teach us about grassroots activism and leadership?

These women are a testament to the power of grassroots activism and how seemingly powerless people can accomplish great things by working with others. The Cross Florida Barge Canal was considered a “done deal” until Marjorie Harris Carr led a grassroots charge against entrenched powers like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and stopped what proved to be an enormous financial and environmental boondoggle.  She gathered together professors, birders, clubwomen, environmentalists, and people who simply loved Florida’s nature into a powerful coalition that stopped the project through media savvy, political pressure, and facts, facts, facts. Marjorie Stoneman Douglas started Friends of the Everglades with a single $1 donation and it grew into a powerful advocacy group because it represented many people—and voters—when pressing government to preserve the fragile wetlands. The power of one person is magnified greatly when joined with others in community and action.

Clubwomen in 1918 at Royal Palm State Park, Florida's first state park that would become the nucleus of Everglades National Park. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

Clubwomen in 1918 at Royal Palm State Park, Florida’s first state park that would become the nucleus of Everglades National Park. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

Where do you go to enjoy the outdoors in Florida?

I go to places where I can breathe in Florida wildness—kayaking on freshwater rivers and saltwater lagoons, hiking in state parks and preserves, and birding in wildlife refuges. It is amazing (and soul saving) to me how quickly I can leave crowded urban areas and be in a place of quiet splendor. Despite Florida’s rampant development, we have had the foresight to preserve many wonderful places that are within quick reach of urban areas. Favorites: Wekiwa Springs State Park, the St. Johns River, the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and Paynes Prairie.

What do you hope readers take from this book?

I hope readers gain an appreciation for the variety of work and battles that Florida’s women engaged in during the 20th century to help save the state’s natural areas and wildlife. They created parks, fought billboards, planted trees, marched in protests, wrote articles and books, held office, and eventually helped run some of the state’s most powerful environmental bureaucracies. I also hope by telling the individual stories of these women that today’s generation will be inspired and empowered to take on environmental problems in their communities. Many of these women simply wouldn’t take “no” for an answer—and we should learn from them and carry on their legacy.

Leslie Kemp Poole is based in Winter Park, Florida. She teaches in the environmental studies and history departments at Rollins College and is the author of Maitland.

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Categories: Environmental studies, Florida History, Publication Announcement

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