A Brief Biography
Rosalie Barrow was born November 3, 1877, to a family of wealth and position in New York City. Her father was a cousin of Charles Dickens, and Rosalie was brought up to become the cultured wife of an important man and an enlightened mother to his children. She seemed to be fitting ideally into this fate as she married a British engineer, Charles Noel Edge, delivered two children, and split her time between New York and the Continent.
The direction of her life changed dramatically in 1913 when on a trans-Atlantic voyage, she met Lady Rhondda, a prominent British suffragette. She plunged into the movement to bring equal rights to women, discovering she had a huge talent for polital debate and action.
Meanwhile, she was undergoing another awakening. Two years after her conversion to social justice issues, she started spending part of each year on Long Island and soon became a serious birder, eventually amassing a life list of 804 species.
This interest in the natural world, however, didn’t become part of her public personna until 1929. In that year, a scientist associated with the American Museum of Natural History, Willard Van Name, sent her a copy of his pamphlet, “A Crisis In Conservation.” Without naming names or even directly identifying the organization, he detailed behavior on the part of the directors of the National Association of Audubon Societies that was subverting the aims of the wildlife preservation movement, which was then the most active part of the American conservation movement. Edge read the pamphlet while in Paris and became incensed. “For what to me were dinner and the boulevards of Paris when my mind was filled with the tragedy of beautiful birds, disappearing through the neglect and indifference of those who had at their disposal wealth beyond avarice with which these creatures might be saved?”
She returned to New York and put into practice in the conservation movement those activitist techniques she had developed in her years as a crusading suffragette. “When we suffrage women attacked a political machine, we called out its name, and the names of its officers, so that all could hear. We got ourselves inside the recalcitrant organization, if possible, and stood up in meeting. We gave the matter to the press, first doing something that it should make news.”
She attended Audubon meetings, smiled at and sat with the men she dispised and then, in open session asked embarassing questions they couldn’t answer without loss of face. They tried to dismiss her, but in vain. She had fifteen years experience in the political trenches. Next to her, the Audubon directors were rank amateurs. She was 53 years old, rich, living apart from her husband, and ready to devote all her time, energy and intelligence to bringing to light the collusion between the Audubon directors and commercial wildlife harvesters. In what must have been the most shocking revelation of the whole dispute, Edge discovered that the directors had, over the period 1921 to 1931, received $50,000 for “renting” their 40-acre Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary in Louisiana. The renters were trapping muskrats for their fur.
Edge created an Emergency Conservation Committee (the ECC), designed to reform the Audobon Association. When that Association refused to give her a copy of their mailing list so she could publicize their views to the entire membership, she sued and obtained it. In the days before the Audubon’s 1930 meeting, she paid for the publication of a pamphlet detailing the sins of the Audubon directors. By 1934, the former directors were gone and the alliance with the game harvesters was history.
Edge continued her conservation activities under the aegis of the ECC, which she used to campaign for the preservation of 8,000 acres of sugar pines on the southern edge of Yosemite National Park and for the creation of Olympic and Kings Canyon National Parks.
During these same active 1930’s, she was also involved in creating a wildlife sanctuary at Hawk Mountain, in eastern Pennsylvannia. The mountain was a vital stop on a hawk migration route. In 1932, an amateur photographer named Richard Pough shocked the wildlife preservation community with a series of photos of dead and dying hawks, shot by hunters both for sport and, theoretically, to protect barnyard fowl at surrounding farms. Edge wrote in response, “Man hates any creature that kills and eats what he wishes to kill and eat. He does not take into account the millions of rodents and insect pests that hawks consume.” This was enlightened, ecological thinking in 1933, and the Audubon Association rebuffed her efforts to prod them to purchase the mountain and protect the hawks.
Never one to take “no” for an answer, she appealed to friends and bird lover and raised the money herself. Within a year she had raised the necessary $3500 and purchased the land. She was president of the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary from then until her death. It still attracts visitors from around the world, especially in fall when eagles, hawks and falcons give visitors a lesson in the beauty and importance of raptors. Educational and research programs throughout the year continue as a testament to the foresight of Rosalie Edge.
She died in 1962, just as another woman, Rachel Carson, was moving into the spotlight as the foremost proponent of ecological thinking.