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Conservation and Condescension to Women, circa 1911


An exchange on the conservation movement, from the Ladies Home Journal, November 1911:


I wonder if you ever realize, you who live and move in the big world of things, how little a woman like myself, living quietly up here, really knows of the great questions that seem so vital and throbbing to the country….I suppose I am like hundreds of women: I would keenly like to understand these great problems, but who is there to tell us simply and clearly, and, don’t forget, briefly?

What is meant by “Conservation”? Why do you say it should be more than a mere word to me? How does it affect me personally?


I know, my dear Mother, just what’s the matter. Conservation is a word so big and important-looking that it frightens you….When you open a parcel from the store do you throw away the paper and string? Not a bit of it. You smooth out the paper and roll up the string, and lay both aside till you wish to wrap a package yourself. In the autumn you gather the seeds of your choicest flowers before burning up the dried stalks. The bones the butcher sends home with the meat you drop into the soup-kettle, and the surplus fat into the soap-can; the rain water from your roof you catch for laundry purposes; your table refuse makes the pig and the chickens happy. So you have been practicing conservation all your life, doing on a small scale what the Government is beginning to do on a huge one, but you never spelled with a capital C. If the Government had begun as long ago as you did the people of the country would have been educated to the idea by degrees, just as you educated us boys not to be stingy, but to despise waste.

Now the Government is in a way the good mother of us all. She used to be rather easy-going, but she has lately come to realize that if she lets your generation and mine use up everything worth having there won’t be enough for the next generation to live on. Where you save flower-seeds, therefore, she saves forests; where you store rain water for the washtub she fills reservoirs for irrigating desert lands and producing power for machinery….

Now, Mother dear, don’t lie awake nights worrying over what our descendants are going to suffer as the result of our neglect, or I shall be sorry I wrote you all this. There are more profitable occupations than worrying, and one is lending a hand promptly at stopping the leaks.

I have trouble seeing how this was supposed to appeal to women. Even in those pre-feminist days, one would think that many mothers would want to slap their sons if spoken to in this way.

This is quoted in David Stradling’s Conservation in the Progressive Era: Classic Texts.

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