Women writing birds

Graceanna Lewis

A self-taught scientist

Illustration of a black-yellow bird named 'Icterus graceannae' in Graceanna Lewis' honor.

Links between learning, education, and environmental activism can be observed in the writings of Graceanna Lewis, a Quaker naturalist whose largely self-taught mastery in ornithology, botany, astronomy, geology and paleontology was an outstanding case of female-led scientific research at the margin of the male-dominated sphere of formal academic associations.

Portrait of Graceanna Lewis

As part of the Religious Society of Friends, she received an exceptional education for a woman of her time, since the Quaker community did not make distinctions between the education of girls and boys. After being brought up by her mother, who had been a teacher, she attended the Kimberton Boarding School for Girls, where she began her training in some of the abovementioned fields. Later, her observation of birds triggered her interest in other areas of study and allowed her to actively participate in crucial scientific and philosophical debates of her day. She addressed, for instance, the question of evolution, a turning point in Victorian culture, which she conceived as proof of a divinely directed plan towards perfection.

Illustration of a bird, called anhinga, reproduced by Graceanna Lewis from an Audubon illustration.

Bird-watching also granted her greater mobility at a time when women were not expected to leave the domestic sphere unchaperoned. It gave her the opportunity to enjoy her independence, which was a necessary asset in her exploration of the natural world, as she describes in Birds and Their Friends (1896):

To wander at will, in field and wood, with the ear open to catch any note or song of bird, and the eye trained to notice the least flutter in the branches, cannot fail to result in an interesting knowledge of birdlife.

She was eventually able to study with the Quaker ornithologist John Cassin at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, after which she wrote the first volume of her Natural History of Birds (1868), which she intended as a way of helping her readers become closer to nature. In addition, her love of birds directed her activity towards protection and conservation issues, as manifested in her article The Lyre Bird (1870), where she denounces the use of feathers in ladies’ hats.

Illustration of a superb lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) by Graceanna Lewis, reproduced from an illustration by John Gould.

Graceanna Lewis’ religious background provided a justification for her study of wildlife, which she perceived as a way of understanding Creation: ‘I love nature’, she wrote, ‘because it teaches me better to comprehend its Author’ (Lewis, qtd. in Hanaford 2). Such is the theme of her lecture The Development of the Animal Kingdom (1877), a lecture delivered, as its subtitle indicates, at a meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Woman.

In this paper, Lewis defends her Christian view of evolution by describing the natural world as a complex network of interconnected creatures, noting how life forms depend on each other for survival. Besides sustaining her theory of an intelligent design, this notion shows her awareness of human responsibility as an inseparable part of a larger ecosystem. The fact that this text was read at a feminist association draws attention to how animal protection was often interconnected with other progressive causes such as women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery, a movement to which Lewis contributed as part of the Underground Railroad.