Marjory Stoneman Douglas

StonemanMarjory Stoneman Douglas, feminist, humanitarian and environmentalist was not known to many Americans until the recent school shooting in Broward County Florida at a High School bearing her name.  She deserves to be recognized for her lifelong devotion to our nation.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas was born on April 7, 1890, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the only child of Frank Bryant Stoneman and Lillian Trefethen.  Her first encounter with Florida was on a trip with her parents at age four where she was impressed at being able to pick an orange from a tree at the Tampa Bay Hotel.   An avid reader Marjory began writing at an early age submitting stories for publication.  She was first published at age 16 and went on to become a straight-A student at Wellesley College, where she graduated with a BA in English in 1912.  It was at Wellesley that she joined the suffrage club with six of her classmates.   After a short marriage to a man who may have married her while still married to another woman, Marjory divorced him and went to live with her father, Frank Stoneman in Miami, FL.  Her father, the first publisher of the paper that later became The Miami Herald  passionately opposed an effort by the Florida governor to drain the Everglades. Marjory joined her father’s newspaper’s staff in 1915 where she began as a society columnist writing about tea parties and society events.  When her father went on vacation less than a year after her arrival he left her the responsibility of the editorial page.   She used the opportunity to forge a rivalry with an editor at The Miami Metropolis whose greater familiarity with Miami history gave her cause to make fun of Douglas, upon his return her father scolded her to check her facts better.

Less than ten years later she quit the newspaper to become a freelance writer where recurring settings in her fiction were South Florida. Her protagonists were often independent, quirky women or youthful underdogs who encountered social or natural injustices.  But her passion for the Everglades began in earnest as the people and animals of the Everglades served as subjects for some of her earliest writings. “Plumes”, originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1930, was based on the murder of Guy Bradley, an Audubon Society game warden, by poachers. “Wings” was a nonfiction story, also first appearing in the Post in 1931, that addressed the slaughter of Everglades wading birds for their feathers.

Early in the 1940s Douglas was approached by a publisher to contribute to the Rivers of America Series by writing about the Miami River. In researching it she became more interested in the Everglades and persuaded the publisher to allow her to write about them instead. She spent five years researching what little was known about the ecology and history of the Everglades and South Florida.   Her book, The Everglades: River of Grass was published in 1947 and sold out of its first printing in a month. The book’s first line, “There are no other Everglades in the world”, has been called the “most famous passage ever written about the Everglades”, and the line welcomes visitors to the Everglades National Park website.

Douglas characterized the Everglades as an ecosystem surrounding a river worthy of protection, inescapably connected to South Florida’s people and cultures.  She outlined its imminent disappearance in the last chapter, “The Eleventh Hour”.  The Everglades: River of Grass galvanized people to protect the Everglades and has been compared to Rachel Carson‘s 1962 exposé of the harmful effects of DDT, Silent Spring; both books are “groundbreaking calls to action that made citizens and politicians take notice” and cemented Marjory’s role as an important environmentalist.

Ms. Douglas early interest in Women’s Suffrage began in 1917, when she traveled with Mary Baird Bryan, William Jennings Bryan‘s wife, and two other women to Tallahassee to speak in support of women’s right to vote. Douglas was not impressed with the reception the group got from the Florida Legislature. She wrote about her experience later: “All four of us spoke to a joint committee wearing our best hats. Talking to them was like talking to graven images. They never paid attention to us at all.”   Douglas also served as a charter member of the first American Civil Liberties Union chapter organized in the South in the 1950s. She lent her support to the Equal Rights Amendment, speaking to the legislature in Tallahassee urging them to ratify it.  She was also an ardent supporter of racial equality and took an active role in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s.

Douglas lived to be 108, working until nearly the end of her life for Everglades restoration. Upon her death, an obituary in The Independent in London stated, “In the history of the American environmental movement, there have been few more remarkable figures than Marjory Stoneman Douglas.”

By Melissa Teague March 1, 2018

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