" The women of San Francisco have so willed. They will preserve the grove. They want to create a park In the picturesque canyon that shall particularly be for the edification of the people of this city.” - Marin Journal, December 1st 1904
We used to tell a straightforward story about how Muir Woods was saved: William Kent purchased the forest and named it after his personal hero, John Muir. Working together with Gifford Pinchot, William Kent convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to accept the donation for the forest to be a National Monument. Thanks to the outstanding work of these three rich and powerful White men, and the writings of John Muir, the forest was saved!
While that story has truth, it is far from the full picture. In reality, the story goes back to a group of women who were determined to save the forest. The movement was led by the Forestry chapter of the California Club, a women’s civic organization started by Laura Lyon White.
In 1903, the California Club called for a meeting of several other groups and many influential people to discuss how to save the redwoods. The women pledged to raise $80,000 to save Redwood Canyon.
“ There is only one reason why I wish I had $1,000,000. The only thing I want that amount of money for is to buy Redwood Park and Mount Tamalpais and present them to the State of California for a public reserve."
- Alice Eastwood, famous botanist and credited with building the Bonatic Collection at California Academy of Sciences
Ultimately they did not succeed at raising $80,000. But they inspired the fight to preserve the canyon. As they raised money and awareness about the forest, the women created a strong base of public support. Their efforts made sure the eyes of the public were watching Redwood Canyon. While the banker responsible for the sale and husband of Laura Lyon White, Lovell White, sold off surrounding land, he held Redwood Canyon as a watershed. When he did sell the forest, it was at half price to conservationist William Kent. He could be confident that public support was on his side.
When the California Club was attempting to save the forest, they were up against strong societal forces. Back in the early 1900s, women did not have the right to vote, and gender stereotypes were even stronger than today.
Women were not expected to be ‘political.’ They were expected to take care of their families and create a beautiful home. Some women decided to use these stereotypes to fight for the things that were important to them. They argued that the natural world was an extension of the home, so it was women’s responsibility to protect it. Because of the relative wealth and privilege White women had, it gave them the time and space to make fighting for the forests and environmental issues an issue they could mobilize around both nationally and locally. By the turn of the 20th century, many White women’s clubs had a 'Forestry' department that fought to protect nature.
It was generally middle and upper class White women who took on forestry and conservation issues in the early 1900s. But that doesn’t mean women of color ignored environmental issues. Quite the opposite: Indigenous women and women of many identities have stewarded and cared for the environment since time immemorial. At the same time White women had the privilege to organize nationally around conservation, many groups of women of color, including Black women's clubs, focused their national attention on fighting racism and fighting the immediate violation of their human rights. Fighting on multiple fronts, Black women's clubs also campaigned to improve environmental issues. For example, they campaigned to improve sanitation and safety in their own neighborhoods, often neglected by local governments due to racism. They linked the health of their environment to the health of their communities.
" The other day I was asked by one of the women if didn’t I think we ought to go into the forestry question that so many women’s clubs were taking up. I said: ‘Not at all, because most of those women have already got their own yards fixed up front and back, and have time to think about the forests. We have got to try to get shrubbery and trees and roses in our own yards first. "
- Margaret Murray Washington, prominent Black suffragist.
Mrs. Margaret Washington poses on a chair, smiling faintly. Library of Congress
Even when they did try to join White women’s movements, Black women and other women of color were oftentimes excluded. Within the White women’s club movement, there was deep-seated prejudice against women of color. You can read more about the exclusion of club’s of women in the story about Laura Lyon White.
Muir Woods would not be here today without the work of women. The women in the California Club fought diligently to save Redwood Canyon so we could enjoy it today as Muir Woods. Women were key players in the fight to save redwood forests, and ultimately saved places like Big Basin State Park and Calaveras Big Trees State Park as well.
The redwood trees stand today thanks to the efforts of many people. The movement of women that turned public opinion in favor of saving trees was instrumental in influencing powerful people behind the conservation movement. However, this conservation legacy also includes the active exclusion of Black women and other women of color. The National Park Service is committed to telling the stories of everyone involved in this complicated story. As historians, we preserve the good, bad, ugly, and everything in between. From Elizabeth Thacher Kent and William Kent, Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt, Laura Lyon White, and the women of the California Club: we thank them for their contributions to this great park, as well as recognize them as complicated historical figures.
Last updated: October 1, 2020