top of page

Indomitable Hellcat!

I had never heard of this woman until a wise and learned friend brought her to my attention yesterday, and needed to know more! With a little research, and this is what I found. I want to share it with you this morning.

Rosalie Barrow Edge was born on November 2, 1877, in New York City, to Mabel Rosalie Barrow, the daughter of John Wylie and Harriet Bowen Barrow. Her father, an accountant and cousin to Charles Dickens, whom he resembled. Her mother was related to Kiliaen van Rensselaer, the wealthy Dutch merchant. Rosalie was the youngest of five surviving children, and her father’s favorite. Her siblings always looked to her for leadership. She embodied a love for all animals and birds from a very early age, nurtured by carriage rides through Central Park with her father.

At thirty-two years old, Rosalie met and fell in love with Charles Noel Edge, a British Citizen, a civil engineer, and a graduate of the Cambridge University. They married in May 1909. Their relationship was strong, and they were happy together. When Charles’ work took him to Yokohama, Japan, Rosalie accompanied him. They traveled throughout Asia for about three years.

The couple returned to New York. Two children were born to them: Peter, in 1913, and Margaret in 1915. While the marriage was a very happy one initially, Charles was away often, and traveled extensively for his work. This took a toll on the marriage. They began to grow apart, and Rosalie’s passion for the work she had begun herself, with wildlife, grew. Charles also fell in love with another woman in 1920. All of this led to a separation in February 1924. Rosalie refused to give him a divorce. Charles died in 1944. He left her the minimum amount required by New York State law. She felt this was unfair and challenged the will. This resulted in a yearlong battle in the courts, which she eventually won, winning a larger amount.

Rosalie had become an activist, and in 1915 her first campaign was in the women’s suffrage movement. She joined the New York State Women’s Suffrage Party, becoming its corresponding secretary. Rosalie traveled throughout the state, giving impassioned speeches, writing pro-suffrage pamphlets, and other activities whenever she could. When New York State finally acquiesced, and allowed women their right to vote, the Party changed its name to the New York State League of Women Voters. Rosalie was the treasurer. She learned many valuable lessons and acquired much skill in the realm of activism during her time with the League. These things benefitted her in her future work.

Rosalie always loved wildlife and birds, in particular. In 1915, the family purchased a small estate in Rye, New York, and she became an avid birdwatcher. She shared this interest with her family, particularly her son. In November 1922, she focused on the identification and welfare of local birds, joining ornithologists and other bird watchers in Central Park. This was the same place where she was first exposed to wildlife with her father. Rosalie befriended a group of biologists who were working at the American Museum of Natural History that she met at the Park.

The plight of the bald eagle tipped the scale for her and launched her into another path of activism. She read that in the Alaskan Territory, 70,000 bald eagles had been senselessly slaughtered. No one from any of the leading bird “protection” organizations even raised an eyebrow. She felt a clear call to act.

Rosalie’s dedication to the welfare of wildlife grew by the day. She learned that trophy hunters, government bureaucrats, timber companies, ranchers, water developers and pesticide manufactures had corrupted “professional conservationists”. Among these men were several Audubon Society leaders! This made her blood boil. These Audubon leaders covertly conspired over which wild lands or species were to be protected, based on their own personal interests and profit motives. Rosalie used the skills that she had honed as a suffragist to launch a campaign to expose this corruption, which she found disgusting. She fought these men (yes, they were men) tenaciously and tirelessly.

In 1929, Rosalie established and ran the Emergency Conservation Committee (ECC), where she remained at the helm until her death. The ECC operated primarily from its office in Manhattan, emphasizing the great need to protect all species of birds and animals while they were still present in order to keep them from becoming extinct. This view was a dramatic shift from current thought. Common conservation practice was the preservation of species that only had a quantifiable economic value. Rosalie worked through the legislature to assert that it was every single person’s civic duty to protect nature. She was forceful and tenacious.

In 1948, the New Yorker Magazine, described Rosalie not only as a force to be reckoned with the world of conservation, but outlined her suffrage work that played an important role in the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, in 1920, granting women their right to vote. The article said that “Rosalie Barrow Edge was “the most honest, unselfish, indomitable hellcat in the history of conservation.”

There was soon more trouble in paradise though, as Rosalie went head to head with the famed Audubon Society. Within the many branches of Audubon, many of the conservationists were only interested in preserving and protecting songbirds. A smaller number were interested in protecting all wild animals, but some members were hunters or fishers and worked only to preserve gaming areas and killed predator species. Rosalie found this unacceptable.

In 1929, Rosalie was fifty-two years old, and summering in Paris. The curator of the American Museum of Natural History sent her a copy of A Crisis in Conservation. It was a radical pamphlet that accused the National Association of Audubon Societies (NAAS) of working with sporting organizations that supported hunting game birds. NAAS owned and operated wildlife sanctuaries where this practice was allowed. Yet another fire ignited within Rosalie.

In October, 1929, Rosalie spoke before the annual meeting of the Society (NAAS). She single-handedly held the powerful men to account for the transgressions, the pamphlet detailed with precision and fury: The Society’s collaboration with shooting-sports organizations, its flirtation with the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, certain financial irregularities. Rosalie worked her way down the list, asking troublesome questions, challenging each member to be accountable. “What answer can a loyal member of the society make to this pamphlet?” she demanded, as the men sat speechless before her. Rosalie was earning a reputation as one of the strongest voices in the conservation movement. She fired the opening salvo that started a war that lasted thirty-three years.

Rosalie learned more about the Audubon sanctuaries and discovered they were indeed killing predator animals, birds or prey, and trapping many small animals. They were clandestinely marketing and selling pelts and furs. Rosalie’s first act through the ECC was to oust the entire board. This was unsuccessful, so she sued the group for financial mismanagement. In 1931, Rosalie sued to obtain the membership mailing list. The leadership of the society criticized her tactics, methods and knowledge fiercely. Their lawyer used inflammatory language referring to her as “a common scold,” which is language taken directly from old New York State law, targeting nagging housewives.

Rosalie won her suit, despite being a “common scold,” when a judge granted her the list of 11,000 Audubon members. She informed each of them that the organization had failed miserably in their protection of birds and other wildlife. A nasty feud ensued between Rosalie and the NAAS. This led to the resignation of its longtime president and quite a significant drop in membership. This divide between Rosalie and the NAAS lasted until just a few weeks before her death in 1962.

In the final weeks of her life, Rosalie made peace with the Audubon Society. She received a standing ovation at their annual meeting in New York in 1962. The society recognized her hard work had implemented many of the changes she had so stridently advocated for.

Rosalie founded Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, in 1934, after she learned of the tradition that had exited for years, of killing thousands of birds of prey, for sport! Rosalie purchased the property, stopped the hunt, and turned it into the world’s first preserve for birds of prey, and is still thriving today. Now known as Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, an average of 20,000 eagles, hawks, and falcons migrate through each year.

Rosalie also led a national grassroots campaign to create Olympic National Park, in 1938, and Kings Canyon National park in 1940. In 1937, she successfully lobbied to purchase 8,000 acres of old-growth sugar pines on the perimeter of Yosemite National Park, scheduled to be logged. Rosalie influenced the founders of the Wilderness Society, The Nature Conservancy, and the Environmental Defense Fund, as well as other major wildlife and environmental protection agencies. She dominated the conservation for thirty years and was the catalyst for much positive change. The curator of the Museum of Natural History described her, Van Name, as the “only honest, unselfish, indomitable hellcat in the history of conservation.” Rachel Carson visited Hawk Mountain Sanctuary many times and used data on bird populations collected there as evidence in her influential book Silent Spring.

Her autobiography, An Implacable Widow, was released in 1978.

Dyana Z. Furmansky’s book, Rosalie Edge, Hawk of Mercy: The Activist Who Saved Nature From The Conservationists received a 2009 Wormsloe Foundation Nature Award and the 2010 Colorado Book Award.


bottom of page