Who Was Marjory Stoneman Douglas?
Short answer: Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the woman for whom the high school where Wednesday’s deadly shooting took place, was an author and an activist. She was responsible for helping preserve Florida’s Everglades. She—like Matilda Joslyn Gage and Emma Gonzalez—was a progressive activist. Douglas challenged the political and business establishment of her day. She would have been very proud of the activist students at the Parkland, Florida, high school that bears her name. These students are being listened to and have pushed back hard against the National Rifle Association and gun extremists. These young people who are organizing local and national rallies and demonstrations are speaking truth to power, just as Douglas did. Of course, Gage could have been one of Douglas’ role models in that respect.
Douglas was a journalist, writer, feminist, environmentalist and political activist. The only descriptor missing to also describe Matilda Joslyn Gage is that of environmentalist. However, in Gage’s era, most people were naturally environmentalists. Re-using, recycling and saving was the norm for most people in days before paper and plastic were so ubiquitous that we became a “throw away” society.
Douglas was best known for her strong defense of the Everglades and the efforts to drain it and develop the land for all those many people that migrated to south Florida. We know better now about the environmental advantages—indeed, the necessity—of wetlands and the need to preserve them.
If only Matilda had been aware of the routine dumping of caustic chemicals into what had been for centuries before the pristine Onondaga Lake, sacred to the Haudenosaunee who lived along its shores. During the era when Allied Chemical and Solvay Process Company, which began operation in 1884 when she was 58-years-old, the word “ecology” had not yet been invented and, despite John Muir, there was not yet an Environmentalist Movement. However, it wasn’t until after her death that any awareness at all became widely enough known. The dangers of the caustic soda operation and of mercury were not considered alarming. I am willing to bet that Matilda would have been speaking up about it if she had still been alive just a decade or two later.
Luckily for the world, Marjory Stoneman Douglas entered the world in 1890. She lived in Minneapolis and attended Wellesley College, where she was a straight A student and was elected “Class Orator.” Her feminist beginnings also began at Wellesley, for that is where she first got involved in the women’s suffrage movement.
In 1915 she moved to Miami to work for The Miami Herald. This was a slam dunk for her, as her father owned the paper! (This is much like a friend of mine whose father ran the newspaper in Carlyle, Pennsylvania. He progressed from paper delivery boy to journalist.)
During World War, I Douglas worked for the Red Cross and wrote articles for the Associated Press from France, Italy and the Balkans. Maybe if she were still alive today, her forceful and passionate speaking voice would help rally justice for the displaced refugees of today, as that is what she remained in Paris to do for the war refugees. She wrote about that experience in her autobiography: “That experience helped me understand the plight of refugees in Miami 60 years later.”
She returned to Miami in 1917 and jumped right in to the struggle for women’s rights. She traveled to Tallahassee with three other women to campaign for the women’s suffrage amendment. Like the students of Parkland High School this week, she pled her case in front of the Florida state legislators. Many years later she still remembered the occasion vividly: “It was a big room with men sitting around two walls of it with spittoons between every two or three. And we had on our best clothes and we spoke, as we felt, eloquently, about women’s suffrage and it was like speaking to blank walls. All they did was spit in the spittoons. They didn’t pay any attention to us at all.” [Although the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women the vote, was adopted in 1920, Florida did not officially ratify it until 1969.]
In the 1970s she campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment, urging the state legislature to ratify it.
Like Gage, Douglas had a father that was defiant against those who were racists. Many Miami police officers were members of the Ku Klux Klan, which was gaining momentum and still drenched in Jim Crow laws. One night, Douglas was driving back from the beach with her father when they came upon the KKK preparing to march in their masks and sheets.
“A masked man on horseback rode up in front of my father and said, ‘this street is closed,’ and my father said ‘Get out of my way!’ and drove right straight ahead, through them and scattering them and everything; they couldn’t stop him,” she recalled years later. “We were all yelling and screaming in defiance, we were so mad.”
As did Matilda, she grew up and did her own battles against racism. In 1948, angered by the fact that many black residents of Coconut Grove, the racially segregated section of Miami, had no running water or sewers, Douglas led a successful campaign to pass a law requiring all Miami homes to have toilets and bathtubs. She then set up a loan operation for the black residents of Coconut Grove to borrow money interest-free to pay for plumbing work. She was also a charter member of the South’s first American Civil Liberties Union chapter in the 1950s.
As often happens to women in those days, she originally assigned to reporting and writing on soft subjects and “women’s news.” That didn’t last long. She rebelled against her own father on this one and insisted on covering hard news topics. She was soon writing editorials, columns, and articles that expressed her concern for civil rights, better sanitation, women’s suffrage, and responsible urban planning. In 1923, she wrote a ballad lamenting the death of a 22-year-old vagrant who was beaten to death in a labor camp, titled “Martin Tabert of North Dakota is Walking Florida Now,” It was read aloud during a session of the Florida Legislature, which passed a law banning convict leasing, in large part due to her writing.
She become a freelance writer in 1923 and she published more than 100 short stories and nonfiction articles in the Saturday Evening Post and other popular magazines, as well as several novels and a number of books on environmental topics. Her obituary stated that her most influential work, the 1947 bestseller The Everglades: River of Grass, “changed forever the way Americans look at wetlands.” This important book transformed popular views of the Everglades from a worthless swamp to a treasured river. Many environmentalists have compared it to Rachel Carson’s influential book Silent Spring, published 15 years later. “There would most likely be no Everglades wilderness without her,” the New York Times noted.
Sadly, when I was driving through the Everglades last year, I saw little sign that Florida was doing much to preserve the Everglades these days. I guess it is what one has to expect if those who rule the state are not even allowed to use the words “Climate Change” these days!
According to a profile of Douglas on the National Park Service website: “In the 1950s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rose to the top of her list of enemies. In a major construction program, a complex system of canals, levees, dams, and pump stations was built to provide protection from seasonal flooding to former marshland—now being used for agriculture and real estate development. Long before scientists became alarmed about the effects on the natural ecosystems of south Florida, Mrs. Douglas was railing at officials for destroying wetlands, eliminating sheetflow of water, and upsetting the natural cycles upon which the entire system depends.”
She was still doing battle with the Army Corps of Engineers and others twenty years later. In 1969, at the age of 79, Douglas founded Friends of the Everglades. One of its first campaigns was to protest the construction of a jetport in the Big Cypress portion of the Everglades. She justified her involvement saying, “It is a woman’s business to be interested in the environment. It’s an extended form of housekeeping.” Her hostile enemies called her “a damn butterfly chaser. President Richard Nixon scrapped funding for the project due to the efforts of Douglas and her environmentalist colleagues. From a recent class I took on the Presidents at OASIS, I learned that Richard Nixon actually did quite a bit to further both civil rights and care for the environment.
She continued to work to preserve the Everglades for the rest of her life. Her tireless activism earned her the nickname “Grande Dame of the Everglades.” This, of course, made her the enemy of agricultural and business interests who were looking to benefit from land development in Florida. “I didn’t like the real estate people, and I didn’t like developers. I don’t like developers yet because they’re all out just for making money, and that’s not good enough,” she lamented. How sad she would be to see the desecration of our public lands and parks happening now at the decree of the current president!
She received numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was inducted into several halls of fame.
Instead of gifts and celebrations, Douglas asked that trees be planted on her birthday, resulting in over 100,000 planted trees across the state and a bald cypress on the lawn of the governor’s mansion. The South Florida Water Management District began removing
exotic plants that had taken hold in the Everglades when Douglas turned 102.
Douglas lived to 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.”
There are so many more fascinating, salacious and remarkable things to learn about MSD that I strongly encourage you to go to this website to read more about this woman who is now a new heroine of mine—though I had never heard her name until less than a week ago: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marjory_Stoneman_Douglas (You won’t be sorry! Trust me!)