Emily Williamson, MBOU

To mark the centenary of the Plumage Act, and in support of efforts by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and others to recognise the achievements of Emily Williamson, one of the founders of what was then the Society for the Protection of Birds, the British Ornithologists’ Union (BOU) is conferring posthumous membership (MBOU) upon Emily, who was refused membership in the 1890s, at a time when it was believed that no woman could be a serious ornithologist.

Although Emily had no children of her own, she does have living relatives. Melissa Bateson is Emily’s great great niece and a professor of Ethology at Newcastle University where she specialises in the behaviour of European Starlings. Melissa says, “I only discovered relatively recently that Emily — a Bateson by birth — was my great great aunt. It feels like an extraordinary coincidence that my late father — the eminent ethologist Professor Sir Patrick Bateson, FRS — and I both made our careers studying the behavioural biology of birds without knowing about Emily and her achievements. We only learnt of Emily’s work a few years ago when we were contacted by the author Tessa Boase who was researching her book Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather about the group of women, including Emily, who campaigned to stop the use of birds and their feathers in women’s fashion. A love of birds seems to run in the Bateson family! I am extraordinarily proud to be related to Emily and to be continuing the family passion for birds with my own work on Starlings. I am delighted that Emily is finally being given the recognition that she deserves for her important role in avian conservation”.

The BOU, founded in 1858, accepted its first female members in 1909. We do not know how many other women were refused membership in the previous 51 years and hope that this posthumous membership will act as a form of recognition of them all.

The extract below is from Guy Mountfort’s ‘History of the Union’ published as a centenary article in IBIS in 1959. It’s heartening to see that, as early as the 1900s, the progressive voices within the BOU Committee (now Council) were able to overturn the rule barring women as members of the BOU.

To bring the centenary article up to date, Prof Janet Kear OBE became the first woman Editor of IBIS (1980–88), our first woman President (1991–95), served as the BOU Checklist Editor for over 10 years and delivered the Alfred Newton Lecture in 1995. In recognition of Janet’s exceptional contribution to the BOU, our Union Medal (created in 1912) was renamed the Janet Kear Union Medal in 2019.

In recent decades, as the percentage of women within the BOU membership has increased, more and more women have served the BOU on all of our committees, as Editors of IBIS and on Council, including two further Presidents – Prof Jenny Gill (2011–15) and current President, Prof Juliet Vickery (2019–). Today, half of the BOU’s Council of Trustees are women, including the President, Honorary Secretary and three out of six committee chairs, and this is the first time in our history that women outnumber men on our main governing body.

The proposal to confer posthumous membership upon Emily Williamson was proposed by existing President, Prof Juliet Vickery, supported by all former living Presidents Prof John Croxall, Dr Alistair Dawson, Prof Jenny Gill, Prof Keith Hamer, Prof Ian Newton and Prof Christopher Perrins, and unanimously approved by the BOU’s Council of Trustees.

Image credits
Emily Williamson © rspb-images.com