Wellesley College, 106 Central St, Wellesley, MA 02481
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Marjory Stoneman Douglas (April 7, 1890 - May 14, 1998) was a Miami writer, feminist, and activist. She personified many of the gender-transgressive features of the New Woman.
Douglas, who was born in Minnesota and raised in Massachusetts, was influenced by a generation of suffragettes. She attended Wellesley College in 1912, choosing female-dominated environments during her transformative years. Upon graduation, she shucked middle-class conveniences and rented an apartment with two other women. These women pursued independent lives and employment, training as department store salesgirls. In her own words, Douglas was “filled with the spirit of the new age, eager for womanly independence, and economic freedom.”
She met a male journalist in 1914 who wrote about vice in Newark for the city’s Evening News. They married and she briefly “discovered sex.” It turned out to be a toxic and short-lived marriage that further cemented her feminist perspective. “In my marriage I was completely dominated,” she wrote. “Since then I’ve never wanted to give myself over to the control or even the slightest possible domination of anybody, particularly a man.” She soon joined her father, cofounder of the Miami Herald, in Miami and took a position as the newspaper’s society editor. The newspaper asked her to cover the first woman in Florida to enlist in World War I. She became the story by volunteering to serve in the navy. She was discharged in 1918 and joined the American Red Cross, serving overseas.
In these and several other ways, Douglas transgressed traditional feminine conventions. Some have consequently speculated that she was a lesbian. While no evidence suggests she had physical relationships or romantic feelings for other women (outside of her intimate bonds with peers and flatmates), she certainly represented the era’s renegotiation of feminine and masculine norms that increasingly associated gender deviancy with sexual difference. Perhaps a product of her own transgressive persona, Douglas wrote sympathetically of queer men in Miami. She was the reporter who covered the costume charity ball Paul Chalfin and Louis Koons attended as a couple. In the 1920s, she found work writing short stories for the Saturday Evening Post. Set in Florida, these stories provided a window into the resort area many had only dreamed about visiting. They also gave shape to outsiders’ perspective on life in southern Florida.
Published in 1927, her short story “He-Man” centered on a nineteen-year-old man named Ronny described as weak, cowardly, unathletic, awkward, and not a “real man,” in stark contrast to his burly father. The story blamed his bourgeois upbringing. Ronny had had “too much schooling” and “too many women nurses as a small boy.” In the interwar years, some psychologists labeled private or home-school instruction as “negative” and indicative of a poor “family history” or even effeminacy and homosexuality. In this vein, Ronny dreaded visiting his father in Miami for the summer, which coincided with his twentieth birthday. The young man worried that should he be “found out”—that is, should his father and his friends learn of his unmanliness—his father “would disown him.” “I’ll make a man of you yet,” his father assured him. His disdain was only made worse by Ronny’s discomfort with the bold and “handsome” modern woman, or flapper, also prominent in this story. Her masculine presence in Miami, as women like Frooks would have understood it, robbed men like Ronny some of their manliness and were therefore at fault. Indeed, Ronny disappointed his father, for whom “assured gallantry to women was . . . the fundamental of red-blooded masculinity.” Douglas heavily suggests that Ronny is homosexual, describing him as the prototypical queer. She even references the medical model that labeled such men inverts: “Perhaps it was not only that he was utterly unlike his father but that he was different from all normal men. Perhaps within his very brain crawled the maggots of unbalance.” All the while, Ronny acknowledged, “a he man would never have been troubled by fancies as sick as that.” At the very least, Ronny grew anxious over the possibility that what he perceived as his gender inversion, or feminine traits, might give way to sexual perversions. Douglas pushed this queer anxiety further with the introduction of another character: an aviator named Bill. Like so many wealthy Miami travelers of the day, Ronny’s father planned a trip to Bimini. Ronny and his father boarded a small plane with several of the latter’s moneyed friends. Although Ronny was initially nauseated by his fear of flying, he overcame this and proved his manly worth when the plane crashed at sea. Ronny and Bill immediately bonded. After the plane went down, they tried to save the others from drowning. Douglas described their immediate connection: “As they stared at each other for a long moment, Ronny felt a sudden warmth of understanding and comradeship leap between them.” Despite their best efforts, Ronny and Bill were the only survivors. It is critical that we understand their intimate bond in the context of Douglas’s description of Bill. When Bill took off his helmet following the crash, the reader learns that he had “bleached hair” and that his “eyelashes were bleached.” During this period, bleached hair was a common marker for so-called inverts and fairies, signaling their availability to male sexual partners; it seems likely Douglas knew this as well. It is not just that Douglas introduced these two nonnormative and gender-transgressive characters to readers as legible characters in Miami and the Caribbean. Since they were sole survivors who proved more than capable in such dire circumstances, she also seems to have celebrated their existence.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas died at the age of 108 on May 14, 1998. John Rothchild, who helped write her autobiography, said that her death was the only thing that could "shut her up" and added, "The silence is terrible." Carl Hiaasen eulogized her in The Miami Herald, writing that The Everglades: River of Grass was "monumental", and praised her passion and her resolve; even when politicians finally found value in the Everglades and visited her for a photo opportunity, she still provoked them to do more and do it faster. Her ashes were scattered over the 1,300,000 acres (5,300 km2) of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area in Everglades National Park.
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