In 1926, Mary Jobe Akeley, already an accomplished explorer and mountain climber, traveled to Africa with her husband of two years, Carl Akeley, a well-known natural scientist and sculptor affiliated with the Museum of Natural History in New York. While on the expedition, Carl Akeley fell ill and died in the mountains of the Congo, at the time a Belgian colony. Rather than return to New York, Mary Jobe Akeley took charge of the expedition. After burying her husband in the Congo, she completed the work of photographing mountain gorillas and other wildlife in their natural habitats. Upon her return to the United States, Akeley worked as an advisor to the development of the Great African Hall at the Museum of Natural History in New York (now called the Carl Akeley Hall of African Mammals), and became a crusader for the establishment of game preserves. She dedicated much of the rest of her life to this effort, achieving international recognition for her efforts to save the endangered wildlife of Africa.
Mary Jobe was born on the family farm in Tappan, Ohio in 1886 to Richard Watson Jobe and Sarah Jane Pittis. She graduated from Bryn Mawr College and earned a Master’s degree from Columbia University. She became an instructor at Hunter College and in 1913 was commissioned by the Canadian government to obtain information about the customs and history of Eskimos and Indian tribes in the remote reaches of northwest Canada. She mapped the headwaters of the Fraser River and then returned to explore uncharted mountains, one of which the Canadian government later named Mount Jobe in her honor.
Prompted by her love for the strenuous outdoor life, Akeley purchased a 45-acre tract of land in Mystic, Conn., in 1914 and made it her home. There, she established Camp Mystic for girls, a place where young women would “develop their bodies and minds.” The camp operated for 14 years, until it was closed in 1930, a casualty of the Great Depression.
Akeley returned to Africa several times, making trips to the Transvaal, southern Rhodesia and Portuguese East Africa. At age 64, she made her final journey to Africa to visit her husband’s grave. She spent part of each year at her “Great Hill” home in Mystic, and later retired there. She died at Great Hill at age 80 in 1966.
Among the many honors Akeley received in her lifetime was the Knight's Cross of the Order of the Crown, awarded by King Albert of Belgium, in recognition of her courage and commitment to African wildlife. She was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1979. In addition to lecturing about the plunder of Africa’s treasures, Akeley authored several books that recognized Africa’s unique beauty and the crisis the continent confronted in the disappearance of its resources including Carl Akeley’s Africa (1929), Lions, Gorillas, and their Neighbors (1932) and Congo Eden (1950). The Mary L. Jobe Akeley Trust & Peace Sanctuary was established in Mystic, Conn., after her death and remains a major local conservation organization.
During This Time
1921 - 1945: Prosperity, Depression, & War
Industrial growth, economic expansion, and plenty of consumer goods gave women more purchasing power and pleasure in the 1920s. Women gained political office, but after achieving the right to vote the Women’s Movement fractured over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The percentage of married women in the workforce doubled, though in menial jobs, while women of color had few opportunities. The media’s message about the home was ambivalent. For daughters, the young flapper was glamorized in movies starring Clara Bow who had It (sex appeal). But the modern mother, equipped with widely-advertised appliances, was expected to keep house and raise children with new efficiency.
The prosperity of the twenties contrasted with the hardships of the 1930s following the 1929 stock market crash. Farm families in the Dust Bowl, suffering from drought and crop failures, fled to California where they worked as migratory laborers. As impoverished families across America struggled, desertion rose (but not divorce, which was expensive), and family size grew smaller. Women’s jobs were largely confined to low-paying domestic labor, garment factories, and food-processing plants, all further segregated by race and ethnicity.
In the midst of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt, helped by wife Eleanor, brought strong leadership toward recovery with the New Deal. Professional women were included in federal projects, and work relief programs gave help to poor women. The Social Security Act of 1935 owed much to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. African-American Mary McLeod Bethune, using her executive position in the National Youth Administration, pressured the administration to provide equal pay for blacks in all programs.
World War II deeply influenced women’s lives. Sex-segregated labor diminished, as symbolized in the poster of “Rosie the Riveter.” Women were accepted into the military, though the public was concerned about the loss of femininity. Defense industries were reluctant to admit women, but as men were drafted, the resistance eroded. Older, married women provided the largest number of new workers. Black, Mexican, and Chinese women had new opportunities, but Japanese women suffered internment in camps. With demobilization, women were laid off, but many were soon back on the job. Their role still was defined in the home, but the war had increased women’s activities in the workplace.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.