In an era characterized by limited educational and career opportunities for American women, Harriet Keeler found celebrity in Cleveland as a nature writer, educator and social reformer. A memorial to the author in Cleveland Metroparks Brecksville Reservation marks her many achievements, as well as the legacy she carved out pursuing a love of teaching and nature.
In 1912, Harriet L. Keeler was chosen as the temporary superintendent of schools for the sixth largest city in the United States. The Cleveland Leader released a feature interview with the recently honored public figure to mark the occassion. The conversation began wth the most pressing of questions: had the unmarried 65 year old ever had a romance in her life? The accomplished author, suffragist, civic activist, social reformer, and retired school teacher offered the politest of responses, "I have lived an intellectual life for my romance, of course having that mother love which is natural to my sex, and which has had its outlet in the love and teaching of children, the love of animals and the love of plants." These outlets of Keeler's intellectual life served her well. Keeler's love of teaching and nature propelled her success as a writer.
While Keeler was recognized in Cleveland for a 38-year career in the public schools and as a respected voice in the Progressive Era women's club movement, she was best known as an author in her day. The life-long educator penned a series of seven nature guides between 1894 and her death in 1921. Keeler's writing style was informed by her experience as a teacher and vast knowledge of botany, language, and literature. Her work as a nature writer offers a glimpse into the way privileged women operated within and utilized conservative gender roles to better their own lives and make substantial, lasting contributions to society.
The opportunities afforded to Harriet Keeler in pursuing her passions as an author, educator, and amateur botanist inversely grew from a limitation of options available to American women during the 19th century. Born in the mid 1840s, Keeler followed a path taken by many young women with means and access to education during the era - she became a teacher. The job of providing an ethical and moral education to children seemed a natural extension of traditional female responsibilities; this allowed honorable, self-sacrificing women to take hold of an opportunity to be paid horribly as educators. After leaving school at the age of 14, Keeler worked as a teacher in Cherry Hill, New York. Working in schools provided women such as Keeler a temporary, socially accepted reprieve from domestic life and motherhood. It also gave them a chance to expand their education by attending either an Academy School (high school) or a "normal school" designed to train teachers. While the administration of schools remained predominately in the hands of men, the field of teaching became the domain of women. By 1900, 75% of American teachers were female.
After a short stint teaching, Harriet Keeler studied at a college preparatory school and proceeded to attend Oberlin College. Keeler's decision to attend Oberlin College in the 1860s set her apart from her female peers; co-educational and women's colleges were scarce, but would grow in popularity toward the end of the century. Graduating with a bachelor of arts from the College Department at Oberlin College, Keeler likely received advanced training in classical languages, literature, and higher mathematics in addition to more common liberal arts studies that centered on education. With few professional job options deemed respectable for women at the time, it is no surprise that upon receiving her degree she accepted employment with a school system.
Just as ideas of proper gender roles steered Keeler and other American women towards careers such as teaching, the study of nature had also become an acceptable pursuit for those deemed the fairer sex. Interaction within the tamed outdoors was already understood to be an extension of a woman's domestic life. With popular conceptions of nature morphing in contrast to an urbanizing country during the latter half of the 1800s, what the city lacked in virtue was imbued upon the natural world. The morality of womanhood found company in romantic visions of picturesque rural landscapes.
Additionally, a division between "scientific" and "recreational" botany emerged early in the century - the latter being cast from the world of science and left to the musings of writers and women. By the end of the 19th century, women had long been active in the informal study of plants. Botany, with its practical application in preparing home remedies, had been taught to women in order that they could perform domestic duties and educate children. Women played an integral part in the identification and organization of North American plant life, but often in an informal role. By the time of Keeler's first foray into publishing nature writing, a tradition of women botanists preceded her.
The opportunities and experiences afforded to Harriet Keeler as a teacher and student converged with the release of her first book on amateur botany in 1894, The Wildflowers of Early Spring. An extensive knowledge of science, Latin terminology, and classical literature, combined with the educator's sensibility for arranging information in a comprehensive and digestible format, can be credited for the popular success of Keeler's writing. Timing also played its part. Not only did her book coincide with the first realized efforts to develop a park system in Cleveland, but the concept of nature was finding new relevance throughout the United States. An increasingly literate female and male population was enamored with birds, flowers, and trees. The 1890s witnessed the beginnings of the nature study movement as well as the blossoming of a nationwide crusade to create idealized, rural-esque park spaces for city dwellers.
It was a good time to be a nature writer. In 1893, the first publication of Frances Theodora Parsons' How to Know the Wild Flowers sold out within five days. By the turn of the century, similar "how-to-know" nature guides were commonplace. Within this overcrowded market, Keeler's comprehensive and scientific approach distinguished her writing from the glut of nature writing available to the public. Her 1900 book Native Trees and How to Identify Them became a seminal amateur work on the subject and would be reprinted over a dozen times.
Harriet Keeler, in the company of countless other middle- and upper-class American women at the turn of the 20th century, navigated through cultural restrictions using preconceived ideals of womanhood as a springboard for creating professional and personal opportunities. While her work as an author and educator were informed by societal boundaries, these acceptable outlets for Keeler's intellectual life proved frutiful. Through her chosen vocations, Keeler provided lasting contributions to Cleveland in the social changes she helped push forward, the lives she touched as a teacher, and the legacy of her written word.
Harriet Keeler's life also inspired a different type of tribute. Following her death in 1921, colleagues and friends - including many prominent Clevelanders - immediatley began work planning a physical memorial to the author, teacher and social advocate. By 1923, three hundred acres of wooded terrain in Brecksville Reservation were dedicated as the Harriet Keeler Memorial Woods. The Cleveland Metropolitan Park Board agreed to preserve the grounds from future development, so that the land would act as a home to the flowers, trees and animals that the prominent Clevelander loved.
Thumbing through the writings of Harriet Keeler, one is reminded of the knowledge and pleasure she has provided to explorers of open fields and forests in Cleveland and throughout the country. Following in this tradition, find a moment to peruse her work and identify a tree or flower when taking your next hike through the Harriet Keeler Memorial Woods in the Brecksville Reservation. Using her words and vast reserves of knowledge as a guide, we are encouraged to discover connections between our natural environment and its underlying world of science, history, and literature.