Esther Lape and Elizabeth Read: Pioneers for Women’s Rights and Conservation

a portrait of tow women in a grayscale photo

In honor of women’s history month, we would like to take a moment to honor two educated, professional, and influential women from the turn of the 20th century; Esther Lape and Elizabeth Read. These two women were life partners who not only made a difference for women’s rights, but also contributed toward environmental conservation along the Connecticut shoreline.

a portrait of a woman in a grayscale photo
Esther Lape

Esther Lape (1881–1981) was a highly respected English professor, working at several colleges including Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, the University of Arizona, and Barnard College in New York City. She was well known as a journalist, researcher, and publicist. In 1920, Lape was a founding member of the League of Women Voters, which was established just six months before women were given the right to vote in the United States.

a grayscale photo of a woman outside in a garden
Elizabeth Read

Elizabeth Read (1872–1943) was a well-known lawyer and financial advisor whose list of clients included several influential people of her day, including Eleanor Roosevelt. In addition, she was the director of research for the American Foundation, a public organization that dealt with international public affairs issues. Read wrote several books on international law and was politically active, working for a number of social and political causes throughout her career.

the view of the outside of a stone house and front yard
Lape and Read’s home at their country estate Salt Meadow, located along the central Connecticut shoreline.

Lape and Read lived together in Greenwich Village, New York, and often visited their country estate, Salt Meadow, located in Westbrook, Connecticut. They became close friends and advisors to Eleanor Roosevelt, who rented an apartment from them in Greenwich Village and often stayed with them at Salt Meadow.

four women sit around a table in a grayscale photo
Read, Lape, Roosevelt, and Malvina Thompson relaxing at Salt Meadow, circa 1940.

Roosevelt claimed that Lape and Read were among her earliest political and feminist mentors and the beliefs she developed through their friendship influenced the social policies that her husband promoted as President.

two smiling women in conversation
Lape and Roosevelt, sometime in the 1950’s.

Both Lape and Read knew the importance of environmental conservation and enjoyed their time at Salt Meadow, which encompassed about 150 acres of forest and salt marsh along the Connecticut shoreline. The pair posted signs on their property with the message, “Bird Sanctuary, No Hunting Please.” Read had an interest in forestry and often planted trees on the property.

a woman in a long coat stands near fallen trees in a grayscale photo
Read surveying downed trees after the hurricane of 1939.

After Read’s death in 1943, Lape continued to advocate for the protection of her land. When the State of Connecticut expressed interest in re-routing Route 1, and eventually Interstate 95, through the saltmarsh on her property, she asked conservationists and environmental professors with whom she was acquainted to write letters to the State maintaining that the area was an important wildlife sanctuary. In the end, she was successful in preserving her land, conserving important habitat that was becoming increasingly scarce at that time.

a grayscale photo of a circular stone table and flowers
A stone table where Lape and Read would sit and overlook the expansive salt marsh on their Salt Meadow estate.

In July 1972, nine years before her death, Lape donated Salt Meadow to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The estate has become the core of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge and the house is currently serving as a visitor contact station and refuge headquarters.

an invitation with details to the dedicaiton ceremony on July 20, 1972
a man shakes a woman’s hand
Left: Invitation to the dedication ceremony. | Right: Assistant secretary of the Interior Nathaniel P. Reed accepting Lape’s donation.

The Refuge is preparing to submit a proposal to nominate the Lape-Read Estate to the National Register of Historic Places. In preparation for this request, they are co-sponsoring an internship under the National Park Service’s Cultural Resources Diversity Internship Program to conduct further background research into the historic significance of this piece of Connecticut shoreline.

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