Historic Women in Conservation

March is Women’s History Month, and what better way to celebrate than to take a look at some of the wonderful women who have helped pave the way for how we protect our natural areas. Women have played a crucial role in conservation for many years. These individuals may not have known it at the time, but they’ve become historic women in conservation who continue to influence environmentalists for decades/centuries.

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson
(Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

Rachel Carson is a name that I’m sure many people have heard before. In 1958, Rachel Carson received a letter from a friend describing some things she saw as a result of DDT (the first modern synthetic pesticide) being sprayed in her neighborhood. The letter detailed the bird fatalities that took place after DDT was sprayed. Carson then decided to write “Silent Spring,” a book that kick-started the environmental movement. This book highlights the impacts of pesticides, specifically DDT. After the publication of this book, the use of DDT was banned worldwide except for malaria control.

Today, Rachel Carson’s work continues to inspire conservationists all over the world. “Silent Spring” is still thought to be one of the most influential books in the modern environmental movement. Carson’s book played a significant role in the ban on DDT and provided scientific backing for tighter control of pesticides.

Margaret “Mardy” Murie

Margaret "Mardy" Murie and her husband, Olaus Murie
Margaret “Mardy” Murie and her husband, Olaus Murie, by their home in front of Grand Tetons. (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

Similar to Rachel Carson, Margaret “Mardy” Murie played a huge role in conservation in the 1960s and 1970s.

When she was a young girl, Murie moved to Alaska with her family, and later, graduated from the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines. She graduated with a degree in business administration, becoming the first woman to graduate from the college.

While living in Alaska, Murie became passionate about the preservation of the state. She and her husband, Olaus, fought to protect what is now known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. On December 6, 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower made their dream a reality. This refuge started out at 8.9 million acres of land and has now expanded to 19.6 million acres. 

Herma Baggely

Herma Baggley
Herma Baggley stands beside Mammoth Visitor Center Antlerhouse at Yellowstone National Park.

A few decades before Rachel Carson and Mardy Murie made their names in the conservation field, there was a woman named Herma Baggely. Baggely was the first permanent woman ranger-naturalist at Yellowstone National Park. She helped pave the way for women to start working for the National Park Service. Baggely’s extensive knowledge on the plant life in Yellowstone paid off when she achieved one of her biggest goals, which was co-authoring two editions of “Plants of Yellowstone National Park.”

As a pioneer in the field of conservation, Herma Baggley’s legacy continues to inspire women to pursue their passion for nature.

Mollie Beattie

In 1983, President Bill Clinton appointed the first female director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mollie Beattie. Before she became director, Beattie was the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. After this role, she became the deputy secretary of Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

When Beattie was appointed the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she worked on implementing more than 100 wildlife conservation plans. One of her biggest achievements was her involvement in the successful reintroduction of gray wolves to the northern Rocky Mountains. Beattie’s work has left a remarkable effect on how we help protect wildlife.

E.K. Janaki Ammal

Women all over the world have influenced conservation efforts. E.K. Janaki Ammal was an Indian conservationist. She studied the cytology (the study of the structure and functions of plant and animal cells) of sugarcane plants to help develop a sweeter hybrid. This hybrid would allow India to reduce the amount of products they imported from Indonesia. Creating a hybrid plant helped India increase their agricultural independence.

Ammal was the first Indian woman to receive a doctorate degree in botany in the United States. Her perseverance has encouraged people all over the world to pursue higher degrees in various science fields.

Wangari Maathai

In Kenya, Wangari Maathai was making waves in the environmental movement in the 1970s.

Professor Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement (GBM) in 1977. The Green Belt Movement is a non-governmental organization that encourages women to plant trees to help reduce deforestation and environmental degradation.

Along with founding an organization that helps prevent environmental degradation, Maathai was the first African woman to be awarded with a Nobel Peace Prize. The Green Belt Movement now had branches in 30 countries. They promote action on climate change, community regeneration and equal opportunity. To date, the GBM has planted more than 51 million trees.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas

Marjory Stoneman Douglas
Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida.

Some historic women in conservation have a more specialized focus.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas founded Friends of the Everglades, an organization that helps preserve, protect and restore the Everglades. She became passionate about protecting the Everglades when she started writing about environmental issues as a journalist.

Douglas was not afraid to stand her ground when it came to speaking up about the damage the Everglades endured at the hands of the Army Corps of Engineers. Many people say that if it was not for Douglas speaking up about the preservation of Everglades, the destruction from the Army Corps of Engineers and other organizations would have continued.

Rosalie Edge

In 1934, a woman named Rosalie Edge founded the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. This was a place where wildlife, specifically birds of prey, could live without fear of being hunted for sport. Edge learned of the tradition in the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania in which people hunted thousands of birds of prey for sport. She decided to lease about 1,400 acres of that land and turned it into a sanctuary for birds of prey.

Today, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is 2,600 acres and continues to educate people about why we should protect species while they are still around.

Celia Hunter

Celia Hunter
Celia Hunter pictured on a kayak trip in Pybus and Gambier Bays in Southeast Alaska, June 1981. (Photo courtesy Connie Barlow/U.F. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Not everyone has a direct introduction into conservation.

After World War I ended, Celia Hunter and her friend flew to Alaska just to explore. While there, she looked for work in wilderness tourism. That concept was just starting, so there was not much work in that field at the time. Hunter and a few others claimed some land along Denali National Park and soon opened Camp Denali in 1952.

Later, Hunter realized that she had a deep passion for conservation and fought to create the Arctic National Wildlife Rescue. Soon after this, she and others formed the Alaska Conservation Society. The word “conservationist” was not in Celia’s vocabulary when she first started her work. Now she is among the many women who have created a road for future women in conservation.

Jashan Singh
Nature Interpreter, Miami Whitewater Forest