Interior Women Make More History


March is Women’s History Month, and we’re highlighting notable firsts for women at Interior and our bureaus. From the past to the present, women at Interior blazed a trail to help the Department achieve its mission managing the nation's natural resources and cultural heritage, pursuing cutting-edge science, and honoring trust responsibilities to American Indians, Alaska Natives and affiliated island communities. 

We’ve already shared of some of Interior’s groundbreaking women, but check out more notable women who have made history at Interior.

First African American to Serve in the Position of Director of  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Aurelia Skipwith

Aurelia Skipwith. an African American woman with long dark hair and wearing a light blue suit, holds one hand in the air and another on a book held by an older African American woman, and takes an oath from Vice President Pence, a white man with gray hair and wearing a dark suit.
Director Skipwith taking her oath with Vice President Pence. Photo by D. Myles Cullen, Official White House Photographer.

In December 2019, Aurelia Skipwith became the first African American to serve in the position of Director. She is the 22nd Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Skipwith earned her B.S. in biology from Howard University, M.S. in molecular biology from Purdue University, and J.D. from the University of Kentucky College of Law. She began her remarkable career as a biologist and progressed to leading international teams in science and development for agricultural products. Prior to working at the Department of the Interior, she was the general counsel at AVC Global, an agricultural logistics and financing firm that she co-founded. Skipwith currently leads a workforce of 8,500 personnel charged with the conservation and stewardship mission of working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. Skipwith is an avid marathon runner and also a businesswoman. 

First Woman Alaska Native Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs: Tara Mac Lean Sweeney

A head shot of a woman, Tara Mac Lean Sweeney, against a white background. She is wearing a purple and pink shirt and smiling.
Photo of Tara Mac Lean Sweeney courtesy of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation.

A member of the Native Village of Barrow and the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, Tara Mac Lean Sweeney is the first Native Alaskan and only the second woman in history to hold the position of Interior's Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. Sweeney grew up in rural Alaska and has spent a lifetime actively engaged in state and national policy arenas focused on advocating for responsible Indian energy policy, rural broadband connectivity, Arctic growth and Native American self-determination. Among her honors, Sweeney -- a lifetime member of the National Congress of American Indians -- was crowned Miss NCAI in 1993 and traveled the country as an ambassador for the organization.

First Woman Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation: Brenda Burman

A headshot of a woman, Brenda Burman, standing in front of green trees. She's wearing a blue shirt with a black blazer and smiling wide.
Photo of Brenda Burman. Photo by U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Brenda Burman began her career as a park ranger at Grand Canyon National Park. Then came law school at the University of Arizona and 25 years of experience working on western issues.  Fast forward to 2017: when the U.S. Senate confirmed her as the 23rd Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation -- making her the first woman ever to serve in that role. Burman leads the 5,500-person bureau that manages water and generates power in the 17 western United States, addressing the major challenges of water supply and demand including drought and other crises. She previously served as Reclamation’s Deputy Commissioner and as Interior’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science. 

First Woman Field Biologist in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Elizabeth Losey

A black and white photo of a woman, Elizabeth Beard Losely, holding a bird in an open field and laughing.
Betty Losey doing field work at Seney National Wildlife Refuge. Photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service archives.

Elizabeth Beard Losey was hired in 1947 as the first female field research biologist in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Stationed at Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to chronicle the importance of beavers in waterfowl management, her outstanding research earned her induction into the Wildlife Society in 1948 as its first female professional member. Losey continued her love for wildlife and her zeal for field studies as a scientist, author,  historian and professor at the University of Michigan -- volunteering at Seney into her nineties, and serving as a beloved role model for a new generation of biologists.

First Woman Director the Office of Surface Mining & Enforcement: Kathy Karpan

A head shot of a woman, Kathy Karpan, against a blue background. She is smiling and wearing a white blouse and a red blazer.
Photo of Kathy Karpan by OSMRE.

In July 1997, Kathy Karpan became the first, and only, U.S. Senate-confirmed Director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Previously, Karpan served as the Director of the Wyoming Department of Health and the Wyoming Secretary of State. The daughter of a coal miner, Karpan was tasked with working cooperatively with coal-producing states to ensure coal mining was conducted in a safe and environmentally sound manner, and that the effects of past mining activities were mitigated through the reclamation of abandoned mines. Karpan served as Director of OSMRE for 2 ½ years, after which she served as Interior’s Principal Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management.

First Woman Superintendent in the National Park Service: Gertrude S. Cooper

A black and white head shot of a woman, Gertrude S. Cooper, smiling and wearing a black top and white necklace.
Photo of Gertrude S. Cooper from National Park Service archives.

Building on years of experience and a passion for National Park Service’s mission, superintendents represent the best and brightest of the famous agency. Gertrude S. Cooper made history when she was appointed superintendent of Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in July, 1940. For five years, she led the staff and managed 200 acres of the historic New York estate’s property, including elaborate buildings, original furnishings, manicured landscapes, natural woodlands, formal gardens and associated documents. At a place preserving a chapter of American history, this inspiring woman added her own name to the story of our nation’s progress.

First Tribal Policewoman: Julia Wades in the Water

A woman, Julia Wades in the Water, stands up for this whole body shot. She is wearing traditional tribal dress and the photo is in black and white.
Photo of Julia Wades in the Water courtesy of the University of Alberta.

Julia Wades in the Water -- a member of  the Blackfeet Nation -- became the first American Indian policewoman shortly after the turn of the 20th century. She served at the Blackfeet Agency in Montana for 25 years until her retirement in the 1930s. Whether they are a part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs or work for a partner tribal agency, women today serve as uniformed police officers, agents/investigators, correction officers, administrators, dispatchers, support staff, analysts, supervisors and victim specialists all thanks to the groundbreaking work of Wades in the Water.

First Woman Naturalist at Yosemite National Park: Enid Michael

A woman, Enid Michael, dances with a bear standing upright on its hind legs. They are standing in front of pine trees in this black and white photo.
Enid Michael dances with a bear at Yosemite. Photo courtesy of Yosemite Photo Archives Collection.

Women have played an important -- though often hidden -- part in Yosemite National Park’s history. Married to Yosemite's assistant postmaster, Enid Michael came to the Yosemite Valley in 1916. An ardent naturalist-botanist, Enid was appointed a seasonal ranger-naturalist in 1921 -- making her the first female naturalist at Yosemite and one of the first in the National Park Service (although Herma Albertson Baggley of Yellowstone was the first full-time naturalist). Serving in that position for 20 years, Michael lectured at museums, gave nature walks, and collected and prepared plant specimens. By 1929, she had collected and mounted 1,000 plant specimens as well as recorded sightings of 130 bird species. Her most significant accomplishments were the creation of a wildflower garden behind the Yosemite Museum and writing 537 articles -- the largest body of writing on Yosemite by any author.

Be sure to check out some more groundbreaking women at Interior.