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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.