Women of the National Parks

It took sixty-two years, a ruling by the U.S. Attorney General, an act of Congress, and decades of determined protests for women to become full-fledged national park rangers. Between being forced to wear polyester stewardess costumes and pillbox hats and fighting to become more than “touchy-feely” interpreters, women in the park service have worked tirelessly to be regarded with the same respect as their male counterparts.

Indian Watchtower at Desert View: Mary Jane Colter: Grand Canyon Architect

The parks were built, in no small part, by rangers, but also by administrators, and perhaps more literally, by designers and architects. None of these positions were particularly welcoming to women (and many remain a boys’ club), but the women profiled here represent gender pioneers, recognized for their enormous contributions to the way our national parks look and operate, regardless of their “first female” status.

Claire Marie Hodges: First Female Ranger

Women of the National Parks - Claire Marie Hodges: First Female Ranger

Hodges started out as a teacher in Yosemite Valley School, but when World War I began and male rangers were pulled away to war, she wrote to the superintendent. “Probably you’ll laugh at me, but I want to be a ranger.” Washington B. Lewis wrote back, “I beat you to it, young lady. It’s been on my mind for some time to put a woman on one of these patrols.” In 1918 she was tasked with taking gate receipts from Tuolumne Meadows to the park headquarters, a ride that took all night on horseback.

Mary Jane Colter: Grand Canyon Architect

Women of the national parks: Mary Jane Colter: Grand Canyon Architect

Phantom Ranch, Bright Angel Lodge, Hermit’s Rest, Hopi House, Desert View Watchtower (pictured above): any of those places ring a bell? These buildings are some of the most famous structures in Grand Canyon National Park. Mary Jane Colter, a chain-smoking, meticulous architect from Pennsylvania designed these structures and pioneered the rustic design aesthetic evident throughout national parks today. She took her inspiration not from popular trends but from the environment she was surrounded by. In 1905, she consulted indigenous artists on décor for the Hopi House, and in 1935, she stalled construction of the Bright Angel fireplace until geologists confirmed its composition mirrored that of the Grand Canyon’s layered rocks. Colter’s structures receive over five million visitors per year, yet few know the name of their creator.

Fran Mainella: First Female Director of the National Park Service

Women of the national parks: Fran Mainella: First Female Director of the National Park Service

With degrees in education and counseling, Fran Mainella made a name for herself as the sixteenth director of the National Park Service (2001-2006) by establishing lasting partnerships. Though a skilled collaborator, she also refused to compromise on conservation and defeated efforts to expand snowmobile and ATV use in national parks. Mainella is also known for streamlining the parks’ efficiency and preventing NPS jobs from being outsourced.

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