The following article first appeared in Ranger: The Journal of the Association of
National Park Rangers, Vol. I, No. 4 Fall, 1985. Of related interest: Women in the Park Service,
The Way We Were: Women and the National Park Service and National Park Service Wives and Women Employees Handbook.
Women in the National Park Service
Polly Welts Kaufman
The author of Women Teachers on the
Frontier and several articles in the field of women's history, Polly holds a
doctorate from Boston University in American Studies and Educational
Frieda Nelson was a bit premature in 1926 when she so proudly
displayed her suspenders in her second season as a summer ranger at
Yellowstone National Park. Although women like her who did achieve park
ranger status before the early 1970's have gone down in Park Service
history as the first women rangers, they did not bring real change to
the position of women in the Service. But they did demonstrate that
women could do the job, and when the movement for equal opportunity
finally took hold in the Service, many Park Service people could picture
women in uniform because they could recall these early women
Needs in the broader society have had an enormous influence on the
place of women in the Park Service. The example of the history of women
rangers at Mount Rainier demonstrates in a microcosm how events outside
the Service influenced opportunities for women to be rangers.
In 1918, at the end of World War I, Helene Wilson was put in charge
of the Nisqually Entrance Station for a season. In 1943, during World
War II, Barbara Dickinson and Catherine Byrnes were given the same
assignment. According to park records, it was not until 1974 that
another woman, Becky Rhea, was hired as a ranger. Now at Mount Rainier
the visitor has an even chance of being greeted by a woman ranger or
park technician. Servicewide, a visitor will meet a woman ranger or park
tech in approximately one in three contacts.
Herma Albertson, a ranger who worked at
Yellowstone between 1927 and 1930. Photo by the National Park Service.
The event that impacted the most heavily on the chances for women to
serve as park rangers was the wave of gratitude that swept the country
when the veterans returned from World War II. It reinforced the already
strong male imprint on the Park Service ranger image. In 1949, a key
examination for park ranger was offered which received wide attention.
Hundreds of jobs were open as the Service tried to bring order to the
temporary appointments made to returning veterans. Preparation books had
a brisk sale. The Arco study guide read:
The Examination for Park Ranger Park Ranger Jobs for
Men 21 to 35
"One of the largest nation-wide examinations is now open. The job is
park ranger, at $2,974.89 a year, for duty in the National Park Service,
U.S. Department of the Interior. . . .
"The positions are located throughout the United States and in the
Territories of Alaska and Hawaii. All nonstatus Park Rangers and
Superintendents must take this examination if they wish to qualify for
permanent appoint. . . . Age limits are waived for those entitled to
veterans preference. . . .
"Appointees must buy uniforms (cost about $150.00).
"There will be hundreds of vacancies. . . ."
The result is evident. Hundreds of male veterans with an advantage of
either five or ten (if disabled) points and just beginning their careers
entered the Park Service on a permanent basis in late 1949. Many stayed
and progressed up through the ranks. Many had been serving in temporary
positions since the war, and they eagerly awaited the achievement of
Freida Nelson, a ranger at Yellowstone in 1926,
displays her new uniform suspenders. Photo by the National Park Service.
Before fifteen years passed, and while these men worked their way up
the organizational ladder, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing.
Several events happened that affected the laws regulating the federal
employment of women. A "New Era" had begun, however slowly, and the Park
Service had to face change.
The Commission on the Status of Women established by President
Kennedy by Executive Order in 1961 highlighted in its report the pivotal
role the federal government must play in the employment of women. The
President directed the Civil Service Commission and agency heads to make
the government, as the largest single employer of women, "a showcase of
equal opportunity for women."
In 1962, Attorney General Robert Kennedy invalidated an old law which
allowed appointments to specify sex. That old law is interesting in
itself. It dated from 1870 and was passed to allow the appointment of
women to clerkships in executive departments. However, it had long been
interpreted as allowing appointing officers to specify sex in filling
positions. The Attorney General's ruling meant that no longer could
"park ranger" examinations state that positions were for men only. The
1870 law was actually repealed in 1965, and civil service regulations
were revised in 1966 to require each federal agency to establish an
affirmative action program. Equal opportunity programs were put into
Before looking at how these new regulations affected women's chances
for careers in the Park Service, one other important piece of background
needs to be studied this time specific to the Park Service and
concerning its historic mission rather than its employment policies and
The famous Organic Act establishing the Park Service in 1916 set up
for all time a tension between use and preservation. Preservation was
clearly the only goal in the beginning, because the first natural sites
were in real danger from exploitation by developers, forest and mining
interests, and adventurers. So essential was the goal of protection, in
fact, that the U.S. Cavalry was used to staff Yellowstone before 1916.
The ethos of a military camp pervaded the early parks, and the few women
present were military wives.
After the Organic Act of 1916, the ethos of the Park Service
underwent a gradual change until the parks became today's centers for
public education through interpretation. Although the first parks
celebrated America's natural wonders, historic and cultural sites began
to be added beginning with Mesa Verde in 1906, and eventually included a
large number of historic forts transferred from the U.S. Army to the
Park Service in the 1930's.
As interpretive activities began to increase in importance (and
perhaps as they became stratified), more positions became available for
which mainstream women possessed the necessary qualifications. Women
teachers, curators, librarians and historians held the necessary
qualifications to become interpreters, especially in historic sites. In
the 1950's and early 1960's, often at the same time that the male park
rangers were taking their permanent positions, women were hired as
guides at such places as Fort Laramie, Colonial, and Independence.
The story of their uniforms has often been told. At first the guides
could order regular uniforms (one woman had to make her own, because she
was so small), but after a while the women guides were required to wear
various kinds of polyester, airline-steward type uniforms with a similar
hat, called by some of its former wearers a "baffalo chip."
In fact, it was in the field of natural history interpretation that a
few women had been active from the beginning. As far back as 1917,
hotels in Rocky Mountain and Glacier hired women as nature guides for
their guests. The Park Service employed a few interpreters directly in
the 1920's, including Isobel Bassett, a geologist, who was hired on an
impulse by Director Horace Albright at Yellowstone after he observed her
voluntary talks on park geology, and Marguerite Lindsley, who was born
in Yellowstone and married E.L. Arnold, a ranger. Herma Albertson, who
passed the Civil Service test for ranger in 1919, served until she, too,
married a ranger, George Baggley. She published a book on the plants in
Yellowstone just as Pauline Mead Patraw, a seasonal ranger at the Grand
Canyon in 1929 and 1930, did on the flowers of the Southwest mesas. At
Yosemite, Enid Michael served as a naturalist for nearly twenty
When the Park Service first began to respond to the civil rights
movement, it had as much of a problem deciding what to call its new
women as it did over what they were going to wear. Sallie Pierce Harris,
who was a guide at Montezuma Castle in 1934, returned during World War
II as a ranger, primarily at Tumacacori. Not long after the war, she
learned that she could no longer be called a ranger and eventually was
given the title of archeologist, the field in which she was trained. She
continued with variations on that title until her retirement in the late
1960's. Indeed, the first women who were hired through the ranger intake
program, beginning in 1965, were called park naturalists, historians, or
information guides until 1971, when the title "park ranger" was finally
attached to women.
It was through the Albright Training Center that the Park Service
began to recruit its first women rangers. The first two women began the
Introduction to Park Operations course on an auspicious date the
day after the Fourth of July in 1965.
One of them was Elaine Hounsell, who has been a superintendent of a
small park and is now a district ranger at North Cascades. There were
forty-one men in the class, the seventeenth to be held since its
beginning in 1957. At the same time, Glennie Murray (Wall), who was
doing research on the petroglyphs and pictographs at Lava Beds, was
asked if she had thought of joining the Park Service. Her immediate
response was: "But they don't hire women!" She was assured that "they"
did and told to take the Federal Service Entrance Exam. She passed it on
the first try and, as the only woman in the class, entered Albright in
March, 1966. Betty Gentry was the only woman in the second 1965 class.
These women are among the first full-fledged women rangers in the new
era. Betty is now superintendent of Pea Ridge and Glennie the chief of
the Cultural Resources Unit at Golden Gate. Except for Elaine Hounsell,
who was called a park naturalist, they each first carried the title of
Because the environmental movement was only in the early stages,
women naturalists and scientists were not being graduated from college
in the numbers they are today, nor was support for women's athletics yet
forthcoming. Although Title IX was enacted in 1972, the guidelines for
its application to women's athletics were not released until 1979 (until
the Supreme Court's Grove City decision of 1984 threatened Title IX's
enforcement). Until both movements began to produce women with the
necessary backgrounds, the qualifications for ranger and
ranger-naturalist continued to be prohibitive for most women.
Finally, late in 1969, OPM approved new classification and
qualification standards to be implemented the following year. The new
standards attempted to remove as many sex-specific qualifications as
possible. By 1971, women trainees at Albright were called "park
rangers." The effort for equity did not end there and was argued out in
other positions later (the Park Police, for example, had a five foot,
eight inches height restriction that was removed in 1971 only after
Women began to enter the ranger training program at Albright in
increasing numbers, averaging between 15 and 30 percent of the classes
from 1973 until recent years, when their numbers have been approaching
equity. About 375 women have graduated from the course, now called
Ranger Skills, since 1965. Some of these women now hold historian or
other positions. With the increasing emphasis on law enforcement
training for rangers, women have been receiving training at the Federal
Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia, since 1975. Between
1979 and 1984, 131 Park Service women graduated from FLETC, 20 percent
of the total Park Service trainees. About 40 women have taken both
training programs. Other women have taken law enforcement training on
Yellowstone ranger Marguerite Lindsley Arnold and her horse Rex (left)
and Yosemite naturalist Enid Michael (right). Each worked in her
respective park from the 1920's to the 1940's Photos by the National Park Service.
Although the figures for women park rangers are not spectacular, they
do show that women are here to stay. The number of women rangers can no
longer be counted on the fingers of one hand as they were in 1926 when
Frieda Nelson showed her pride at Yellowstone. But the numbers are
In 1983, of nearly 2,000 park rangers, about 270 were women, or 14
percent. About 1,300 were park technicians, which was 37 percent of that
series. A present study of the retention rates of women compared with
men trained at each program, Albright and FLETC, should add some other
figures. In 1985, at the top of the 025 series (park managers) women are
superintendents in twenty-two parks and site managers of ten other
parks. The highest-graded woman outside of Washington is Lorraine
Mintzmyer, regional director of Rocky Mountain.
An examination of the number of women at different grade levels can
be interpreted in two ways. Either the percentage of women is higher at
lower grades because many are just entering the Service, or women are
finding if difficult to advance.
Women represent one-quarter of the rangers on the GS-5 level and
nearly onethird of GS-7 rangers. Beginning with GS-9, women rangers
decline from 14 percent to 7 percent at GS-12 and 5 percent at GS-13.
Women represent 48 percent of the GS-4 park technicians, 30 percent of
the GS-5 park technicians, and 18 and 19 percent of the GS-6 and GS-7
park techs. Park aides were not counted. There is some concern that the
classification of park technician, often used for interpreters, will be
a way, whether conciously or not, of holding women back.
Not only is it useful to put the growth of women in the ranger ranks
in historical perspective, it is also important to put the roles women
have played in the Park Service in the context of the roles women have
filled in the broader society. Although women have only entered the
ranger profession in recent years, it is important to realize that, like
women everywhere, they have contributed a great deal. For that reason,
the study of the history of women in the Park Service that I am
currently researching will look not only at visible, permanent
Even though they were not compensated for it, many women have made
large contributions to the parks by working behind the scenes. Wives
manned telephones when their husbands were on patrol, handled
emergencies, started the first natural history museums in parks, wrote
nature guides, and provided (and still do) support for families in
isolated places as nurses and teachers. Aileen Nusbaum, for example,
designed many park buildings and started the first medical facility at
Mesa Verde. Wives and "homesteaders" on clerical staffs have done a
great deal to weave the fabric of relations between the park and
Another interesting group is comprised of the women who founded
parks. The Colorado Cliff Dwellers Association was a women's group who
worked to save Mesa Verde. Women reconstructed the Theodore Roosevelt
Birthplace in New York City, and were responsible for the acquisition
and restoration of Eleanor Roosevelt's Valkill. Minerva Hoyt organized
the Deserts Conservation League for the purpose of saving the lands now
comprising Joshua Tree, and, by working to protect Royal Palm State
Park, Mary Mann Jennings provided the nucleus for the Everglades. Such
women as Margaret Murie and Celia Hunter have worked for park lands,
most recently in Alaska.
Finally, it is important to look at how women's roles are presented
in parks. The story of a single woman homesteader, Adaline Hornbek, adds
to the interpretation at Florissant Fossil Beds. Diaries of officer's
wives revealed the information for the furnishings at Fort Laramie,
where a woman ghost also rides. The Mill girls at Lowell and the wives
who brought homes to their marriages at John Muir, Martin Luther King,
and Carl Sandburg all matter. The new parks devoted to women's history
include Maggie Walker, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Women's Rights.
Frieda Nelson had many things to be proud of as a Park Service woman.
She was a ranger on horseback at least for two seasons and
represented what women can do. Women have been working for the parks
from the very beginning, when the first women explorers rode sidesaddle
into Yellowstone one hundred years ago. They have served both behind the
scenes and one the front line and their many stories need to be told.