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History - Women in the Forest Service

History Home > Women in the Forest Service


Women in the Forest Service: Early History
Gerald W. Williams, Ph.D.

The first half of the 20th century, women were expected to conform to the roles and rules set at the end of the late 19th century, the so called Victorian era. Men were believed to be the physically strong, mentally capable, prone to action, outdoor oriented, and leaders of society. Women were thought to be the weak, passive, supporters, homemakers, submissive, and followers of strong leaders (men). Thus, after the Forest Service was established in the summer of 1905, it is not surprising that men were the only employees doing field work and office work.

The Forest Service, as well as most other employers in the era, began slowly to realize that being a woman was no barrier to any job. This was the era of male bank tellers and male clerks in practically every office and business setting.

The struggle for women to get full recognition for their abilities has taken almost a hundred years to come to fruition. When the regional offices were established in November and December of 1908, employees in the Washington office were offered employment in the more "remote" locations around the U.S., including Missoula, Denver, Albuquerque, Ogden, San Francisco, and Portland. Albert Cousins wrote about women in the early regional offices:

the employment of women clerks in the Supervisor's office was not looked upon with favor and the policy was established to employ men only the idea being that a woman clerk could not handle the "rough" work required in the administration of a forest, such as assembling and shipping fire tools, rustling fire fighters, etc. Such work properly was for a "two fisted" ranger or forest officer. However, it was not long before it became apparent that there was another element in forest officers' work which had not been taken into consideration. That was PAPER WORK: reports, letters to forest users, etc. Such work proved to be too much for the "two fisted" rangers and supervisors.

Basically, there were no women hired by the Forest Service to do field work for many decades. The first women employed by the Forest Service as a lookout was Hallie M. Daggett, who started work at Eddy's Gulch Lookout Station atop Klamath Peak (Klamath NF) in the summer of 1913 (she worked as lookout for 14 years):

Some of the Service men predicted that after a few days of life on the peak she would telephone that she was frightened by the loneliness and the danger, but she was full of pluck and high spirit...[and] she grew more and more in love with the work. Even when the telephone wires were broken and when for a long time she was cut off from communication with the world below she did not lose heart. She not only filled the place with all the skill which a trained man could have shown but she desires to be reappointed when the fire season opens this year [1914] (American Forestry 1914: 174, 176).

There is one account of a woman employed during the First World War as a "patrolwoman" on the Willamette National Forest: "Miss Helen McCormick, of Eugene, has been employed to patrol in the Upper McKenzie River country....Her district will embrace the territory between Blue River village and the Blue River mines [about 10 miles]. She will cover this district on horseback; carrying an emergence camping outfit, to be prepared for the nights which must necessarily be spent along the trail." These are the only accounts found, thus far, of women employed in field going positions on the national forests in other than a lookout position in these early years.

During World War II, there was another surge of women employed as lookouts on the national forests. A report came out of Corvallis newsletter announced that “The Portland [Regional] office of the U. S. Forest Service announces that 246 women have been hired to fill fire protection positions next summer in the national forests of Oregon and Washington. School teachers and wives of men in the military services constitute the majority of the employees.”

For years, the wives of the District Rangers and other district employees served as unpaid employees ("volunteers"). Wives were often considered a convenient, necessary, and free source of labor on ranger districts short on staff and money. In fact, wives who balked at doing such free work were thought of as being unloyal to their husbands and the Forest Service.

Typically, the early Forest Service had only a handful of employees that were hired year round. During fire season, men were hired to fight fires, but only after the fires began. This was a time when the wives were often enlisted as unpaid employees funneling men and supplies to fight the fires, as well as serving as telephone operators (both public and Forest Service), cooks, and overall managers of the entire ranger districts. Alice Shambaugh described her life on the ranger station during the summer and fall fire season: “During the summer months I work part time as telephone operator, but sometimes the definition of my title is broadened to include stenographer, radio operator, and property and supply clerk. This is only a small valley with very few people to draw from in case of emergency–there is no pool hall where an extra truck driver can be picked up in a hurry. Out here the telephone operator fills in where and at any time needed.”

Wives were, in some cases, acknowledged as better leaders and organizers than their husbands: “She was alone and had entire charge of getting men, pack outfits and provisions together, hiring horses for them and sending them to the fires and according to Mr. McKenzie [the district ranger] she did better than any man could have done, including himself.”

In recent years, women have become involved in every aspect of national forest management, as well as employed in increasing numbers in the research, state & private forestry, and international programs. The most noticeable changes came in the dangerous duties of smokejumping, fire fighting, and law enforcement where women were finally admitted in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Yet the most profound changes in the agency came in the professional ranks–as experts in every field and as line and staff officers.

In regular field work, women in the early 1970s found themselves in a situation where their male counterparts did not know how to work with female co-workers. Even wives of some male employees did not want their husbands working next to women in similar or even supervisory positions.

Notable during the last 25 years was the advancement of a number of women into the ranks of line and staff. Below are a list of significant “first” dates for women in the Forest Service:

1910 First scientist hired at the Forest Products Laboratory (Eloise B. Gerry).
1913 First forest fire lookout (Hallie M. Daggett - Klamath National Forest [NF])
1957 First forester hired (Joanne G. McElfresh - Deerlodge NF).
1978 First to head a research project (Jackie Robertson at Pacific Southwest Station - PSW).
1978 First special agent (Janet Arling).
1979 First District Ranger (Wendy Milner Herrett - Blanco RD, White River NF).
1985 First Forest Supervisor (Geri B. Larson - Tahoe NF).
1991 First Director of a Research Station (Barbara C. Weber at PSW).
1992 First Regional Forester (Elizabeth Estill - Rocky Mountain Region 2).
1999 First Associate Chief for Natural Resources (Hilda Diaz-Soltero - Washington office).
2002 First Chief Operating Officer/Associate Chief (Sally Collins - Washington office)
2007 First Chief of the Forest Service (Abigail R. Kimbell)

 

The facts are that woman employed in the Forest Service are in every capacity and experience from the new recruits to the top administrative positions. It is hoped that soon the employment of women in any capacity in the agency will no longer be heralded as another first. They will be considered as the most qualified person for the job, no matter what the work entails.

US Forest Service
Last modified March 23, 2013
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