10 Women Who Changed the Way We See Nature

color portrait of Alaska conservationist Margaret Murie in front of Grand Tetons

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

They don't always get a proportional place in the history books, but women have played a vital role in wilderness exploration, conservation and our understanding of nature and wildlife.

The following women thrived on being in the wilderness and brought us a new level of understanding about the natural world. Not only were they interesting characters with compelling life stories, many were also writers who crafted exciting accounts of their exploits or wrote eloquent arguments for the preservation of the environment.

1. Florence A. Merriam Bailey

Florence Merriam Bailey in the 1886 Smith College yearbook
Florence Merriam Bailey came from a family of naturalists.

Notman Photographic Company / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Florence Merriam Bailey was an ornithologist and nature writer who became one of the earliest advocates for the protection of wildlife. Working in the late 19th and early 20th century, Bailey studied birds in nature, focusing on their behaviors rather than on their colors and feather patterns. She was also instrumental in the expansion of the Audubon Society, organizing new chapters wherever she went during her lifetime.

Bailey was a prolific writer. At the age of 26, she penned her first book, "Birds through an Opera-Glass," considered one of the first modern field guides for bird-watching since it included both notes on behavior and illustrations. Her later books continue to influence field guides to this day, and some people still consider them the standard because of their detailed entries.

2. Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson
Rachel Carson was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter. (Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture [public domain]/Flickr)

Rachel Carson started her career as a marine biologist for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. Because of her talent as a writer, she was drafted to create brochures and radio programs in addition to her regular research duties. She eventually rose to oversee a team of writers for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She also contributed articles to newspapers and magazines, such as the Baltimore Sun and the Atlantic. In the 1950s, after the success of her book "The Sea Around Us," Carson left her government job to focus full-time on nature writing.

Because of her arguments against the use of pesticides (namely in her famous book "Silent Spring") and the confrontations with the chemical manufacturers that ensued, Carson is considered one of the founders of modern environmentalism. She died in 1964, soon after "Silent Spring" was published.

3. Herma Albertson Baggley

black and white portrait of American Park Ranger Herma Albertson Baggley

Yellowstone National Park / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Herma A. Baggley grew up in Iowa but studied botany in Idaho and spent her professional career in Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park. When she joined the National Park Service (NPS) in the early 1930s, she was the first full-time female naturalist. Putting her botany knowledge to work, Baggley co-wrote a guide called "Plants of Yellowstone National Park." Though it was published in 1936, it was so comprehensive that it is still referenced today.

Baggley also worked to bring more women to the NPS. She advocated for better in-park housing and advised the NPS to offer other benefits to attract more-qualified employees. Her efforts led to better living conditions for employees and their families.

4. Margaret Murie

color portrait of conservationist Mardy Murie and her husband in Grand Tetons
Mardy Murie and Olaus at their home, Grand Tetons, 1953.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Margaret Murie, known to almost everyone as "Mardy" (the name she often used in her byline), grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska. She felt at home on the tundra and is best known for being the driving force behind the effort to create and expand the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. During her life, she worked as a consultant for the NPS, the Sierra Club, and a number of similar organizations.

Murie spent part of her career conducting research with her husband, Olaus Murie, in Wyoming and Alaska. The two would camp in the backcountry for weeks at a time, tracking the movements of wildlife. Their three children often would accompany them on these wilderness adventures. Murie, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the 1990s, also traveled outside of the U.S. to places like Africa and New Zealand to study wild areas and consult with local conservationists.

5. Caroline Dormon

portrait of Louisiana naturalist Caroline Dormon sitting next to giant tree

Courtesy of USFS

Caroline "Carrie" Dormon turned her degree in literature into a job as a public relations representative with the Louisiana forestry department. Using opportunities provided by this job, she convinced the federal government to reserve land for a national forest in her home state. The result? Kisatchie National Forest was established in 1930. However, Dorman had left her public relations career by then because she had become frustrated by the slow-moving bureaucracy of government organizations.

Dormon continued to work on conservation and botany for the remainder of her life. She spoke at gardening events and worked as a consultant for the creation of parks and arboretums. She was also a prolific author, writing books about trees, flowers, birds, and Native American culture.

6. Annie Montague Alexander

black and white photo of explorer Annie Alexander on a desert expedition in Nevada

UC Berkeley / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Annie Montague Alexander was born in Hawaii into a family that made their fortune with sugar. In her younger years, she traveled widely, training as a painter in Paris and studying nursing. Eventually, she became interested in paleontology. She used her wealth to help fund expeditions, but unlike other benefactors, she accompanied the scientists as they went out into the wilderness in search of fossils.

Alexander funded and traveled with some of the most famous paleontologists of her day. The scientific names of more than a dozen plants and animal species are named after her, as is Alaska's Lake Alexander. She still found time to run a successful farm with her friend of 42 years, Louise Kellogg, who accompanied her on most of the expeditions.

7. Anna Botsford Comstock

black and white portrait of Cornell professor and naturalist Anna Botsford Comstock

Cornell University / Public domain

Anyone who enjoyed taking nature field trips in school owes a debt of gratitude to Anna Botsford Comstock. Though she is best known for her nature illustrations, Comstock also pushed for outdoor education in public schools in New York after seeing how well her students at Cornell University — where she was the institution's first female professor — responded to spending class time seeing the subjects of their study in their natural environment.

Despite not having any formal training as an artist, Comstock began her career as a nature illustrator by drawing studies of insects for her husband, who was an entomologist. She eventually learned wood engraving and published several successful books, including the "Handbook of Nature Study," which had more than 20 printings.

8. Ynes Mexia

black and white old photo of botanical collector and explorer Ynes Enriquetta Julietta Mexia

Ynes Mexia Collection, University and Jepson Herbaria Archives, University of California, Berkeley

Ynes Mexia proved that it's never too late to start a new career. Mexia was born in 1870, but she did not begin collecting plants until age 55. The child of a Mexican diplomat and an American housewife, Mexia spent part of her youth in Mexico City caring for her father. She married twice, was widowed and divorced, and had a career as a social worker on the West Coast. She had a lifelong interest in botany and was finally able to take classes on the subject at the University of California. However, she never got her degree.

A botanist from Stanford University noticed Mexia's passion and took her to Mexico for her first plant-collecting trip. Though the expedition ended when she literally fell off a cliff while reaching for a plant, Mexia found several previously unknown species during the trip. This helped her launch several more extended trips to Latin America and Alaska, during which she collected more than 150,000 samples.

9. Celia Hunter

Old photo of conservationist Celia Hunter in small plane ready to take off

Courtesy of The Alaska Conservation Foundation

Celia Hunter grew up on a farm in a family of Quakers. She struggled through the Great Depression but eventually became a pilot for the Women's Airforce Service Pilots during World War II. Her flying career included ferrying advanced fighter planes from factories to Air Force bases. After the war ended, Hunter spent time in Alaska, toured war-ravaged Europe by bicycle, and finally returned to Alaska to fly and set up a series of mountain camps.

After falling in love with the Far North, Hunter joined the effort started by Mardy Murie to protect Alaska's abundant nature. She helped establish the Alaska Conservation Society, which bypassed a deadlocked Congress and convinced then-President Eisenhower to establish a wildlife refuge by presidential proclamation. She continued to work on conservation projects, penning a letter urging Congress to block oil exploration and drilling in Alaska on the day of her death in 2001 at age 82.

10. Hallie Daggett

Hallie Daggett, first woman Forest Service field officer, plays with her dog at Eddy Gulch Station on Klamath Peak.
Hallie Daggett, first woman Forest Service field officer, plays with her dog at Eddy Gulch Station on Klamath Peak. U.S. Forest Service

Herma Baggley was the first female naturalist hired by the NPS, but two decades before she began working at Yellowstone, Hallie Daggett was the first woman to work as a fire lookout for the U.S. Forest Service. Born in 1878, Daggett was a consummate outdoorswoman who could hunt, fish, and survive in the wild.

She needed these skills for her job spotting wildfires in Klamath National Forest. Daggett worked alone at a lookout post on a nearly 6,500-foot peak. The post could only be reached on foot, and the climb from the base outpost took three hours. Daggett manned the lookout for 15 years during the summer wildlife season.