Celebrating Women in Ecology–since 1988

This post is part of a series for Women’s History Month, March 2016. See all related posts.
In August 1988, Dr. Jean Harmon Langenheim spoke to ESA members as the Society’s past president. Her speech, The Path and Progress of American Women Ecologists, was published in the ESA Bulletin the following December. In the introduction, she wrote:

“For my address to the Society, it seemed timely as we approach our 75th Anniversary to chronicle and give tribute to women ecologists. Although women have recently received recognition and attained some prominence in the Society, it is amazing how little we know about the history of women ecologists and their achievements, especially as these have paralleled the changes in society’s view regarding the role of women.”

This speech was the culmination of a two-year project. Early in 1986, Dr. Langenheim had begun writing to women soliciting information about their careers and experiences in ecology. The letters, in those days, were individually typed and wording varied, but the example below sent to Dr. Mary Willson (August 1986) is illustrative.

“As you may know, I was elected to the presidency of ESA last year. Since there have been so few women officers, and I was the only woman president, except E. Lucy Braun, I decided that I would do my Presidential Address on the history of women’s contributions to ecology. This would not only ”educate” many, but would also provide the opportunity to give tribute to the accomplishments of women, and to many who have remained essentially “invisible” (and hence unrecognized). I would like to include you, of course, among those highly accomplished and also recognized women. I would greatly appreciate having from you the following:

  • Curriculum Vitae
  • Additional biographical sketch indicating:
    What initiated your interest in studying ecology?
    Were there role models (especially women)?
    Individuals who have particularly influenced the direction of your career.
    What you consider your most important contribution to ecology.
    Any additional noteworthy comments of interest.
  • Photograph (color slide fine) showing you doing what you consider
    exemplary of at least some aspect of your ecological work.

Additionally, I would be grateful if you (or someone else you could suggest) could obtain records of the percentage of women obtaining Ph.D. degrees over the years in ecology at Illinois.”

In 1996, Dr. Langenheim again wrote to many of her contacts, requesting updates for a subsequent paper that was published in the Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics. For this paper, focused on research contributions, she was able to enjoy the benefits of word processing in her correspondence.
As a result of these prodigious efforts, Jean Langenheim became ESA’s de facto expert on women in ecology and created a huge legacy. Five heavy binders contain the results of her survey and related research, but much of the material in them remains tucked away; only a portion and some general conclusions could be included in the two papers. Without the space limitations of traditional paper publication, we hope to bring some of the insights and reflections shared by these women, these ecologists, onto our history website. Our progress can be monitored using this link.

What stories are hidden in these binders? Follow us as we present these women in ecology.

What stories are hidden in these binders? Follow us as we present these women in ecology.

Thanks to Dr. Jean Langenheim and the many ecologists who responded to her survey, we can share a wealth of history and commentary on dedicated ecologists who, in addition to their accomplishments in research and field work, just happen to be women as well.
Epilogue: As if all this were not enough, in addition to her other responsibilities, Dr. Langenheim agreed to serve as chair of the Past Presidents committee and assist in preparing for ESA’s 2015 centennial. In 2011, she again sent letters, this time to all of ESA’s living past presidents, to solicit brief summaries of their service as president and longer reflections on the events of their terms in office. Much of this correspondence was electronic. After three years of “reminders” and hundreds of emails, the results of that project are now online as the ESA Living Past Presidents timeline.