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Women in Ecology, Then and Now

This post is part of a series for Women’s History Month, March 2016. See all related posts.
Thirty years ago, Dr. Jean Langenheim initiated a project on “women ecologists” by sending letters to dozens of women who were practicing ecology, most of whom were in the United States. From her position as ESA’s past president, she asked each of them for a photo and CV, her most important contribution to ecology (in her own assessment), and comments on how her career began and any role models. The responses she got, combined with her additional research, formed the basis for her two papers on the subject, a Past President’s address in 1988 and a followup report in 1996 (see References).

“In 1988 I hoped that there would be no further need to discuss the contributions of women ecologists because we would be recognized just as ecologists. … Although women have become increasingly prominent as ecologists, it still seems timely and useful to consider the progress women ecologists have made in overcoming both personal and societal obstacles, particularly with regard to research contributions.”
—Jean H. Langenheim, 1996, Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics

Twenty years later, we celebrate progress but still see valid reasons for singling out female ecologists. Although contributions from women are abundant, challenges remain.
In 2014, for example, PhD candidate Melissa Giresi tweeted a request for “most influential female ecologist (alive today)”. She started a lively discussion, although the list was not intended to be exhaustive. In comments, Melissa noted that:

If you have been to any scientific conference or symposium, you would notice that most of the speakers are male. This phenomenon is caused by bias. When you read textbooks about ecology, most are written by men, examples that are shown in classes are mostly experiments performed by men. It’s often difficult to break the cycle of repeating the same names that you’ve heard of in the past – I wanted to highlight the fact that there are many successful and influential female ecologists.

This month, in recognition of the incredible material compiled by Dr. Jean Langenheim on women in ecology, we want to present profiles of several who responded to Jean’s request for insight and information on their careers. In her work, she grouped women by the time period when they received their PhDs (we’ve listed a few examples in each category).
Early Pioneers: PhDs granted before 1934, including E. Lucy Braun, Edith Clements, Emmeline Moore, Margaret Nice, Minna Jewell, and Rachel Carson
Late Pioneers: PhDs from 1934 to 1960, including Ruth Patrick, Margaret Stewart, Elsie Quarterman, Margaret Davis, Jean Langenheim, and Estella Leopold
First Modern Wave: PhDs 1961 to 1975, including E.C. Pielou, Mary Willson, Frances James, Judith Myers, Sarah Woodin, Frances Chew, Jane Lubchenco, and many others (see full table below)
Twenty years later, many in Jean’s “First Modern Wave” are retired or emerita, and it is appropriate to reflect on their careers and update the 1996 reports and start thinking about the “Second Modern Wave” (1975-1995) and even maybe the “Third Modern Wave” (1995-2015). We’ll get a list of our plans up soon.

p.s. You can help!
Giresi, Melissa. 2014. The 45 most influential female ecologists alive today according to twitter. Online at Southern Fried Science,
Langenheim, Jean H. 1996. EARLY HISTORY AND PROGRESS OF WOMEN ECOLOGISTS: Emphasis Upon Research Contributions. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 1996. 27:1–53
Stable URL:
Langenheim, Jean H. The Path and Progress of American Women Ecologists. Address of the Past President. Davis, California, August 1988. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America
Vol. 69, No. 4 (Dec., 1988), pp. 184-197 Stable URL: