The women of the early national parks

Clare Marie Hodges (L), Gertrude S. Cooper, and Jessie Foote Jackson were some of the first women employees of the National Parks Service.

The National Parks Service was created in 1916, three years prior to women acquiring the right to vote. Suffrage and women’s empowerment had been growing, and as World War I began, an increasing number of women were being allowed into jobs traditionally held by men. 

The NPS is now 107 years old; in 2016, women made up 40% of their workforce. For Women’s History Month, let’s take a look back at some of the first women to hold positions in the national parks.

A black and white photo of Jessie Foote Jackson (L), the first female custodian employed by the National Parks Service.  Jessie Foote Jack

Credited as the first woman custodian employed and paid by the National Parks Service, Jessie Foote Jack worked at Capulin Volcano National Monument in New Mexico. She was married to William Howard Jack, a prominent New Mexico rancher. Upon his death in 1916, Jessie Jack was tasked with carrying on with his business. 

The land around Capulin Volcano was prized grazing land for her husband’s cattle. In order to be granted a lease to allow the cattle to graze on the land, Jessie Jack used political connections to secure a job in the park. 

She worked alongside the men of her profession from 1916 until 1923. 

Clare Marie HodgesA black and white photo of Clare Marie Hodges on a horse wearing a ranger pin.

Clare Marie Hodges was the first female ranger to gain notoriety for her role in the NPS. Although she was technically the third woman to be hired as a ranger, she maintains status as the first woman ranger hired to work in Yosemite National Park

Hodges sought the job out in the spring of 1918, assuming that the park superintendent would laugh at her. To the contrary, she was hired in May for a temporary position. 

As more and more men left the workforce for the war effort, positions such as these opened up to women like Hodges, who had worked for two years as a teacher at Yosemite Valley School and had visited the park many times in her youth. 

Although she only worked as a ranger for the summer season, Hodges was sought out by the press. A 1919 article published in Moline, Illinois, called her the “only woman mountain ranger.” She pioneered the way for other women to hold ranger positions after she retired from park service.

A black and white photo of Gertrude S. Cooper, the first female superintendent in the National Parks Service.Gertrude S. Cooper

The first female superintendent was not hired until 1940. Gertrude S. Cooper came into her role at Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site just prior to World War II. 

When the war effort called for Secret Service members to be housed at the historic mansion, Cooper made arrangements to keep the men safe and discreet inside. 

Unique to many early women of the NPS, her role was not one left over from a man who had gone to war — her appointment came directly from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, her former neighbor. Shortly after Roosevelt died in 1945, Cooper resigned and spent the rest of her life traveling the U.S., working for schools and churches. 

These are a few of the many women who paved the way for women’s equality in the workforce and the national parks. Competent and dedicated workers stepped up so that in the present day, women across the U.S. can choose to spend their lives in service to the great outdoors, protecting and preserving America’s natural beauty as rangers, custodians, superintendents and more. 

To learn more about the women of the National Parks Service, visit their website


Story by: Lily Brunson
Photos courtesy of the National Park Service