Collage of notable women conservationists

Women of Conservation’s Past and Present

Aldo Leopold is well-known for advancing conservation from its early beginnings. His name is often recited along others like Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Edward Abbey as the forefathers of the movements that have brought awareness and action to protecting our natural world. While these men surely deserve great credit for their work, not one of them created the conservation movement single-handedly, and it requires the work of many to continue it. So in honor of Women’s History Month, here are a handful of women across the spectrum that have made contributions worth celebrating. You know the stories of Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall, but do you know these women? Like them, and the Leopold women (Nina Leopold Bradley, Estella Leopold, Jr.), these women have helped walk the movement forward. We hope you remember their names and their work, too.

Anna Botsford ComstockAnna Botsford Comstock (1854-1930) Anna was the first female professor at Cornell University and is most well-known for designing the first outdoor nature study program for school children that became a model for programs around the world. (This may have been the program that took Aldo’s science classroom outdoors and helped foster his interest!) Before becoming a professor, she illustrated thousands of detailed insects for books both she and her husband wrote.


Frances Hamerstrom (1907-1998) Frances was the first and only female graduate student of Aldo Leopold who went on to become a wildlife biologist dedicated to saving the prairie chicken. She and her husband were students of Leopold’s together becoming a conservation duo, in part because few regarded women as experts in the field. Thanks to their research findings that diminishing grasslands were cause for the decline of the greater prairie chickens, they were able to work with volunteers to bring the species back from the brink. Hamerstrom also wrote 12 books and over 150 scientific papers.

Celia Hunter

Wilderness Society

Celia Hunter (1910-2001) Celia was the first female president of The Wilderness Society. Her work alongside Mardy and Olaus Murie to lead to the protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She led the charge to pass legislation in the 1980s that protected over 100 million acres in Alaska. In World War II she served as a pilot, a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), and then used this talent to run an ecotourism business, Camp Denali, with her husband.


Marie TharpMarie Tharp (1920-2006) Marie interpreted data to create the first map of the ocean floor, despite not being allowed on a ship. It was considered bad luck to have a woman aboard. Her interpretation also led to the finding of the continental drift, which her partner and Jacques Cousteau both that was just “girl talk.” It wasn’t until video from Cousteau’s expedition to prove the theory wrong did exactly the opposite. Today you might recognize Marie’s name from the Marie Tharp Historical Map layer in Google Earth.


Wangari Maathai


Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) Wangari received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her environmental conservation and women’s rights efforts in her home country of Kenya. She founded the Green Belt Movement which trained women to plant trees in deforested areas solving many issues they were facing, including drying riverbeds, eroding soils, and depleted firewood resources. To date, the Green Belt Movement has trained over 30,000 women and planted 51 million trees.



Mollie Beattie


Mollie H. Beattie (1947-1996) Mollie was the first woman appointed to head the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. She took the helm in 1993, and during her short term she oversaw the addition of 15 national wildlife refuges as well as the reintroduction of the gray wolf to the Rocky Mountains. In her honor, an Alaskan refuge is named after her.




Berta CaceresBerta Cáceres (1971-2016) Berta was an environmental activist who fought against the Agua Zarca Dam that threatened the Gualcarque River and the livelihood of her fellow Lenca people in Honduras. She organized protests and blockades, eventually pressuring the contractors to pull out of the project.



JoAnn Tall

Goldman Prize

JoAnn Tall JoAnn is an environmental activist advocating for the earth and her Lakota people. She is responsible for ending nuclear weapons testing in the Black Hills, preventing uranium mining and hazardous waste landfills near her home in the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations in South Dakota. She has served on the board of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples.




Doreceta TaylorDorceta Taylor Dorceta was the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (she was also concurrently earning a doctorate in sociology, too!) and has since devoted her professional life to examining the role of race, diversity, and social justice in a wide variety environmental topics. She is considered one of the leading scholars and activists in the field, having published several studies and books.


The Aldo Leopold Foundation’s Future Leaders Program is dedicated to training the next generation of diverse, capable conservation leaders.