"To study women’s history,
then, is to take part in a bold enterprise that can eventually lead
us to a new history, one that, by taking into account both sexes, should
tell us more about each other and, therefore, our collective selves."
Jane Sherron De Hart and Linda K. Kerber
National Wildlife Research Center began in 1886 as the Division
of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy, changing later to the Bureau
of Biological Survey (BBS). Women may have worked for the early BBS,
but given the times, they probably had little visibility and held secretarial
and other traditional jobs. At least one woman, May Thacher Cooke, did
work for the early BBS as a biologist and her work appeared in USDA
Circulars and Bulletins.
While some details of May's life are known, the unknown details raise
interesting questions about her personal life, education, and professional
opportunities, etc.May Thacher Cooke was born in 1885. She was the daughter
of Professor Wells Woodbridge Cooke, a noted ornithologist and member
of the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU). In 1901 Professor
Cooke received an appointment to the BBS and, from that point on,
devoted much of his time to the study of North American bird migration
and distribution. Professor Cooke died suddenly in 1916, ten years after
the death of May’s mother.Professor Cooke’s obituary stated
that "his daughter," probably May, accompanied him on his
last outing. May joined the AOU in 1915, and after her father’s
death, donated a large part of his bird skin collection to the AOU.
Also after her father’s death in 1916, May joined the staff of
the BBS, and became the first woman AOU member to acquire institutional
affiliation. Her job title varied and included assistant,scientific
aid, and junior biologist.
Following in her father’s professional footsteps, May became
a leader in the program area of bird distribution and migration, recording
her observations for the BBS and its successor agency, the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service. During her government service, May supervised
the carding and filing of data on occurrences of North American birds.
In 1920 the BBS became active in bird banding and May contributed to
that program’s administration. In addition, she published manynotes
on the long-distance movements and longevity of birds based on the recovery
of banded individuals.
May’s work was published in USDA Circulars and Departmental Bulletins,
and information she compiled on bird distribution and migration was
also published in a number of volumes of the "Life Histories of
North American Birds" by A.C. Bent. May also contributed substantially
to the 1957 edition of the AOU's "Check-list of North American
Birds." The "Birds of the Washington Region" was probably
her most important publication.
In 1947 May retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She died
on June 13, 1963, in Washington, D.C.
Unanswered questions arise from the known facts of May’s life.
What type of education did she receive? What role did she play in her
father’s work? What were the exact circumstances that lead to
her employment with the BBS? What about May’s personal life and
immediate family? What role did her class status have on her professional
opportunities? How did current events affect her?
May began working for the federal government during the Progressive
Era, the time roughly from 1880 to 1920. Not only was the Progressive
Era a time of attempted social reform, it was an period when many women
moved from the private to public sphere. May witnessed the passing of
the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution giving women the
right to vote. In addition, she lived through two world wars and witnessed
the beginning of the Cold War. By examining the life of one woman, much
can be learned about history in general and women’s roles insociety.