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History of Women at the Energy Department

March 27, 2014 - 5:55pm


Women have been making a significant impact in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields for centuries. Join the Energy Department in celebrating Women’s History Month by viewing this timeline for a glimpse of the accomplishments of women in energy.


Our timeline starts in the 1940s, but the progress of women in science reaches back to ancient history. Women made scientific contributions in ancient Egypt and Greece. In medieval Europe, women wrote about and studied scientific subjects, and women fought to be recognized in scientific work despite rampant sexism and discrimination in academies and universities throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Maria Mitchell, an American scientist, became the first female member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848 after her discovery of a comet the year before. She was also admitted to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850. Elizabeth Bragg was the first woman to graduate with a civil engineering degree in the United States. She earned that distinction in 1876 from the University of California, Berkeley. In the early 20th century, Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, earning her first one in 1903 for Physics and her second in 1911 in Chemistry for her groundbreaking work on radiation.


World War II brought great changes in both science and the makeup of the labor force, as the country used science and technology to win the war -- most notably with the Manhattan Project effort to build the atomic bomb -- and employed millions of women in jobs traditionally served by men. While female scientists and managers in the Manhattan Project, as elsewhere, were few, they were beginning to make inroads in the male-dominated professions.

In 1942, physicist Leona Woods was the only woman and the youngest person on Enrico Fermi’s team when it achieved the world's first self-sustaining chain reaction in a graphite and uranium pile known as CP-1 under the west grandstand at the University of Chicago's Stagg Field. One year later, J. Robert Oppenheimer appointed Charlotte Serber as head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory library, a critical position controlling the distribution of classified and unclassified reports. She was the only female division leader at the Lab. Theoretical physicist Maria Goeppert-Mayer served as a Manhattan Project research scientist at Columbia University and Los Alamos. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963.

Scientists only composed a small fraction of the men and women that worked on the Manhattan Project. Once the Army took over in 1942, the development of the atomic bomb became primarily an engineering and industrial program. The Women's Army Corps was deployed at all major sites, working on a variety of tasks including the handling of highly classified documents. Despite the initial skepticism of male scientists, young women, most of them recent graduates of East Tennessee high schools, operated the control panels at the Oak Ridge Y-12 facility using the electromagnetic separation method to produce enriched uranium.


After WWII, women continued to make slow but steady progress in STEM-related occupations. Microbiologist and Radcliffe College President Mary Bunting in 1964 became the first woman appointed to the five-person Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the civilian successor to the Manhattan Project and precursor to the Energy Department. In 1971, President Richard Nixon issued a memorandum directing all federal agencies to create action plans to hire, promote and advance women, especially in mid- and top-level positions. By the end of 1971, the number of women in policy-making positions tripled, with many in jobs women had never held before. The following year, President Nixon appointed Dixy Lee Ray, a marine biologist and nuclear power advocate, as the first woman chair of the AEC. At the request of the President, she submitted in late 1973 a report on The Nation’s Energy Future recommending doubling of energy research and creation of an energy research and development agency.

The energy crisis of the mid-1970s witnessed a series of energy-related legislation and reorganizations. In 1977, the Department of Energy Organization Act brought together a number of federal energy offices and established the Energy Department to better coordinate federal energy policy and programs. Of the Department’s eight assistant secretaries at the time of its launch, two were women -- Ruth Clusen in the Office of Environment and Omi Walden in the Office of Conservation and Solar Applications.

As the Women’s Rights Movement gained momentum in the 1970s, leadership pathways and support mechanisms for women in the energy workforce continued to expand. In April 1978, President Jimmy Carter established the National Advisory Committee for Women, with an Interdepartmental Task Force to review “the applicability of initiatives designed to promote full equality for American women, including recommendations of the 1977 National Women's Conference, to the agency's programs and policies.” In 1979, the National Energy Conservation Policy Act established the Office of Minority Economic Impact to ensure minorities were afforded an opportunity to participate fully in Energy Department programs. This program still operates in full force to this day in the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity.


In the first decades of the Energy Department, women continued to break ground through scientific contributions and leadership positions. In 1985, biochemist Betsy Sutherland, an employee at the Department’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, became the first woman to receive the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award for research on how cells with damaged DNA repair themselves. In 1988, Donna Fitzpatrick, a lawyer by training, became the first female Under Secretary of Energy following her service as Assistant Secretary for Conservation and Renewable Energy. Linda Stuntz, former Minority Counsel for the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Director of DOE’s Office of Policy, Planning, and Analysis, became the first female Deputy Secretary of Energy in 1992.

One year later, President Bill Clinton named Hazel R. O’Leary as both the first female and the first African American Secretary of Energy. In 1993, Secretary O’Leary established the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity to ensure a diversified workforce among other key mission areas.

Also during Secretary O’Leary’s tenure, President Clinton in 1993 signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, entitling eligible employees to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons. This enabled more women to stay in the workforce while balancing family commitments.                 


As the 21st century forges ahead, the federal government continues to focus on significantly increasing the participation of underrepresented groups in STEM education and careers comes to the forefront.

In 2009, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order creating the White House Council on Women and Girls. In his remarks at the signing, the President underscored that the purpose of the Council is "to ensure that each of the agencies in which they're charged takes into account the needs of women and girls in the policies they draft.” The Energy Department’s chapter of the Council continues to pull program offices and National Laboratories together to work on confronting the challenges faced by women and girls.

At the Clean Energy Ministerial held in London in April 2012, the Department launched the U.S. Clean Energy, Education, and Empowerment (C3E) program to advance the careers and leadership of women in clean energy fields. The program, led by the Department in partnership with the MIT Energy Initiative, includes an ambassador network, annual symposium and the C3E Awards program.

A year later, inspired by the success of C3E, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz launched the Minorities in Energy (MIE) Initiative. The initiative includes a network of more than 30 senior-level Ambassadors across the public and private sector working alongside the Department to increase the participation of minorities in energy careers as well as support their advancement to leadership positions.

The Department continues to highlight the current successes of women in the energy sector through Women @ Energy -- a series of profiles about women leaders in the federal workforce -- and #WomeninSTEM, a video series launched in early 2014 highlighting women leaders advancing America’s clean energy future.

To learn more about how the Department is working to support women in energy fields, visit the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity website.