Christine Pfaff, M.A.

Winner of the 1998 Charles Thompson Award for History in the Federal Government

Awarded by the Society for History in the Federal Government

The presence of women in high-level federal government positions, whether elected, appointed, or promoted, is a twentieth-century phenomenon. Although Virginia Woodhull made history in 1872 as the first woman to run for the presidency of the United States, advancement for women has been achieved slowly over the decades, sometimes at a faster and more focused pace than at others. In the final years leading up to ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, a few women made important inroads into federal service with appointments to high-level posts. Probably the first major appointment occurred in 1912 when President Taft appointed Julia C. Lathrop head of the newly created Children's Bureau. Other groundbreaking upper echelon appointments followed for a select handful of women including Mary Anderson as chief of the Women's Bureau in the Department of Labor (1920) and Helen H. Gardner as first woman Civil Service Commissioner (1920).(1)

Among the early women who overcame the obstacles to success and achieved a top-level administrative position in the federal government is someone whose name is virtually unknown today. She is Mae A. Schnurr, and the story of her rise in federal service is quite remarkable given the time period her career spanned and the civil service path she pursued from stenographer to acting commissioner. Even more unusual, though, is Mae Schnurr's achievement within the context of a completely male-dominated engineering establishment, namely the Bureau of Reclamation. Established in 1902 as part of the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Reclamation Service was created to settle the arid West through the construction of irrigation projects. The agency, which became the Bureau of Reclamation in 1923, is perhaps best known for some of the massive dams it designed and built in the 1930s and 1940s such as Hoover, Grand Coulee, and Shasta. From its origins, Reclamation aimed at providing water to small self-sufficient farms. While the agency focused its attention on the farmer, Schnurr is notable as an ardent spokesperson for the accomplishments and vital role of farm women.

Mae Schnurr was born in Philadelphia on May 16, 1896. Following high school, she attended classes for a year at Strayers Business College in that same city and listed her occupation as stenographer when applying for her first job in the federal government. At the time, a majority of women in government service entered by taking the civil service examination and, if fortunate and successful, advanced through transfers and promotions. Women were at a serious handicap entering the government prior to November 1919; until that time they were excluded from more than one-half of the civil service examinations given. They were barred from most of the higher level positions and were overwhelmingly restricted to clerical jobs. In fact, prior to the opening of all civil service tests in 1919, 91% of women in federal service held clerical positions.(2)

Mae's job application was successful and in March 1915 she telegrammed the Interior Department's General Land Office (now the Bureau of Land Management) accepting a position there as a copyist. Her starting salary was a grand $720 a year. After a six-month probationary period, she was offered a permanent position. Schnurr's successful career in the Department of the Interior had been launched, and she would quickly advance up the ranks.

Only a month after her permanent appointment in 1915, the commissioner of the General Land Office approved Mae's promotion to the position of clerk at one thousand dollars per annum. His justification in a letter dated October 30, 1915, was that she "has shown by her diligence and the work performed that she is better entitled to this further promotion than any other employee in her grade and line of work."

Within a year of this advancement, Mae had been promoted again within the General Land Office and had transferred to the secretary of the interior's office as a junior clerk. In April 1917, Mae was promoted as a clerk once again and moved to the National Park Service. She remained there for the next five years and during that time received a promotion based on her work as a "highly qualified stenographer-typewriter" and as "well deserving of advancement."

In 1922 Mae moved on to the Patent Office as an "appointment clerk", a position dealing with personnel matters. She received a glowing recommendation from Mr. Brock, chief of the Division of Appointments, Mails and Files, within the Interior Department. In a letter he wrote to William Wyman, chief clerk, Patent Office, Brock stated that he did not know of a young man he could recommend for the position but that he could endorse Miss Schnurr. She "is known as one of the expert stenographers and typists of this Department [National Park Service]...In addition to being an expert stenographer and typist she is qualified along other lines. She has a very pleasing personality and I believe is the best qualified person that I could recommend to you to place in charge of the personnel work of your bureau." With her acceptance of the position, Mae Schnurr made her first entry into a male-dominated arena. She was the first woman appointment clerk in the Patent Office, which employed approximately fifteen hundred officers and staff.(3)

Following a short detail to the Office of the Secretary of Interior during the summer of 1923, Mae advanced to the position of clerk in the Bureau of Reclamation on October 24, 1923, with a salary increase to $2,100 a year. At that time, only about 16 percent of the women, as compared to about 52 percent of the men, working in federal departments received salaries of $1,860 or more a year. Two-thirds of these higher paid women were in clerical, stenographic, or typing positions.(4)

Mae would remain in Reclamation throughout most of the rest of her federal service. One of her first assignments was to serve as secretary to the Committee of Special Advisers on Reclamation, usually referred to as the Fact Finders Committee. Assembled in the fall of 1923, the committee consisted of six men carefully selected by Secretary of Interior Hubert Work to scrutinize all aspects of Reclamation and to recommend a course of action to remedy the difficulties faced by the agency in administering its irrigation projects. In an April 1924 letter to Hubert Work, the committee chairman, Thomas E. Campbell, commended the splendid service Mae had provided as secretary. He wrote, "This young lady worked days and nights for six months, had complete charge of all office affairs, including reporting and transcribing verbal testimony, displaying judgment, tact, steadfastness to duty and rare executive ability."

Following passage of the Classification Act of 1923, Mae Schnurr received official notice of her grade, title, and salary in June 1924. She had been promoted again, this time to the post of secretary to the commissioner, who at the time was sixty-six year old Elwood Mead. Over the span of his lengthy career, Mead became a major figure in irrigation development in this country as well as abroad. His technical skills earned him an international reputation as an irrigation engineer. Mead's interests ranged far beyond the technical, however. His primary concern was for the small farmers served by the irrigation projects.(5)

Mead had served on the Fact Finders Committee and his irrigation philosophy permeated the recommendations included in the final report presented to President Calvin Coolidge in the spring of 1924. When David W. Davis resigned as commissioner of Reclamation in March 1924, Mead was a logical replacement. As Reclamation's commissioner from 1924 to 1936, Mead succeeded in tackling many of the operational and financial problems that plagued the agency and setting it on a new course. His last years were spent bringing to fruition the monumental construction of Hoover Dam.

Schnurr's association with Mead lasted up until his death. It is only possible to piece together information from correspondence, personnel documents, and articles in New Reclamation Era,(6) but it is apparent that Mae and Elwood developed a strong professional working relationship based on a tremendous amount of mutual respect. It is also clear that Mead depended on her more and more over time. According to James Kluger, historian and author of Turning on Water with a Shovel: The Career of Elwood Mead, Mead relied greatly on people to assist him and was extremely good at delegating authority. He would not tolerate incompetence and, in general, was successful in surrounding himself with talented, capable, and loyal individuals. One has to assume that Mae proved herself to be very competent, efficient, and trustworthy, given the ever-increasing amount of responsibility that Mead delegated to her over a span of twelve years. Along with that responsibility, Mead also rewarded Mae with promotions.

A study conducted in 1925 provides compelling data on how difficult advancement for women in federal service continued to be. The investigation found that the highest non-elected positions held by women in Washington, D.C., were either as commissioners of independent executive establishments or as bureau heads within the executive departments.(7) Out of eighty-two such positions, five were occupied by women. Two served as members of commissions (Civil Service and Employee's Compensation Commissions); the other three were chiefs of bureaus that dealt with issues traditionally associated with women. These were the Bureau of Home Economics in the Department of Agriculture, the Children's Bureau, and the Women's Bureau in the Department of Labor. Only one of the female bureau heads, the Chief of the Bureau of Home Economics, had entered the federal government through civil service and attained her position through transfers and promotions. The other high-level posts had been presidential appointees and were limited to arenas involving women's issues.

Mead's willingness to invest so much authority and status in a female employee at a time when this was an exception speaks to his character as well as to Mae's ability. In his recommendation for a salary increase in January 1925, Mead described Schnurr as "an untiring worker, active and efficient to a high degree" with a "cooperative spirit and excellent judgment." He also wrote that "in committee meetings and conferences her experience and suggestions have proven very helpful." It becomes increasingly apparent that although her title was secretary to the commissioner, her duties reflected a higher status.

One of the responsibilities that Mae assumed was associate editor of New Reclamation Era. She first appeared in the journal in the October 1924 issue. A photograph shows her in the midst of a group of men, including Commissioner Elwood Mead, on tour at Arrowrock Dam in Idaho. She is identified as the secretary to the commissioner. The next mention of Mae in New Reclamation Era occurred in February 1926, when she was identified as both secretary of the commissioner and associate editor. She was requesting letters specifying how the Era "may best serve the interests of our project women." This was the beginning of Mae's exploration of the roles, responsibilities, and interests of farm women in a series of articles that spanned the next five years. It is not known whether Mae originated the idea of treating women's issues, but she certainly must be given credit for the extensive coverage that the subject received. Her articles contained all kinds of practical information and helpful suggestions intended to improve the daily lives of farm women, often isolated in remote locations and lacking the modern conveniences of urban dwellers. The broad range of subjects covered included dietary information and recipes, planning gardens and planting shade trees, home decorating, laundry hints, and suggestions for lightening the farm woman's work. Since medical assistance was not readily available to farm women located miles from town, Mae also included articles on proper hygiene and health care. She encouraged "simple changes" such as the installation of water, sewage disposal, light and heating systems to enhance living conditions on the farm, which oftentimes were devoid of even basic plumbing.

Mae also solicited articles from project women and urged them to share their personal experiences with other readers. In her view, the Reclamation projects offered an unusual opportunity for women to band together to improve not just their own home life but the welfare of the entire community. New Reclamation Era provided a perfect communication vehicle for reaching out to farm women and linking them together. She continually recognized women for their important role on the farm. In a July 1926 article she wrote, "Farm work is hard at its best and the woman in the home is the stimulating influence. It is she who creates the comfortable farm home and looks after the health of the family, making possible the successful farm." Clearly, Reclamation projects required not just hard work by men in the fields to thrive but also a healthy and nurturing home environment created by project women. Even though Mae emphasized women in the traditional role of homemaker, she credited their ingenuity and domestic management skills with contributing to the overall economic prosperity of the farm. Mae's articles echoed the ideal small farm agrarian lifestyle that Mead hoped to achieve through the reclamation program.

In addition to writing about women, Mae used her travels as an opportunity to reach out to them. During a visit to Yuma, Arizona and the Pacific Northwest in the spring of 1927 to attend water users' hearings with Mead, Schnurr met with many project women to gain firsthand knowledge of their lifestyle. In the July 1927 New Reclamation Era she wrote, "I could write pages and pages of my observations. Their progressiveness, thriftiness, and initiative are truly worthy of praise. They never seem to tire; there is always time to take part in some additional welfare activity or progressive movement. I never saw such interest as is evidenced in organization work. Arduous tasks have been made easy by labor-saving devices, and as a result the farm women are in a position to give time to matters of interest in the community". In yet another later article (February, 1928) she praised the farm woman: "In many cases the woman has the "lion's" share of farm work. The home, and everything that that term implies is her particular charge....The progressive rural-minded woman on a farm is worth her weight in gold, and she has the satisfaction of feeling she is a real partner in a worthwhile undertaking."

As associate editor of New Reclamation Era, Mae also had a built-in opportunity to promote her own achievements, and she did just that. When traveling with the commissioner or participating in important meetings, Mae informed readers of her activities. We are thus provided a good record of many of Schnurr's endeavors. In June 1926 Mead recommended that Mae Schnurr be named secretary of the Commission on the Equitable Use of the Waters of the Lower Rio Grande. The next month, it was noted in New Reclamation Era that the commission had held a meeting and that Mae Schnurr had been designated secretary.

In November 1927 the secretary of the interior recommended that Mae serve as the official department representative in a study of rural cooperative and farm ownership ventures in Denmark. This new assignment afforded her an exciting opportunity to travel extensively in Europe in the summer of 1928 as part of the delegation. Mae headed up a group of home demonstration agents and home economic seniors from various southern colleges. Their interest focused on Danish home life, which was credited with "the wonderful agricultural advancement of the nation agriculturally." Mae was later praised for contributing greatly to the success of the tour, and recorded her observations in a series of articles in New Reclamation Era.

Also in 1928, Mae served as secretary of the International Water Commission which comprised representatives from Mexico and the United States. The commission was charged to make recommendations to Congress for the equitable distribution of water from the Rio Grande, Colorado, and Tiajuana rivers. In February 1928 Mead and Schnurr traveled to El Paso, Texas, for the first joint meeting of the commission. In her new assignment, Mae's responsibilities far exceeded a secretarial role. She handled all business of the commission; interviewed the press, members of Congress, and others on Water Commission matters; and attended conferences in Washington and elsewhere. Along with Mead, she also testified before committees of Congress on legislation affecting the commission, including justification of the annual budget.(8)

Schnurr's outstanding performance and increasingly complex responsibilities continued to be recognized and appreciated by Mead. In May 1929 he wrote to Secretary of the Interior Wilbur, requesting the creation of a new position in Reclamation's Washington office, that of assistant to the commissioner.(9) Mead explained that if approved, he planned to appoint Mae Schnurr to the post. The job description transmitted with the letter provided a breakdown of Mae's various assignments. Fifty percent of her time was spent reviewing incoming mail or preparing letters for the commissioner's or secretary of the interior's signature on administrative matters or policy issues. The remainder of Mae's time was divided among a variety of tasks. These included conducting field inspection trips and holding meetings with water users; conferring with the press, legislators, and government officials to take care of their requests; functioning as secretary to the International Water Commission; and serving as associate editor of New Reclamation Era. In his justification for the new position, Mead wrote, "Miss Schnurr has demonstrated conclusively her willingness and her ability to assume to a greater and greater extent the functions of an administrative officer, and this has been encouraged by the assignment of duties in the administrative class, thus enabling me to devote more attention to the larger problems of reclamation."

Mead's request was approved, and with her appointment as assistant to the commissioner, Schnurr made headlines. On July 9, 1929, the Washington Star featured Mae in an article about her new position. She was cited as the "first woman to be given so high an administrative post in the Interior Department."

In 1930, further responsibility was bestowed upon Mae. In a February 21 memorandum, Mead designated her acting commissioner until further notice during the absence of the commissioner and assistant commissioner. Once again, Mae broke new ground. In May 1930 an article in New Reclamation Era entitled "Mae Schnurr Acts as Bureau Commissioner," undoubtedly written by the subject, described her ten-day assumption of the title of acting commissioner. "So far as is known, this is the first time in the history of the federal government that a woman has acted as head of a major bureau normally directed by a man. This breaking of the ice of conservative Government practice was followed shortly after by another woman assuming the reins in a similar situation. These are only indications of the increasingly important place that women are assuming in the affairs of government and of their ability to step into executive positions at a moment's notice and keep the wheels moving."

Indeed, these words were written at the threshold of a resurgence of the women's movement in the 1930s. Although it had not died in the previous decade, the activism and unified front that characterized the women's movement prior to passage of the suffrage amendment had waned. With the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and the subsequent creation of a broad range of New Deal programs, many opportunities emerged for women in the federal government. Among the foremost promoters of women in public life was Eleanor Roosevelt. She became the central figure in a group of remarkable women who achieved positions of power and prominence in many of the new government agencies.(10) Although Schnurr does not appear to have been involved in this women's network, she undoubtedly tracked the progress of women in other agencies.

During the early 1930s, Mae served as acting commissioner a number of times. She also officially represented Reclamation at a variety of different functions and meetings. In July 1930, she became the first woman delegate to attend a reclamation session of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers. She gave speeches throughout the country at numerous meetings and on a range of topics.(11) To various business and agriculturally-oriented audiences she delivered addresses on "West Versus East on Federal Reclamation Policy," the "Boulder Canyon Project and Its Effect on Future Development," and "The Importance and Fundamentals of Rural Community Organization". In the latter speech, she summed up the requirements for prosperous farming based on her observation of many Reclamation projects as follows, "To be successful in farming, organization is necessary.... Good farming depends on the combination of willingness to work, education as to the best methods to obtain good results, and sufficient capital to get started. Willingness to work alone does not make a good farmer." In 1933 Schnurr was one of six people appointed to serve on a presidential committee to develop a national policy on taking marginal lands out of cultivation and bringing new lands into cultivation through irrigation.

Mae also continued to be a spokesperson on women's issues. To a group of sorority members at the American Association of University Women's Clubs, she talked about "Opportunities for Women in the Business World and the Attractions of the Federal Service." In addition to all of her other demanding assignments, up until 1932 she continued to write her column on "Project Women" for New Reclamation Era, covering subjects from "equipping a home laundry" to "our government is interested in your welfare" to "keep fit by proper diet." She also continued to write about the importance for rural women to organize and form their own associations.

Upon request, Schnurr contributed articles from time to time beginning in March 1930 for the United States Daily, a Washington, D.C., newspaper that reported government news. Again, she used the opportunity to promote the importance and accomplishments of women on Reclamation projects. In her March 28, 1930, article she wrote, "If it had not been for the teamwork of project women, I can safely say we would have very few successful farmers. Both must possess vision, capacity for hard work and just lots of grit to carry them through disappointments."(12)

A February 27, 1931, article in the Evening Star once again placed Mae in the limelight. Entitled "Knows Land Reclamation, Miss Mae Schnurr is U.S. Expert," the piece describes her as "occupying one of the most important Government positions held by a woman." In the interview, Mae defended the important role of Reclamation and described the Hoover Dam project.

In September 1933 Mead wrote to Secretary of the Interior Ickes requesting that Mae's position be upgraded from assistant to the commissioner to assistant commissioner. This coincided with the dismissal of Porter Dent from that post for attempting to wrest Mead's job from behind his back by circulating letters to project residents extolling his own virtues.(13) Although her title was not changed and Dent's position was not filled, Mae's grade classification and salary were elevated in February, 1934.

That spring Schnurr received yet another responsibility. A Division of Public Relations was created in Reclamation, and Mae was appointed its chief. Her achievements as a woman continued to attract attention and gain recognition in the news. A December 24, 1934, article in the United States News proclaimed that "for the first time in American history, a woman-Miss Mae A. Schnurr-takes temporary control of the vast machinery of the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation" and described Schnurr's frequent and sometimes lengthy stints as acting commissioner.

In 1935 Mead proposed some organizational changes within the Bureau of Reclamation, including an increase in the Washington office staff. As a first step in beefing up headquarters, he recommended to Secretary of the Interior Ickes that the position of assistant commissioner, which had been abolished since 1933, be reestablished. Rather than suggest Schnurr for the position as he had done earlier, Mead proposed filling the post with an engineer, namely John Page, then serving as office engineer on the Boulder Canyon project. He deemed it necessary to have an engineer in this position because he also planned to reassign George Sanford, chief of the engineering division, to be head of operation and maintenance activities. Sanford's new job would require extended absences in the field, leaving a gap in technical expertise in Washington.(14) For Schnurr, Mead requested that she continue to serve as acting commissioner in the absence of both the commissioner and assistant commissioner. He also recommended a promotion within her grade to a level consistent with other division chiefs. "During my many necessary absences from the city, Miss Schnurr is acting Commissioner. This increase in salary is a fair recognition for the additional responsibility and the services rendered thereunder by Miss Schnurr, and is more in line with the other members of the staff."

For the first time, a promotion was denied to Mae Schnurr. In his December 18, 1935, response to Mead, Ickes wrote "I regret that I cannot take favorable action on it at this time. It is evidently based on Miss Schnurr's responsibility as Acting Commissioner. For some time I have felt that the Acting Commissioner should be an engineer, since the Bureau of Reclamation is so largely a technical bureau. This view carries no reflection on Miss Schnurr, whose services have been reported to me most favorably, nor do I mean to infer that a woman might not properly function as Acting Commissioner. It is simply on the principle that for the direction of such a large technical bureau the acting head should have professional qualifications. I have indicated this to you in the past but we have not succeeded in finding the right man for the place although I am hoping that between us if we pursue the matter we can do so." Ickes, who had never favored the Bureau of Reclamation, had become thoroughly disenchanted with Mead, whom he found entirely too independent.

There is no way of knowing if Mead would have continued to lobby for Schnurr's promotion. On January 26, 1936, seventy-eight-year-old Mead died following complications of a stroke. With his death, it appears that Schnurr lost the strong support of a man who had recognized her accomplishments and felt she deserved to be rewarded for them. The July 1936, Reclamation Era featured a speech on the "Life and Work of Dr. Elwood Mead" that Schnurr had presented the previous month at the annual meeting of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers. Schnurr's tremendous admiration for her former boss both as a leader in reclamation and as an admirable human being were evident in her tribute. "I deem it a very great honor and one that I shall ever cherish to stand here in my former chief's place.... If I have in some measure portrayed for you the natural forces that it was my good fortune to observe in the character of Elwood Mead I am content. If I have been able through a somewhat feeble analysis of the characteristics of this man to leave with you the thought that Dr. Mead really was a great man I shall ever cherish the memory of this evening."

With the departure of her mentor, Schnurr's elevated position was no longer secure and was quickly targeted. Following Mead's death, R.F. Walter, chief engineer from Denver, was appointed acting commissioner until John Page assumed the job in April. Mae Schnurr continued as assistant to the commissioner and chief of the Division of Public Relations until the end of July 1937. On July 30 a press release announced the appointment of J. Kennard Cheadle as chief counsel and assistant to the commissioner.

Schnurr's declining fortunes at Reclamation in the late 1930s paralleled those of the women's movement in general. After reaching a high point in 1936, women's involvement in national politics and government declined in the latter half of the decade. This was largely a result of decreased support for the New Deal social welfare programs that had been dominated by women.(15) At the end of the decade, less than five percent of the women in federal employment were in professional, scientific, and technical work or in managerial and administrative occupations. Interestingly, no women were employed as professional engineers. The majority of women were still concentrated in clerical positions.(16)

Stripped of her title as assistant to the commissioner, Schnurr maintained her position as chief of the Division of Public Relations for the next several years. With her reduced status, she was demoted in grade and salary. In 1940 her name was among a list of women provided by the Office of the Secretary of the Interior to the Office of Education for a series of broadcasts on Gallant American Women. No records were found indicating whether she was included in the series.

After July 1941, Schnurr is no longer identified as the chief of the Division of Public Relations in Reclamation Era. At that time, the Public Relations and Information Divisions were consolidated, and Schnurr was recommended to the position of assistant to the chief of information and chief of the Publication Section. Objections to this change were raised by W. Warne, chief of the Division of Information on the basis that Schnurr "is not particularly well equipped to head the publications Section and, in my opinion, should not be second in command of the Information Division."(17) Undoubtedly feeling rejected, Schnurr negotiated a temporary assignment in the secretary of the interior's office, where she had worked eighteen years earlier for a short stint.

One can only surmise that Schnurr's move from Reclamation in response to clearly being "edged out" must have been a disappointment after all the years she had dedicated to the agency. She was able to have her detail in the secretary's office extended several times after her one year there expired and was designated as assistant to the secretary in the Office of the Secretary. It is somewhat ironic that she ended up working for Ickes after he denied Mead's request for her promotion. In August 1943 she formally terminated her lengthy Reclamation career and was officially made Assistant to the Secretary. She remained in that position until October 1944, when she ended her long career in federal service.

During those last few years, Schnurr displayed the same zeal and dedication with which she had proven herself at Reclamation. In fact, her position description reveals that she continued to absorb a great deal of responsibility. She organized and directed the carrying out of important and special projects, performed specially assigned tasks for the head of the department, and often acted as a representative of the secretary of the interior. She was heavily involved in war-related activities. She designed, installed, and had complete responsibility for the war savings bond program for the Department of Interior's 50,000 employees. Mae also chaired various other drives for the department such as the American Red Cross, Community War Fund, and several relief activities.(18)

In September 1944 Ickes wrote to the Personnel Department announcing that the Campaign Office (handling war bonds, Community War Fund, and other drives conducted in the Department of the Interior) would be abolished. At the same, Mae's position of assistant to the secretary, with unique responsibility for handling many of the campaigns, would also be abolished. The action was to be taken in response to the desires of Congress, expressed by members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee.

On September 30, 1944, Ickes wrote a letter to Schnurr expressing his appreciation for all her hard work in the many bond and relief campaigns conducted under her supervision. He also reflected on her long government career and regretted the circumstances that "will take you away from us." "As you leave our official family, I again offer to you my personal appreciation of the splendid service which you have performed consistently, not only in connection with the bond and relief drives but in all of your positions in this Department. Your untiring zeal and efficient service which have been characteristic of your record, I feel sure, will justly reward you in your future endeavors."

The letter was written on Schnurr's last official day of work. Although the effective date of her retirement was June 30, 1945, she used annual leave and leave without pay to depart at the end of September 1944. Her years of service with the Department of the Interior totaled thirty and three months.

Although Schnurr's federal career has long been forgotten, her story deserves to be told. Her rise to prominence from a clerk to acting commissioner of a major federal agency with little more than a high school education is as noteworthy today as it was fifty years ago. To this day, Mae Schnurr remains the only woman to achieve so high a post within the Bureau of Reclamation.(19)


1. Information on early appointments is from Breckinridge, Women in the Twentieth Century, p. 306-307.

2. See Bertha M. Nienburg, Women in the Government Service, U.S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau, Bulletin No. 8. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1920. Even after all the examinations were opened to women, the concept of equal pay for equal work without regard to sex was not established until passage of the Classification Act of March 4, 1923. The law created numerous grades for different types of jobs and attached salaries to those grades. Despite the worthy intention and legal requirement, the principle of equality was certainly not always applied. The majority of women remained in clerical occupations such as typists or stenographers, only a small percentage advanced to managerial or administrative positions. Breckinridge, Women in the Twentieth Century, p. 305.

3.Washington Star, July 9, 1929, no page number. This article was among Mae Schnurr's personnel documents retrieved from the U.S. Office of Personnel Managment, National Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, Missouri. .

4. Bertha M. Nienburg, The Status of Women in the Government Service in 1925, U. S. Department of Labor , Women's Bureau, Bulletin No. 53 (1926) ,p. 6.

5.James Kluger, Turning on Water with a Shovel ( ), p. 159.

6.New Reclamation Era was the journal published by the Bureau of Reclamation. First published as the Reclamation Bulletin in 1905, this magazine was produced nearly monthly up until 1983 with only a few hiatuses. The magazine was intended to promote Reclamation activities and provide all types of useful information to irrigators on Reclamation projects. The magazine went through a number of name changes; from 1924 to 1931 it was known as the New Reclamation Era, thereafter it became simply Reclamation Era.

7. Nienburg, The Status of Women in the Government Service in 1925, p. 7.

8. Classification Sheet. Personnel Classification Sheet for Mae Schnurr. Personnel File.

9. At the time there also existed the position of assistant commissioner of Reclamation which had been created in 1924 and occupied since then by Porter W. Bent.

10. Susan Ware Beyond Suffrage, Women in the New Deal (1981), p. 7.

11. In searching for records pertaining to Mae Schnurr in the National Archives, a box was found containing speeches and lectures within RG115, General Correspondence Files, Entry 7, 1930-45, Box 17, 021.2. Numerous files containing speeches by Reclamation officials such as John Page, Walker Young, George Sanford, and William Warne were found within the box. There is also a separate file with Mae Schnurr's name on it but the file is empty and a note within says "thru 1937, destroyed rept 998".

12. This article along with several other news clippings and correspondence related to Mae Schnurr were found at the National Archives, Rocky Mountain Region, RG 115, General Correspondence Files, 1930-45, Box 64, File 023.10 and Box 30, 021.6.

13. It appears that Porter Dent also attempted to discredit Mae Schnurr and Mead's attempt to elevate her position. In a letter dated December 20, 1933 from Elwood Mead to Mr. Burlew, Adminstrative Assistant to the Secretary, Mead wrote regarding Mr.and Mrs. Porter Dent's appearance before the Civil Service Commission "to make statements reflecting on Miss Schnurr." This letter and other material pertaining to Porter Dent are included in the National Archives, Rocky Mountain Region, RG 115, General Correspondence Files, 1930-45, Box 129, 101.03, re: Organization, 1930-42, confidential files.

14. See letter at the National Archives, Rocky Mountain Region, RG 115, General Correspondence Files, 1930-45, Box 127, 101.03, re: Organization Jan 1, 1933-1935.

15.Susan Ware, Beyond Suffrage, Women in the New Deal, p. 116-117.

16.Rachel Nyswander and Janet Hooks, Employment of Women in the Federal Government 1923 to 1939, Department of Labor, Women's Bureau, Bulletin 182 (1941) p 3-4.

17. Memo from W.E. Warne to the Commissioner of Reclamation dated March 16, 1942. Schnurr personnel files.

18. Limited correspondence relating to Mae's appointment to various fund-raising drives is located at the National Archives, Washington, DC. Two letters were found, both in Record Group 48, one concerning the Navy Relief Society, the other the American Red Cross. See Central Classified Files 1-241, boxes 2890 and 2895.

19. While Mae's long federal career is fairly well documented, little is known of the rest of her life. On December 5, 1944 she married Dan B. Southard, a consulting aeronautical engineer, who died of a heart attack on August 1, 1950 as he and Mae were boarding a plane to leave for a vacation. Mae did not remain idle upon her federal retirement; that same year she went to work for the Robinson Foundation, a medical and scientific research organization located on Wall Street in New York City. . At the time of her husband's death, she was the foundation's vice-president. According to the records of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Mae Southard died on May 16, 1996, on the day of her 100th birthday.

The author wishes to thank Joan Howard of the National Archives-Rocky Mountain Region, James Kluger, and Wendy Pritchard, Personnel Office, Bureau of Reclamation, Denver, for their valuable help in preparing this article.


Last Updated: 8/4/15