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Barbara Bryant, the first woman to head the U.S. census, has died at 96

Census Bureau Director Barbara Bryant (center) participates in a press conference about the 1990 census in Denver with the city's mayor, Federico Peña (right), and William Adams, a regional director for the bureau.
Brian Brainerd
The Denver Post via Getty Images
Census Bureau Director Barbara Bryant (center) participates in a press conference about the 1990 census in Denver with the city's mayor, Federico Peña (right), and William Adams, a regional director for the bureau.

Updated March 3, 2023 at 7:27 PM ET

Barbara Everitt Bryant, the first woman to ever head the U.S. census, died on Friday at age 96.

One of her daughters, Linda Bryant Valentine, confirmed to NPR that Bryant died of natural causes surrounded by her family in Ann Arbor, Mich.

A market researcher, Bryant oversaw the 1990 count as an appointee of former President George H.W. Bush's administration.

Her assignment broke two centuries of men leading the national head count that's used to determine political representation, beginning with then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in 1790.

In a blog post published Friday, Robert Santos, the current director of the Census Bureau, called his predecessor "a trailblazer and a champion of quality survey methods."

Bryant, who served as director from 1989 to 1993, was one of only two women who have ever led the bureau.

Martha Farnsworth, who led the agency in the mid-1990s as the second woman to head the bureau, says Bryant was part of a "revolution" beginning in the late 1980s.

"Many women were being appointed into senior managerial positions precisely because they knew how budgets work," Farnsworth says. "That was a time when suddenly, whether nonprofit or governmental, people were looking for accountability."

And Bryant — who, at 44, began a close to four-decade career in survey research after raising three children — was more than prepared by the time she was sworn in as Census Bureau director, the job she considered the pinnacle of her career.

"It was about time they had somebody who was highly qualified and experienced to do a job that is a very difficult job," Farnsworth says about Bryant's appointment to the bureau, adding that Bryant "followed some men who did not fit that description."

Bryant's job at the top of the federal government's largest statistical agency came with packed agendas for touring the country to help promote the census, testifying before Congress to advocate for the bureau, and bearing the brunt of lawsuits that often come after census numbers are released.

"It was a hot seat," says Valentine, one of Bryant's daughters, who remembers how her mother's work came with her on a Christmas visit to Valentine's home back in the days of fax machines.

"My husband talks about going up to our home office one day and the fax machine paper was all over the room because she had been sued by mayors of practically every big city over the undercount, which is a perennial issue in the census," Valentine says.

The issue of undercounting certain populations was particularly alarming to many census watchers after the 1990 census. Results from a follow-up survey by the bureau showed that Asian Americans, Black people, Latinos, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders were all undercounted at rates higher than for white people.

After that head count, Bryant backed a controversial recommendation by career civil servants at the bureau to statistically adjust the census figures, but the secretary of the Commerce Department, which oversees the bureau, ultimately decided against the plan.

Robert Groves, a former bureau director who oversaw the 2010 census and was once neighbors with Bryant in Ann Arbor, said the proposal to adjust the numbers presented Bryant with "a moment where courage was required of the Census Bureau director."

"She listened to the technical staff and the civil servants who have devoted their lives to this and chose to do that despite a lot of political pressure to go the other way," Groves says. "I see that she showed some courage at that point."

Despite all the pressures of the job, Valentine remembers her mother, an avid swimmer who made time for doing laps in the pool, needlepointing Christmas stockings and volunteering, holding onto optimism, seeing "obstacles more as challenges."

"She lived a life that counted — literally and figuratively," Valentine says about her mother. "From a young girl who was good at math to director of the U.S. census where she counted us all, she applied her considerable energy, humor and intelligence to serve the lives of her family, her community and her country."

Edited by Ben Swasey

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.