Mary Agnes Chase Collecting Plants, Brazil

The Archives’ Hidden Women

In honor of Women’s History Month, here are the stories of a few of the Smithsonian’s unsung female employees through the centuries.

Smithsonian Institution Building Great Hall Offices

THE BIGGER PICTURE's “Wonderful Women Wednesday” series profiles the female curators, directors, and research scientists who have risen to prominence in their careers at the Smithsonian.

These stories of broken glass ceilings are fascinating, but they barely scratch the surface of the Smithsonian’s female workforce through the centuries. Our collections contain countless more names, including the hundreds scattered throughout Record Unit 158, Curators’ Annual Reports of the United States National Museum. I come across these names frequently, but my research usually hinges on other details.

In honor of Women’s History Month, this post focuses on the women themselves. We’ll revisit the stories of a few of the female employees, long obscured by their gender and position, who have kept the Smithsonian running.

Mary Agnes Chase Collecting Plants, Brazil 1893: Sallie S. Atkinson

J. Elfreth Watkins, Curator of the Section of Transportation and Engineering, devotes most of the 1892-1893 annual report to the upcoming Columbian World Exposition and his preparations on behalf of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company for their exhibit hall. Almost as an afterthought, he mentions the work being done back in Washington, “under the direction of Miss Atkinson,” to replace and redesign the Section’s newly empty exhibit space. With Watkins absent, Atkinson oversaw the renovation of the railroad, telegraph and telephone exhibit cases.

1928: Rowena Radcliffe

In the 1927-1928 Annual Report of the Division of Mollusks, Curator Paul Bartsch airs grievances over his overworked and “decidedly under-manned” staff. He mentions the critical work of a visiting student, Rowena Radcliffe, who contributed her time by labeling and cataloguing new mollusk specimens. During her time with the Division, Radcliffe also compiled a report based on the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries’ exploration of Chesapeake Bay.

1938: Mary B. Slay, E.W. Rosson, and M.E. Dillingham

Ten years later, understaffing was also a concern of the joint Divisions of Textiles and Medicine and the Sections of Wood Technology, Organic Chemistry, Foods, and Agricultural History. Among the 12 employees responsible for the care of 75,000 specimens were three women, scientific aids E.W. Rosson and M.E. Dillingham and W.P.A. worker Mary B. Slay.

Fabrics of the Future Exhibit

Mary B. Slay was a typist and cataloger for the Section of Wood Technology. Beginning in April of 1938, Slay typed up an index to the section’s wood holdings and compiled a forestry literature index for the sectional library. Dillingham, as junior scientific aid in the Division of Textiles, was likewise responsible for cataloging duties—not to mention “the voluminous clerical work of the office.”

Of the three, the most comprehensive duties fell to E.W. Rosson, also employed in the Division of Textiles. Responsible for supervising the office’s cataloging and clerical work, Rosson also assumed a key curatorial role. “She has given much of her time to developing new and rearranging old exhibits of early American textiles and needlecraft,” the 1938-1939 annual report read. Rosson would remain with the Division as senior scientific aid until 1946.

1949: LaVerna M. Pendleton 

Coopers in Paleontology Lab, by Unknown, 1954, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 85-4051.

In August of 1948, LaVerna M. Pendleton was hired by the Division of Invertebrate Paleontology and Paleobotany to begin tackling what Curator G. Arthur Cooper describes as a “terrific accumulated cataloguing backlog.” Pendleton recorded 3,240 entries in the first 10 months of her work, including the Division’s newest accessions, and labeled and numbered 15,000 specimens. “She has courageously attacked the mountainous mass of cataloguing,” Cooper affirms in the 1948-1949 report, “and has made commendable progress in the short year she has been at the Museum.” There are hundreds of names of female employees still to be uncovered in Record Unit 158, Record Unit 158, Curators’ Annual Reports of the United States National Museum. But there is good news on that score: the collection is now being digitized and becoming available online! We invite you to dig into the reports and make discoveries of your own.

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