In May 1966, Mary Livingston Ripley, wife of Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, created a “ladies auxiliary,” which eventually became known as the Smithsonian Women’s Committee. Originally named the “Ladies Advisory Committee of the Smithsonian Society of Associates,” their goal was to advise the Associates and raise funds to advance the Smithsonian’s mandate for the increase and diffusion of knowledge, especially through educational activities. Mrs. Ripley was joined by Mrs. Josephine Cooper, wife of SI paleontologist Gustav A. Cooper, and Mrs. Virginia I. Taylor, wife of Frank A. Taylor, the Smithsonian’s Assistant Secretary for Museums.
These were energetic and committed women. Mrs. Ripley often accompanied her husband on his bird collecting expeditions to Southeast Asia, where she collected insects and plants for the National Museum of Natural History. She was also an accomplished gardener, creating the National Orchid Collection and advocating for beautiful gardens across the Smithsonian. Mrs . Cooper assisted her husband with his study of brachiopod fossils, as seen in this tranquil domestic work photo. She was also fluent in Russian and translated scientific articles for many Smithsonian scientists. They were joined by other women interested in helping the Institution and the world such as Mrs. Aileen B. Train, wife of Russell E. Train, vice president of the World Wildlife Fund. Both of the Trains were committed environmentalists. The Train Africana Library Collection was later donated to Smithsonian Libraries. In 1988, the committee also celebrated its founder by funding the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden between the Arts and Industries Building and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
The Women’s Committee is known best today for the Smithsonian Craft Show. It has been held each spring since 1982, first at the Departmental Auditorium and then at the National Building Museum. In recent years, the committee added the Smithsonian Craft 2 Wear Show each fall. In the early years they also held fund-raising dinner dances and other events. For their holiday dinner and dance, the Fénykövi elephant in the rotunda of the Natural History Museum was often brightly dressed for the occasion.
Since its founding, the committee has raised over twelve million dollars for Smithsonian projects across the Institution. The grants provide funding for a variety of Smithsonian units for research and educational programming, including research equipment, school programs, internships, object conservation, a nature trail on Barro Colorado Island in Panama, docent training, and public programs and performances.
The Women’s Committee has donated several collections, notably two separate collections documenting American women’s campaigns for suffrage. As we celebrate the role of women in America, we also celebrate the women who volunteer their time and talents to raise funds for essential projects that allow the Smithsonian to carry our research and reach a broader audience.