Group Portrait of Smithsonian Women's Council. (Front row, from left) Penny Packard, Andrea Brown (SecretaryTreasurer), Mary Quinn (Chairperson), Edith Martin (Assistant Secretary-Treasurer), Dianne Walker, Ann Perper, Karen Hill; (back row, from left) Lisa May, Barbara Newfield, Brenda Coley, Rosemary DeRosa, Claretta Jackson, Sheila Alexander, Teresa Grana, and Catherine Harris (Vice-Chairperson). Members not shown are Susan Cox, Catherine Creek, Brenda Hall, Edith Mayo, and Joanna Scherer (Historian). 1975, by Alfred Harrell, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 371, Image no. 75-14850-05.

Women Carrying out the Work of Change in the 1970s

Wonder Woman 1984 features fictional Smithsonian women in science trying to change the world. Let’s examine how real-life women pushed for change at the Smithsonian in the 1970s and created new opportunities for women at work.

Wonder Woman 1984 features Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman, as a cultural anthropologist working alongside Barbara Minerva, aka Cheetah, a geologist and gemologist, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Amidst all of the flashy scenes around the National Mall and Smithsonian museums, I kept thinking about how women really carried out the work of change at the Smithsonian in the 1970s, and by doing so, forged the world that these fictional characters would have inhabited.

In this blog, I ask: with the gains of the civil rights movement in preceding decades, as well as the ongoing women’s rights movement, how were women fighting for gender equity and opportunity at the Smithsonian in the 1970s?

Truly, the 1960s marked the beginning of a sea change for women in the federal workplace, even though reforms were incomplete. Due to major policy initiatives and legal advancements, such as the 1961 Presidential Commission on the Status of Women and the revision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in 1967 to include “sex” in the forms of discrimination prohibited within the federal government, the Smithsonian needed to comply with a host of new federal equal employment programs and address staff demands for equal rights and opportunity in the workplace. For a broad context of the issues addressed by the Smithsonian’s Office of Equal Opportunity in this period, scroll through a description of their administrative records, here.

In this climate, many women at the Smithsonian advocated for more equity in hiring and career advancement, family-friendly policies, and the end of sexual harassment. And in 1972, Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley formally created the Smithsonian Institution Women’s Council (SIWC) to promote the status of women at the Institution. Smithsonian staff elected women to serve on the council for fixed terms, and representatives participated in committees, attended conferences, and discussed opportunities to promote women’s rights. In one 1972 memo, Smithsonian leadership described the SIWC “as an advisory committee to the Equal Employment Opportunity Director.” Part of the SIWC’s institutional function then was to provide a forum for Smithsonian women to express their interests and concerns, and then the SIWC would “function as a two-way channel” to exchange information between women on staff and the Director of Equal Employment Opportunity, the Director of Personnel, and members of the Secretary’s Executive Committee.  

A group portrait of the members of the 1975 Smithsonian Institution Women's Council.

While the SIWC took on this administrative role, throughout its existence, the council focused on key projects, too. For example, the group formed a committee to establish a childcare center at the Smithsonian. Records about what would eventually become the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center can be found, here. Members also formed committees to advocate for policy changes to improve women’s career advancement. In one instance, the SIWC advocated for an extensive study of the Smithsonian’s Merit Promotion Program and how it helped or hindered women working in clerical and secretarial positions.

Of course, progress was not always smooth. SIWC records show that members often expressed frustration with the pace of change at the Smithsonian. In a 1974 speech, one Smithsonian staffer described the situation this way:

The Women’s Council has accomplished little in improving the general employment picture of women at the Smithsonian. When the Council took office in 1972 about 33% of the work force was female but only 13% of the positions on middle and upper management levels (that is, GS-12 and above) were held by women. Today the work force is about 38% female and only about 17% of management positions are held by women. No woman is on the executive committee that directs the future of the Smithsonian; few are on the professional accomplishment’s committees; and one heads a museum. In fact, only about 12% of all supervisors are female. This means in the Smithsonian where 4 out of 10 employees are female, women have little chance to make policy decisions or direct their own advancement… 

Given the gender imbalance in Smithsonian leadership detailed above, SIWC members knew they faced an up-hill battle to substantively influence Smithsonian policies. In next month’s blog, I’ll expand on how SIWC members approached that challenge.

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