The Smithsonian has never had a woman Secretary, and women have rarely been appointed to higher managerial levels throughout much of its 174-year history. But talented women have stepped up to assume great responsibility at the Smithsonian whenever called upon since the 1850s. Let’s meet some of them.
The first woman to secure a paid position at the Smithsonian was Jane Wadden Turner, who became a library clerk in 1858 after being trained by her brother. Librarian William Wadden Turner delegated cataloguing responsibilities to his sister, and after her brother's early death in 1859, Jane Turner was placed in charge of the library. Of Turner, Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry wrote that she "vindicates by her accuracy and efficiency the propriety of employing her sex in some of the departments of the government." Although Turner continued as the Smithsonian’s librarian during Spencer Baird’s tenure through 1887, third Secretary Samuel P. Langley placed a young man as director of the library, over Turner.
In 1922, Charles Lang Freer’s assistant, Grace Dunham Guest, accompanied the Freer collection from Detroit to the Smithsonian, and was named assistant curator and researcher. John Lodge of Boston was placed in charge of the museum as its curator, but did not move to Washington until after the Gallery opened in 1924. At that point, Lodge advanced to the director position in 1938, and, recognizing how she had managed the move and installation of the collection on her own, he appointed Guest his assistant director. Guest is the earliest museum manager at that level I have found.
Guest did open the door for other women to move up into managerial positions. Helena M. Weiss, museum registrar and administrator, was hired in 1931, as a junior clerk-stenographer in the Office of Correspondence and Documents at the U.S. National Museum (USNM). In 1948, she was appointed chief of that office, a rare management position for a woman, and in 1956, her title was changed to registrar of the USNM. During her tenure, Weiss was responsible for the central filing system of the USNM, and a myriad of administrative duties. When she retired in 1971, Weiss was replaced by seven separate management positions. Ever the over-achiever, she assured me in an oral history interview that she had not contributed much, despite the fact that Secretary S. Dillon Ripley appointed her honorary “Admiral” of the Smithsonian’s Navy of research vessels. She worked quietly, efficiently and effectively.
It was not until the 1960s and Secretary S. Dillon Ripley’s tenure that women began to routinely move into management positions.
This period in Smithsonian history was marked by a few watershed moments when women earned the top spots as directors. When Smithsonian Associates was created in 1966, Lisa Suter Taylor was appointed its first director. She then made another historic stride when she became the first woman director of any Smithsoian museum as head of the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum when it opened in 1968. Another momentous instance came when Mary E. Rice earned the role of the founding director of a marine station in Florida in 1981, now the Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce. Rice became the first woman to direct a science unit when she was appointed to the new remote facility that was part of the Museum of Natural History, transforming it from a small temporary facility to a thriving center integrated into the local community.
At higher administrative levels, former WMATA general manager Carmen Turner was appointed Smithsonian’s Undersecretary in 1990 by Secretary Robert McCormick Adams. After her untimely death, Turner was succeeded by Constance Berry Newman in 1992 and Sheila Burke in 2002. Burke advanced to Deputy Secretary in 2004, and the position is held by Meröe Park today. In 2020, there are women managers across the Institution. As we celebrate the Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary next year as well as the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, it is interesting to note how gender roles have changed at the Smithsonian and celebrate the women who forged the path for women today.
- Lisa Taylor Papers, circa 1968–1991, 1997, Accession 09-068, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- “Dear Sir: Letters to the Smithsonian, 1928-1971,” by Emily Bierman, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- “The Whole Smithsonian Was One Big Family,” by Pamela M. Henson, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- “The Smithsonian Marine Biology Station in Florida,” by Pamela M. Henson, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives