One of the very first employees of the Smithsonian in 1846 was a night watchman, hired to protect the collections and the public in the Smithsonian Castle. From one night watchman in 1846, the security force has grown through the years. New museums, growing collections, and increasing visitor numbers have added many duties and required a growing security force. By 1964, there were 210 security officers on staff at the Smithsonian , but it took another ten years before women were welcomed into their ranks.
Women first joined the Smithsonian security force on a temporary basis in 1973.
The trial must have gone well, because women were welcomed into the security force as permanent officers in the Office of Protection Services in 1974. That year, twenty-six women were accepted for employment as security officers. Elease Hall was among that group. She transferred from her role as an elevator operator at the National Portrait Gallery. Heading out to the shooting range for training, she was nervous about being the only woman that day. However, she felt mutual respect with her male colleagues when she arrived on the job. Women across the security force must have quickly learned the ropes, because through the summer and fall of 1974, several women were selected as the ‘Outstanding Guard of the Month’ for their companies in the staff newsletter. Chosen by their commanding officers, outstanding officers typically perform their duties with excellence or go above and beyond their assigned duties.
Ida Jean Chase broke another glass ceiling when she was promoted from a security officer to Sergeant at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in the fall of 1980. As a Sergeant, she was responsible for the fifteen security officers assigned to the Hirshhorn. She was just the first of many women who rose through the ranks to leadership positions across the Office of Protection Services.
Many Smithsonian security officers come to the institution from the U.S. Armed Forces. As women have joined the military in greater numbers, they have also followed this path to the Smithsonian’s security force. Women like Anita Montgomery, who left the U.S. Army in 1985 and joined the Smithsonian just a few months later, was one such veteran. The Director of the Office of Protection Services at that time was a retired Colonel and created a similar environment at the Smithsonian, which made for a smooth transition and a clear path for rising through the ranks. As Montgomery rose to become the first woman District Manager, she saw more women move beyond officer positions to roles in technical security and higher in the Office of Protection Services.
Today, the Office of Protection Services is led by its first female Director, Jeanne O’Toole. Coming to the Smithsonian from the U.S. Park Police, she leads the largest unit at the Smithsonian with over 850 employees. While security and safety is always their first priority, the staff of the Office of Protection Services are often the first and most recognizable faces to Smithsonian visitors and the intelligence, creativity, and energy of today’s diverse security force put the Smithsonian’s best foot forward.
- First Female Guard Supervisor at SI, The Torch, September 1980, page 4
- Smithsonian Institution, Office of Public Affairs, The Torch, 1955-1960, 1965-1988, Record Unit 371, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Women Join SI Guard Force Permanently, The Torch, September 1980, page 4
- "Spreading a Little Kindness Here at the Smithsonian," by Emily Niekrasz, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives