Wonderful Women Wednesday: Mary E. Massey

Each week, the Archives features a woman who has been a groundbreaker at the Smithsonian, past or present, in a series titled Wonderful Women Wednesday.

From 1967 to 1991, Mary E. Massey broke barriers for women at the Smithsonian by demonstrating her skills in spaces typically reserved only for men. Though Massey arrived at the Smithsonian as an elevator operator, by her retirement, she was the building manager for the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. 

In a column reserved for the Smithsonian Institution Women’s Council in the Torch, Smithsonian’s staff newsletter, Renwick Gallery museum technician Edith T. Martin described Massey’s leadership and legacy. In 1975, she wrote, “Council members believe her record climbing up the career ladder may serve as an inspiration to others at the Institution.”

As the “matron” of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery building, Massey supervised maintenance work, but also did not shy away from physical labor. She jumped right in. She operated equipment to move stones and debris during renovations, oversaw the landscaping, and worked with the exhibits crew to move art into the galleries.

Massey was then transferred to various buildings around the Smithsonian, before she earned her next big promotion as the first woman to be hired as an assistant general foreman position at the Museum of History and Technology, now known as the National Museum of American History. There, she supervised the custodial staff during major special events, including President Nixon’s inaugural ball. 

Massey once again returned to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, where she won the role of general foreman in 1974 and, finally, as the building manager in 1987.

Black and white photograph of Massey.

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