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Carving out a successful career in business and entrepreneurship is tough, but for women, rising to the top of their fields is even tougher. Those who do reach this pinnacle often find that they are the only woman in the room. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will feature eight such women in its new display, “The Only One in the Room,” opening Nov. 20. This “New Perspectives” case will be on view in the museum’s business history exhibition, “American Enterprise,” through November 2021.
Spanning three centuries of American history, the display will explore the stories of women who made a mark in their respective industries, including banking, beauty, advertising and manufacturing, and examine the obstacles they faced and the context of the times in which they lived. While illustrating the remarkable achievements of women in business, this display also examines how much work remains to dismantle these obstacles, not only due to gender, but also to race, class and ethnic background.
The display tells each woman’s story with an image and one artifact representing her achievements. These stories are expanded online at and museum visitors can scan a QR code in the gallery to access the information.
List of Women Featured in “The Only One in the Room”
Mary Dell Chilton (b. 1939) (pipet)
Battling sexism in science, Chilton established her own lab at Washington University in St. Louis in 1979, where her pioneering work in genetic engineering led to some of the first genetically modified plants. In 1983, she demonstrated that Agrobacterium could be used to transfer genes from other organism into plants, thus providing an alternative to traditional plant breeding. Chilton then left academia and founded the Biotech Research Center for Ciba-Geigy Corp. She has since received numerous awards and accolades, including the Crop Science Society of America Presidential Award in 2011 and a spot in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2015.
Myrtle “Tillie” Ehrlich Weisberg Lewis (1896–1977) (Sweet’n syrup bottle)
Born into a poor Jewish immigrant family in Brooklyn, New York, Lewis fought hard throughout her life for economic success. She established a cannery that packed plum tomatoes primarily for the Italian American market. She grew the enterprise considerably by developing one of the nation’s first diet-food brands, Tasti-Diet. Not only did Lewis manage and grow her business, she was also a prominent figure in the company’s marketing as she felt she could relate to the concerns of female consumers. Additional video content about Lewis is available on the museum’s YouTube page.
Rebecca Lukens (1794–1854) (Bank of Chester Valley $10 note)
Following the Quaker belief of equality for men and women, Lukens spent much of her childhood learning about her family’s steel business in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, the Brandywine Iron Works and Nail Factory. When Lukens eventually inherited the business in 1825 after the death of her father and husband, the operation was in financial distress. Through her strong leadership, she turned the iron-and-steel business around and made it successful. Staying true to her Quaker principles, Lukens established a balance between fairness and profit and kept the business afloat during a major recession during the Panic of 1837. The displayed Bank of Chester Valley $10 note features an illustration of the inside of Lukens’ family mill.
Lena Richard (1892–1950) (New Orleans Cook Book)
Thirteen years before Julia Child’s TV premier on the French Chef, African American chef Richard hosted her own cooking program on WDSU-TV in New Orleans. Richard, a trained chef, was a pioneer in food TV, but her story has long been overlooked. Richard built a life and culinary career in the Jim Crow South, where she skillfully navigated a racist social and economic landscape to build her career and educate people. Richard shared her life’s work with the nation in her cookbook, New Orleans Cook Book. She also established an international frozen-food company, opened a cooking school and ran several catering businesses and a white tablecloth restaurant. Using her book’s platform, Richard shared with readers the mission of her recently opened cooking school: to better the lives of young African American food-service-industry workers.
Rea Ann Silva (b. 1961) (prototype Beautyblender sponge)
Born to a Mexican family, Los Angeles native Silva enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising to pursue a fashion career. After becoming a single mother, Silva turned her knowledge from working at the makeup counter of a department store into a business. She created the original Beautyblender sponge out of necessity: as one of the first professional makeup artists to work on TV shows in high definition, she needed a tool that would allow her to quickly apply makeup and make it look natural. She turned her innovation into a multimillion-dollar business. The Original Beautyblender has since won 12 Allure Best of Beauty Awards. Silva has become known for her expertise in working with women of color and for developing products for all types of women.
Sara Sunshine (b. 1936) (Clio Award)
Cuban American Sunshine is known as the grande dame of Hispanic advertising. She co-founded the nation’s first Latino ad agency, the Spanish Advertising and Marketing Service, and was part of the first wave of Hispanic advertising executives in the early 1960s. Arguing that ads needed to be uniquely designed for the Hispanic market, she conducted market research by visiting bodegas around New York City and talking to the owners and customers to figure out shopping trends. Sunshine and her company received the first Clio Award given to a Latino-owned agency in 1987.
Lillian Vernon (1927–2015) (purse)
Vernon and her family immigrated to the U.S. from Germany after escaping the Nazi regime of the 1930s. Vernon inherited her family’s entrepreneurial spirit and adopted the nickname “Queen of Catalogs” as she built one of the nation’s most successful mail-order catalogs. Pregnant with her first child, Vernon searched for a way to stay home and yet augment the family budget. Racking her brains for a product that she could sell from her home, Vernon decided on monogrammed accessories for teenagers and turned her kitchen into a mail-order business. Combining marketing skills, careful production management and risk-taking, Vernon grew her enterprise into a major corporation. Vernon’s company became the first business founded by a woman to be publicly listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Maggie Lena Walker (1864–1934) (Burroughs Number 9 adding machine)
In 1903, Walker did the unimaginable: She created a bank and hired Black women to run it. Living in the segregated South, Walker started St. Luke Penny Savings Bank and dedicated her life to African American advancement. As the only Black woman bank president in the nation, she advocated for Black working women and girls by creating jobs, funding educational institutions and participating in prominent civil rights organizations. Through St. Luke’s, she also founded a newspaper and department store. Later in life, Walker also became an advocate for people with disabilities after suffering from paralysis.
The “Only One in the Room” display is part of the museum’s 2020 celebration of the “Year of the Woman,” which strives to amplify women’s crucial role in history during the centennial celebration of the 19th Amendment. Other recently opened exhibitions include “Girlhood (It’s Complicated)” and “Creating Icons: How We Remember Woman Suffrage,” both part of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative #BecauseOfHerStory. The initiative represents one of the country’s most ambitious efforts to collect, document, display and share the compelling story of women, deepening the understanding of women’s contributions to the nation and the world. It amplifies women’s voices to honor the past, inform the present and inspire the future.
Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History seeks to empower people to create a more just and compassionate future by examining, preserving and sharing the complexity of our past. The museum, located on Constitution Avenue N.W., between 12th and 14th streets, is open Friday through Tuesday between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Admission is free, but reserved timed-entry passes are required. To make reservations, visit si.edu/visit. Follow the museum on social media on Twitter and Instagram @amhistorymuseum and on Facebook at @americanhistory. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.
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