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Access Type

WSU Access

Date of Award

January 2021

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Tracy Neumann


During the first three decades of the twentieth century, an increase of women in the United States workforce perpetuated a trend at art museums to be more inclusive of women. By 1930, most major art museums had begun to hire women for curatorial jobs and include women on boards of trustees. When industrialist-turned-art-collector Charles Lang Freer gave four of his women friends leadership roles at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art in 1919, it reflected this trend. Using biographical and gendered approaches, this project analyses primary sources including personal and professional correspondence, museum reports, exhibition catalogues, photographs, and paintings, to tell the stories of Freer’s friends Katharine Nash Rhoades, Grace Dunham Guest, Agnes Ernst Meyer, and Louisine Havemeyer. These women took on roles as curators, administrators, and trustees and were instrumental in establishing the Freer Gallery. Yet past scholarship on the Freer Gallery has only credited Freer and other elite men like the museum’s first director, John Ellerton Lodge, with founding the museum. As Rhoades, Guest, Meyer, and Havemeyer seized new opportunities in the arts, they also faced a pattern of exclusion because they were women. When museum work was professionalized during the Progressive Era it resulted in full-time museum employees like Rhoades and Guest being paid less and promoted at a slower rate than their male peers. Women curators and administrators were also encouraged to remain single and childless in order to pursue careers. Meanwhile, the ideology of the separate spheres discouraged married women from working outside the home. This meant that married women like Meyer and Havemeyer were forced to operate on the sidelines as trustees. Rhoades, Guest, Meyer, and Havemeyer’s careers are a window into how museums were reconfigured in the early twentieth century to include women but at the same time limited their power. In this way, their stories provide a historical framework for understanding the imperativeness of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at museums and cultural institutions today.

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