Where There Is a Woman There Is Magic

Highlights from the National Portrait Gallery's Collection

Alice Dunbar Nelson (1927) by Laura Wheeler WaringSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery’s collection illuminates the history and cultures of the people of the United States. In particular, it furthers the understanding of women’s contributions in the fields of business, science, education, the arts, sports, politics, and beyond. This selection of portraits seeks to inspire learning and inquiry through the celebration of women, whose stories are often unsung or missing from the written record. The wide-ranging social and political activities of these notable figures speak to the wider struggles and achievements of women over the last 150 years.

Madam C. J. Walker (c. 1914) by Addison N. ScurlockSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Visionaries and Entrepreneurs

 “I got myself a start by giving
myself a start.” – Madam C.J. Walker

Madam C. J. Walker (c. 1914) by Addison N. ScurlockSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Born Sarah Breedlove, Madam C. J. Walker created a line of popular hair care and beauty products that fueled a business empire. In 1905, she began marketing her products and beauty regimen to the Black community. During a troubled period in the history of race relations in America, Walker built a lucrative enterprise that employed thousands in the manufacture and sale of her beauty aids. By the time of her death, she was reputed to be the first female African American millionaire.

Alice Waters (2010) by Dave WoodySmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Chef, author, local food pioneer, and sustainable agriculture advocate Alice Waters has long championed a culinary philosophy centered on the importance of preparing and serving fresh, seasonal, organic products. Since its founding in 1971, her award-winning restaurant, Chez Panisse, has been dedicated to challenging and changing the way that people think about food. The success of Waters’s farm-to-table campaign can be measured in part by the exponential increase in the number of restaurants, farmers’ markets, and mainstream grocery stores that now feature locally grown produce.

Waters has also been the driving force behind the Edible Schoolyard Project, whose goal is to transform children’s health by involving them in all aspects of the food cycle—from cultivation to consumption.

This photograph of Waters was taken in the Edible Schoolyard garden that she established in Berkeley, California, in 1995.

Indra Nooyi (2019) by Jon R. FriedmanSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Indra Nooyi is an internationally recognized business executive who served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo for over a decade. During her tenure (2006–18) PepsiCo was guided by “Performance with Purpose,” a philosophy focused on consumers, employees, the communities PepsiCo serves, and the planet. Under her leadership, the company transformed its portfolio by reducing the sugar, fat, and salt content of its products. She emphasized diversity and inclusion while spearheading the creation of programs to facilitate work-life balance for employees.

Sylvia Beach, Myrsine Moschos and Lucky (c. 1924) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Bookstore owner and publisher Sylvia Beach had a passion for French literature. While living in Paris, she established Shakespeare and Company, a combination bookstore and lending library that specialized in collecting English and American books. When it opened in 1919, the enterprise drew a mostly French clientele. By the early 1920s, it had become a major gathering place for the English and American writers who flocked to Paris after World War I.

As a publisher, Beach made her most notable contribution by printing James Joyce’s groundbreaking novel Ulysses (1922). In an act of resistance, Beach closed the bookstore when Germany occupied Paris during World War II. In this photograph, Beach (left) stands outside of her famous bookstore with her assistant, Myrsine Moschos (center).

Grace Murray Hopper (1978 (printed 2014)) by Lynn GilbertSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Scientists and Stargazers

“I have insatiable curiosity. It’s solving problems. Every time you solve a problem, another one shows up immediately behind it. That’s the challenge . . . . it’s always new and different.”  – Grace Murray Hopper

Grace Murray Hopper (1978 (printed 2014)) by Lynn GilbertSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Grace Murray Hopper is an important figure in the creation of modern computer science. She entered the Navy Reserve during World War II and joined the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University, where she helped program the Mark I, a significant precursor to the modern computer. In 1952, she led the team that created the first compiler, software that helps make computer programming more efficient and accessible. In this portrait, Hopper, who rose to the rank of rear admiral, stands in her office at the Pentagon in front of a 16-bit minicomputer with hard drives and data storage.

Julie Packard (2019) by Hope GangloffSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Julie Packard has dedicated her career to preserving ocean life. In 1984, she helped transform a fishing cannery into the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium in Northern California. The aquarium now draws millions of visitors each year and Packard continues to work as executive director. She also chairs the board of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, which, in her words, aims to give “voice to the ocean, [to] have people realize our lives truly depend on the future of the sea.”

Annie Jump Cannon (c. 1930) by Eleanor ConnellSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

As a young adult, Annie Jump Cannon experienced profound hearing loss after surviving scarlet fever. In 1896, she joined the team of women “computers” at the Harvard College Observatory. Cannon catalogued about using her own classification system, which ultimately became the international standard. Cannon mentored a generation of women scientists at the Observatory and received numerous honors as a pioneer in the field of astronomy.

The Annie Jump Cannon Award, hosted by the American Astronomical Society, is presented annually to an early-career woman in North America for distinguished contributions to astronomy.

Alice Hamilton (1947) by Samuel Johnson WoolfSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Alice Hamilton was a trailblazing physician who campaigned tirelessly for occupational health and safety reform. For twenty-two years, she lived and worked at Hull House, a settlement house in Chicago, where she treated working-class residents for illnesses, such as lead poisoning, and observed how poor working conditions could make people sick.

In 1919, she became the first woman appointed to a faculty position at Harvard Medical School and was one of the few national experts in what was then the emerging field of industrial toxicology, the study of harmful chemicals used by humans in the workplace.

Carmen Herrera (1993) by Alexis Rodríguez-Duarte, in collaboration with Tico TorresSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Artists, Performers, and Movie Stars 

“I never met a straight line I did not like.” – Carmen Herrera 

Anna May Wong in "On The Spot" (1932) by Joseph GrantSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Anna May Wong is the first Chinese American film actress to gain widespread fame, but like many other actors of color, was unable to escape the impact of racism in Hollywood. After her first major role in The Thief of Bagdad (1924), she was relegated to minor parts in movies featuring unsympathetic portrayals of Asian characters. She left Hollywood for Europe in 1928, where she received leading film and stage roles. Back in the United States, she surpassed another milestone and became the first Asian American actor to star in a television series, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (1951).

The Story of the Jubilee Singers (1875) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

In 1871, a student singing group was formed to raise funds for Fisk University, which had been founded in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1865, to educate “young men and women irrespective of color.” Soon to be called the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the acapella group, composed mostly of formerly enslaved people, was met with skepticism at first. Yet it was not long before their tours raised substantial amounts of money.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers appeared at the White House before President Ulysses S. Grant and toured Great Britain, where they performed for Queen Victoria. Ella Sheppard (fourth from the left), helped to compose and arrange the group’s repertoire of spirituals and acted as mentor for the group.

Carmen Herrera (1993) by Alexis Rodríguez-Duarte, in collaboration with Tico TorresSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

A pioneering painter in the field of geometric abstraction, Carmen Herrera’s career has spanned more than eight decades. Having settled permanently in New York City in 1954, she began creating her signature shaped canvases, with crisp lines and bold planes of color. However, prejudices about her gender and Cuban nationality curtailed her mainstream success in the art world and she did not sell her first painting until 2004, when she was eighty-nine. In 2016, Herrera was featured in a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art and her work is now represented in major museum collections.

Maria Tallchief (1956) by Philippe HalsmanSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Born on the Osage reservation in Oklahoma, Maria Tallchief studied with renowned dancer Bronislava Nijinksa after her family moved to Los Angeles. Tallchief, known for her precise footwork and dazzling athleticism, became the first American ballerina to receive international fame. In the 1940s, she performed with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the New York City Ballet. Her legendary performances include leading roles in The Firebird, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker. Tallchief joined the American Ballet Theatre in 1960 and later founded the Chicago City Ballet in 1974.

Althea Gibson (1957) by Boris ChaliapinSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

and Game Changers

“Being champion is all well and good, but you can't eat a crown.” – Althea Gibson

Mildred Didrikson Zaharias (1947) by Harry Warnecke, Robert F Cranston, and Gus SchoenbaechlerSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Perhaps no athlete has excelled at more sports in the first half of the twentieth century than Babe Didrikson. She caught the public’s attention when she won two gold medals during the 1932 Summer Olympic Games in the javelin throw and eighty-meter hurdles. She then became a professional athlete, competing in basketball, baseball, swimming, lacrosse, soccer, handball, fencing, cycling, and ice skating. During this period, she famously declared, “The Babe is here. Who is going to finish second?”

Didrikson started playing golf in 1933, and in 1947 she became the only American woman to win the British amateur crown. She helped found the Ladies Professional Golf Association, which was incorporated in 1950. In professional women’s golf, she won eighty-two tournaments, including fourteen in a row. Named Female Athlete of the Year six times by the Associated Press, Didrikson was a pioneer in women’s sports and remains one of the greatest all-around U.S. athletes.

Althea Gibson (1957) by Boris ChaliapinSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

In 1955, Althea Gibson contemplated retiring from competitive tennis. Had she done so, she would have denied herself her greatest moment. Two years later, she won the women’s singles and doubles titles at the prestigious Wimbledon championships. Within another two months, she had won the U.S. women’s singles crown at Forest Hills, New York. At the time, tennis was not generally a popular sport in African American communities. But after Gibson reached the top ranks, that began to change. As one of her fans later recalled, “everyone went out and bought a new racquet.”

Gertrude Ederle (1925) by Underwood & UnderwoodSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Gertrude Ederle was the first woman to swim across the English Channel. During a time when female athletes were not taken seriously, Ederle proved critics wrong. By 1925, Ederle had set twenty-nine world records in women’s freestyle swimming. On August 6, 1926, she successfully swam across the English Channel. The distance was just twenty-one miles, but the strong, choppy waters made it impossible to swim in a straight line.

When concerned observers asked her if she wanted to come out, she responded, “What for?” In the end, despite the extra miles, Ederle beat the world record by one hour and fifty-nine minutes.

Sheryl Swoopes (2002) by Rick ChapmanSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

As a three-time Women's National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player and Olympic gold medal winner, athlete Sheryl Swoopes led a dazzling career. In 1995, her own signature shoe, the Nike Air Swoopes, was released. She made history in 1997 when she became the first player to sign a contract for the newly formed Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). During her induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Swoopes remarked, “it's important that I continue to be that light that little girls can look at and say, ‘Look at where she came from and look at where she’s been and look at where she’s going.’”

Sarah Winnemucca (1883) by Norval H. BuseySmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Advocates and Revolutionaries

“I have not contended for Democrat, Republican, Protestant, or Baptist . . . . I have worked for freedom, I have labored to give my race a voice in the affairs of
the nation.” – Sarah Winnemucca

Scottsboro Boys and Juanita Jackson Mitchell (1936) by Britton & PattersonSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

This 1936 photograph—featuring eight of the nine Scottsboro Boys with NAACP representatives Juanita Jackson Mitchell (fourth from left), Laura Kellum, and Dr. Ernest W. Taggart—was taken inside the prison where the Scottsboro Boys were being held. Falsely accused of raping two white women aboard a freight train in 1931, the nine African American teenagers were tried in Scottsboro, Alabama, in what became a sensational case that drew national attention.

Juanita Jackson Mitchell became the first national youth director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1935 and subsequently founded the NAACP Youth and College Division. During her tenure as National Youth Director, Mitchell fought racial discrimination in public education and directed several voter registration campaigns that resulted in thousands of new African American voters. She later went on to become the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Maryland Law School, in 1950, and the first to be admitted to the Maryland Bar.

Alice Dunbar Nelson (1927) by Laura Wheeler WaringSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Founded in 1896, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) tackled a range of social and political issues. Members hailed from varied backgrounds and included artist Laura Wheeler Waring and the subject of this painting, the activist, poet, and journalist Alice Dunbar Nelson. This portrait, therefore, represents the friendship between two prominent African American women who came together to combat negative stereotypes and fight for basic rights.

Leonora O'Reilly (1912) by Wallace MorganSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Leonora O’Reilly was an orator, suffragist, and trade union organizer who fought tirelessly for women’s rights in the workplace. O’Reilly left school at a very young age to provide for her family. Her experiences as a factory worker would inspire her to create advocacy groups and support trade unions that fought for safe and fair working conditions for women. A founding member of the Women’s Trade Union League and a leader in the Woman Suffrage Party, she would go on to create the Wage Earners’ League for Woman Suffrage (Wage Earner’s Suffrage League) in New York City in 1911.

Lillian D Wald (1919) by William Valentine SchevillSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

We invite you to explore more untold stories with the Smithsonian Women’s History Initiative. #BecauseOfHerStory

Credits: Story

Sheryl Swoopes by Rick Chapman. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the artist and ESPN. © Rick Chapman

Gracy Murry Hopper by Lynn Gilbert. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. © 2016, Lynn Gilbert

Julie Packard by Hope Gangloff. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; funded by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Board of Trustees. © Hope Gangloff

Carmen Herrera by Alexis Rodríguez-Duarte, in collaboration with Tico Torres. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquisition made possible through the Smithsonian Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center. © Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte

Maria Tallchief by Philippe Halsman. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Steve Bello in memory of Jane Halsman Bello
© Philippe Halsman Archive

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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