Enterprising Women 250 Years of American Business
By Virginia G. Drachman
University of North Carolina Press Copyright © 2002 President and Fellows of Harvard College
All right reserved. ISBN: 0807827622
Chapter One Introducing Enterprising Women
Meet Katherine Goddard, publisher of the first signed copy of the Declaration of Independence and owner of a print shop, and Katharine Graham, publisher of the Pentagon Papers and owner of the Washington Post Company; meet Madam C. J. Walker, whose hair-care products brought her from her slave parents' dilapidated cabin to her own Hudson River estate down the road from the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts; meet Lane Bryant, whose maternity fashions freed expectant mothers from the restrictions of confinement while liberating Bryant from the oppression of the New York City sweatshops; and meet Hazel Bishop, whose "kissable" lipstick left an indelible mark on the cosmetics industry while her place in her company disappeared.
These are but a few of the women whose lives unfold in this history of enterprising women in America. Their stories span two hundred and fifty years of American history, from the birth of a new nation to the dawn of the twenty-first century. They are from different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups; they come from every region of the country; their businesses range from iron production to dresspatterns, from pyrotechnics to cosmetics. They are indeed a diverse group, and they mirror the evolution of that diversity in America. Both African American women and Jewish immigrant women were minorities among women entrepreneurs at the end of the nineteenth century and made significant headway in the early decades of the twentieth. Yet, while Jewish women entrepreneurs were part of the mainstream by the middle of the twentieth century, African American women entrepreneurs remained a minority, having lost significant ground due to the Jim Crow laws that redefined race relations for the first half of the twentieth century. Latinas and Asian Americans emerged as new minorities among women business owners in the latter part of the twentieth century.
While the women entrepreneurs featured here are different in many ways, they share several important features. They all believed in the possibilities and opportunities of American capitalism and set out to reap its rewards for themselves. They all owned their business ventures, whether inherited or built from scratch. And they were all successful, at least for a while. They are part of an impressive roster of women entrepreneurs whose ventures have left their mark on two hundred and fifty years of American business and life. But behind them are hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of lesser-known women business owners who have achieved different degrees of success. Measured against the entire community of women business owners, most of the women included here are exceptional. They earned sizable fortunes and widespread public recognition for their day. They take their place among the notable women in American history who made it in the public sphere when measured by men's standards of success.
Yet, a focus on these women reveals much more than the fact of their achievements. It reveals the hard truth that even the most successful women entrepreneurs faced severe restrictions and limitations. Simply put, the stories of these successful women entrepreneurs reveal at once the opportunities and the limits of success for enterprising women. As exceptional as they were, these enterprising women shared much in common with the millions of less successful women business owners in American history. They enjoyed the independence of ownership and understood the simple truth that entrepreneurship, not just a job in the workplace, was the route to economic freedom and independence for women. At the same time, they faced the same challenges-legal and institutional discrimination, cultural restrictions, and the burdens of work and family-that confronted all women entrepreneurs, indeed all women who have strived for a meaningful career beyond the home. From this perspective, the stories of these enterprising women are the stories of America's women.
This history spans the transformation of the nation from an agricultural economy that linked work and family in the eighteenth century; to an industrial economy in the nineteenth century that separated work from family and defined the home as woman's proper place; to the rise of great corporations, modern business institutions, and the modern woman in the early twentieth century; to the rapid expansion of high technology and new opportunities for women at the end of the twentieth century. Women entrepreneurs were present at every stage of this growth and change. They linked the struggle for political independence to the country's economic independence in the eighteenth century; they fused their own quest for political and economic independence, helped the Union war effort, and spearheaded social reform, especially for women and children, in the nineteenth century; drawn by the promise of opportunity, they immigrated to the nation's cities with dreams of economic and social mobility in the early twentieth century; they participated in the creation of a consumer culture, building unique businesses for women, children, and families throughout the twentieth century; and they incorporated the values of gender equality, meritocracy, and cultural diversity into their businesses in the late twentieth century.
This consideration of enterprising women reveals a powerful story. It is intended to be neither general history nor one that compares female and male business owners. Instead, it presents women entrepreneurs on their own terms. Of course, enterprising women shared certain fundamental experiences with their male counterparts. What is of interest here, however, is the story of women who understood the value of a good idea, found the capital to finance it, assembled the team to implement it, launched the advertising campaign to market it, and ultimately built a profitable enterprise. It is a story of women who negotiated with suppliers, sellers, and employees, who targeted and cultivated their clientele, who kept up with the latest trends, and who were firmly planted in the world of business and finance. It is a story of women who believed in the power of individualism, ingenuity, and hard work; who were motivated by the promise of economic opportunity and upward mobility; who were willing to take a risk; and who believed that success is possible for anyone with creativity, ambition, courage, and commitment. It is a story of the possibilities and the limits of the American dream. It is America's story.
Still, enterprising women shared experiences that distinguished them from their male counterparts. For one, sexual discrimination was a persistent theme in their history. Even as they embraced the belief in equality of opportunity, they encountered obstacles that restricted their chances for success. Eighteenth-century women had no legal right to own property; nineteenth-century women could not vote; early-twentieth-century women were excluded from elite business schools and large corporations that redefined modern business; women in the last quarter of the century were unwelcome at bars or on golf courses, the venues where businessmen socialized, networked, and often arranged big deals; and women today receive little venture capital and continue to collide with the glass ceiling.
Second, a history of enterprising women is a story of family ties, marriage, and motherhood. For women entrepreneurs, public and private life has always been inextricably linked; business ventures occurred in relationship to, not independent of, roles as daughters, wives, widows, and mothers. Sometimes daughters got their start from supportive parents. Sometimes daughters left the shelter of the family and found new opportunities in marriage. Marriage shaped the lives of most. It made business easier for some, like Myra Bradwell and Ida Rosenthal, who started ventures with their husbands; it intruded on others, like Madam C. J. Walker and Elizabeth Arden, who divorced their husbands and continued their businesses. And it shielded others, like Rebecca Lukens and Katharine Graham, within the circle of domesticity until widowhood thrust them into ownership of their husbands' businesses. And for the few who remained single, like Katherine Goddard, business was still tightly tied to their position in the family as daughter and sister.
Third, the persistence of traditional ideas about femininity and woman's proper place forces the woman entrepreneur to straddle two worlds. As a woman, her "place" was at home, as caretaker of the family. But as an entrepreneur, she belonged outside the home, the builder of a business. As a woman, she was dependent upon her husband for financial security; as an entrepreneur she stood on her own. As a woman, she had to protect her family's emotional needs; as an entrepreneur she had to be rational and ready to take risks. As a woman she had to be nurturing and self-sacrificing, placing the needs of others before her own; as an entrepreneur, she had to be independent and acquisitive, seeking profits for herself.
These conflicting roles created a unique and enduring dilemma: how to be at once a woman and an entrepreneur. Sometimes women entrepreneurs took a unique interest in the welfare of their employees. But not always. Bradwell rejected the collective demands of her printers, as did Graham a century later. This did not mean that they were insensitive, dispassionate women, but it did make them successful businesspeople. Ultimately, the same gender roles that supposedly made a woman unfit for a life of competition and capital actually prepared her for a life in business. Over the generations, women long understood that their duties in the home-that is, keeping detailed account books, balancing the family budget, negotiating conflict, and managing myriad household tasks-provided them with excellent training for business. Paradoxically, femininity and domesticity have simultaneously excluded and prepared women for entrepreneurship.
Despite the challenges they faced, women entrepreneurs often made it in the competitive world of business. Some succeeded in typically male arenas of enterprise. In doing so, they contributed to major historic developments of their day. Rebecca Luken's iron mill produced steel for ships and trains during the transportation revolution in the early nineteenth century; Martha Coston's pyrotechnics firm produced maritime technology that was indispensable to the Union navy during the Civil War; Olive Beech's aircraft company built military airplanes for World War II and the Korean War. What connects these women of different eras and diverse industries is an accident of their private lives: widowhood transformed them from wives to entrepreneurs. They were not alone. Rose Knox artfully managed her husband's gelatin business after he died, while Marjorie Merriweather Post inherited her father's Postum Cereal Company and expanded it into General Foods Corporation. Their access to business uncovers a pattern: women who owned traditionally male businesses often inherited rather than initiated their enterprises, at least until the turn of the twenty-first century.
Throughout American history, women entrepreneurs were excluded from the nation's largest and most powerful industries, such as oil, steel, railroads, and automobiles. When women launched enterprises, on their own or with a husband, they typically created businesses geared specifically to women. It was a successful and familiar strategy for women who sought to enter male-dominated careers. Women doctors carved out professional space by claiming the health of women and children as their "womanly responsibility"; women lawyers rejected the acrimony and publicity of the courtroom but claimed office work, with its reliance on the housewifery skills of organization, detail, and compromise, as their province. Similarly, women entrepreneurs capitalized on their understanding of women's needs and desires and carved out a niche that reached the hearts and pocketbooks of the female consumer. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Ellen Demorest sold paper dress patterns just as the sewing machine became an indispensable item in middle-class homes, while Lydia Pinkham sold herbal medicines that promised women relief from gynecological ailments that contemporary doctors could not provide.
In the twentieth century, this female niche exploded into a separate and thriving area of women's business as fashion and beauty became important consumer industries. Ida Rosenthal sold bras that promised women comfort and health, and Hattie Carnegie sold elegant suits and dresses to fashionable women willing to pay a high price for high fashion. Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein created cosmetic companies that turned women's beauty into big business. Meanwhile, African American entrepreneurs like Madam C. J. Walker, Sara Spencer Washington, and Annie Turnbo Malone carved out a corner of women's business, selling specially concocted hair and beauty products to women of their race. Other women entrepreneurs, including Isabella Greenway and Jennie Grosinger, established resorts that sold leisure to couples and families. Together, these enterprising women reveal that women were not simply consumers in the new consumer and leisure economy of the twentieth century; rather, they took their place alongside men and played an important role in the creation of that economy.
Enterprising women cultivated and expanded the separate sphere of women's consumer business throughout the twentieth century. Some took women's passion for beauty in new business directions: Patricia Stevens started modeling agencies and schools; Jean Nidetch succeeded with Weight Watchers. Other found inspiration in their kitchens and created popular food companies, like Joyce Chen's Chinese restaurants and foods and Margaret Rudkin's Pepperidge Farms bakeries. Lillian Vernon sat at her kitchen table and began a mail-order catalogue business that catered to women's desire to shop at home. Martha Stewart moved well beyond the confines of the kitchen to claim every corner of the home as her domain and made a fortune transforming domesticity into a thriving and lucrative lifestyle industry. Similarly, Oprah Winfrey took women's entrepreneurs' long-held commitment to social reform and self-improvement to new heights, marketing her television show, magazine, and book club to an audience in search of a better world and a better self. Perched at the absolute pinnacle of entrepreneurial success, and know to all simply as Martha and Oprah, they are beacons for women's businesses, proof that enterprising women are here to stay.
Back in the 1920s when President Calvin Coolidge declared that "the chief business of the American people is business," he was not thinking about women.
Excerpted from Enterprising Women by Virginia G. Drachman Copyright © 2002 by President and Fellows of Harvard College
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.