“Behind every successful woman is a tribe of other successful women, who have her back.”
Several female entrepreneurs today are so successful that it is easy to assume that high-profile businesswomen in a variety of fields have always been a feature of this economy. Regrettably, it has not always been so. The fact is that achievements of today’s women owe much to the groundwork of earlier generations of female entrepreneurs and workers. Businesswomen have always struggled with unique challenges presented by the society, which have both created opportunities for women’s advancement and limited their growth as professionals.
For many decades, women’s role in business and workforce was determined by the cultural notions about women’s appropriate role in society. ‘The cult of domesticity’ in the early nineteenth century dictated that women’s proper place was at home and that they could best serve the political and social needs by dedicating their energies to the creation of a wholesome and nurturing household. The idea of domesticity in the public arena shaped the perception of what types of jobs were “proper” for women, who needed to work outside their homes and family farms. These factors limited the avenues for women entrepreneurship and dictated that women were suited for few selected occupations more than others.
The Genesis of Change
The nineteenth century witnessed a boom within the textile industry and industrialization and also the development of the national railroad system and the telegraph. These changes brought by the big business, industrialization and urbanization helped to redefine women’s place in the economy. Women began to work outside of the home, mostly as “helpmates” of various types. Some women ventured into management by establishing their own companies, but most of these companies still fell within the purview of woman’s sphere. Dorothy Shaver, in an effort to upgrade women’s fashion, rose to the top of American retailing between the 1920s and the 1950s in the exclusive capacity of the departmental store Lord & Taylor.
During the Progressive Era, although women were propelled into the workforce, little opportunity was provided for the establishment of creative enterprises. Madame C. J. Walker is one such entrepreneur who took advantage of the industrial revolution. She was the initiator of hair care products and needed the creation of the railroad and telegraphs to be able to communicate effectively and establish the network that enabled her in becoming one of the most successful business women of her time.
Revolutionizing the Economy
In 1932, Olive Ann Beech co-founded the Beech Aircraft Company, which supplied the US, military aircrafts during the World War II. As the war progressed, many women entered the workforce to fill the void men had left behind to serve in the military. Some women took these jobs as a patriotic duty, whereas others ventured into establishing their own enterprises. One of them was Pauline Trigere, who started a tailoring business which later on turned into a high-end fashion house. Another such inspirational woman was Estee Lauder who launched a line of beauty products post-war and was the only women featured in the Time magazine’s list of 20 most influential business geniuses of the 20th century.
The “Federation of Business” and “Professional Women’s Club” were sources of inspiration to female entrepreneurs at this time by providing advice and holding workshops with already established entrepreneurs like Elizabeth Arden. In 1940, Khertek Anchimaa-Toka became chairwoman of the Little Khural of the Tuvan People’s Republic, making her the world’s first non-hereditary female head of state. As the 1950s rolled in, women like Estelle Ellis helped magazine publishers and many others in understanding the changing economic roles and personal aspirations of girls and women. A sales executive by the name of Brownie Wise accumulated a personal fortune and made Tupperware into a household name by capitalizing on well-established traditions of women’s social network to create ‘Tupperware Home Parties’. The 1950s also witnessed the first female governor of the American Stock Exchange, Mary Roebling.
Propelling towards Modernization
The 1970s brought about the feminist movement that encouraged equal opportunity. This was also when the divorce rates rose and several women were forced back into the role of being the sole provider. This urged them back into the working world, where they were not well-received. When the recession hit, many of these women were the first ones to be out of work. And once again, the entrepreneurial ventures of women came to the rescue. Mary Kay Ash and Ruth Fertel were a part of this crusade.
In 1972, Katharine Graham became CEO of the Washington Post Company, making her the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. She led the newspaper during its coverage of the Watergate scandal, and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for her memoirs.
The 1980s and 1990s proved to be the time for reaping the benefits of the hard work that women had put in. Martha Stewart and Barbara Bradley were among the top business owners. The public became more receptive and encouraging to women entrepreneurs and started acknowledging and appreciating their valuable contribution to the economy.
Another historic moment for women in business was the appointment of Susan Engeleiter as the lead of the US government’s Small Business Administration in 1989. Throughout the 1990s, the world of female entrepreneurs was focused on propagating networking opportunities and assisting those who were interested in starting their own business. Organizations like ‘Women’s Business Development Centre’ provided financial help and seminars to support upcoming women entrepreneurs.
An Ongoing Struggle
The 1990s brought the advancement in computers and the increasing popularity of the internet gave a much needed boost to women in business. This development allowed them to be more prevalent in the business world and helped showcase their skills. Even though women in business increased in popularity and the availability of technology and support from different organizations encouraged them further, female entrepreneurs are still struggling.
The economic downturn of 2008 further resulted in a troubled condition. However, with the continual attention given to female entrepreneurs and the educational programs provided to women seeking to start out with their own business venture, there is comparatively much more information and help available.
In 2009, Elinor Ostrom became the first and till date the only women to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. 2014 saw the highest-ever number of female Fortune 500 CEOs ever recorded. Women in various areas are willing to support and offer encouragement and advice to moms who seek to provide for their families through their own businesses. Several small groups and organizations are seeking to bring women business owners together to collaborate with each other for the betterment of their business. Moreover, there are several government supported programs available for the female entrepreneurs today.
Businesswomen across the centuries have often adopted a work-oriented view. Business has been a way to make a living and survive. Business has been so essential in women’s lives that some have steadfastly refused to distinguish business from life. Edith Mae Cummings once wrote, “Business is just life and we had life, long before we had business.”