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Virginia Drachman pays tribute to women
pioneers in business
The professional identity of women is a well-worn research path
for Virginia Drachman, the Arthur J. and Lenore Stern Professor
of American History, author of books about the history of American
women lawyers and doctors. Most recently she turned her attention
to business, exploring how race, class, ethnicity, geography,
age and social upheaval infused women’s experiences as
innovators and inventors. She now shares her findings in an
engaging book released this fall, Enterprising Women: 250 Years
of American Business, published by the University of North Carolina
Press in association with the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe
Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. In addition
to simply being a fascinating read about some 40 diverse women
who succeeded despite tremendous odds, the book provides the
foundation for a traveling exhibition that combines the sweep
of women’s entrepreneurial activity in America. From Mary
Katherine Goddard, who published the first printed copies of
the Declaration of Independence, to Ruth Handler, co-founder
of Mattel Toy Co., both book and exhibition are well-deserved
tributes to what women business owners have, and can, achieve.
What prompted you to
take on this project?
I had done work on the history of women doctors and women lawyers,
both projects that focused on women in large, male-dominated
professions. At about the same time I had finished Sisters In
Law on the history of women lawyers, I was invited to be project
historian for “Enterprising Women”: to write the
book and to help define the subject of the exhibition and organize
its themes. The timing was perfect. I was casting about for
a project and I liked the idea of working on something that
would make me part of a team and give me the opportunity to
reach a broad audience.
What difficulties did
One difficulty was the time frame. I had less than three years
to identify the women, do the research and write the book. Normally
I’d take eight to ten years, because when you’re
teaching you rely on your summers and sabbaticals to do research.
So the deadline was daunting. In terms of the project theme,
it was sometimes difficult to find information and objects for
particular women business owners, but that’s the job of
the historian, to be a detective.
During your research,
were you surprised by anything?
I was actually not surprised by much. I have researched accomplished
women before and I have come to expect that women can clear
most of the hurdles that they encounter. I was not surprised
that there were so many women entrepreneurs. Once you start
looking, they come out of the woodwork. I was surprised by some
details; for instance, I didn’t know that the first copy
of the Declaration of Independence was printed by a woman, Katherine
Goddard. I did muse on women who, after the deaths of their
husbands, took over businesses that were totally unrelated to
any of their own interests. Rebecca Lukens all of sudden owns
an iron manufacturing company. On the one hand, it was not atypical
for women to carry on after the husband’s death, but on
the other hand there are certainly businesses that are more
traditional for a woman to undertake than iron manufacturing.
It’s outside of even a broad definition of a woman’s
place. Also in the 19th century, Martha Coston perfected her
dead husband’s designs for pyrotechnic night signals and
sold them to the U.S. Navy and then refined them even more and
patented them under her own name. She made the business her
own. Even up to Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington
Post and owner of the Washington Post Company, you’ll
find widows taking on businesses in which they had no prior
experience. They demonstrate real conviction about taking on
and running a business.
What traits did these
They all understood they had a valued product and they were
very steadfast in their commitment to doing whatever it would
take to succeed. They were hard workers motivated by a good
idea and by profit. They all had to overcome cultural expectations
and legal barriers, and they typically followed one or two strategies
of success. Some women ran businesses that did not fit into
the gendered world of men and, for the most part, these businesses
tended to be inherited. Other women created their own businesses
out of something they were familiar with—the world of
women and the world of domesticity: fashion, hair, cosmetics,
hospitality. They took the world they knew out into the world
at large and marketed it. That doesn’t surprise me. Doctors
and lawyers carved out their own arenas within their professions
in the same way. Women doctors claimed the health of women and
children as their own and thereby gained support from many male
physicians. Similarly, many 19th-century women lawyers left
the publicity and acrimony of the courtroom to men, but claimed
the office, where research, management skills, and negotiation
were called into play, as their rightful professional place.
These are the same skills you develop running a household. For
250 years, women in business have argued that it’s their
traditional responsibility within the home that often makes
them good business owners: they balance a budget, manage myriad
details, negotiate, and keep people happy—all of which
have prepared them for the task of being business owners.
Do you have any favorites?
Katharine Graham—we know so much about her after her wonderful
biography, but there is still so much to know—and Martha
Coston. Both of these women reveal the evolution of women entrepreneurs.
It often takes women years to develop an entrepreneurial identity
and consciousness. You see it in these two women. And in Madame
C. J. Walker in the late 19th century, you see a remarkable
African-American woman who combined business ideals with reforms
and uplift for the women of her race. She skillfully linked
the business of her company with the interests of the black
What role did early adversity
play in the drive to excel?
We shouldn’t think that women of poverty who didn’t
succeed didn’t have the same ambition as women who did.
They may have had enormous ambition but no opportunity. The
women who succeed had opportunity. They figured out how to make
the most of what they had. Hattie Köningeiser grew up in
tenement housing in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and was
a beautiful woman. She was approached by a neighborhood seamstress
to wear her clothes because she would attract the attention
of customers. When business improved, Hattie went into business
with the seamstress. She changed her name to Carnegie, after
Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men in America, eventually
bought out her partner, and went on to have enormous influence
on American fashion. She is a great example of the self-made
woman. Had she been a bit plainer, maybe the opportunity would
not have been there. But it was an opportunity and she had the
confidence to seize it.
Do those opportunities
for business success exist today?
It’s still harder for women than for men to get venture
capital and in the corporate sector women are still limited
by the glass ceiling. But there are a lot of opportunities out
there, certainly more than there were 250 years ago. Legal barriers
are gone: 18th and 19th century women couldn’t own their
own property once they married, in the first half of the 20th
century they couldn’t attend the elite university-affiliated
business schools. These limitations have been overcome. There
are new arenas of opportunity as well, the high-tech industry,
for example, that didn’t exist before. It’s not
a perfect world, but it’s a better world.
What lessons do you think
young women today can learn from these early entrepreneurs?
The past lays the path for the future, absolutely. It’s
important for young women who aspire to careers in business,
medicine, and law to know they have a history, that they are
not creating their own path. These enterprising women provide
role models and show that what’s happening is not brand
new, it’s part of a larger history.