Throughout history, women have cracked glass ceilings and climbed over legal, societal and financial barriers to shape the ever-evolving American business culture. Even during our nation’s infancy — when females were not permitted to own land, sign contracts, run for office or vote — women contributed significantly to big business. Some contributions were made in secret, others in bold defiance of prevailing restrictions.
When wars raged and markets crashed, industrious women ran agriculture, textile and steel conglomerates. When poverty spread and discrimination ruled, passionate women organized change, created nonprofits and owned media outlets. When old rules bent until they snapped and newer, unspoken rules took hold, brave women forged their own paths and redefined success.
As a tribute to the mothers of American business, here is a mere snapshot: 10 remarkable women who changed history through their insights, leadership, inventions and ingenuity.
Eliza Lucas Pinckney
At 16 years old, Eliza Lucas Pinckney unintentionally became a businesswoman. After the death of her mother, Eliza ran her family’s three South Carolina plantations and cared for her younger siblings while her father, a British military officer, was stationed in the Caribbean.
Eliza’s love for botany and her keen awareness of growing trends in the textile industry led her to experimentally plant indigo seeds that her father had sent from Antiqua. Failure struck twice before Eliza managed to raise a crop that produced 17 pounds of indigo, which eventually was exported to England. The crop’s success helped boost her business and South Carolina’s economy. Because of Eliza’s business prowess, indigo became the second-largest crop in the state — South Carolina exported 134,000 pounds of indigo in 1748 — until the rise of cotton.
In 1744, Eliza married politician Charles Pinckney. The couple had three sons and one daughter. Eliza raised her family, kept her agricultural business and even found time to spy for the Colonial army during the Revolutionary War. Remembering her contributions to her country, President George Washington asked to be a pallbearer at Eliza’s funeral.
Mary Katherine Goddard
Mary Katherine Goddard got her start in publishing by working at her brother’s print shop alongside her mother. Mary Katherine was responsible for publishing the weekly Providence Gazette until she moved to Philadelphia to manage her brother’s other printing office. In the city of brotherly love, Mary Katherine managed a large printing shop and the publication of the Pennsylvania Chronicle. In 1774, her brother’s printing business took her to yet another city — Baltimore.
Technically, the printing business belonged to her brother, but Mary Katherine ran every aspect of the company, including Baltimore’s first newspaper, The Maryland Journal. A year later, she was officially named publisher of the newspaper.
The family printing business flourished under Mary Katherine’s sensible leadership. As a newspaper editor, she remained impartial and fair. As a printer, she managed monumental projects, such as the first printed copy of the Declaration of Independence, and was the only printer in the city during the Revolutionary War. In 1789, Goddard became the first woman in America to open a bookstore.
In addition to her roles as a publisher, printer and businesswoman, Mary Katherine served in the prestigious position of postmaster of Baltimore for 14 years. She would have served longer had she not been forced to resign over her gender. Since more traveling responsibilities were being added to the job description, government officials believed that the position would be more than a woman could handle. In protest of the discriminatory dismissal, more than 200 Baltimore businessmen signed a petition in Mary Katherine’s defense, to no avail.
Rebecca Pennock Lukens
Brandywine Valley, Pa.
Iron and Steel
In 1825, widow Rebecca Pennock Lukens was pregnant with her sixth child when she purchased the remaining interest in her late father’s business, Brandywine Iron & Nail. The business was struggling at the time. Less than 10 years later, it was thriving under her leadership. In 1834, during the transportation revolution, Rebecca’s iron mill was a leader in the production of boiler plates for iron-hulled steamboats and railroads. The company also produced iron bands to make nails, barrels bands and other products. The entrepreneur also opened a store, warehouse and freight agency in 1834.
Lukens successfully steered her company through the national financial crisis known as the “Panic of 1837.” Relying on tried-and-true business principles to stay calm during the tumultuous time, she modernized her mill and refused to slash iron prices.
More than 30 years after her death, Brandywine Iron & Nail became the publicly traded Lukens Iron & Steel. The company remained listed on the New York Stock Exchange until 1998, when it was purchased by Bethlehem Steel. In 1994, Fortune posthumously crowned Lukens “America’s first female CEO of an industrial company” and named her to the National Business Hall of Fame.
Bridget ‘Biddy’ Mason
Born into slavery in Mississippi, Biddy Mason grew up to be a successful real estate developer and human-rights champion. But before she did all that, Biddy successfully sued her owners for her freedom after the family and their slaves moved to the free state of California in the 1850s.
A decade after winning freedom for herself and her three daughters, Biddy became one of the first black women to own land when she purchased commercial property in what is now the heart of downtown Los Angeles for $250. She turned her initial investment into a small real estate empire worth about $300,000 in 1884.
In addition to being the 19th century version of a real estate mogul, Biddy made significant philanthropic contributions to Los Angeles. People in need often lined up outside her home to ask for assistance, and Biddy responded generously. She provided food for the hungry and shelter for the homeless. Along with her son-in-law, Biddy also established the city’s first African-American church.
Jane Addams is best-known for her philanthropic efforts and social activism, which earned her (along with Nicholas Murray Butler) a Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. But it takes more than kindness and good will to create a legacy like that of Jane Addams. The humanitarian channeled business acumen, statistical knowledge, fundraising skills and a healthy dose of tenacity to co-found and manage Hull House, the first settlement house in the U.S.
Hull House began as an educational and cultural community for immigrant women. The facility was staffed with volunteers who taught women and children free classes in literature, sewing, art, music, history, botany and other subjects.
Within just two years of its opening, Hull House expanded, building a campus to include a summer camp, kindergarten classes, an art gallery and studio, two public kitchens, a coffee house, a book bindery, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a cooperative boarding school for girls, a music school, a drama group, a circulating library, a labor museum and an employment bureau.
Catherine Anselm ‘Kate’ Gleason
Kate Gleason got her first taste of business at 11 years old, working for her father at family machine-tool company Gleason Works. She developed an avid interest in mechanical engineering and mechanical arts at both Cornell University and Sibley College of Engraving & Mechanics Institute (now Rochester Institute of Technology) in Rochester, N.Y. Partnering with her father, Gleason helped design a revolutionary machine that efficiently and inexpensively produced beveled gears. The machine caught the attention of Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford who, with seemingly good intentions, referred to the invention as “the most remarkable machine work ever done by a woman.”
Gleason led the sales and finance divisions of the business for more than 10 years and played a vital role in Gleason Works’ success as a leading U.S. producer of gear-cutting machinery. She also initiated and led efforts to expand Gleason’s services internationally. Considering that today the company’s global sales division accounts for more than two-thirds of the business, her foresight was remarkable.
When the president of First National Bank of Rochester resigned to join the military during World War I, Gleason temporarily became the first female president of the bank.
After the war, she invented a new method of pouring concrete — and took on the construction world. Gleason began selling low-cost concrete-box houses in East Rochester that became a model for several future suburban developments.
She also became the first female member at both the American Concrete Institute and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
New York City
Born in Ontario as Florence Nightingale Graham and known to the world as Elizabeth Arden, this savvy businesswoman built an empire on beauty. Using her birth name, she started as a shop assistant after moving to New York City from Ontario. As her skillset broadened, she became a partner in a beauty salon and then opened the first of her world-famous salons in 1909. The Fifth Avenue salon bore her new name, Elizabeth Arden.
Salon ownership wasn’t enough for the bold beautician with a flair for chemistry. Arden designed, developed and manufactured her own beauty products, and in 1914 she incorporated and expanded her business. Arden enjoyed international success after opening a salon in France in 1922.
The franchise known worldwide as the luxurious Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa began in 1934, when the cosmetics queen converted her summer home into the Maine Chance Beauty Spa. There are now Elizabeth Arden spas throughout the U.S., Europe, Australia and South America. Today the name Elizabeth Arden is synonymous with beauty.
Mary Kay Ash
Hot Wells, Tex.
Spirited and driven, Mary Kay Ash reached the pinnacle of sales success via her world-famous, eponymous cosmetics company. Still, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that Mary Kay owed some of her achievements to a lifetime of unfair and unspoken business rules — rules that knocked her down several times during her 25-year career in direct sales.
After being turned down for a promotion more than once — with the positions going to men instead — Ash retired and set out to write an advice book for businesswomen. Instead, the book idea morphed into a business plan that then morphed into Mary Kay Cosmetics.
With $5,000 and the help of her son Richard, the plucky 63-year-old started her new business with the intent to empower women and make their lives more beautiful. Her direct-sales cosmetics company grew from a few ideas crafted at her dining-room table into a multimillion-dollar conglomerate with nearly 2 million independent beauty consultants across the globe.
While Mary Kay Cosmetics wasn’t the first direct-sales company, it remains a leader in the industry and has secured a substantial footing in the world of cosmetics.
Katharine Meyer Graham
When Katharine Meyer Graham succeeded her husband as publisher of The Washington Post and the top executive of Washington Post Company, she became one of the most powerful women in business. But before Graham reached the height of her profession, she gracefully overcame circumstances that would have caused most people — men included — to cry uncle.
Her story began like a fairytale: Graham was the daughter of a multimillionaire. In 1933 her father purchased The Washington Post at a bankruptcy auction. Her mother, a lover of knowledge, art and political activism, worked as a journalist. Graham began working for the Post in the late 1930s and married Harvard Law graduate Philip Graham in 1940. When her father died, he bequeathed the Post to Phillip. But Phillip was plagued by alcoholism and mental-health problems and committed suicide in 1963.
After her husband’s death, Graham gained leadership of the company and the Post. She also chaired the board of directors from 1973 through 1991. Under her remarkable leadership, the Post adopted a higher standard of investigative journalism and changed history by unearthing the Watergate scandal. The Post was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its coverage of Watergate. Graham earned a Pulitzer of her own for her autobiography, Personal History.
Juanita Morris Kreps
Under President Jimmy Carter, Juanita Morris Kreps was the first woman to hold the position of U.S. Secretary of Commerce — only the fourth woman in history to hold a Cabinet position. Fueled by her adolescent experiences during the Great Depression, Kreps studied economics and earned a master’s degree and a doctorate at Duke University.
Kreps tapped into her business expertise and her passion for the advancement of professional women to write the influential 1971 book, Sex in the Marketplace: American Women at Work. She also co-wrote a study called Sex, Age, and Work: The Changing Composition of the Labor Force. In both, Kreps explored the common but often-ignored challenges faced by working women in America. She advocated for flexible work schedules, public preschools and equal pay.
Kreps was highly regarded in the business community and served as a director at the New York Stock Exchange, Eastman Kodak and J.C. Penney. She leveraged that esteem to champion corporate social-responsibility initiatives. Kreps encouraged businesses to make a positive impact on the world by attending to the best interests of minorities, women, the environment and low-income families.