Women’s History Month is a big deal for us at Media Partners. As a women-owned business, we want to see the triumph of female entrepreneurs and businesswomen everywhere. In honor of this historical month, we are spending the entirety of March posting blogs, articles, motivational posts and information centered around women in business and entrepreneurs.
Women’s History Month had its origins as a national celebration in 1981 to recognize the successful and impactful history of women in business in the United States of America. Congress passed Pub. L. 97-28 which authorized and requested the President to proclaim the week of March 7, 1982, as “Women’s History Week.” Later, in 1987, Congress designated March the month to celebrate Women’s History for the entire country, after being petitioned by the National Women’s History Project.
To show how far women in business have come, here is a historical look provided by National Women’s History Museum’s online exhibit. To see their exhibit visit slideshow.
History of Women in Business
This exhibit defines the term “entrepreneur” to refer to a woman who had an idea for a service or product and started a business of her own. American women have owned businesses as far back as colonial settlements.
Women did not historically use the word “entrepreneur” to describe their businesses until the late 1970s; before that, they called them “sidelines” or part-time projects and understood entrepreneurship to describe what men did.
But looking back, it is clear that the history of women in business ownership deserves a place in the broader history of entrepreneurship; hence the use of the term in this exhibit.
Up through the nineteenth century, women-owned businesses primarily included taverns and alehouses, millinery and retail shops, hotels, and brothels, and were often operated as a way to provide an income for women who found themselves without a breadwinning man. Business, then, was a way for a woman in potentially dire circumstances to provide for herself rather than become a social burden.
From 1900 through 1929, Progressivism, feminism, consumerism and immigration all gave rise to a climate that was not only conducive to women’s entrepreneurship but also highly accepting of them. Like many women’s ventures at this time, their primary markets were typically other women, but New Women entrepreneurs often tinged their businesses with a sense of purpose beyond simple economics.
World War II was an important expansion period for the history of women in business as it brought many women into the workforce, filling jobs so men could go off and fight. That same patriotic fervor also inspired many women to consider starting businesses of their own. The Boston Globe’s “women’s pages,” for example, featured Polly Webster’s column, “War Time Wife”, packed with tips for weathering the hardships of the war years—including how to generate income from home-based businesses.
When World War II ended, women were pushed from wartime jobs for returning soldiers, and many went straight into entrepreneurial women owned businesses of their own.
The Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs and state officials—first in New York and then nationwide—ran workshops for aspiring female entrepreneurs with advice from trailblazers such as Elizabeth Arden and male business leaders. There were advice books and free pamphlets. Reader’s Digest included women entrepreneurs among the winners of its 1946 competition for best business ideas. The press hailed women entrepreneurs for helping to rebuild the economy by increasing the number of women-owned businesses from 600,000 in 1945 to nearly 1 million by 1950.
By the 1950s—the age of celebrated domesticity—the home became the new site of, and justification for, starting a business. Everywhere women turned, they received messages that home and family were their primary roles. But the baby boom and an assortment of new consumer goods—from cars to clothes to appliances—also meant that even middle-class families needed more cash. Women stepped up, often capitalizing on homemaking skills to build businesses. They defined their home-based businesses as part of being a good mother.
By the early 1960s, the changing social and cultural landscape provided new incentives for would-be women business owners. Divorce rates escalated during the 1960s and single mothers struggling to balance child-rearing and their new roles as providers saw in business a possible solution. Women, like beauty maven Mary Kay Ash and advertising executive Mary Wells, started women owned companies of their own as a way to assert their independence in the male world of business.
The Civil Rights and women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s brought a new sense of purpose and a language of rights and empowerment to women entrepreneurs. Nonetheless, the result was a change in the way women understood themselves and their ventures, seeking not just to start businesses but to be seen as equals in the world of enterprise.
Feminists founded businesses along movement principles, such as publishing ventures that would give voice to women’s words and perspectives, including the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, the Feminist Press, and Ms. Magazine. Women entrepreneurs also began to move beyond traditionally female categories and into previously male bastions of technology, metals, and finance.
By the 1980s, the hard work of the previous decades was paying off: women entrepreneurs like Martha Stewart and Vera Bradley…owned 25 percent of all US firms. What’s more, the public and politicians widely acknowledged that women entrepreneurs were a vital component of the nation’s economy. New initiatives, including how-to seminars and government programs, sought to ensure that women had the resources necessary to start and grow their businesses.
In 1988, urged on by the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), Congress passed The Women’s Business Ownership Act, which ended discrimination in lending, eliminated state laws that required married women to have a husband’s signature for all loans and gave women-owned businesses a chance to compete for lucrative government contracts.
This look at the history of women in business shows it’s been a bumpy ride for women entrepreneurs in the 20th and early 21st century: on the upside, their numbers continue to grow, and Key Bank, Goldman Sachs, and other institutions have increasingly launched financing initiatives targeted solely at would-be women entrepreneurs.
Technological innovation ramped up fast as the 1990s became the 2000s. That not only enabled women entrepreneurs to break into technology-based businesses in record numbers but also to use technology to start, run, promote and accelerate all types of companies. With faster and cheaper Internet, cloud and mobile technologies, women can manage a business from anywhere, with far less startup capital.
But small and big, women’s ventures came to comprise 30 percent of all U.S. businesses—many of them today in categories that were once men’s alone. The lesson they teach is the power of possibilities and passion for transforming lives.
The next century promises to be an even brighter chapter for the history of women’s entrepreneurship in business.
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