Since the dawn of civilization, women have played a major role in the working world, helping out with farming, toiling away in guild workshops and taking on heavy-duty labor in factories, even as the leading thinkers of the time labeled them as little more than delicate, hysteria-prone housekeepers. In fact, it had only been in the last century, and especially the past few decades, that women have really been able to play an open and independent role in building and leading their own entrepreneurial ventures, with many women today owning, running and establishing major businesses.
While hard work and determination obviously played a major role in getting today's female business leaders to the top, a debt is also owed to the women who pave the way, bravely forging ahead when the odds were stacked heavily against them. Here, we've selected 11 amazing businesswomen who made a living, and in some cases a fortune, through their own ideas and business ventures in times when women were afforded little power, voice or independence of their own.
1. Christine de Pizan: What do you do when you're a medieval woman who's been left widowed and in need of a way to support your three children? If you're Christine de Pizan, you start writing. De Pizan was light-years ahead of her time, both in her chosen profession (she is widely regarded as Europe's first professional woman writer) and in her public repudiation of the domination misogynistic views of the time. Throughout the 1400s, de Pizan would support herself and take a strong stance against prejudiced literacy depictions of women. While she is more of an empowered intellectual than a businesswoman, her ability to make it on her own and establish a career in a time when some women were barely allowed to leave their homes is inspirational in itself, and she may have been history's first recorded working single mother.
3. Lydia Pinkham: Women who needed health advice and home remedies in the late 1800s needed only turn to this businesswoman. Pinkham built her home remedies business into a thriving enterprise, largely through savvy marketing of her products to women. Her most successful product was a menstrual cramp relief tonic called “Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound” which would remain one of the best-known and most widely used patented medicines during the 19th century. It must have been doing something for Pinkham’s devoted customers, as it helped build the fledgling company into a big business. Though the company was purchased by Cooper Laboratories in 1968, a few of Lydia’s products still appear on American shelves today.
4. Sarah E. Goode: While the first woman would patent an invention in 1809, it wasn’t until 1885 that an African-American woman would reach that landmark. Born a slave, Sarah E. Goode moved to Chicago after the Civil War and opened a furniture store with her husband Archibald, a carpenter. Under her management, the store grew to be quite prosperous, but her clients were coming in complaining of a lack of space in their apartments. That led to her invention, a desk that turned into a bed, an ideal innovation for the small-space, tenement living that was a reality for many working-class Chicago residents at the time. This idea would evolve into the Murphy bed that we know today, and while the patent would never make Goode wealthy, it would help keep her and her furniture business quite successful until her death in 1905.
5. Hetty Green: Hetty Green was nicknamed “The Witch of Wall Street,” largely because of her dour taste in fashion but also because she possessed a certain sort of magic when it came to investments. It goes without saying that women weren’t exactly a common sight on Wall Street during the late 19th century, but Green wasn’t shy about making her own investments, following a well thought-out strategy of investment. She would use her inheritance, already a sizable sum, to build a huge fortune, spring-boarded by her early investments in Civil War bonds and later in rail bonds. Of course, her infamous frugality, which some called stinginess, didn’t hurt her in building her fortune, which was estimated at about $200 million ($3.8 billion in today’s dollars) at the time of her death.
6. Maggie L. Walker: African-American teacher and businesswoman Maggie Walker was a pretty amazing woman, both in business and in the community. As early as 14, Walker was already a leading member of the Independent Order of St. Luke, a humanitarian organization. It was there that she would start her career in earnest, establishing a newspaper for the group and chartering a bank, for which she served as the first president (the first woman to hold a charter and run a bank in the U.S.). When the bank merged with two other area banks, becoming The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, she would stay on to serve on the board of directors until her death in 1934.
7. Elizabeth Arden: It was always Elizabeth Arden’s (born Florence Nightingale Graham) dream to build a cosmetics business, and that’s just what she did. Arriving in New York at age 30, the enterprising Arden worked with a chemist to develop a beauty cream, something that surprisingly didn’t exist in the early 1900s and would prove to be quite a success for Arden. The company still sells a wide variety of creams today, though business has expanded to include fragrances and makeup. She was the first to introduce eye makeup and makeovers in her salons and helped to make cosmetics acceptable for all women to wear, not just performers. Arden passed away in 1966, but her business still thrives today, bringing in just over a billion dollars in 2009.
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