Women at work

Exhibition celebrates the history of female entrepreneurs

"Back in the 1920s, when President Calvin Coolidge declared that 'the chief business of the American people is business,' he was not thinking about women. But women's business has always been part of America's business," says Virginia Drachman.

Drachman, the Arthur Jr. and Lenore Stern Professor of American History, is the historian for a new museum exhibit that celebrates the accomplishments of female entrepreneurs. "Enterprising Women: 250 Years of American Business" will be at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, Mass., through February 2003.

Lydia Pinkham

The exhibition is organized by the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, which is noted for its collection on the history of American women. The exhibit and its national tour are made possible by funding from Ford Motor Co. and AT&T. Additional support is provided by the Cabot Family Charitable Family Trust.

"All of my scholarly life has been devoted to the history of women in male-dominated areas of work," said Drachman. Her previous studies include two books about women lawyers, Sisters in Law: Women Lawyers in Modern American History (Harvard University Press, 1998) and Women Lawyers and the Origins of Professional Identity in America: Letters of the Equity Club, 1887-1890 (University of Michigan Press, 1993), and an earlier book about women doctors, Hospital with a Heart: Women Doctors and the Paradox of Separatism at the New England Hospital, 1862-1969 (Cornell University Press, 1984).

"To me, the connecting thread in my scholarship is the examination of women's experiences in traditionally male professions and careers," she said. As she was completing Sisters in Law, her most recent book on women lawyers, she was invited to be part of the "Enterprising Women" museum project and conducted much of her research for the book and exhibition while she was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute.

A place in history
"The idea was to establish the exhibit, have it open in Lexington and then travel around the country," Drachman said. In March 2003, the exhibit will move to the New-York Historical Society; it will then travel to the Atlanta History Center, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. (where it will be co-sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History), the Los Angeles Public Library and the Detroit Historical Museum.

Drachman's role was to identify the women to include in the exhibit, research their lives and careers and write a book, Enterprising Women: 250 Years of American Business (University of North Carolina Press, 2002), to accompany the museum display. "It's a history of women business owners through the lives of individual women," she said.

The exhibit features approximately 40 women from American history who made significant inroads as business owners, from the country's early days—publisher Mary Katherine Goddard printed the first copy of the Declaration of Independence with the signatures attached—through the end of the 20th century. The exhibit also includes interviews with contemporary businesswomen, such as Oprah Winfrey, but the focus is on women's historical contribution.

Both the exhibit and the book show that "women have always been a part of American business," Drachman said.

Two paths for women
There were traditionally two ways that women became entrepreneurs through most of American history, according to Drachman. Some women built their own businesses; others inherited them.

Virginia Drachman © Mark Morelli

Most, though not all, women who founded their own businesses established enterprises within the sphere of the women's world, marketing products and services to other women, Drachman said. Lydia Pinkham, of Lynn, Mass., turned her herbal recipes for "female complaints" into a thriving patent-medicine business.

Other examples of enterprising women who followed this path include Hattie Carnegie, a Russian-Jewish immigrant from New York's Lower East Side, and Sarah Breedlove Walker, an African-American washerwoman who was among the first generation of blacks born into freedom. Carnegie became a fashion designer, famous for cocktail dresses, formal wear and the "Little Carnegie suit." Walker became known as Madam C.J. Walker and developed a million-dollar business marketing hair products and cosmetics for African-American women.

"Embedded in their story is the way in which women entrepreneurs knew how to market to other women through their shared experience as women," Drachman said. These women fashioned their own "rags-to-riches" stories, revealing that the ideal of the "self-made man" included women.

The second way in which woman became business owners was by inheriting a business. "In many of these cases, women moved into gender-neutral areas," Drachman said. For example, Martha Coston, a 19th-century widow, used her late husband's drawings to develop the Pyrotechnic Night Signal, which helped give naval superiority to the Union military campaign during the Civil War; Rebecca Lukens took over her deceased husband's iron works and became a woman iron manufacturer in the early 19th century; Olive Beech co-founded Beech Aircraft with her husband.

"These women were really going outside of traditional gender roles in the marketplace, taking risks," Drachman said.

Story of the American dream
In her book, Drachman explains that a history of enterprising women "is a story of women who believed in the power of individualism, ingenuity and hard work, who were motivated by the promise of economic opportunity and upward mobility, who were willing to take a risk and who believed that success was possible for anyone with creativity, ambition, courage and commitment. It is a story of possibilities and the limits of the American dream. It is America's story."

Enormous social, political and economic changes in the 1960s and 1970s altered the picture for American businesswomen. In 1970, women accounted for seven percent of all business owners. By 1999, that number had increased to 38 percent, with $3.6 trillion in annual sales.

"Women today find it easier to move into business," Drachman said. But some of the challenges faced by the earlier entrepreneurs—such as access to venture capital and balancing family and career—still persist, she said.

The exhibit will be at the National Heritage Museum, 22 Marrett Road, Lexington (corner Route 2A and Massachusetts Avenue) until February 23, 2003. Hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission and parking are free. For more information, call the museum at (781) 861-6559 or visit www.enterprisingwomenexhibit.org