Women in Business
Beatrice Alexander, 1895 - 1990
Historically, American women have faced serious obstacles to participation in business. Until the late-19th century, the law treated them as dependents of men; a wife's earnings become her husband's property, and married women needed their husbands' permission to enter into contracts or issue other legal documents. Even after such laws were overturned, women often lacked access to resources and capital, and deep-seated prejudices against women in public life handicapped the activities of female entrepreneurs.
Despite these barriers, women have always participated in business. During the colonial era, an estimated 10-25% of American women were active in some form of entrepreneurship. In the 19th century, developments in women's education, the women's rights movement, and middle-class female consumerism opened new avenues for female business activity, even as the rise of industrialization and corporate business structures closed others.
Most women participated in business activities out of economic necessity and within a family context. They kept the books, minded the store, or produced goods for sale in family enterprises, or they managed family affairs when husbands, fathers, or brothers were absent. Others started their own businesses, often at home; these businesses were mostly small and were often related to women's traditional roles as wives, mothers, and housekeepers.
Jewish women—especially immigrants—were among the most active female entrepreneurs in the United States in the late-19th and 20th centuries. In Eastern Europe, many women had taken charge of household finances and run family businesses, whether in the absence of male breadwinners or in accordance with a Jewish cultural ideal suggesting wives should support their husbands' scholarly pursuits. This economic role found new expression in the New World, where the small businesses in which women entrepreneurs were concentrated were particularly important to immigrant communities. Beatrice Alexander, Ida Roshethal (founder of Maidenform), Lane Bryant, Estée Lauder, Mary Magnin, and Cary Marcus were among the Jewish women who turned their small enterprises into multimillion-dollar companies.
Today, businesswomen still face serious impediments, lacking equal access to credit and clustered in traditionally "feminine" fields. In 1990, only three women served as CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies. But with female-owned businesses now the fastest-growing entrepreneurial segment of the United States, women's position in the business world may well be changing.
- Angel Kwolek-Folland, Incorporating Women: A History of Women and Business in the United States (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998).
- Angela Howard Zophy, ed., Handbook of American Women's History (New York: Garland Publishing, 1990).
- Dorothy P. Moore and E. Holly Buttner, Women Entrepreneurs: Moving Beyond the Glass Ceiling (London: Sage Publications, 1997).