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A Brief History of Women’s History Month

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March is National Women’s History Month, a perfect time to celebrate the accomplishments of women business owners today. Most of us know that recent years have seen an increasing number of women starting businesses, and growing them into ever more substantial enterprises. Not surprisingly, there has been a corresponding rise in interest in women-owned firms as customers and suppliers by major corporations as well. And we all know that data from the US Census Bureau, and research by the Center for

Women’s Business Research and others, has given us the numbers we have needed to amplify our voices and draw attention to our accomplishments. For example, most of us can recite these key women’s business ownership trends:

  • There are an estimated 7.7 million majority women-owned businesses in the United States as of 2006, and another 2.7 million jointly-owned firms;
  • These businesses are increasing in number and economic clout at rates greater than the national average; and
  • The diversity of women-owned firms–both the types of businesses being created and the ethnicity of the women creating them–is increasing.


Enriching those impressive trends are the faces of women’s entrepreneurship today. Our community is blessed with some very visible icons of women’s entrepreneurial achievement, who serve as examples of what can be achieved. These business leaders include Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart, women of immense business accomplishment. These two women started their own businesses, have grown them into impressive personal brands and business empires, and are feted annually in Fortune magazine and other business lists as two of the most accomplished businesswomen in America today.

But Women’s History Month is also a good time to learn more about the largely unheralded achievements of the pioneering entrepreneurial women who helped pave the way for our current business successes. After all, Women’s History Month should be a time to take a look back at our entrepreneurial past as well as celebrate our current progress.

Early in our country’s history Mary Katherine Goddard, who grew up in Connecticut, established a family printing business in Providence, Rhode Island with her mother and brother after their father died. They published newspapers, had a bookshop and bindery, and later moved to Philadelphia, then Baltimore. As her brother traveled to start other newspapers, Goddard ran the businesses, later laying claim to the publications and becoming very involved in the politics of the American Revolution. When the Continental Congress met and issued the Declaration of Independence, it was her business that was chosen to print the first copy of the signed document.

In the 1800’s, much of the American West was settled not only by pioneers heading west in Conestoga wagons, but by immigrant and slave labor from across the Pacific Ocean. One of those immigrants was Polly Bemis. Born Lalu Nathoy in China, Bemis was sold into bondage and transported to the Pacific Northwest, where she was purchased by a saloon keeper in Oregon. She overcame those circumstances and became a successful business owner in the late 1800’s, running a boarding house and starting a successful ranch in Idaho.

One of the most famous women entrepreneurs of the early 20th century was Madam CJ Walker, born Sarah Breedlove–the daughter of slaves who came from humble beginnings as a sharecropper to become the Nation’s first African American millionaire through her direct-selling hair-care products business. She managed the entire supply chain, from developing products to training sales people and beauty salon operators and, in so doing, empowered countless other African American women. She also became a very committed and visible philanthropist–establishing educational scholarships at the Tuskegee Institute and becoming a major benefactor of the NAACP.

During this same period, other women were asserting themselves in the fashion and female products businesses as well–such as Carrie Marcus Neiman of Neiman Marcus fame, Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubenstein and Coco Chanel. Women were finally gaining some measure of visibility in the world of business.

Yet, it was not until the late 1970’s that official recognition of women’s role in the country’s history was first seen. It started in 1978 by the Sonoma County, California Commission on the Status of Women, which declared a “Women’s History Week” to coincide with March 8th – International Women’s Day. Three years later, in 1981, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution establishing National Women’s History Week. This was later expanded to the entire month of March in 1987, due to the lobbying efforts of the National Women’s History Project. Every year since then, Congress has issued a resolution and the President has issued a proclamation honoring March as National Women’s History Month.

This year, the theme of Women’s History Month was “Generations of Women Moving History Forward.” So, take a step back from the daily details of running your own businesses to acknowledge–and perhaps even honor–the women who, through their early struggles and hard-won accomplishments, have made it easier for all of us who own and operate our businesses today. And let’s all pledge, shall we, to make it even easier for those who are coming up behind us.

Three other important dates in women’s history:

International Women’s Day, March 8- got its start in the early 1900’s socialism/labor movement to recognize the contributions of women workers. Still celebrated much more abroad than in the US, it gained increased recognition here as a result of women’s equal rights activities in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It is the reason that Women’s History Month is celebrated in March.

Women’s Equality Day, August 26- the date, in 1920, that the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote. In 1971, a joint resolution of Congress was passed to designate this date every year as Women’s Equality Day.

Third Week of October: National Business Women’s Week- established and sponsored by Business and Professional Women/USA and celebrated every year since 1928, the organization uses this occasion to draw attention to the accomplishments of women in business (both business owners and professionals).

Learn More

To learn more about National Women’s History Month, women’s history in the United States, or the accomplishments of the country’s early women entrepreneurs, utilize these available resources. And do you think you already know something about women’s history in the US?

Take a short, 20-question quiz to test your knowledge.

American Women’s History: A Research Guide, a web portal.

See Enterprising Women: 250 Years of American Business,for information about the exhibit that traveled to six US cities in 2002-2005, educational materials available for classroom use, and the book that was published to accompany the exhibit.

By, Julie Weeks.Originally published in the February/March 2006 issue of NAWBOTime, the newsletter of the National Association of Women Business Owners.© 2007 Womenable


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