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11 Brilliant Businesswomen Who Were Way Ahead Of Their Time


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 has 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 helped 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 dominant misogynistic views of the time. Throughout the 1400s, de Pizan would support herself and take a strong stance against prejudiced literary 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.

  2. Eliza Lucas Pinckney.

    Eliza Pinckney was born in the West Indies and largely raised in London, moving to the U.S. as a teen when her father acquired three plantations in Charles Town, S.C. in 1738. When her father had to return to the West Indies due to political conflicts, management of the plantations fell to Eliza. Through seeds sent to her from her father, guidance from the plantations’ slaves (who deserve more than a fair amount of credit for the success of her ventures), and her own interest in botany, Pinckney would develop a method to grow and process indigo. It would soon become one of the biggest cash crops in the province of South Carolina, second only to rice. Her success with indigo led to experiments with flax, hemp, silk, and figs, all of which provided new ways for the colonies to build income and for the plantations of Pinckney’s family to prosper.

  3. Mary Katherine Goddard.

    After moving to Providence, R.I. in 1762, Mary Katherine Goddard would join her mother in working in a printing shop her brother had started. Little did she know, this would spawn a successful career for her, and throughout the 1770s Goddard would run print shops throughout New England. In 1775, she became the first woman to have a paper published under her name and would serve as the chief editor for the Maryland Journal in the early stages of the American Revolution. Goddard wasn’t just printing papers, however. It was her presses that would produce the first printed copies of the Declaration of Independence. Goddard, ever the savvy businesswoman, would later become the first female postmaster and would continue to operate the bookshop (a spin-off of her printing business) until her death at the age of 78.

  4. Mary Dixon Kies.

    This 19th-century businesswoman was the first female recipient of a patent in the United States. In 1809, Kies patented a new method of weaving straw with silk and thread, which proved to be a cost-effective way to make work bonnets. She couldn’t have picked a better time to innovate the hat-making business, as the European conquests of Napoleon had made trade with Europe difficult, bringing more business to American industries. During 1810 alone, the new method brought in more than $500,000 in sales in Massachusetts, or the equivalent of $4.7 million in today’s dollars. Unfortunately, like many businesspeople throughout history, Kies had trouble turning her idea into a profitable business of her own, despite the investment of capital from friends and family members. While she would never become wealthy, she did help set a precedent for other American women, who had previously been unwilling or unable to patent their inventions.

  5. 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.

  6. Nellie Cashman.

    Nellie Cashman’s name should be familiar to anyone with an affinity for tales of the Wild West. Cashman was born in Ireland and immigrated with her family in 1850 after some hard years due to the Irish Potato Famine. Nellie would stake her claim to fame in the mining camps and towns of the West, moving from place to place to establish stores and inns, eventually opening a saloon and boarding house in Dease Lake, a venture that would begin to build her reputation and give her the funds she would need to prospect in other places throughout the West. She would settle in the infamous town of Tombstone, running restaurants and retail businesses that would be her most famous outposts, one of which, a restaurant called Nellie Cashman’s, still stands today. Cashman would never lose her entrepreneurial spirit, nor her desire to hit it rich with gold, becoming famous throughout the U.S. for her businesses, mining expertise, and philanthropy.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. Madam C.J. Walker.

    C.J. Walker is one of the most amazing women on this list, building a vast business empire with little more than sweat equity and a great idea. The daughter of slaves, Walker endured a rough start to life, orphaned at 7 and enduring abuse throughout her teen years until escaping through marriage. While we might take shampoo and showers for granted today, they weren’t the norm at the turn of the 20th century, which resulted in many developing scalp diseases and subsequently losing their hair, including Walker. To combat this problem, Walker would develop a shampoo and ointment which helped improve hair and scalp health, marketing it throughout the South and eventually establishing her own factory in 1910. Walker would become the first self-made female American millionaire and during her life was the wealthiest African-American woman in America, earning her honors in the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the U.S. Business Hall of Fame.

  10. 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 to 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.

  11. Elizabeth Arden (pictured).

    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.

[Photo credit: Wikipedia]


This article was first posted in Online MBA.