Tufts Magazine logo Tufts seal
The online edition of Tuft's quarterly publication Contents Back Issues Subscribe Contact Us
Professor's Row
Winter 2003 cover
Talk to Us
Send a Letter
Send a Classnote
Update your Records
Related Links
Tufts E-News link
Tufts Journal link
Tufts University link
link to Alumni Office
Tufts Career Network link
Support Tufts
“I have researched accomplished women before and I have come to expect that women can clear most of the hurdles that they encounter. I was not surprised that there were so many women entrepreneurs. Once you start looking, they come out of the woodwork.” (photo by Frank Siteman)
Enterprising Woman
Virginia Drachman pays tribute to women pioneers in business

The professional identity of women is a well-worn research path for Virginia Drachman, the Arthur J. and Lenore Stern Professor of American History, author of books about the history of American women lawyers and doctors. Most recently she turned her attention to business, exploring how race, class, ethnicity, geography, age and social upheaval infused women’s experiences as innovators and inventors. She now shares her findings in an engaging book released this fall, Enterprising Women: 250 Years of American Business, published by the University of North Carolina Press in association with the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. In addition to simply being a fascinating read about some 40 diverse women who succeeded despite tremendous odds, the book provides the foundation for a traveling exhibition that combines the sweep of women’s entrepreneurial activity in America. From Mary Katherine Goddard, who published the first printed copies of the Declaration of Independence, to Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel Toy Co., both book and exhibition are well-deserved tributes to what women business owners have, and can, achieve.

What prompted you to take on this project?
I had done work on the history of women doctors and women lawyers, both projects that focused on women in large, male-dominated professions. At about the same time I had finished Sisters In Law on the history of women lawyers, I was invited to be project historian for “Enterprising Women”: to write the book and to help define the subject of the exhibition and organize its themes. The timing was perfect. I was casting about for a project and I liked the idea of working on something that would make me part of a team and give me the opportunity to reach a broad audience.

What difficulties did you encounter?
One difficulty was the time frame. I had less than three years to identify the women, do the research and write the book. Normally I’d take eight to ten years, because when you’re teaching you rely on your summers and sabbaticals to do research. So the deadline was daunting. In terms of the project theme, it was sometimes difficult to find information and objects for particular women business owners, but that’s the job of the historian, to be a detective.

During your research, were you surprised by anything?
I was actually not surprised by much. I have researched accomplished women before and I have come to expect that women can clear most of the hurdles that they encounter. I was not surprised that there were so many women entrepreneurs. Once you start looking, they come out of the woodwork. I was surprised by some details; for instance, I didn’t know that the first copy of the Declaration of Independence was printed by a woman, Katherine Goddard. I did muse on women who, after the deaths of their husbands, took over businesses that were totally unrelated to any of their own interests. Rebecca Lukens all of sudden owns an iron manufacturing company. On the one hand, it was not atypical for women to carry on after the husband’s death, but on the other hand there are certainly businesses that are more traditional for a woman to undertake than iron manufacturing. It’s outside of even a broad definition of a woman’s place. Also in the 19th century, Martha Coston perfected her dead husband’s designs for pyrotechnic night signals and sold them to the U.S. Navy and then refined them even more and patented them under her own name. She made the business her own. Even up to Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post and owner of the Washington Post Company, you’ll find widows taking on businesses in which they had no prior experience. They demonstrate real conviction about taking on and running a business.

What traits did these women share?
They all understood they had a valued product and they were very steadfast in their commitment to doing whatever it would take to succeed. They were hard workers motivated by a good idea and by profit. They all had to overcome cultural expectations and legal barriers, and they typically followed one or two strategies of success. Some women ran businesses that did not fit into the gendered world of men and, for the most part, these businesses tended to be inherited. Other women created their own businesses out of something they were familiar with—the world of women and the world of domesticity: fashion, hair, cosmetics, hospitality. They took the world they knew out into the world at large and marketed it. That doesn’t surprise me. Doctors and lawyers carved out their own arenas within their professions in the same way. Women doctors claimed the health of women and children as their own and thereby gained support from many male physicians. Similarly, many 19th-century women lawyers left the publicity and acrimony of the courtroom to men, but claimed the office, where research, management skills, and negotiation were called into play, as their rightful professional place. These are the same skills you develop running a household. For 250 years, women in business have argued that it’s their traditional responsibility within the home that often makes them good business owners: they balance a budget, manage myriad details, negotiate, and keep people happy—all of which have prepared them for the task of being business owners.

Do you have any favorites?
Katharine Graham—we know so much about her after her wonderful biography, but there is still so much to know—and Martha Coston. Both of these women reveal the evolution of women entrepreneurs. It often takes women years to develop an entrepreneurial identity and consciousness. You see it in these two women. And in Madame C. J. Walker in the late 19th century, you see a remarkable African-American woman who combined business ideals with reforms and uplift for the women of her race. She skillfully linked the business of her company with the interests of the black community.

What role did early adversity play in the drive to excel?
We shouldn’t think that women of poverty who didn’t succeed didn’t have the same ambition as women who did. They may have had enormous ambition but no opportunity. The women who succeed had opportunity. They figured out how to make the most of what they had. Hattie Köningeiser grew up in tenement housing in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and was a beautiful woman. She was approached by a neighborhood seamstress to wear her clothes because she would attract the attention of customers. When business improved, Hattie went into business with the seamstress. She changed her name to Carnegie, after Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men in America, eventually bought out her partner, and went on to have enormous influence on American fashion. She is a great example of the self-made woman. Had she been a bit plainer, maybe the opportunity would not have been there. But it was an opportunity and she had the confidence to seize it.

Do those opportunities for business success exist today?
It’s still harder for women than for men to get venture capital and in the corporate sector women are still limited by the glass ceiling. But there are a lot of opportunities out there, certainly more than there were 250 years ago. Legal barriers are gone: 18th and 19th century women couldn’t own their own property once they married, in the first half of the 20th century they couldn’t attend the elite university-affiliated business schools. These limitations have been overcome. There are new arenas of opportunity as well, the high-tech industry, for example, that didn’t exist before. It’s not a perfect world, but it’s a better world.

What lessons do you think young women today can learn from these early entrepreneurs?
The past lays the path for the future, absolutely. It’s important for young women who aspire to careers in business, medicine, and law to know they have a history, that they are not creating their own path. These enterprising women provide role models and show that what’s happening is not brand new, it’s part of a larger history.