A carry over from my days in the entertainment industry, I still watch the Academy Awards. Sunday night, for the first time in Oscar history, a woman won the award for Best Director and her picture also won for Best Picture. What a way to start Women’s History Month!
Women’s History Month was not always a month long. It started as a single day, March 8th, to honor women around the world, particularly working women. The United Nations began celebrating International Women’s Day on this date in 1975. In 1981 there was a Congressional Resolution proclaiming a “Women’s History Week” and in 1987 Congress expanded the celebration to the entire month.
There are many business firsts for women, some dating back to the 1700s. Mary Katherine Goddard, for example, known for her work as a printer, publisher, bookbinder and bookseller was the first woman to serve as a postmaster (postmistress) in the United States. She was the first to print the Declaration of Independence with all the names of the signers on January 18, 1777. Another, Elizabeth Blackwell, was the first woman to become a doctor. She obtained her medical degree from Geneva Medical College in New York in 1849.
A nice overview of women in business can be found in Incorporating Women: a History of Women & Business in the United States. This book looks at women and business beginning in the preindustrial days (1550).
Statistics from various periods on women in the workforce reflect the changes over time. While preparing for this post, I ran across the Fourth Annual Report of the Commissioner of Labor, 1888: Working Women in Large Cities, published in 1889 and available here at the Library as well as online from Internet Archive. This publication provides an interesting look at the types of work done by women at that time. Data for a wide variety of topics can be found beginning on page 79.
It was interesting to see that the average age of women working in 1888 in all cities, across all industries, was 22 years and 7 months. Also interesting was that the average age of 15 years and 4 months was when women began working. For some industries the average age dipped down to 12 – 13 years of age (cotton yarn mill and pipe foundry are examples).
Statistics for women business ownership at that time eluded me; however you will find some women owned businesses mentioned in the Women, Enterprise & Society: Business Ownership from Harvard Business School.
Women have made great progress! According to the Survey of Business Owners from the U.S. Census Bureau Economic Census, “Women owned 6.5 million nonfarm U.S. businesses in 2002, employing 7.1 million persons and generating $939.5 billion in business revenues.”
The accomplishments of women throughout history are many! These reference guides and other resources highlight these accomplishments:
- The Library of Congress – Women’s History Month
- National Women’s History Project – Founded in 1980 this year marks their 30th Anniversary.
- Harvard University Open Collections Program: Women Working, 1800 – 1930
- Women’s History from Biography.com. Site includes a Women’s History Trivia Quiz (I learned a few things from this!)
- U.S. Census Bureau – Facts for Features
- Harvard Business School: Women, Enterprise & Society
- National Women’s History Museum and the many CyberExhibits
For further reading or research, a catalog search using these subject headings reveals resources available not only for the United States but many other countries:
- Women-owned business enterprises
- Minority business enterprises
- Women –Employment
Stay tuned for part 2 – a look at women in the sciences.