Boss Lady: How Three Women Entrepreneurs Built Successful Big Businesses in the Mid-Twentieth Century

Boss Lady: How Three Women Entrepreneurs Built Successful Big Businesses in the Mid-Twentieth Century

Boss Lady: How Three Women Entrepreneurs Built Successful Big Businesses in the Mid-Twentieth Century

Boss Lady: How Three Women Entrepreneurs Built Successful Big Businesses in the Mid-Twentieth Century

Synopsis

Too often, depictions of women's rise in corporate America leave out the first generation of breakthrough women entrepreneurs. Here, Edith Sparks restores the careers of three pioneering businesswomen--Tillie Lewis (founder of Flotill Products), Olive Ann Beech (cofounder of Beech Aircraft), and Margaret Rudkin (founder of Pepperidge Farm)--who started their own manufacturing companies in the 1930s, sold them to major corporations in the 1960s and 1970s, and became members of their corporate boards. These leaders began their ascent to the highest echelons of the business world before women had widespread access to higher education and before there were federal programs to incentivize women entrepreneurs or laws to prohibit credit discrimination. In telling their stories, Sparks demonstrates how these women at once rejected cultural prescriptions and manipulated them to their advantage, leveraged familial connections, and seized government opportunities, all while advocating for themselves in business environments that were not designed for women, let alone for women leaders.

By contextualizing the careers of these hugely successful yet largely forgotten entrepreneurs, Sparks adds a vital dimension to the history of twentieth-century corporate America and provides a powerful lesson on what it took for women to succeed in this male-dominated business world.

Excerpt

On 8 August 1959, the Saturday Evening Post published a sensationalized article about the female chief executive of Beech Aircraft titled “Danger: Boss Lady at Work.” in it, the “Boss Lady,” Olive Ann Beech, was caricatured as autocratic and austere, insecure yet self-righteous, and the author warned readers—as the title suggested—to beware. Reportedly, more than one businessman had declared, “I’m scared of that woman!” But according to the article, Beech herself was undaunted. “I never concerned myself with what people thought of me,” she stated. “If I had, I’d have been pretty mousy.”

The idea that a “boss lady” at work was dangerous tells us a great deal about the historical context in which female business executives led and the obstacles they faced in the mid-twentieth century. Alarms about a crisis in American masculinity were de rigueur in popular magazines in the 1950s, and social commentators were quick to connect the problem to women. One result was a pronounced current in American popular culture of the 1950s that endeavored to prop up men at the expense of women and to demonize women who in their success appeared to embody an assault on men. From this viewpoint, women who played a dominant role in American business were dangerous.

The remaining content of the 8 August 1959 issue of the magazine helped to emphasize the danger of powerful women by excoriating weakness in men and celebrating it in women. This same Saturday Evening Post featured an article titled “Our Fighting Men Have Gone Soft” by Hanson Baldwin, the longtime military editor at the New York Times, investigating the “harmful effects of leisure and consumption” and their deleterious impact on the fortitude of American military men. and several pages into the magazine was a short story titled “New Girl” about the exploits of female office workers and their pursuit of male professionals as “eligible” marriage partners. It was a tale that portrayed office “girls” as both objects of desire and office schemers with marital ambitions and presented a business world populated with dominant male professionals and dependent female clerical staff who would rather be full-time wives. a professional woman who led men in such . . .

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