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Overlooked Entrepreneurs

Overlooked EntrepreneursOften overlooked, women played a major role in shaping the landscape of American business, says a Tufts historian.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [10.10.02] From the first printed copy of the Declaration of Independence, to the invention of the Barbie Doll, to the founding of United Artists, women have played a major - and often overlooked - role in American business. But their stories are now receiving national attention, thanks to a new book and national museum exhibit developed by a Tufts historian.

"'Enterprising Women' brings to life the stories of some 40 women who helped shape the landscape of American business from the colonial era to the present," reported CNN Financial News [CNNfn]. "Among those featured is Katherine Goddard, print shop owner and publisher of the first signed copy of the Declaration of Independence, and Katherine Graham, former publisher of the Washington Post."

Though their contributions were major, many of the female business pioneers featured in "Enterprising Women" were previously unknown to the general public. Tufts history professor Virginia Drachman has been working for 25 years to bring them to light.

"In order to understand American business, we really need to understand women's contribution to American business, that American business is more than large corporations, that behind them are large numbers of small businesses," Drachman told CNNfn. "And among these smaller businesses are hundreds and thousands and millions of women."

They faced a myriad of challenges - including discrimination and restricted legal rights.

"Historically, there have been obstacles, but women have always found ways to create businesses," Drachman -- who has also written extensively on women's contributions to the fields of law and medicine -- said in an interview that appeared in Ladies Home Journal's annual Power Issue.

Their roots date back to the country's founding.

"At a time when women were deemed inferior to men, legally, socially and politically, when the Declaration of Independence itself did not mention the rights of women, [Katherine] Goddard's reputation as a respected publisher and entrepreneur earned her a special place in the history of the new nation," Drachman wrote in her book. "Entrepreneurship, patriotism and gender were inextricably and forever united in 1777 with five simple words at the bottom of the first official copy of the Declaration of Independence: 'Printed by Mary Katherine Goddard.'"

Others were responsible for creating and running some of the country's most successful - and well known - companies.

Olive Ann Beech ran Beech aircraft during World War II. Ruth Handler co-founded Mattel Inc, and invented the Barbie Doll. Mary Pickford co-founded United Artists. And Ellen Gordon turned the Tootsie Roll Company into one of the largest candy companies in the world.

"Gordon, in many ways, reflects a common theme in the exhibit, which is that inheritance plays a big role," Drachman told CNNfn. "There are many women who take over businesses either from their families or from their husbands and are not really initially expecting to do so and then evolve over time into very competent businesswomen."

Others targeted new and untapped markets.

Martha Costa invented a new type of flare that was used by the Navy for rescue missions. Brownie Wise invented home sales, which made Tupperware a household name and made her the first woman ever featured on the cover of BusinessWeek Magazine.

"Being a single mother herself, Wise understood completely the needs of the housewives and mothers to whom she sold Tupperware door-to-door," Drachman wrote in her book. "Wise's Tupperware parties was the ideal marketing innovation for the day, combining community with consumption, entertainment with entrepreneurship."

By compiling their stories for the book and traveling exhibit, which is slated to appear in museums around the country, Drachman hopes to give women credit for their contributions to the country's business growth and success.

"Women have always been a part of the American business," Drachman told CNNfn. "In fact, there' never been a point in American history where women have not been part of American business."

 

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