I was recently recognized by the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal as one of 10 honorees for its Women in Business awards. The recognition and the Business Journal publication surrounding the awards event sparked many, many conversations for me with other women professionals, colleagues, old and new friends and with men from a generation before me.
Most importantly, all this caused me to personally reflect upon not only my career, but also the careers of the women small-business owners from my family. It is wonderful to see today that our country has come so far in attempting to ensure its women citizens are treated fairly by its laws so they may equally attempt business success.
However, it is still also very disheartening that so many of our male and female citizens are starting to forget how very recent these advancements occurred. I fear we are failing as a society to remember and honor the history behind these strides, thus forgetting how new and how fragile they are. The generations of young professionals coming behind me must be reminded of the historical importance of the sacrifices, struggles and successes of the women and lawmakers who have made today’s fair playing field in business possible.
These strides have obviously not yet fully succeeded in achieving the truly gender-neutral workplace that was the original goal of those trailblazers. The news stories about workplace harassment and gender discrimination surfacing throughout 2018 have reminded us all of the disappointing reality that still exists for many women professionals in their daily lives.
Historically the United States has almost always been evenly split 50% men, 50% women in its population. And yet:
• The United States was founded in 1776, but its female citizens were not granted the right to vote until 1920.
• Until the passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963, it was legally permissible to pay a man more in wages than a woman for the exact same work or position, simply based upon gender.
• The first public bank opened in the United States in Philadelphia in 1791. However, it took 183 years for women to have equal access to banks. It wasn’t until 1974, with the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act that women were legally allowed to open a checking account, apply for a loan or obtain a credit card without the agreement and signature guaranty of their husbands (or a male relative if single or divorced). In 2017 the U.S. Department of Labor reported that 36% of all U.S. businesses were expressly owned by women, and another 2.5 million businesses are owned equally by a woman and a man.
• In 1959, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now a U.S. Supreme Court justice, started law school as one of nine women out of 500 in her class at Harvard Law School. She transferred later to Columbia Law School and graduated first in her class. Not one law firm in all of New York City would give her a job simply because she was a woman. In 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, there were more women enrolled in law school than men at 51.2%.
• In the 1960s, women accounted for about 7% of all applicants accepted to U.S. medical schools. For the first time in 2017, the number of women admitted to medical schools exceeded that of men at 50.7%.
• Until 1978, with the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, it was legal to send a woman home without pay from any job simply because she was pregnant. No assurance of being reinstated to her position after the birth of the child was required. In 2010, for the first time in U.S. history, women outnumbered men on the payroll workforce reports in the United States.
Finally, let us examine the huge economic impact middle-class women entering the workforce caused to the U.S. economy after many women workers did not choose to return home full time after having worked in business and industry during World War II.
Child care and elder care businesses are now major corporate, medium and small businesses in every state. Segments of the food industry radically expanded as a result (prepared foods, frozen foods, fast-food restaurants, grocery stores selling premade meals, etc.) and have become huge corporations, franchises and niche small businesses nationally.
Women’s professional clothing and shoe lines have spawned major world brands. And in all these areas men and women alike have benefited from the jobs and revenue created by these greatly expanded industries.
Let us always remember that women from lower-economic backgrounds were always present in the U.S. workforce as low-wage earners — cleaning, cooking and caring for children of the middle- and higher-earning segments of our society.
Historians often concentrate on this era after World War II when discussing the topic of women in the workforce. But it was just the rise of middle and upper income women entering the paid workforce that garnered this attention. Women of limited means have always worked inside and outside of their homes by necessity, and they did so often in dismal circumstances.
Many male leaders, some segments of the U.S. government, many early corporations and sometimes even the public were in partnership with women in their struggles for equality in the workplace. However, many more were not, and many still today do not recognize the economic value to our country of an equal business playing field for all citizens. Only 4.8% of the CEOs of today’s Fortune 500 companies are women.
The business history of women in the United States is truly amazing when you review the time line. My hope is that the daughters, granddaughters, mothers and nieces of every person reading this article continue to enjoy the full freedoms of being a citizen of the greatest nation on earth. I sincerely hope you share in the same.
Editor’s note: Martha Londagin is a small-business banker with Springdale-based Legacy National Bank. She has worked as a public school educator, attorney and business consultant in Northwest Arkansas and northeast Oklahoma for more 30 years. The opinions expressed are those of the author.