“A Timeline Of Women And Wealth: The First Female Millionaires, Billionaires & CEOs And The Policies That Paved The Way For Them”
If you had to write a resume for Isabel Benham (1909-2013), it would contain some notable “firsts.” In the 1930s, she was the the first woman on Wall Street to study the male-dominated railroad industry. In 1964, she became the first female partner at a Wall Street bond firm, according to the Museum of American Finance. But early in her career, she’d sign her name as “I. Hamilton Benham” to avoid discrimination.While generations of women before and after took risks to achieve wealth in their respective industries, many like Benham also had to navigate a culture of inequity to get there. Here is a brief history of women in finance, business, politics and entrepreneurship — and the policies that paved the way for them:
FIRST IN STEM: Ellen Swallow Richards was the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (which made her the first woman to be accepted into a science and technology school). She graduated from there in 1873 then became its first female teacher as an instructor in sanitary chemistry. In 1876 she established the Women’s Laboratory, a facility at MIT.
FIRST MILLIONAIRE: Sarah Breedlove was celebrated as the country’s first female self-made millionaire, according to her New York Times obituary. The orphan was born to freed slaves; she later invented and sold homemade hair-care products to black women through the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. Breedlove built a factory, a laboratory and a beauty school to train sales agents.
BOARD OF DIRECTORS: Lettie Pate Whitehead was appointed to the board of The Coca-Cola Company in 1934 and one of the first women to serve on the board of a major corporation. She held the position for nearly two decades. Her husband founded the first Coca-Cola bottling facilities. After his death, she took over the business and expanded her family’s wealth by founding the Whitehead Holding Company and the Whitehead Realty Company. Before her death, she established a foundation and gave to numerous charities in Virginia and Georgia.FIRST CEOs: Katharine Graham becomes president of The Washington Post, then a small family-owned newspaper. By the early ‘70s she would become CEO and the first woman to lead a major U.S. corporation. She supported investigations into the Watergate scandal which would lead to the resignation of President Nixon. By the time Graham stepped down as CEO in 1991, The Washington Post would grow into a media conglomerate with newspaper, magazine, television and cable businesses. The following decades would usher in more first-female CEOs of major companies, including Meg Whitman of Hewlett-Packard and Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo. Carly Fiorina would become the first woman to lead a company listed in the Dow Jones Industrial Average when she became CEO and president of HP in 1999, according to the Washington Post.
The Equal Pay Act of 1963 passes, requiring that men and women receive equal pay for equal work in the same company. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission specifies: “It is job content, not job titles, that determines whether jobs are substantially equal. Specifically, the EPA provides that employers may not pay unequal wages to men and women who perform jobs that require substantially equal skill, effort and responsibility, and that are performed under similar working conditions within the same establishment.”
FINANCE: On December 28, 1967 Muriel Siebert became the first woman to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, the only woman among 1,365 men on the trading floor, according to the Museum of American Finance. Until then, women were only permitted on the NYSE trading floor as clerks and pages to fill shortages during World War II and the Korean War. She donated millions of dollars from her brokerage and securities underwriting business to help other women get their start in business and finance. In 1977, Siebert became the first female Superintendant of Banks for New York, overseeing all of the state’s banks, which had about $500 billion of assets under management, according to the MoAF. Not a single bank failed during her tenure.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 served as an update to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law prohibits sex discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.
The Family and Medical Leave Act. Passed in 1994, this law requires certain employers to grant up to 12 weeks of leave during a 12 month period to eligible employees who need time off from work because of a “serious health condition” that they or someone in their family is experiencing. This sometimes overlaps with Title VII requirements concerning leave for pregnancy.
FIRST IN MUSIC: Aretha Franklin is first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. With a background in gospel music, The Queen of Soul was signed to recording companies like Columbia, Arista and Atlantic Records. According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Franklin’s greatest triumph –and an enduring milestone in popular music – was her hit song “Respect.”
Executive Order 13157 was signed by President Clinton in 2000 to increase opportunities for women-owned small businesses. It charged the Small Business Administration to work with each federal agency to identify contracting opportunities for businesses owned by female entrepreneurs.
FIRST BILLIONAIRE: In 2000, Martha Stewart became America’s first self-made female billionaire. She first hit billionaire status in 2000 after taking her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, public a year earlier. She made her way back to the Forbes Rich List in 2005, during her infamous five-month jail term.
Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was an update to The Equal Pay Act. The amendment states that “Wages can include more than just hourly or annual pay. Wages includes bonuses, company cars, expense accounts, insurance etc.”According to the EEOC: “This law overturned the Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Inc.,(2007), which severely restricted the time period for filing complaints of employment discrimination concerning compensation.”
A HOLLYWOOD-FIRST: Kathryn Bigelow becomes the first female to win the Academy Award for Best Director for The Hurt Locker. The Iraq war film also won six academy awards that night, including best picture and best original screenplay. The independent movie beat Avatar and other major-motion productions for best film. Bigelow also became the first woman to win the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing.
GOING GLOBAL: In 2007 Christine LaGarde of France became the first woman to hold the post of Finance and Economy Minister of a G-7 country. On July 5, 2011, Lagarde would shatter another glass-ceiling when she became the eleventh Managing Director of the IMF, the first woman to take that title.
THE BIG 3 And THE BIG 4: In 2013, Mary Barra is appointed to CEO of General Motors, making her the first female to lead a Big 3 Automaker.
In February 2015, Cathy Engelbert becomes CEO of Deloitte.
The following April, KPMG names Lynne Doughtie as CEO, meaning women now lead half of the Big Four accounting firms.
CENTRAL BANK: The Senate confirms President Obama’s nomination for Janet Yellen as chairperson of the Federal Reserve — the first woman to take over the top spot in the 100-year history of the U.S. central bank, or any major central bank. Yellen is also the first Democratic nominee to run the Fed since Paul Volcker became chairman in 1979 (under Jimmy Carter).
ERA OF ENTREPRENEURS: Oprah becomes the first African-American female billionaire. The former television host turned media mogul founded OWN cable network and has a 10% stake in Weight Watchers.She is currently America’s highest-paid female celebrity, worth roughly $3 billion.
TODAY IN ASIA: Four decades ago, Yoshiko Shinohara – armed with a high school degree and secretarial experience – started a temp-staffing company in her one-bedroom Tokyo apartment. Now, at age 82, she’s become Japan’s first self-made woman billionaire. She recently retired as chairman of staffing company Temp Holdings, which had revenues of $4.5 billion last year.
TODAY IN AFRICA: Forbes counts only two female billionaires in Africa, including Folorunsho Alakija, the continent’s first self-made woman to make the list. She is the vice chair of Famfa Oil, a Nigerian oil exploration company that partners with Chevron and Petrobras. Her first company was a fashion label that catered to Nigeria’s elite women.