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March 06, 2014

Working Smart

Women’s History: A Tradition of Breaking through Boundaries

by Barbara Seale

Click here to order the March 2014 issue in which this article appeared or click here to download it to your mobile device.


Photo above: Delegates to the first International Congress of Working Women held in Washington, D.C., ca. 1919. (Library of Congress)


The long and winding road of women’s progress in society and the business world has had an amazing number of twists, turns and mountains to climb.

Viewed from today’s world, where Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg encourages women to Lean In, the trail that women blazed in the not too distant past seems surprisingly bumpy.

On March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her husband, John—who later became our second president—urging him and the other members of the all-male Continental Congress to keep the country’s women in mind as they fought for America’s independence from Great Britain.

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency,” she wrote, “and, by the way, in the new code of laws, which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”


Abigail Adams became one of the first in a long line of American women to use any influence they had to allow themselves and other women to develop and use their full talents and abilities.


John and Abigail’s relationship was filled with mutual trust and admiration, and they often discussed public policy. So perhaps John was teasing his wife when he replied that he could not help but laugh at her “saucy” letter. If he had been able to peer into the future, he would have known that his wife had become one of the first in a long line of American women to use any influence they had to allow themselves and other women to develop and use their full talents and abilities. If John Adams had taken his wife’s pleas to heart and convinced his fellow Continental Congressmen to extend the privileges of citizenship to all residents of the new country, including women, the history of this country and even the world might have been very different.

In Women’s History Month, it seems appropriate to reflect on how far women have come in the nearly 238 years since Abigail Adams’ letter. It would be almost two centuries before women began making their mark in direct selling, but when they did, they were as tenacious and innovative as our nation’s second first lady herself.

Educational Barriers

These young female workers were among the first women ever to operate a centerless grinder machine in a Midwest tool factory, 1942. (Library of Congress)These young female workers were among the first women ever to operate a centerless grinder machine in a Midwest tool factory, 1942. (Library of Congress)

Abigail was fortunate, she was educated at home. But the future first lady never had a formal education—possibly the reason she became a passionate advocate for public schools to offer girls an education that was equal to the ones given to boys. If a young woman was lucky enough to attend a school, her education focused on developing her skills at household duties and chores. In fact, an academically educated woman was unusual and considered not particularly desirable as a wife.

All but a few towns in New England specifically barred girls from town schools until the late 18th century. Even then girls were often taught separately from the boys. In the South during colonial times, the education of slaves was strictly forbidden, and South Carolina even passed a law prohibiting anyone from teaching a slave to read or write, so many female ancestors of today’s accomplished African Americans were likely illiterate. The notable exception: Phyllis Wheatley. Born in West Africa, she was sold into slavery at 7 years old to the Wheatley family of Boston. They taught her to read and write and allowed her to study astronomy and geography. Then when they recognized her talent, they encouraged her poetry. She became the country’s second published African-American poet and first published African-American woman.

Phyllis Wheatley and other American women of that time started their lives before college educations were available for women. In 1831—before the Civil War—Mississippi College became the first coeducational college in the United States to grant a degree to a woman. That year it granted degrees to two women, Alice Robinson and Catherine Hall. But the situation was so rare that one of the key demands of the Women’s Rights Convention, held in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, was for coeducation for women—not the separate and unequal institutions that were available to women at the time. Very slowly, change began in the landscape of education, and through education, women’s lives began a gradual alteration. In 1870, less than 1 percent of the female population went to college. That percentage slowly rose, and by 1900 the rate was 2.8 percent. Twenty years later it was still only 7.6 percent.

Overcoming the Odds

Fay Hubbard, a 19-year-old advocate for women gaining the right to vote, sells suffragette papers on the streets of New York in 1910. (Library of Congress)Fay Hubbard, a 19-year-old advocate for women gaining the right to vote, sells suffragette papers on the streets of New York in 1910. (Library of Congress)

Women finally gained the right to vote in 1920, signifying the beginning of a new attitude toward a woman’s contribution outside the home, and the number of college-educated women continued to climb decade by decade. In fact, by the 1980s more women than men began attending college. Today’s women have advanced educationally beyond the level that Abigail Adams or Phyllis Wheatley probably ever dreamed. Now, more women than men earn an advanced degree, as well as a bachelor’s degree. While having a degree doesn’t automatically lead to ambition or success, women’s expanded societal roles did follow their advances in education. It also coincided with greater entrepreneurialism—both in traditional and direct selling companies.

It is interesting to note that through the decades, and even centuries, with or without education, women have achieved, led and innovated. As far back as 1809, Mary Kies became the first woman to receive a patent, which was for her method of weaving straw with silk—a process which then-first lady Dolly Madison called a boost to the nation’s hat industry. History is peppered with the forgotten stories of female entrepreneurs—Eliza Lucas Pinckney, who grew and exported indigo in the 1700s; publisher, printer and businesswoman Mary Katherine Goddard, who in 1789 was forced to resign after 14 years as Baltimore’s postmaster because of her gender; Bridget “Biddy” Mason, who was born into slavery in 1818, sued her owners for her freedom, and eventually became a real estate mogul and philanthropist; Elizabeth Arden and Estee Lauder, savvy businesswomen who built empires based on beauty in the 20th century; and Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post and the top executive of the Washington Post Company, who became one of the most powerful women in business.

In the direct selling industry, women were initially buyers of products from the early companies such as The Southwestern Company (now Southwestern Advantage), Fuller Brush and Avon. Since many products were directed to women, they also became distributors. Fuller Brush was the first direct selling home for many of the women who moved from distributorships to the corporate ranks. Some of them were pioneers who helped shape the industry. In 1931 Catherine O’Brien, an associate with the Fuller Brush Company, teamed up with Stanley Beveridge, a VP at Fuller Brush, to launch a new direct selling company, Stanley Home Products. Initially the company sold its high-quality household cleaners, brushes and mops door-to-door, but it soon began encouraging homemakers to invite small groups of friends to their homes for a product demonstration and light refreshments. This allowed the hostess to receive a gift of choice from the Stanley dealer, who took orders from attendees.

Mary Kay Ash, Mary Crowley, Brownie Wise and JAFRA founders Jan and Frank Day were all Stanley Home Products Dealers. On the long road to success, each of them stepped on the accelerator. Wise became a Tupperware representative and was so successful selling at her home parties that Earl Tupper himself recruited her to become a corporate executive in 1951. At the time, Tupperware was sold at retail stores, but home sales soon topped retail sales and Wise’s “party plan” method took over. She also innovated many practices that today are standards at every direct selling company—rewards, recognition, sales conventions and incentives such as extravagant trips. Her success in implementing marketing styles and recognition systems that appealed to women led her to become the first woman featured on the cover of Business Week magazine in 1954.

Jan Day and her husband, Frank, combined their first names to create the moniker for their company, JAFRA, which they founded in 1956. They wanted to offer women an excellent skincare program along with an appealing business opportunity. Within a year they invented the signature product that would be the foundation of the company for years to come: Royal Jelly Milk Balm Moisture Lotion. Its formula remained unchanged for more than 50 years. Gillette bought the successful company in 1973, and then international direct selling giant Vorwerk acquired it in 2004. Today it offers its product through some 573,000 independent consultants worldwide.

Mary Crowley also put her Stanley Home Products experience to good use when she established Home Interiors and Gifts in 1957. She had moved from Stanley to a new company, World Gift, and proved her sales and leadership skills by developing a 500-person organization in the company. Its response: The owner limited the amount of commission the female sales staff could earn. That apparently didn’t sit well with Crowley, who quit to start her own home décor company. By the 1990s Home Interiors and Gifts had surpassed $850 million in sales.


Today 10 companies on the 2013 Direct Selling News Global 100 list were founded or co-founded by women entrepreneurs.


Mary Kay Ash followed her friend Mary Crowley’s example, launching Mary Kay Cosmetics in 1963 after a man she had trained was promoted over her and paid twice her salary. She created a salesforce of women—unusual in the 1960s—and fueled them with pink Cadillacs, compensation plans that paid consultants for building teams and, of course, her famous phrases of wisdom and encouragement that 13 years after her death still make her one of the industry’s most quotable icons. Her formula was wildly successful. Last year Mary Kay Cosmetics had net sales of more than $3 billion worldwide.

So many female business founders have helped make direct selling the thriving, innovative industry it is today, and many more are joining the ranks. Today 10 companies on the 2013 Direct Selling News Global 100 list were founded or co-founded by women entrepreneurs.

Impressive and Puzzling


According to the National Women’s History Museum, women’s ventures have come to comprise about a third of all U.S. businesses —and growing.


According to the National Women’s History Museum, women’s ventures have come to comprise about a third of all U.S. businesses—and growing. If you shrug when you read that, remember that less than a century ago American women couldn’t even vote. But once women had role models, they seemed to be increasingly drawn to entrepreneurship.

In 1972 women owned just 4 percent of all American businesses; by 1991, that figure had climbed to 38 percent. Additionally, since 1997 the growth in the number and economic contributions of firms owned by women of color is nothing short of remarkable. Comprising just 17 percent of women-owned firms 16 years ago, firms owned by women of color now account for one in three women-owned firms in the U.S. The total number of women-owned businesses has risen by 200,000 over the past year alone, which is equivalent to just under 550 new women-owned firms created each day. There are now 8.3 million women-owned businesses in the United States. Those businesses generate revenues of $1.3 trillion—more than the combined market cap of Apple, Microsoft, General Electric, Google and Sony. Plus, revenue has grown more than twice the amount of U.S. population growth during the same period of time.

Yet executive positions have eluded most women. As far as women have come, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) still reported last year that women make up only 16 percent of directors at Fortune 500 companies, 4 percent of chief executives at Standard & Poor’s 500 companies and 10 percent of chief financial officers at S&P 500 companies. Even below the executive levels, salaries for women lag behind those for men. According to WSJ, women earned 76.5 cents for every dollar that men did in 2012, moving no closer to narrowing a gender pay gap that has barely budged in almost a decade. The numbers are puzzling when research also shows that companies with high gender diversity simply make more money.


Organizations with the lowest rates of gender diversity had average sales revenues of $45.2 million, compared with averages of $644.3 million for businesses with the most gender diversity.


Miriam Muléy, CEO of strategic marketing consultancy and research company The 85% Niche LLC and former General Manager at Avon Products Inc., points to a study by sociologist Cedric Herring that was published in the American Sociological Review. Herring found that gender diversity accounted for a difference of $599.1 million in average sales revenue. Put that in perspective: A company with net sales of $600 million would have been No. 22 on last year’s Direct Selling News Global 100 list. Organizations with the lowest rates of gender diversity had average sales revenues of $45.2 million, compared with averages of $644.3 million for businesses with the most gender diversity.

Given the heavy doors women have historically pushed open and their documented growth in starting businesses, it’s surprising that the direct selling industry isn’t buzzing with stories of concentrated efforts to create greater gender diversity, mentoring programs and executive development tracks for women in its corporate offices. Considering the industry’s pride and experience in its personal development programs for distributors, direct selling is uniquely equipped to fuel the power of its female corporate employees and executives.

Will your company be the industry-leading organization that supercharges its growth by unlocking the untapped talents and abilities of women? Which company will lead the caravan that’s sure to follow? We can’t wait to see.


Cover Story | Women’s History | Sheryl Adkins-Green | Claire Bancino | Meredith Berkich | Lori Bush | Dr. Oi-Lin Chen | Doris Christopher | Angela Loehr Chrysler | Kathy Coover | Shelli Gardner | Jessica Herrin | Wendy Lewis | Candace Matthews | Sheri McCoy | Cindy Monroe | Kay Napier | Joani Nielson | Meg Sheetz | Pam Sowder | Jill Blashack Strahan | Connie Tang | Heidi Thompson