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3 Female Pioneers in American Business

Three women entrepreneurs broke barriers and made significant progress in early American business

The following is excerpted from Lawrence Reed’s excellent book Real Heroes

Culture isn’t always pretty, and like almost everything else in human life, it evolves. At one time or another in every corner of the planet, almost every imaginable grouping of people has faced unequal treatment, legal and institutional discrimination, or outright persecution. As we learn to reject unwarranted prejudice, we recognize that every individual is unique. He (or she) deserves to be judged by the content of his character and to pursue his dreams in the marketplace of free exchange.

America in its first century offered more liberty to more people than any other place in the world, but there was still plenty of room for improvement. It took decades, but we eventually ended the ancient evil of race-based slavery. Decades later, Jim Crow laws were abolished.

Pick any immigrant group—Catholics, Irish, Chinese—and to a considerable extent, we’ve come to see that once-widespread prejudice against that group prevented everyone else from enjoying the benefits of its members’ productivity. We’ve made progress, lots of it, toward the ideal of unshackling peaceful people from the chains of injustice and intolerance.

The philosophy of liberty appeals to me because it says to all people, regardless of race, religion, place of birth, or sex, “If you want to dream, create, build, own, grow, or improve, go for it!

Leonard Read, who started the Foundation for Economic Education (where I now serve as president), expressed the credo of a free society when he called for “no man-concocted restraints against the release of peaceful, creative energy.”

Martha Coston, Hetty Green, and Madam C. J. Walker were pioneering women in American business. Each was born into a culture that assigned the “fairer sex” to home and family life. They couldn’t vote because they were female. They weren’t supposed to engage in business because, well, that was regarded (as it had been everywhere for centuries) as a “manly” pursuit. Yet each possessed a spirit to break barriers.

These women achieved success and respect in private enterprise. They opened doors for millions of other women to enter the marketplace and compete with men in the creation of wealth.

Martha Coston: Inventor, Business Leader, Patriot

“Extreme” describes the highs and lows in the life of the remarkable Martha Coston. Widowed with five children at the age of thirty-two, Coston was just beginning to recover from the unexpected loss of her husband when two of her children and her mother died. She was depressed and penniless, with three surviving children facing a bleak future. Yet she managed to turn adversity into success.

Coston was born Martha Jane Hunt in Baltimore in 1826 and moved to Philadelphia with her mother a decade later when her father died. When she was sixteen, she eloped with twenty-one-year-old Benjamin Coston, a nautical engineer and promising inventor.

His work in pyrotechnics and on early gas lighting earned him notable attention, but his life was cut short by a combination of pneumonia and chemical poisoning. Poring over his papers, Martha discovered drawings for a pyrotechnic signal (or “flare”) that would allow ships to communicate with the shore or with one another at night or in fog. Benjamin had labored over the idea while at the Washington Navy Yard but never progressed beyond plans on paper. For ten long years, Coston worked to perfect her late husband’s work. She developed the proper “recipe” for flares that burned red, white, and blue, and she created a system (a sort of Morse code) to permit messaging by flare. In her own words:

The men I employed and dismissed, the experiments I made myself, the frauds that were practiced upon me, almost disheartened me; but despair I would not, and eagerly I treasured up each little step that was made in the right direction, the hints of naval officers, and the opinions of the different boards that gave the signals a trial.

On April 5, 1859, she presented her results to the world: a pyrotechnic signaling flare and code system. It worked beautifully. Reliable ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications were now possible.

Inventing something useful, however, doesn’t translate into money unless the invention can be marketed, and Coston had no prior experience in business. That didn’t stop her from starting her own company, one that lasted for more than 125 years.

To the amazement of many, the widow blossomed into a successful entrepreneur. At first she felt the need to downplay her gender, even using a man’s name in initial communications to improve the chance that men would do business with her. In her autobiography she wrote, “We hear much of the chivalry of men towards women; but let me tell you dear reader, it vanishes like dew before the summer sun when one of us comes into competition with the manly sex.”

With the coming of the Civil War, Coston found a large and ready market by selling her signaling flares to the U.S. Navy. She traveled around Europe, securing customers in both the government and private sectors. In the late 1860s she struck a lucrative deal with the United States Life-Saving Service, which made her product standard equipment at its lifeboat stations.

Her biggest disappointment in business involved a customer that took advantage of her goodwill and patriotism. To help the Lincoln administration’s war effort, Coston sold her flares and signaling system at below cost and sometimes accepted nothing more than a government IOU as payment. Washington ripped her off through its Civil War greenback inflation, eventually compensating her, in real terms, at about a quarter on the dollar. Had it not been for her skill at marketing elsewhere, she would have been bankrupt by war’s end.

When Coston died in 1902, she was honored as a great inventor and business leader. She overcame huge challenges to prove that a woman could be just as good in business as any man—and far better than those who defrauded her with their depreciating paper money.

Hetty Green: “One-Woman Federal Reserve”

Martha Coston was rich by any measure, but by the late nineteenth century the title of “richest woman in the world” belonged to Henrietta Howland Robinson Green, better known as Hetty Green.

Born to a Quaker whaling family in 1834 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Hetty Robinson was regularly reading the financial papers to her father and grandfather by the age of six. “In this way I came to know what stocks and bonds were, how the markets fluctuated, and the meaning of bulls and bears,” she later recalled.

When her parents died in the 1860s, Hetty inherited a fortune of about $6 million (about $120 million in 2016 dollars). What she did with it made her a legend as one of the savviest investors and independent financiers ever. Combining a conservative approach with a canny sense of timing, she bought and sold bonds, railroad stocks, and real estate, and over thirty years parlayed her inheritance into what would be well over a billion dollars today. She was her own adviser, her own bank, and what one biographer would later call “a one-woman Federal Reserve.” In an arena dominated by men like J. P. Morgan, she dazzled the financial world with her golden touch.

Green loaned so much money to so many people, companies, institutions, and municipalities that headlines would regularly announce “Hetty Cuts Rates” or “Hetty Raises Rates.” The City of New York asked her for loans to keep the city from going broke. During the Panic of 1907, she wrote a check to the Big Apple for $1.1 million and took her payment in short-term revenue bonds.

Green kept debtors honest. “She would travel thousands of miles alone—in an era when few women would dare travel unescorted—to collect a debt of a few hundred dollars,” writes one observer. Her collection efforts included churches, to whom she often loaned money at below-market rates as a charitable contribution. But when the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago defaulted on a $12,000 loan and the pastor tried to shame her into forgiving the debt by publicly denouncing her as a ruthless capitalist, she told him to pay up or she would foreclose—and that’s exactly what she did. Other pastors came to her defense—one of them declaring, “To expect the holder of a church mortgage to cancel it upon the grounds of Christianity, after the money has been lent in good faith, is nothing less than a hold-up.”

As Green’s riches grew, so did the attacks of the envious. Because she always wore black, she was derided as the “Witch of Wall Street.”

Rumors of her miserliness circulated widely but were largely debunked in later years by her own family and by the many people and organizations that benefited from her quiet charity. Green explained in a 1913 magazine profile: “One way is to give money and make a big show. That is not my way of doing. I am of the Quaker belief, and although the Quakers are about all dead, I still follow their example. An ordinary gift to be bragged about is not a gift in the eyes of the Lord.”

Next to her extraordinary skill at creating wealth, Green’s personal lifestyle fascinated people then and biographers to this day. She was the opposite of ostentatious. Her frugality was astonishing in a day when her great wealth could have bought her anything. Home was never more than a modest flat in New York City. When she traveled, she stayed in cheap boardinghouses. She lived the way she wanted to and never bent to any custom of modernity she didn’t like. She was, in every sense of the phrase, her own woman.

When Hetty Green died in 1916 at the age of eighty-one, the New York Times editorialized:

If a man had lived as did Mrs. Hetty Green, devoting the greater part of his time and mind to the increasing of an inherited fortune that even at the start was far larger than is needed for the satisfaction of all such human needs as money can satisfy, nobody would have seen him as very peculiar—as notably out of the common. He would have done what is expected of the average man so circumscribed, and there would have been no difficulty in understanding the joys he obtained from participation in the grim conflicts of higher finance. It was the fact that Mrs. Green was a woman that made her career the subject of endless curiosity, comment and astonishment. . . . She had enough courage to live as she chose and to be as thrifty as she pleased and she observed such of the world’s conventions as seemed to her right and useful, coldly and calmly ignoring all the others.

Madam C. J. Walker: Self-Starter

When, in December 1867, Sarah Breedlove was born the sixth child of parents who had been slaves a few years earlier, Martha Coston and Hetty Green were already wealthy Americans ensconced in business.

But this enterprising black woman came on fast and strong as a wealth creator before she died at the age of fifty-one in 1919. Biographer John Blundell, in his book Ladies for Liberty: Women Who Made a Difference in American History, says: “It is reliably claimed she was the first woman ever to make a million without an inheritance, husband or government intervention. She did it on her own.”

Orphaned at seven, married at fourteen, then widowed at twenty with a young daughter to raise, she was determined that her daughter, A’Lelia, would receive a good private education. She took work as a washerwoman, earning about a dollar a day and saving for many years to make her dream a reality.

By the time of her second marriage, to Charles James Walker, her hair had thinned dramatically owing to poor diet, infrequent washing, and the use of damaging hair products. She realized that the market for quality hair products for black women was nonexistent and decided to do something about it.

Learning everything she could about hair and its proper care, she experimented with various concoctions of her own making. In 1905 she formed the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, selling a line of hair care products and cosmetic creams.

“I got my start by giving myself a start,” Walker later said.

She assigned daughter A’Lelia to run the mail order operation out of Denver while she and her husband traveled the country recruiting saleswomen. Eventually, Walker settled in Indianapolis in 1910, where she built her headquarters, a factory, a laboratory, a hair salon, and a beauty school to train the company’s sales agents. By this time her business was selling products in virtually every state as well as throughout the Caribbean. Her vision was to cure scalp and hair problems and empower black women with both beauty and economic opportunity.

Walker’s most famous formula included a shampoo and a pomade that “transformed lusterless and brittle hair into soft, luxuriant hair.”

The women she employed wore uniforms of white shirts and black skirts and carried black satchels of product samples as they made house calls all over the United States and the Caribbean. Her name and image were well known to women both black and white.

For Walker, money was “not an end in itself,” John Blundell writes. “It allowed her to become an active philanthropist for black causes,” including Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute and the NAACP. In an article about Walker, Blundell expands on her philosophy, pointing out that she believed in “self-respect through self-support, a hand-up not a hand-out.” She emphasized her belief in “entrepreneurial, bottom-up, self-help economics” whenever she gave hair care sales training lessons, at the end of which “she showed future agents photo slides of great African-American entrepreneurs to educate and enthuse them.”

Toward the end of her life, Walker left the corporate headquarters in Indianapolis to move to New York City. The salon she built in Harlem was “larger than that of Helena Rubinstein or of Elizabeth Arden.”

Earning a six-figure income—the equivalent of millions today—she was hailed in one newspaper as the “World’s Richest Negress.” Her company employed ten thousand agents.

Walker died of hypertension in 1919. She left behind a legacy of economic success, generous philanthropy, and political activism on behalf of equality before the law. Millions of black women were inspired by her example, and tens of thousands were directly empowered by working for the company she founded.

Though widespread discrimination against both blacks and women taint stories of early-twentieth-century American life, Madam C. J. Walker’s life stands out as a remarkable testament to the spirit of that great civil rights anthem of later years, “We Shall Overcome.” She surely did, by any measure.

Lawrence Reed is the president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the author or editor of several books, including Excuse Me, Professor: Challenging the Myths of Progressivism. This essay is adapted from his book Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction.

Complement with Chelsea Follett on the cost of economic utopias like socialism and communism, Jessica Hooten Wilson on what Flannery O'Connor's stories reveal about American politics

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