Starting a new business has rarely been an easy endeavor. But throughout much of American history, female entrepreneurs faced especially daunting obstacles. They couldn’t open bank accounts in their own names, obtain a loan—or even vote. Still, some tapped family connections, sussed out unique business opportunities and beat the considerable odds. The businesses these women launched—some of which survived for a century or longer—turned their founders into role models for more contemporary American moguls like Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart.
Eliza Lucas Pinckney (1722-1793)
In the late colonial era, fathers supported their daughters by helping them find husbands and funding dowries—and perhaps by giving them an education that would help them oversee a large household. Eliza Pinckney’s father instead handed his 16-year-old daughter the job of managing his struggling rice plantations in South Carolina, while he returned to the West Indies. Her dowry included the ability to draw on her father’s business connections, a collection of seeds he sent her from Antigua and a group of enslaved people whose intensive labor facilitated her business’s success.
Those assets turned out to be an auspicious combination for a young woman like Pinckney, whose favorite subject at her British finishing school had been botany rather than French or needlework. Pinckney experimented with alfalfa, ginger, hemp and flax, but struck gold when she found a way to develop a new strain of indigo that English textile mills—in constant search of new dyes—eagerly snapped up. Within a handful of years, indigo became the colony’s second-largest cash crop and Pinckney became wealthy enough to reject suitors recommended by her father, instead selecting her own husband. George Washington served as a pallbearer at her funeral in 1793.
Rebecca Lukens (1794-1854)
Quaker widow Rebecca Lukens became America’s first female industrialist when, following the sudden deaths of her husband, father and son, she assumed control of the family ironworks. Despite her mother’s adamant opposition to women in business, Lukens succeeded not only into transforming Brandywine Iron Works and Nail Factory into a giant corporation, but in winning back outright ownership after a decades-long battle with family members. While her father and husband had launched the business, it was under Rebecca’s leadership that the factory took off. She repaid the company’s debts, expanded the production facility, survived floods and financial panics and cornered the market for boiler plates, selling to the emerging steamship and railroad businesses.
Lydia Estes Pinkham (1819-1883)
In the mid-19th century, when women suffered menstrual pain or menopause symptoms, the only medically trained doctors available were men. They often dismissed female gynecological complaints as unimportant—or solvable only by risky surgery. Drawing on centuries-old traditions of female healers, Lydia Estes Pinkham built her business to give women another choice. Pinkham, who developed and tested her own herbal recipes for many medical conditions, gladly shared the concoction with friends and neighbors. And when the 1873 financial crisis ruined her husband, Pinkham decided to turn her kitchen stovetop enterprise into a bonafide business.
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The cellar of the family home became Pinkham’s first factory; her children got jobs to earn the needed capital. Pinkham literally became the face of her product—and a household name—when her photograph and name appeared on a newspaper advertisement for Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound “for treatment of menstrual discomfort.” In addition to ingredients like black cohosh and unicorn root (an actual herb), the mixture featured an alcohol content hovering near 20 percent well into the 20th century, when it was reformulated. For those wishing to avoid alcohol, the company also produced her remedy in lozenge and pill form.
Madam C.J. Walker (b. Sarah Breedlove, 1867-1919)
The daughter of formerly enslaved workers-turned-sharecroppers, Sarah Breedlove triumphed over not only sexism but racism in her journey to become the country’s first Black self-made woman millionaire. After selling door to door for Annie Turnbo Malone, another pioneer of Black hair products, she developed and marketed her own line of hair products and straighteners under the brand name “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” (Walker was a married name and "Madam" sounded French, she said, and more respectful to Black women.)
After growing up in deep poverty and spending her early years picking cotton and working as a laundress, Walker built a business that not only earned her great personal wealth, but financially empowered more than 40,000 Black women as sales agents. In her final year of life, her earnings topped $500,000 ($8.7 million in today’s dollars) and her widespread property holdings included a country estate in Irvington, New York designed by pioneering Black architect Vertner Tandy. She became known for her philanthropic and political endeavors, using her money to promote Black rights and equality.
Estée Lauder (1908-2004)
When Time magazine published its list of 20 most influential business geniuses of the 20th century in 1998, it contained a single woman: Estée Lauder. Born Josephine Esther Mentzer, the future entrepreneur found her business inspiration by watching her Hungarian-born uncle create skin creams for women at the family’s kitchen table and later from a lab in a backyard stable. Soon, she began selling his products to beauty salons and, alongside her husband, Joseph Lauder, re-developed and repackaged four core products that she began to market to a literally captive audience: women in beauty shops stuck sitting under a hair dryer.
The fledgling company got its first big break in 1947 when Saks placed an $800 order, but it became a household name when Lauder introduced Youth Dew, a bath oil that doubled as a fragrance. When Galeries Lafayette in Paris proved reluctant to order any, Lauder “accidentally” spilled some while demonstrating other beauty products—and customers clamored to place orders. Other revolutionary marketing tactics (like the gift-with-purchase and offering of samples) helped Lauder build a billion-dollar business and become an icon of the business world.
Lilian Vernon (1927-2015)
At the age of 24, Lilli Menasche Hochberg took $2,000 she had received in wedding gifts and launched Vernon Specialties (the name came from her hometown of Mount Vernon, New York) from her kitchen table. Taking out an ad in the September 1951 issue of Seventeen magazine, she offered personalized handbags for $2.99 and belts for $1.99 plus tax.
Before long, she had $32,000 in orders, and five years later sent her growing list of customers the first catalog of what would become the Lilian Vernon Co. mail order business. Lillian’s first marriage wouldn’t last, but her business took off, becoming the first female-founded company to be publicly traded on an American stock exchange. At its peak, according to The New York Times, company sales topped a quarter-billion dollars annually.
Muriel Siebert (1928-2013)
While women began making breakthroughs in fashion, toys, media and even industrial concerns by the mid-20th century, Wall Street remained a male bastion. That is, until Muriel “Mickie” Siebert decided to storm it. Arriving in New York City with $500 in her pocket and a passionate interest in business, she lied about having a college degree to land her first job as an analyst, at a time when women on Wall Street worked almost exclusively as secretaries. Fed up with being paid less than men, Siebert changed jobs three times and eventually set her sights on buying a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. To do so, she needed $445,000 ($300,000 of which had to come from a bank) and a sponsor from among the current membership. It took her two years to line up the financing, and it was nearly as difficult to convince someone to support her application: The first nine men Siebert approached turned her down flat.
In December 1967, Siebert became the first woman to hold a seat on the exchange. She opened her own brokerage business, and despite being blocked from many male clubs and bastions where deal-making happened, earned the title “The First Woman of Finance” for her innovations, including being one of the first firms to negotiate commissions. Three years after her death in 2013, the stock exchange that had been so reluctant to open its doors to her a half century earlier dedicated its renovated meeting hall to her—the first time any NYSE room has been named in honor of a specific individual.