Women, Money, and Power: A Historical Timeline

Sorry, Ben Franklin... Mary Kies, Florence Kelley, Frances Perkins and Janet Yellen are just a few of the pioneers who have helped shape our financial and cultural lives. Here, award-winning American historian Alexis Coe & Illustrator Alessandra Genualdo shed light on their contributions.

By Alexis Coe and Alessandra Genualdo

Photo Credit: Alessandra Genualdo

Women, Money, and Power in the 1800s

1809: Mary Kies becomes the first American woman to hold a patent in her own name. She invents a method of weaving straw with silk and thread for hats. They become a fashion sensation and kick off a bonnet manufacturing boom in New England. President James Madison signs the patent, and First Lady Dolley Madison sends Kies a letter of congratulations.

1825: Rebecca Lukens inherits Brandywine Iron, becoming the first woman to lead an industrial company in the United States. She guides the firm from debt to enormous success, anticipating changes in the steel industry, navigating the Panic of 1837, and laying the groundwork for an eventual Fortune 500 company that operates independently until the 1990s.

1839: Mississippi passes its Married Women’s Property Act. It triggers a wave of similar legislation across other states that gradually strengthens women’s claims to ownership and financial independence. American institutions previously adhered to the English common law tradition of coverture. Under this, a woman’s holdings and legal powers were automatically transferred to her husband.

1852: Mary Ellen Pleasant, a veteran of the Underground Railroad, arrives in San Francisco and begins to amass a fortune fueled by financial knowledge gleaned from her position running men’s eating clubs. Passing as white in some circles, Pleasant uses her wealth and power to fund abolitionism, lawsuits over streetcar segregation, and support for the city’s emerging black leaders.

1869: The Daughters of St. Crispin, representing shoe stitchers, is founded in Massachusetts and becomes the first national women’s labor union. The organization, with 24 lodges stretching from Maine to California, demands equal pay for equal work, stages strikes, and testifies before Congress in favor of labor reform.

1869: Lydia Moss Bradley, a wealthy widow involved in banking, becomes perhaps the first American woman to draft a prenuptial agreement to protect her assets before remarrying. The marriage ends quickly in divorce, and Bradley expands her estate and philanthropic giving for decades, eventually establishing co-educational Bradley Polytechnic Institute (now Bradley University).

1870: Victoria Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, become the first women to open a Wall Street brokerage. Intended for women investors, it’s an instant success and helps to finance Woodhull’s feminist newspaper and subsequent 1872 presidential candidacy.

1899: Florence Kelley founds the National Consumers League, which advocates for workers’ rights and protections. The organization fiercely opposes sweatshops and child labor and fights on behalf of minimum wage laws for women.

Women, Money, and Power in the 1900s

1903: Maggie Lena Walker, the daughter of a former slave, opens the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, becoming the first woman to charter a bank in the United States. As the leader of the Independent Order of St. Luke fraternal organization for African-Americans, Walker’s efforts benefit black consumers, entrepreneurs, and homeowners in the city and across the region.

1910s: Annie Turnbo Malone and Sarah Breedlove compete as cosmetics moguls, each building beauty and hair product empires that make them among the wealthiest self-made women and African-Americans. Malone’s innovative products and training program at Poro College and Breedlove’s hugely successful Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Co. both create thousands of jobs for women.

1933: Frances Perkins is appointed U.S. Secretary of Labor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt; she is the first woman to hold a cabinet position. Perkins uses the role to craft massive and historic reform for American workers, serving as a key architect behind New Deal cornerstones like the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

1963: The Equal Pay Act passes, seeking to eliminate wage disparities based on gender. It amends the earlier Fair Labor Standards Act to prohibit sexual discrimination, explicitly addressing the notion of equal pay for equal work.

1967: President Lyndon B. Johnson signs Executive Order 11375, prohibiting sex discrimination in both the U.S. federal workforce and by government contractors. The action makes clear (and provides for enforcement of) gender-based anti-discrimination policy, which had lagged behind other forms of bias prevention in civil rights reform.

1967: Muriel Siebert becomes the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. She overcomes repeated institutional opposition to join 1,365 seated men. Two years later, she founds the exchange’s first female-owned and -operated firm, which becomes a pioneer in the discount brokerage sphere in the 1970s.

1974: The Equal Credit Opportunity Act is passed. It makes it unlawful for creditors to discriminate against applicants on the basis of distinctions — including sex and marital status. Congresswoman Lindy Boggs of Louisiana personally inserts the specific gender-related provisions into the bill without first discussing it with colleagues on the Banking Committee. They unanimously approve the additions.

1977: Juanita Kreps becomes the first female U.S. Secretary of Commerce. Kreps was an established economist responsible for landmark studies about American working women. She previously broke barriers as the first female director at the New York Stock Exchange.

1978: The Pregnancy Discrimination Act becomes law. This makes it illegal to discriminate against employees on the basis of “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” The legislation amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964, establishing that such discrimination is inseparable from discrimination on the basis of gender.

Women, Money, and Power in the 2000s

2009: The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is signed. It loosens statute of limitations restrictions on when a sexual discrimination lawsuit can be brought against a company for unequal pay. The legislation is named for Ledbetter, whose pay equity fight against Goodyear was previously defeated by the Supreme Court.

2009: Ursula Burns is named CEO of Xerox, becoming the first black woman to head a Fortune 500 company. President Barack Obama subsequently appoints Burns to his Export Council and selects her to help lead the White House National STEM initiative.

2014: Janet Yellen is sworn in as the first woman to serve as Chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve. Her term ends in 2018. She simultaneously serves as Chair of the Federal Reserve System’s Federal Open Market Committee.

Alexis Coe is the Wing’s in-house historian, author of Alice+Freda Forever and the forthcoming You Never Forget Your First. She was a Research Curator at the NYPL.

Alessandra Genualdo is an Italian illustrator and painter, she lives and works in East London with her dog Kira.

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