Why you should care
Because before there were glass ceilings to shatter or jobs to lean into, these three legendary businesswomen just did it — by killing it.
Donald Trump has a mixed record when it comes to women, to say the least. But there is one group for which he consistently expresses unreserved admiration: women in business. “They are amazing executives,” the Republican presidential front-runner recently told ABC. “They are killers. They are phenomenal.”
They are also still exceedingly rare — and even rarer than most of us imagine. Despite the fact that respondents in one recent study guessed that, on average, about 23 percent of large companies are headed by women, the reality is closer to 5 percent. The female executive was an even rarer commodity in history, and those early female business pioneers who were able to transcend the prodigious obstacles lying in their gender’s path were, to use Trump’s word, phenomenal. Here are just a few of their stories:
Most Americans can’t remember a Thanksgiving that did not begin with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. The parade has become synonymous with the department store chain, but what really made Macy’s reputation as the “World’s Largest Store” was not an it, but a she.
A few months before Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in 1861, an enterprising 20-year-old Nantucket schoolteacher named Margaret Getchell traded the apples on her desk for a seat at a cashier’s desk in the Big Apple, taking an entry-level job in a dry-goods store run by her distant cousin R.H. Macy. The young visionary rose quickly though the store’s ranks, and at age 26, she became the store’s superintendent, likely the first woman to hold such an executive position at a major American business. Before Getchell showed up, R.H. Macy & Co. mostly sold ribbons, lace and related accessories; under her influence, it would become a full-fledged modern department store, the first of its kind in America.
Not long after Margaret Getchell revolutionized Macy’s, a young German woman, Bertha Benz, was preparing to embark on a historic drive in 1888. Benz’s husband, Carl, was a skilled mechanic, not to mention the father of the modern automobile, but it was Bertha’s moral and financial support that were essential to his cars hitting the road. Benz believed in Carl and his inventions enough to ask her parents to pay her dowry and inheritance in advance so they could be invested in her fiance’s workshop.
It was Benz’s fearlessness, though, that contributed the most to Carl and the world. Carl was a perfectionist and didn’t believe his car-in-progress could yet cover long distances, so Benz decided she would test that assumption by driving 65 miles to visit her mother — without asking Carl for permission. Accompanied by the couple’s two sons, Benz set forth on a remarkable journey in which she drew on her creativity to solve a number of obstacles, including using a hatpin to unblock a fuel pipe and a garter to isolate a worn-out ignition cable.
She beat the odds and arrived at her destination after dusk — only to find that her mother had left on vacation.
And speaking of cars, who can forget Mary Kay Ash, the cosmetics queen, and her pink Cadillac? Even if you’ve never been invited to a “party,” you probably know the basics of the Mary Kay Way: the direct sale of cosmetics for women, by women, in living rooms and church basements across the country. The job is easy enough: You buy the inventory “wholesale” from Mary Kay, try to sell it retail, set your own hours, enlist your friends, take a slice of the action, earn endless rewards, celebrate yourself at the annual Vegas gala and, if you’re good, receive a pink Cadillac just like the one once driven by the founder.
A longtime Army wife, until her husband left her, the woman who would later become the “high priestess of pink” got her start pawning books and housewares across Houston while raising three children. Stranded, in her mid-40s, with only $5,000 in the bank and her 20-year-old son, Richard, to help her, she launched Mary Kay Cosmetics in Dallas in 1963. Within two years, the company’s sales had eclipsed $1 million. “I’ve been asked a number of times, ‘How did you succeed so quickly?’ ” Mary Kay once remarked. “The answer is, I was middle-aged, had varicose veins and I didn’t have time to fool around.”