American Business Women’s Day

Maggie Lena Walker (third from the left in the cover photo) was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1867 (or 1864, or 1865, depending on your source). She spent her lifetime working to empower the black community there, even as early as high school, when she led a protest against the segregation policy that prevented her class from holding its graduation ceremony in the same facility as white students.

Walker was an active volunteer with the Independent Order of St. Luke, an African American organization that provided financial benefits to its members in times of sickness and death. It was through this organization that Walker established other innovative programs to serve the black community and encourage leadership and economic empowerment. She developed a juvenile program for St. Luke’s, to encourage children to study the Bible, work hard, and save their pennies. By the time she was in her early twenties, she had become Grand Worthy Secretary of the organization. Over her 25-year tenure, she expanded membership to include 100,000+ members in 24 states.

Walker fostered the development of other women leaders in the organization and chose one of them to manage her next endeavor, a successful weekly newspaper. In 1903, Walker became the first woman bank president in the United States when she founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. She encouraged African Americans to “bring it all back home” by depositing their earnings with the bank and getting the bank’s assistance to become homeowners. Next came the department store, where she employed African American women as store clerks. . . .

Maggie Lena Walker is just one of the many women whose stories are told in Enterprising Women: 250 Years of American Business, by Virginia G. Drachman. Enterprising women have always been part of America’s business, but their stories are often left out of the history books. This volume gives women the spotlight, introducing dozens of entrepreneurs who made their own way in the face of legal, institutional, and economic discrimination against women, cultural restrictions, and the burdens of work and family. They created success for themselves and their communities and opened up new opportunities for women in their own time and in ours.

Happy American Business Women’s Day.

–ellen