The word apprentice conjures up visions of sorcerers and medieval guilds (and, in my case, my great-grandmother who learned the goldsmith’s trade through a family apprenticeship). However, “new collar” apprenticeships seem destined to become the most effective means of human-capital acquisition for the twenty first century, as they have been for millenia.
In 1887, the Los Angeles Times declared, “This is an age not only of millionaires, but of millionairesses as well.” Wealthy women “worth their weight in gold” have existed from the beginning of American history, but these entrepreneurs have often remained invisible to scholarship and to financial history.
(Yet another) First Women’s Bank opened in 2021, claiming to be the “nation’s first women-founded, women-owned, and women-led bank dedicated to closing the gender equity gap in access to capital.” But it is easy to demonstrate that the current First Women’s Bank is far from first on each and all of these counts.
Fans of the history of technology can quickly name a dozen significant British inventors, but very few would be able to identify any women with noteworthy discoveries. Women who could circumvent institutional barriers tended to come from rather privileged backgrounds, or to have social connections – patent rosters featured many aristocrats, including a cotillion of countesses, baronesses, and even a duchess or two. However, studies of female patentees demonstrate that individual initiative could be just as potent as wealth, patronage, and self-promotion in generating technological innovation and social change.
The surge of new inventions and innovations in nineteenth century America transformed the world to an extent that arguably remains unmatched today. Even among the New England states known for their “Yankee ingenuity,” Maine inventors surpassed their peers. Among the few female entries in the National Inventors Hall of Fame are Helen Blanchard and Margaret Knight, celebrated because of their successful industrial machines. But the typical woman inventor productively directed their attention to supposedly minor “feminine inventions” like dress charts and kitchen tools that improved the lives of other women and their families.
Are we currently living in a new Gilded Age embodied by the multi-billionaires of the Forbes 400, with their excesses of utopian cities and space tourism? Inclusion on The Forbes 400 list for 2021 requires net worth of at least $2.9 billion. However, these data underestimate women’s achievements, and conceal an underlying pattern of increasing entrepreneurial opportunities, socioeconomic mobility, and philanthropy by “robber baronesses.”
Usually reputable sources like the Guinness World Record claim that Madam C. J. Walker was the “first self-made millionairess” in the United States. However, Walker was not the first minority businesswoman who acquired enormous wealth. Numerous American Indians, Asians and black women have prospered through their own initiative and entrepreneurship, from the founding of the Republic.
Like millions of innovative individuals, MIRIAM E. BENJAMIN (1861-1947) was active in multiple inventive markets, as the patentee of two inventions, and assignee on another. However, an overlooked and unique contribution is that she was the first black woman who practiced as a patent attorney. Miriam E. Benjamin was born in South Carolina to a […]