Female-founded brands are finally getting more investment opportunities, but women have taken charge of their own destiny for generations. To celebrate International Women’s Day, we teamed up with Amazon to spotlight some groundbreaking female entrepreneurs from the past. Thanks to their courage and determination, the future looks brighter for female founders today. Get inspired below, then shop a selection of women-led brands here.
The unlikely fashion mogul: Amelia Earhart
She’s a runway star in more ways than one. Amelia Earhart was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic, but the famous pilot had a few other tricks up her sleeves… which she likely designed herself. In order to fund her flying career, Amelia created a line of women’s clothing for “active living,” which means she was spearheading the athleisure trend nearly a hundred years before yoga moms popularized leggings-as-pants. Not impressed yet? Amelia even created samples on her own sewing machine with help from local New York seamstresses. “I tried to put the freedom that is in flying into the clothes,” she said, and her love of flight can be seen in her designs. From jumpsuits she could wear comfortably in the cockpit, to “parachute” silk raincoats with buttons shaped like propellers, her clothes represented female empowerment. You can see reproductions of the clothes in action (and learn more about Amelia’s extraordinary journey) in this biopic starring Hilary Swank.
The first beauty biz millionaire: Madam C.J. Walker
Nowadays it seems everyone on Instagram is an entrepreneur, but that wasn’t the norm a century ago—especially for black women. Enter Sarah Breedlove, who started making money moves in 1867. Better known by her alias, Madam C.J. Walker, she was a philanthropist, activist, and the first woman to become a self-made millionaire in America. How did Madam C.J. go from literal rags to riches (and her own estate on the Hudson River)? By selling her own line of African American hair products designed to reduce dandruff, increase hair growth, smooth texture, and prevent baldness. After experiencing her own hair loss, she began working on a formula to fix the problem, and developed beauty products you can still buy today. A pioneer for black hair care, she traveled door-to-door across the country to demonstrate her techniques, and eventually opened a branded beauty school and built a manufacturing center, creating hundreds of jobs. To learn more, we recommend this biography, which maps the rise of America’s first black female millionaire.
The one-woman revolution: Mary Katherine Goddard
Listen up, Lin-Manuel Miranda. This is the story of Mary Katherine Goddard, the first female publisher in America and the only woman whose name appears on the Declaration of Independence. Though she didn’t technically sign her name alongside the Founding Fathers, Mary Katherine managed to make her mark on the historic document (yes, the one famously stolen by Nicolas Cage in National Treasure) in a different way. Stamping “Baltimore, in Maryland: Printed by Mary Katherine Goddard” on the bottom right corner, Mary Katherine printed the first official copy of the Declaration of Independence that now sits in the archives. She was a rebel and a revolutionary, and one of the first to offer the use of her press despite the fact that her actions would be considered treasonous by the British. Not only was Mary Katherine a postmaster to the Second Continental Congress in Baltimore, but according to the Smithsonian, she was also the first woman to have the job in all of colonial America. (Work!) If you’d like to start writing your own pop-rock musical about the American heroine, start with this book. (Mary Katherine didn’t print it, but she’s got a good write-up inside.)
The first travel influencer: Annie Londonderry
The OG travel influencer isn’t on your Instagram feed, she’s buried somewhere in your history books. In 1894, Annie Cohen Kopchovsky said goodbye to her husband and kids and set off to become the first woman ever to cycle around the world at just 23 years old. To help fund her journey, Annie changed her last name to Londonderry as part of a sponsorship with the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company of New Hampshire and sold advertising space on her bike for $100 a placement (which is equivalent to about $3,000 today… #SponCon!). Just like your favorite bloggers, Annie was a master at making herself the star of a story. She would often alert local media before her arrival, and tell tales of how she was ambushed by bandits while on the road, or how she had accidentally cycled across the front lines of the Sino-Japanese war. The stunt made her famous, and though not all of her stories were true, her adventure inspired countless women to hit the road themselves. Want to know more about her journey? We recommend this biography.
The cramps curer: Lydia Pinkham
Sugar, spice, and everything nice… these were the ingredients chosen to make the first menstrual pain killer–well, almost. In 1875, Lydia began selling her home remedy for cramps made of roots, herbs, and a little alcohol (because cramps) to help her family out of their financial troubles. Her Vegetable Compound was bottled and sold for $1 as “Women’s Tonic,” and was the first product to specifically address female medical complaints. To make the product more approachable, ads proclaimed, “Only a woman can understand a woman’s ills,” underneath a picture of Lydia herself–and since many women felt (and still feel!) uncomfortable discussing period pain with male doctors, there was a huge demand for Lydia’s home remedy. During Pinkham’s lifetime, the business expanded from a farm-to-kitchen shop to a lab and factory that brewed, bottled, and shipped enough of Lydia’s invention to make nearly $300,000 a year (which translates to a little over $7 million today, NBD). If you want to know more about Lydia’s recipe for success, we recommend this biography.
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