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First Woman on a Corporate Board

11 April 2003. A subscriber asked about the first woman to serve on the board of directors of a major U.S. corporation. Several readers responded with the names of two women: Lettie Pate Whitehead (1934, Coca-Cola) and Marjorie Merriweather Post (1914, Post Cereal).

Cheryl Smith: Lettie Pate Whitehead served as chairwoman of the board of the Whitehead Holding Co., as well as other business interests. She became a savvy business woman in the soft drink industry and was the first woman to serve as a director of a major American corporation when she was appointed in 1934 to the board of directors of the Coca-Cola Co. She remained on the board for nearly 20 years. Source: Georgia Tech Alumni Association.

Pat Mackes, Bonnie Hill and Margaret Clark also suggested Whitehead. They used Ask Jeeves to locate sources like the biography at the Lettie Pate Whitehead Foundation. Cheryl used Google.

Deanna Barmakian: Was it Marjorie Merriweather Post? I just went into the news database on LexisNexis and ran a pretty basic search: 

"first woman" /s "board of directors" /s corporation

An article entitled "Jazz Age Heiress Lived Life to Fullest" in the Daily Oklahoman, 12 March 1995, states: "While she [Marjorie Merriweather Post] was rich and privileged, she also was a capable business woman. She was the first woman to serve on the board of directors of a major American corporation, and pioneered in frozen foods."

Editor: A biography of Merriweather Post at the Hillwood Museum & Gardens Web site states that "her father's death in 1914 left the twenty-seven-year-old heiress the owner of a rapidly growing [Post] cereal company."

A question like this begs an encyclopedia with a powerful search engine, or better, a library with a good collection on women's history. For those who want to explore the subject, I suggest starting with librarian Ken Middleton's American Women's History: A Research Guide.

Some other businesswomen worth noting include:

MARTHA MATILDA HARPER (1857-1950) started a beauty products system called the Harper Method, eventually realizing over 500 franchises world-wide in the 1920s. Harper is credited with creating the modern retail franchising method.

Source: National Women's Hall of Fame

LYDIA MOSS BRADLEY was the first female member of an American national bank board in the United States when she joined the Board of Directors of Peoria's First National Bank in 1875.

Source: National Women's Hall of Fame

NELLIE BLY, born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, became a pioneer in journalism and investigative reporting during the 1880s and 1890s. Bly retired from journalism after her marriage to Robert Seaman in 1895, but embarked on a new career after her husband's death 10 years later. Taking over his failing industries, she introduced the steel barrel to the distilling process in America and made his companies a huge success. For almost 10 years, she managed two multimillion-dollar companies.

Source: National Women's Hall of Fame

BLY continued: Bly took charge of the companies, American Steel Barrel Company and Ironclad Manufacturing Company, on Mr. Seaman's death in 1910. Luck turned against her, however, and a series of forgeries by her employees, disputes of various sorts, bankruptcy and a mass of vexations and costly litigations swallowed up Nellie Bly's fortune. Her courage and liveliness remained, however, and she returned to journalism with all her old spirit. At the time of her death she was a member of the staff of The New York Evening Journal.

Source: NYT Obituary


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Created: 11 April 2003
Revised: 8 December 2004 (reviewed)
URL: https://www.virtualchase.com/ask_answer/first_woman.html
Suggestions: Genie Tyburski, editor [at] virtualchase [dot] com