History's Top Women Entrepreneurs by Heleigh Bostwick

History's Top Women Entrepreneurs

In honor of Women's History Month, we're taking a look at some of history's top entrepreneurial women.

by Heleigh Bostwick
updated November 27, 2018 · 3 min read

Throughout history, women have always had entrepreneurial spirits; however, until somewhat recently, that entrepreneurial spirit usually took a back seat to domesticity. In spite of that, there were a number of women who, through great determination and effort, beat the odds to become some of the top entrepreneurs of their times. Here's a look at some of the women who just might provide the inspiration you need to start your own business and become a successful entrepreneur in the 21st century!

1. Margaret Hardenbrook Philipse - 17th Century Shipping Magnate

The Dutch colonists who settled in New Amsterdam (now New York City) in the 17th century had a matriarchal society where women could inherit money and land—unusual at the time. Because of this, many women were business owners, although most were not as successful as Margaret Hardenbrook Philipse, considered the wealthiest woman in New Amsterdam. She was a Colonial merchant and ship owner who traded goods, including furs, between New Amsterdam and the Netherlands.

2. Martha Coston - Coston Signal Flares

Martha Coston was an entrepreneur and inventor who lived during the Civil War era. When her husband died, he left behind rough sketches of an idea for a pyrotechnic flare. Using his initial sketches, Coston perfected and patented a system of signal flares that enabled communication between ships at sea. Coston sold her system to navies and shippers around the world. In her pursuits to patent and sell her invention, Martha Coston often had to pretend to be a man because as a woman, she was regularly dismissed or undercompensated. Modern day signal flares still use the Coston flare as the basis for their designs.

3. Ruth Handler - Barbie and Ken's Mom

Ruth Handler and her husband founded Mattel Toys in 1945, but it was not until 1959 that Barbie, Mattel's most famous doll, was born. The idea for a grown-up doll was conceived in 1956, but it took Ruth Handler nearly three years to convince the company that making a grown-up doll for kids was a good idea. Barbie, who was envisioned as the "perfect woman" based on the ideals of the time, was named after Ruth Handler's own daughter Barbara. Barbie (the doll) celebrates her 50th birthday in 2009.

4. Brownie Wise - Genius Behind the Tupperware Party

Brownie Wise was a 37 year-old divorcee when she started a company called Tupperware Patio Parties. Soon her in-home parties were selling more Tupperware than stores did, which caught the eye of Earl Tupper, the maker of Tupperware. He recognized that Brownie Wise was nothing short of a marketing genius. Realizing her potential, he made her vice-president of his company at a time when female executives were a rarity. From that point forward, and for many years to come, Tupperware was sold exclusively—and successfully—at home parties.

5. Lillian Vernon - Queen of the Mail Order Catalog

Lillian Vernon started her mail-order business in 1951 in the kitchen of her Mount Vernon, NY home. It seemed like the perfect job for the 1950s housewife and soon-to-be mother, who wanted to work at home to make a little extra money. She discovered she had a knack for marketing when she placed an ad in Seventeen magazine selling monogrammed handbags and belts for $7. Three months later she had orders totaling $32,000 and was on her way to becoming a female pioneer in the male-dominated mail-order catalog business.

6. Janet Rickstrew and Mary Tatum - Tomboy Tools

One modern-day story of female entrepreneurial success is that of Tomboy Tools, a Denver-based company that was started in 2000 by three women: Janet Rickstrew, Mary Tatum, and Sue Wilson (who is no longer with the company). Much of what makes Tomboy Tools successful is its sales strategy—over 900 consultants across the US demonstrate and sell the tools at in-home parties. With the home improvement movement in full swing, co-founder Janet Rickstraw recognized the need to educate women on using hand-powered tools in the comfort of their own homes and Tomboy Tools has been reaping the benefits ever since.

If these stories have inspired you to pursue your dream of starting a business or patenting your invention, then let LegalZoom help you get started.

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Heleigh Bostwick

About the Author

Heleigh Bostwick

Heleigh Bostwick has been writing for LegalZoom since 2006, touching on topics as diverse as estate planning and kids, c… Read more