Follow Martha Matilda Harper, the Empress of Labor, On Labor Day and Forever

September 4, 2017

business history

It Was Miserable For Women

The chance of birth determines not only your sex, but, often, your economic future.   In the Victorian Era, poor women were limited  to low or no-paying jobs including marriage, servitude or  factory work.  It was out of that quicksand of opportunity that Martha changed options for herself and other poor women.  After twenty-five years of servitude from the age of seven(!),  Harper opened one of America’s  first beauty salons for women and designed the first reclining shampoo chair.  Note, she could not patent that chair since women were not allowed to file for patents at that time.  Her accomplishments  would have been impressive enough, but Harper recognized that the system of economic servitude for women had to be dramatically changed.

With the urging of Bertha Palmer, Chicago and Sarasota socialite and developer, Harper launched modern retail franchising AND put poor women in ownership positions for the first 100 of her 500 shops located around the world.  Harper understood poverty and poor opportunities for success.  She had slogged through them from age seven!  However,  with the help from suffragists like Susan B. Anthony, influential ladies like Palmer and First Lady Coolidge,  progressives, conservatives, luminaries, and Christian Scientists , Harper transformed those possibilities for women.

Today Remains Miserable

As we celebrate this Labor Day, we need to reflect on how we honor labor.  Yes, we get the day off, but where’s the payoff?  The top US CEOs make 300 times more than the typical worker.  The average CEO compensation for the largest firms was $16.3 million in 2014.  Those earning grew more than almost 99.9% compared to wage earners.   If you are female, the wage gap is wide and has remained so for decades.   While white women working full-time earn about 78% of male workers’ pay,  those numbers are more depressing for African-American women , who earn only 64%, and Hispanic women earn only 54% of men’s pay.  Then there is the issue of  positioning low-paying jobs for  women.  It is visible every where.   Women are in traditionally-low-paying careers in the field of healthcare, data coding, entry, receptionist, while the men are encouraged to pursue the trades and sales.  Why do the signs say, “Men Working?”  How about “People Working?”

We Need Lots of Marthas

As a society we need to reflect on what values we are affirming  by having this huge income gap between the top 1% of America and the rest of us.  We also need lots of people opening up opportunities for all people, including women of all colors, to have greater control over their lives by  being encouraged to go for the money  earn a decent living, and even runtheir own businesses.  If Martha could do it in 1891 as a former servant girl, can’t we do equally well?  Come on, America.  Be a beacon of  enrepreneurial hope,  and attractive compensation!











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