Martha and Me


As another year passes, I am reflecting on how  Martha and I became buddies when she had been dead for almost fifty years.  Who knew that a marketing assignment for the grand opening of First National Bank of Rochester, NY’s refurbished headquarters in the grand Powers Building would change the direction of my life?

As my consulting team dug into the building’s history, a businesswoman by the name of Martha Matilda Harper surfaced in an old newspaper clipping.  The article referred to Martha as the first woman member of the Rochester Chamber of Commerce and as the operator of the Harper Method Beauty Salon, which opened in 1888 in that building as the community’s  first beauty salon for women.  She even invented the first reclining shampoo chair in the world and it drew first ladies, suffragettes and society ladies to demand shops in their communities!  Martha a servant girl from the time she was seven, opened her business at the age of 32, just as I had.

While our childhoods were dramatically different, something deep connected us, but it was not obvious.  Martha was bound out by her father as a servant from the time she was seven and remained such for nearly 25 years before she boldly opened her enterprise that would ultimately turn into the first modern retail franchise in the world.  She grew up in a world that limited opportunities for women, especially poor women.  Martha was uneducated until she became successful and hired tutors.

I grew up  a Cornell graduate, in the era of the Second Wave of Feminism, when we overthrew discriminatory  pay scales, men’s grills, credit card standards,  and eliminated help wanted columns for men and women.  Title IX changed the role of women in sports. Yet, I had never heard about Martha, her 500 Harper franchises circling the world, nor the many other women inventors, business leaders, artists, musicians, scientists, and philosophers who influenced our lives.   Hidden Figures most recently documents the story of the critical role of Black women in our space program.

The status quo for me and the millions of other women represented inequality in spite of our education, our innate  smarts and skills.   I think it was why Martha’s story became so compelling to me.  Could I stand by and let another woman’s innovative business model, ethical values, and inventiveness  go unacknowledged?  Unlike Martha, I had a father who demonstrated  boldness to stand up for what was right even if you were the underdog.

Ultimately, Martha led me to her loyal Harperites  and family members who had saved precious photographs, documents, and memories.  It was because of their efforts that Martha’s accomplishments did not get totally forgotten.  I simply picked up the cause.  In 2017 other women have stepped forward once again and begun to rail against sexist behavior.  Today I realize we are all connected.  Martha, me and she.

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