Willard: The History of the Business & Professional Women by Viola Willard, Past Caribou and BPW/Maine President
In 1917, the United States entered the war with Germany. The government became cognizant of the value of the aid that might be given by woman power as well as manpower (in case of emergency) became evident.
Plans were made—the Secretary of Ware, Newton Baker, sent out an urgent call to make that power available for the war, but mobilization of the group was negated by the signing of the Armistice. The necessity of the group of women as a war measure was at an end. But, things had gone too far, too much had already been gained. The flame of its inspiration did not die and the women flocked to the Secretary of War who felt that the enterprise was important enough to consider as a post war project.
Key women had been consulted and it was discovered that there were influential women in all states aware of the need for consolidation of power of business and professional women on a national level. The country was divided into five districts with qualified organizers in charge of each. An invitation was issued to tow business women from each state east of the Rocky Mountains for a two day conference in New York. These women represented executives, lawyers, physicians, educators, librarians, secretaries—virtually all areas of employment. From this group, Lena Madison Phillips was appointed Executive Secretary and later served as National President.
In July of 1919, the State Federations were now established. Delegates were selected to meet for a National Convention in St. Louis, Missouri with a view to effecting a permanent organization of business and professional women. The major goal was to bring a better understanding of the needs and conditions of self-supporting women in different sections of the country; to focus and direct in a cooperative manner all efforts to obtain conditions through the facilities of training, to gather and disseminate information relative to vocational opportunities in order to bring about a greater solidarity of feeling among women throughout the nation and eventually throughout the world. The Business and Professional Women’s organization is the oldest and largest organization of its kind in the world, devoted entirely and actively to the interests and needs of all employed women irrespective of their occupation of their status—executive or worker. It is the only organization started by women and for women to improve women’s issues.
The National Organization founded in 1919 is a non-partisan, non-sectarian and non-profit organization of more than 3,000 clubs. It has 53 state federations, fifty states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. At a meeting in New York, the name, the purpose and the objectives were established. The objectives of the Federation are:
- To elevate the standards for women in business and the professions;
- To promote the interest of business and professional women;
- To bring about a spirit of cooperation among business and professional women of the United States;
- To extend opportunities to business and professional women through educationalong lines of industrial, scientific, and vocational activities.
Before the first year was over, 25,000 local federations had been formed. National executive offices originated in New York City but in 1956, the offices moved to Washington D.C. where things were happening. The building selected was a beautifully proportioned four-story brick mansion on “Embassy Row”.
Our goal is to promote full participation in the work force, equity and economic self-sufficiency for all working women.
The issues that matter most to all working women are:
Pay equity, Better Child and Dependent Care, Fair Pension Laws and Equity in Insurance, Equal Opportunity in Education and Training, and an Equal Rights Amendment as the law of the land.
Stereotypes and prejudices of any kind are hard to break, but slowly women’s contribution to the economy of this country is being recognized.
BPW is in the forefront of the move to:
- Gain recognition for women
- Gain equal treatment for them under the law
- Gain equal treatment in financial and political matters
- Gain support for homemakers who need additional education and updated skills training.
- Gain recognition of women’s potential as leaders in business and industry.
BPW demonstrates the true strength and diversity of the female workforce of America. Members represent every age, race, religion, political persuasion and socio-economic background. They come from all levels of the workforce, and virtually every occupational area.T
This was an organization with a definite purpose, in search of a definite directive. Each year since 1928, National Business Women’s Week is celebrated with the announced purpose of dramatizing the contributions of women to the business and professional life of the country. Career women leaders are often recognized and honored during this week. National Business Women’s Week is always celebrated the third week in October. Traditionally the President of the United States begins the week with an official proclamation that is followed by similar messages from governors and mayors throughout the country. BPW clubs use this week to publicize their activities, attract new members, and underline the National Federation’s goal of elevating the standards for all working women.
Women in increasing numbers are getting jobs formerly held primarily by men, (i.e. telephone linespersons, law enforcement officers, plumbers, electricians, ministers, ranch hands). And in the last 30 years, the increasing number of women politicians, lawyers, judges, doctors, bank officials, financial managers and in business’s of their own.
These facts and figures lead up to an awareness that America’s labor force has become increasingly divers and complex. That large numbers of women with previously unacknowledged talents, skills and needs are contributing to and making demands on the world of business.
In 1919, the Lewiston/Auburn BPW Club was formed and in 1920, a club in Portland became organized. These two, along with the State Association and Bureau of Policewomen and Matrons already in existence formed the nucleus for the Maine State Organization in 1921. There are few states in the union in which the early days of the Federation of BPW Clubs grew as rapidly as in Maine and particularly in Portland. Before the Portland club was two years old, it had achieved a membership of 685 and was then in proportion to the population of the City in which it was located, the largest BPW club in the world.
In 1925, Maine was hostess to the 7th National Convention with record attendance of 2,300 paid registrations. It was the first time many delegates from the mid-west and west had been to the Atlantic Ocean and coming to grips with Maine lobsters at the old fashioned clambake proved to be quite a challenge. Being a border state, Maine was the first federation in the country to have an international member and it strengthened its reciprocal relationship with Canada by holding its 1932 state convention on Canadian soil with Canadian honored guests.
Maine’s Legislative Platform for 1998-1999 continues working for women’s needs:
- Economic Equality - Secure equal treatment for women in all areas of employment: support implementation of equal pay for equal work; and work of comparable value.
- Civil Rights - Ensure equal rights for women in all phases of their lives.
- Dependent Care - Support legislation to increase availability of affordable programs for dependent care.
- Domestic Violence - Support legislation to aid victims of violence: including spousal and child abuse laws; and community support programs.
- Equal Education - Support equal education opportunities for women at all levels.
- Health Equity - Ensure reproductive choice and full access to all reproductive health services and education; ensure funds for research into; and protection for women’s health care needs; and encourage the development of a national health care plan recognizing the special health care needs of women.
There have been many highlights of Maine achievement. One was the purchase of a Bookmobile in 1931 which was presented to the State Library and which in its first month of operation, covered more then 3,000 miles visiting 272 towns and establishing 50 deposit stations in remote sections. Another was the successful six day past convention tour of Maine which followed the Atlantic City National Convention in 1937.
Gail Laughlin, first president of National Federation, is a native of Maine although she was living in California at the time of her election. She later returned to Maine and served in both branches of the state legislature. Margaret Chase Smith Maine’s first woman representative in Congress was Maine’s third Federation President.
The State of Maine Song written by Roger Vinton Snow of Portland was introduced to BPW members at the Portland Convention in 1932. The Federation voted to use the song and popularize it for eventual adoption as the official song for the state. In 1936, a BPW committee drafted a bill for the legislature. Sally Green (Pickering) of Lewiston/Auburn BPW made several visits to Augusta to sing the song at various legislative sessions and in March of 1937, the song was adopted as the official song of the State of Maine. In 1939, Bertha Hudson, a BPW Past State President, presented the copyright assignment to Governor Barrows for the state and the original manuscript from Mr. Snow was presented to the State Library.
Maine established a Women’s Hall of Fame in 1990 dedicated to women who have made an outstanding contribution to improving opportunities for all Maine women. The University of Maine at Augusta has donated space and is a co-sponsor.