How Eleanor Roosevelt Paved the Way for Women in Sales

Eleanor_Roosevelt_portrait_1933This first lady was a trailblazer for women leaders. And she’s finally getting some credit.

I don’t remember Eleanor Roosevelt. I never knew what a maverick she was until I read why she might soon become the first woman featured on the $10 bill. She stood up for what she believed and used her role as first lady to fight for equality in all walks of life.

This was not an easy undertaking in the 1930s. Women in the U.S. won the right to vote in 1920, but it wasn’t until 1974 that they could apply for credit without their husbands’ signatures. Can you imagine? You’re a woman starting a business, and you have to get your husband’s signature? This was real—not in the 1800s but in the 1970s.

Women in sales would have been hard to find in Roosevelt’s day. Most women were secretaries or teachers. Many companies wouldn’t hire women for what we now call “customer-facing” roles. Case in point: My mother graduated summa cum laude from Syracuse University in 1937 with a degree in finance. But she couldn’t get a job at a bank because banks didn’t hire women, even as tellers.

Think there’s an unconscious bias towards women today? Imagine what it was like then. We definitely still have progress to make, but there is certainly something to the saying: “We’ve come a long way, baby.”

Thankfully, women leaders like Eleanor Roosevelt blazed the trail for generations to come.

A First for First Ladies

The U.S. Treasury Department plans to feature a woman on paper currency by 2020. And it’s no surprise that Roosevelt is the frontrunner, at least in public opinion. According to a poll by McClatchy-Marist, one in four Americans would prefer her over Alexander Hamilton, who now appears on the $10 bill.

What makes Eleanor Roosevelt so special? As the wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she stepped up in ways that first ladies never had. She gave press conferences and wrote a newspaper column called “My Day,” in which she spoke out for human rights, stood against racial discrimination, and advocated for issues that affected American women and children.

She was also an advocate—and a role model—for working women. Betsey Guzior sums up Roosevelt’s efforts in her fantastic article, “3 ways Eleanor Roosevelt—who could soon grace the $10 bill—changed the workplace for women.” Not only did the first lady cofound a business with another woman, but she also used her influence to open doors for other professional women.

For example, Guzior shares these anecdotes:

At the beginning of her tenure as First Lady, Roosevelt established a weekly news conference, attended only by female journalists. That afforded opportunity for female reporters who were not allowed to attend other presidential news conferences. 

Roosevelt famously resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution after the society refused to allow African-American opera singer Marian Anderson to perform at its Constitution Hall before an integrated audience. “You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed,” she wrote in her resignation letter. In protest, the First Lady and others arranged for Anderson to instead perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

(Read the rest of the article.)

The Lesson for Women in Sales

Women leaders across industries certainly have reason to celebrate and appreciate Eleanor Roosevelt. But in male-dominated industries like sales, there’s an important lesson we can learn from her about how to level the playing field.

If we want more women at the top of our profession, we must keep opening doors for each other, and for the talented women coming up through the ranks. They need mentors and advice from women who’ve blazed their own trails. They also need champions to back up their ideas and efforts.

Simply put, if we want more women in sales, then women leaders will have to do something about it.

Want to learn more about women in sales? Check out my latest speaking topic: “Big Deals and High Heels: Why Women Are Naturals at Selling.” Come listen to the presentation at Dreamforce on September 16, or contact me about speaking to the saleswomen in your organization.

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Follow Joanne on Google+ or Twitter @ReferralSales, or connect on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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