Boss Lady

How Three Women Entrepreneurs Built Successful Big Businesses in the Mid-Twentieth Century

By Edith Sparks

326 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 18 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-3302-2
    Published: June 2017
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-3303-9
    Published: May 2017
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-4926-7
    Published: May 2017
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-3301-5
    Published: June 2017

Luther H. Hodges Jr. and Luther H. Hodges Sr. Series on Business, Entrepreneurship, and Public Policy

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Too often, depictions of women’s rise in corporate America leave out the first generation of breakthrough women entrepreneurs. Here, Edith Sparks restores the careers of three pioneering businesswomen--Tillie Lewis (founder of Flotill Products), Olive Ann Beech (cofounder of Beech Aircraft), and Margaret Rudkin (founder of Pepperidge Farm)--who started their own manufacturing companies in the 1930s, sold them to major corporations in the 1960s and 1970s, and became members of their corporate boards. These leaders began their ascent to the highest echelons of the business world before women had widespread access to higher education and before there were federal programs to incentivize women entrepreneurs or laws to prohibit credit discrimination. In telling their stories, Sparks demonstrates how these women at once rejected cultural prescriptions and manipulated them to their advantage, leveraged familial connections, and seized government opportunities, all while advocating for themselves in business environments that were not designed for women, let alone for women leaders.

By contextualizing the careers of these hugely successful yet largely forgotten entrepreneurs, Sparks adds a vital dimension to the history of twentieth-century corporate America and provides a powerful lesson on what it took for women to succeed in this male-dominated business world.

About the Author

Edith Sparks is associate professor of history at University of the Pacific.
For more information about Edith Sparks, visit the Author Page.


“Points out, soberingly, that many of the obstacles faced by this trio of pioneers still stand in the way of women in business.”--Financial Times

“Tillie Lewis, Olive Ann Beech, and Margaret Rudkin were members of what has often been called ‘The Greatest Generation,’ but in that appellation, while so much is conveyed, so much is also left out. Sparks provides a smart and engaging way for us to enter into the compelling life stories of a group of women from that generation as they navigated work, family, wartime, and mid-twentieth century-definitions of gender.”—Jennifer Scanlon, Bowdoin College

“Through richly detailed narratives, Boss Lady explains how three immensely talented and ambitious women strategically navigated terrain dominated by masculine standards to achieve rare successes in mid-twentieth-century corporate America. In her vibrant analysis, Sparks shows how social and cultural factors—especially expectations about gender—interacted with business practices in ways that reflected and, in turn, affected American norms."—Pamela Walker Laird, University of Colorado Denver