1809: Mary Kies becomes the first American woman to hold a patent in her own name. Her invention, a method of weaving straw with silk and thread for hats, becomes a fashion sensation and kicks off a bonnet manufacturing boom in New England. President James Madison signs the patent, and First Lady Dolley Madison sends Kies a letter of congratulation.
1852: Mary Ellen Pleasant, a veteran of the Underground Railroad, arrives in San Francisco and begins to amass a fortune fueled by financial knowledge gleaned from her position running men’s eating clubs. Passing as white in some circles, Pleasant uses her wealth and power to fund abolitionism, lawsuits over streetcar segregation, and support for the city’s emerging black leaders.
1869: The Daughters of St. Crispin, representing shoe stitchers, is founded in Massachusetts and becomes the first national women’s labor union. The organization, with 24 lodges stretching from Maine to California, demands equal pay for equal work, stages strikes, and testifies before Congress in favor of labor reform.
1869: Lydia Moss Bradley, a wealthy widow involved in banking, becomes perhaps the first American woman to draft a prenuptial agreement to protect her assets before remarrying. The marriage ends quickly in divorce, and Bradley expands her estate and philanthropic giving for decades, eventually establishing co-educational Bradley Polytechnic Institute (now Bradley University).
1899: Florence Kelley founds the National Consumers League, which advocates for workers’ rights and protections. The organization fiercely opposes sweatshops and child labor and fights on behalf of minimum wage laws for women.
1910s: Annie Turnbo Malone and Sarah Breedlove compete as cosmetics moguls, each building beauty and hair product empires that make them among the wealthiest self-made women and African-Americans. Malone’s innovative products and training program at Poro College and Breedlove’s hugely successful Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Co. both create thousands of jobs for women.
1963: The Equal Pay Act passes, seeking to eliminate wage disparities based on gender. It amends the earlier Fair Labor Standards Act to prohibit sexual discrimination, explicitly addressing the notion of equal pay for equal work.
1967: President Lyndon B. Johnson signs Executive Order 11375, prohibiting sex discrimination in both the U.S. federal workforce and by government contractors. The action makes clear (and provides for enforcement of) gender-based anti-discrimination policy, which had lagged behind other forms of bias prevention in civil rights reform.
1977: Juanita Kreps becomes the first female U.S. Secretary of Commerce. An economist responsible for landmark studies about American working women, she previously broke barriers as the first female director at the New York Stock Exchange.
2009: The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is signed, loosening statute of limitations restrictions on when a sexual discrimination lawsuit can be brought against a company for unequal pay. The legislation is named for Ledbetter, whose pay equity fight against Goodyear was previously defeated by the Supreme Court.
Alexis Coe is the Wing’s in-house historian, author of Alice+Freda Forever and the forthcoming You Never Forget Your First. She was a Research Curator at the NYPL.
Alessandra Genualdo is an Italian illustrator and painter, she lives and works in East London with her dog Kira.