Every year during Women’s History Month, my thoughts turn to my mother. Why? Because my mom was a pioneer in the field of women business ownership.
Mom became an entrepreneur at the end of World War II, a move that was unheard-of in those days. The war left her a young widow, and she was determined to provide for herself. Partnering with her brother who was just returning from the war, she pooled resources and opened a furniture store in a rural Missouri town. I’ve heard many great stories about my mother’s ability to sell! She was a dynamo, and the business thrived as a result.
Then, Cupid’s arrow struck again when my mother met the man who became her second husband, my father. Dad worked in a town about 60 miles away from where my mother lived so when they got married, mom sold her interest in the furniture store and moved to the town where dad was employed.
Being a traditional wife didn’t appeal to my mom. So she found a business to buy — a children’s clothing store — which became Wilson’s Tot Shop. Her timing was interesting given the fact that at the time of the purchase my birth was only months away.
Her success with the children’s shop mirrored what she had enjoyed in the furniture business, and she expanded, adding women’s clothing, gifts, and dry goods. With no business or marketing education, she instinctively knew how to build her customer base. The front page of an old local newspaper shows a picture of my mother in her shop with a package ready to ship to Queen Elizabeth as a gift for the newborn Prince Andrew. She knew how to get the press!
As Dad watched my mother’s business grow, the entrepreneurial bug bit him. Employed as a funeral director at one of the town’s well-established funeral homes, he decided it was time to strike out on his own. So in 1963, my mom and dad became business partners and founded Wilson Funeral Home. Together they made a great team. Mom ran the business operations and my Dad had an admirable ability to build strong customer relationships. Some people believed they’d never make it to Heaven unless my Dad took care of their final arrangements.
For a few years, mom tried to juggle the clothing store and the funeral home, but it became too much so she sold the clothing store. Because of their professionalism and commitment to the community, my parent’s business prospered, and they eventually succeeded in acquiring both of their competitors. They sold the business it in 1999.
Mom passed away in 2001 with Alzheimer’s. My biggest regret is never spending time with her learning what it was like to be a woman business owner in the June Cleaver era. Despite the challenges and discrimination I know she dealt with, she managed to succeed. And when I start to think life isn’t fair, all I have to do is stop to think about my mom who did it without the resources women business owners have today.
I love to hear the stories people share with me about her courage and leadership.
The former high school band teacher told me my mother single-handedly raised $20,000 to purchase new band uniforms. A local hair stylist shared the story of how my mother came to her aid when she could not get out bed one morning because of pain. My mother rushed her to a physician in a nearby town who had said he wasn’t taking any new patients. (Well, that was his stance until he encountered my mother calling him to say, “I am on my way to your office with my friend, and you will see her.” And he did.)
The most important lessons my mother taught me were: Never be afraid of hard work; always be willing to help others; and never stop believing in yourself.
“Susan,” she’d say, “You can be anything you want to be in this world as long as you are willing to work hard enough to achieve it.”
There are many women like my mother who struggled and faced discrimination in order to create opportunities for us. As we celebrate women’s history month, let’s remember the great women in our lives and not let their work be for naught. Women have made significant progress in business, but that progress has come on the backs of women who forged ahead, clearing the way. It is our duty to keep improving and widening the path. It’s our turn to carry the torch for future generations.