Celebrating America's First Women CEOs

In our continuing celebration of Women's History Month, we're taking a look at three women whose business leadership shaped history.
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Meredith Worthen
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In our continuing celebration of Women's History Month, we're taking a look at three women whose business leadership shaped history.

America has a rich history of firsts. Among them are powerful women who were the first in their fields, all of whom became powerful forces in male-dominated fields. While some inherited their positions, including Anna Bissell, America’s first ever woman CEO, and Katharine Graham, America’s first female Fortune 500 CEO, others carved their own paths into leadership including Ursula Burns, America’s first African-American female Fortune 500 CEO. All of these women leaders continue to shape history as strong, courageous, and influential role models to girls and women everywhere. 

Anna Bissell, America’s First Ever Woman CEO 

Anna Bissell Photo courtesy of Bissell Company (large)

Anna Bissell (Photo courtesy of Bissell Company)

Anna Bissell (1846–1934) became the CEO of the Bissell sweeper company in 1889 making her the first ever woman CEO in American history. Although it was her husband, Melville Bissell (1843–1889) who invented and patented an innovative carpet sweeper in 1876 and later founded the Bissell company, after his death, it was Anna who aggressively marketed the sweepers, even gaining a royal fan, Queen Victoria, who insisted that her palace be “Bisselled” every week in the late 1800s. Anna was active in the Bissell company from the start. She even traveled across America selling the Bissell carpet sweepers at the budget-conscious price of $1.50 and persuaded major marketplaces, including Wanamaker’s (one of America’s first department stores) to carry her product. As Bissell’s CEO, she thrust the company into the international market and by 1899 she had created the largest organization of its kind in the world. And Anna did not stop there, she continued to oversee the ins and outs of production and was well known for her familiarity with every facet of her business. Anna was also amongst the first entrepreneurs to provide her employees with pensions plan and workers’ compensation. Her dedication to the industry was fierce and her force as a woman in a male-dominated world was powerful. It was said that she “studied business the way other women of her time studied French” and upon her death, she was described as "a successful business woman in an era where business was almost wholly a masculine field."

Katharine Graham, America’s First Female Fortune 500 CEO

Katharine Graham Photo By Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

Katharine Graham (Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)

Katharine Graham (1917-2001) took over The Washington Post after her husband’s death and became America’s first female Fortune 500 CEO in 1972. Her interests in journalism were cultivated at an early age. She worked on the school newspaper at the prestigious college-preparatory school, the Madeira School, and during her summers away from the University of Chicago, she worked at The Washington Post, which was owned by her father, Eugene Meyer (1875-1959), who acquired it in 1933. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1938, she worked as a reporter for the San Francisco News and then joined the editorial staff of The Washington Post. Her father passed The Post’s CEO position down to her husband, Philip L. Graham (1915-1963) in 1948, and upon his death, Katharine ascended to power. She brought in skilled journalists to improve the quality of the paper and grew the publishing company’s reputation substantially. Under her leadership, The Post became one of the top newspapers in the country that was a trusted political source for presidents and other leaders around the world. She oversaw its publication during the period in which its coverage of the Watergate scandal led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. For more than two decades, Katharine built a publishing empire and quickly became the most powerful woman in publishing. She also became a role model for other women leaders in male dominated fields and spoke openly about these issues: ". . .the thing women must do to rise to power is to redefine their femininity. Once power was considered a masculine attribute. In fact, power has no sex."

Ursula Burns, First African-American Female Fortune 500 CEO

Urusula Burns Photo By U.S. Government Printing Office (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons

Ursula Burns (Photo: U.S. Government Printing Office (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons)

Ursula Burns (born September 20, 1958) became America’s first African-American female CEO in July 2009. She was also the first woman CEO to succeed another woman CEO, Anne Mulcahy. Ursula started her career at Xerox in 1980 as a summer intern and after studying mechanical engineering at NYU and Columbia, she joined Xerox as a permanent employee in 1981. For over three decades, Ursula worked her way up from executive assistant to vice president for global manufacturing to her current position as the CEO at Xerox. Shortly after acquiring her position as CEO, she organized the $6.4 billion purchase of Affiliated Computer Services, the largest acquisition in Xerox history. Today, Xerox is the leader in diversified business process services and document technology business. Forbes has featured Ursula numerous times on their “100 most powerful women in the world” lists and she frequently credits her mother for her achievements, "I learned from my mother that if you have a chance to speak, you should speak. If you have an opinion, you should make it be known."