The female CEO isn’t quite a common occurrence yet—only 6.4 percent of the 2017 Fortune 500 CEOs are women, a record high for the list—but women in business everywhere are continuously and significantly improving the status quo. In an age of modernity, it’s important to honor not just those who are currently furthering progress, but also the women of history who took the very first steps.
Anna Sutherland Bissell was America’s first female CEO. Born in 1846 in Nova Scotia, Canada, she moved to the United States at an early age, where she later married Melville Bissell, an entrepreneur. In order to lessen the hassle of cleaning sawdust in their crockery shop, Melville invented an effective and marketable carpet sweeper, then creating Bissell, Inc. in 1883 to sell the product. Anna aided the business as his partner, going door to door as a salesperson, as well as securing bank loans when their factory burned down in 1884.
When Melville Bissell passed away in 1889, Anna quickly stepped up to run the company, becoming the first woman to serve as chief executive officer of an American corporation. She defended the product patents and actively marketed the sweepers internationally, even gaining Queen Victoria—who told her servants that she wanted the palace “Bisselled” every week—as a fan toward the end of the century. Bissell quickly became the largest organization in its industry, and would later expand to include vacuums and other carpet cleaners.
Anna Bissell served as the president of Bissell, Inc. for 20 years (1889-1919), as well as chair of the board for another 15 years after (1919-1934). She ran Bissell as a widowed single mother, achieving commercial success in addition to making progressive moves for her workers. She was one of the first business leaders to provide workers’ compensation and pension plans in the Progressive Era, in which the labor movement was at its peak of fighting for broad goals of social, political, and economic reform.
Anna Bissell’s receptiveness to her workers’ needs and the progressive ideas of the time can be linked to her generosity and compassion in charity as well. She was a magnanimous philanthropist; she worked passionately with Red Cross, the Blodgett Memorial Medical Center, Union Benevolent Association, and the Blodgett Home for Children. She was also a member of Zonta and Women’s City Club, through which she supported and encouraged women venturing into business, and she contributed further to the community by establishing the Bissell House for women and children.
To this day, Anna Bissell serves as an inspiration to women everywhere, both for her work as a businesswoman and her work as a philanthropist. Bissell, Inc. still sells carpet cleaning equipment, holding 20 percent of the North American market share and standing at the number one floor care product manufacturer. Anna Bissell received numerous awards for her civic work, and was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. Today in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the Bissell company first began, stands a statue of Anna Bissell in her legacy.
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