Mother, May I? Five Iconic Women in the Retail Industry

Retail has always been a female–driven business. Since retail first began, women have been the ones who stroll the aisles of supermarkets and peruse the racks at department stores. And yet, the business itself has always been dominated by men; even today, only 5.6% of retail CEOs are women. Despite the shortage of female leadership in the retail industry, women have still managed to leave their mark on our trade, shaping the way we create, market and sell our products.
We’ve compiled a list of five of our favorite women in retail, from botanists who shaped our country’s first industries to modern icons in an age of digitalized marketing. And in honor of this month’s special holiday, these women also share a position in the most important job in the world: they’re all mothers.
Eliza Lucas Pinckney
Pinckney was just 16 years old when she began to shape the modern fashion and retail industries in 1738. When her mother died, Pinckney was responsible not only for her younger siblings, she was also expected to run the South Carolina family’s three plantations while her father, a British military officer, was stationed in the Caribbean. Pinckney’s youth did not hinder her success, nor her curiosity. With a passion for botany and a teenager’s knowledge of fashion, Pinckney delved into a new enterprise: indigo. She was conscious of shifting trends in the textile industry, trends that necessitated higher cachets of indigo for color–saturated dyes. Her father was already sending her collections of delicate seeds from Antiqua to experiment with on their plantation, and Pinckney devoted herself to cultivating his samplings of indigo.
As they say, the third time’s a charm; after two failed crops, Pinckney finally found success with her indigo crop in 1744. She cultivated and grew her own crop and shared her findings and seeds with other local plantation owners. Pinckney’s success not only boosted the prosperity of her own plantation and business, it changed the entire economy of South Carolina. Within a few years, her mastery of the crop and the business surrounding made indigo the second–largest crop in the state.
Madam C.J. Walker
At the dawn of the 20th century, the world of retail was not one that welcomed women–especially not women of color. This fact is what makes the story of Madam C.J. Walker so striking. After a string of marriages and moves, Sarah Breedlove (the future Madam C.J. Walker) relocated to St. Louis, determined to provide her daughter with an excellent education and herself with a new life. Like many African American women of the time, Breedlove suffered from a series of scalp ailments, like dandruff and premature balding, from harsh products like lye, poor diet and infrequent bathing (because of a lack of indoor plumbing). Breedlove began to learn about haircare from her brothers, who were barbers, then moved on to selling African American haircare products for Annie Turnbo Malone. Using this newfound knowledge of products and pitches, Breedlove began developing her own product line.
In 1906, following her marriage to Charles Walker, Breedlove shifted into her new persona: Madam C.J. Walker (the “madam” a tribute to the French beauty industry). With her husband’s insight into advertising and her own experience with sales and haircare, her business quickly grew from door–to–door sales to cross–country mail orders. In the years that followed, Walker built a factory, hair salon, a beauty school for training sales agents and a laboratory for testing new products. She trained some 20,000 women to work as sales agents and beauty experts, selling her wares in neighborhoods across the country and the Caribbean. Walker’s mastery of marketing and advertisement propelled her to notoriety as America’s first self–made millionaire.
Anita Roddick
By 1976, women were beginning to shift out of their worn positions in the home and into the business sector, giving rise to power suits and shoulder pads—but they were still strikingly absent from positions of power in the retail industry. It was in this year that Anita Roddick, a mother of two living in England, began looking for a new business tract as her husband traveled the world for work. She founded The Body Shop with new, unique principals that she knew would appeal to the everywoman: quality skincare products with honest marketing.
The seemingly simple business strategy flourished. The Body Shop capitalized on the female consumer’s need for authentic and affordable bath and beauty products available in one place. Within six months, Roddick was opening her second store. And shortly thereafter, the business expanded to franchises; today there are 2,500 stores in 61 countries. In 2006, Roddick sold her once–small business to L’Oreal for a cool $1.4 billion. Through it all, Roddick maintained her devotion to honest and authentic beauty, even in a world where chemically–driven products were an ostensibly guaranteed profit.
Jenna Lyons
Over the past decade, Jenna Lyons has become a cultural icon; you’ll find her on the cover of magazines, in cameos in movies and in lineups of the country’s most successful women. But at the core of this celebrated and popularized persona sits a retail magnate.
As a child, Lyons turned to fashion as a buttress from the bullying that plagued her (Lyons was born with incontinentia pigmenti, a genetic disorder that scarred her skin and led to hair loss and malformed teeth). Fashion served as both an escape and support system. Lyons joined J. Crew shortly after college and quickly climbed through the ranks, by 2008 earning a position as creative director and 2010 as President. Lyons is greatly credited with J. Crew’s incredible profit and progress in the past 15 years. Before Lyons’ rise, the company was suffering from a lack of consistency across brands and platforms; Lyons transformed J. Crew into a single cohesive brand with simple, iconic looks and consistent marketing in their storefronts and (now quintessential) Style Guide. From 2003 to 2013, the company’s profits tripled thanks to Lyons’ savvy business strategies. And now Lyons is known as the “Woman Who Dresses America.”
Rachel Menken
Ok, so this may be a fictional character—but she’s still worthy of our favorites! Mad Men is known for its honest depiction of the shifting tides of gender relations in the world of business, and one of these earliest portraits came in the form of Rachel Menken.

In the show’s first season, Menken visits the Sterling–Cooper Advertising Agency with hopes for revitalizing her father’s struggling Jewish department store. When Don Draper pitches coupons as a viable advertising strategy, Menken heartily dissents, instead suggesting alternative strategies that will attract a wealthier consumer. Menken is a powerful anomaly to the show, and Don Draper, as the first woman to maintain her assertiveness in the boy’s club of the advertising agency and to withstand the rugged and masculine charm of Draper (at least for a while). But more than that, Menken is an iconic businesswoman in the world of retail. When we first meet her, she’s an aberration in the field of ‘50s housewives: unmarried and self–assured, Menken receives her happiness and affirmation from the male–dominated world of business. And even more than that, she does not cower before these roughened men or acquiesce to their guidance, but instead stands firm in her own marketing and business strategies, a move that eventually leads to the success of her company. Menken serves as a symbolic tribute to those early female trailblazers and businesswomen who defied the gendered standards of the early retail industry and carved a path for the successful women of today.

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