Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The First Woman Director

March was Women's History Month. Before the month comes to a complete close, let's add one last entry to the history books — the first woman corporate director.

Directors & Boards Publisher Robert Rock had occasion to track down this milestone in board composition last summer. He had just received an invitation from "Vision 2020" — a group that is preparing celebrations for the 100th anniversary of Aug. 26, 1920, when the 19th amendment gave American women the right to vote — which then peaked his curiosity about the first woman to join a corporate board. Drawing from various references, here is what several sources have concluded.

There were a handful of women who upon the death of a husband or father came onto the board of an American corporation, most notably Marjorie Merriweather Post, who in 1914 joined the board of the frozen foods and cereal company started by her father.

Other business historians point to Lettie Pate Whitehead (pictured) as the first independent woman to serve on the board of a major U.S. corporation. An Atlanta business, church and civic leader, she joined the Coca-Cola Co. board in 1934. This was a year after President Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor, the first woman to hold a Cabinet post. Ms. Whitehead served on the Coke board for 20 years. Her philanthropic legacy continues to this day to benefit charitable initiatives.

Perhaps her legacy also continues to benefit the Coca-Cola company and its board. I just took a quick look at the Coke board today and was pleased to see that three highly accomplished women serve as directors: Cathleen Black, Alexis Herman, and Maria Elena Lagomasino. Three is good, at a time when many companies still have no women directors and many others feel that having one woman is a sufficient nod to board diversity.