That Time Women Disrupted the Traditional Economy During the Biggest Startup Week in the Nation
Fashion, entrepreneurship, and history collide at Denver Startup Week.
Hashtag StartUpWeek conjures images of millennial white men clad in blue-checked button-down shirts and messenger bags. Denver Startup Week — the largest free event of its kind with attendance north of 16,000 people — is usually no exception. Usually. This year, program directors intentionally brought a greater focus to diversity, equity, and inclusion. This year, women submitted panels in greater numbers, and the number of women-focused topics throughout the week dwarfed that of previous years. And this year, Women in Kind chose Denver Startup Week as the time and place to launch its Sister Economy . . . with a fashion show featuring revolutionary moments in women’s economic history.
As the cofounder of Women in Kind, I can attest to the import of this moment for us and hopefully, for many women. It first required us to come to terms with women’s economic history and unpack their roles in our traditional economy. It then forced us to question our own contribution to women’s economic success. Finally, it called upon us to rethink our understanding of disruption and encouraged us to become comfortable with its use.
Women’s Economic History
Do women even have an economic history? If you read the textbooks I did as an elementary or high school student, the answer to that question would be no. Women’s economic history is noted only so far as it supports that of men’s or momentarily disrupts it. That’s why revolutionary moments in women’s history are so important. They form a connect-the-dots picture of how women have been forced to participate in a system not designed with them in mind, and — in moments of desperation—how women worked to alter that system.
Women’s economic history didn’t start anytime or anywhere, of course. It’s simply always been, although it has not always been seen. That’s why our fashion show starts with women’s economic participation in Ancient Rome. For most of us with a tentative-Trivial-Pursuit-pie-piece level familiarity with Ancient Roman history, it seems there were hardly any women at all, much less women who influenced the economy. In fact, women were influential. These were elite women who had some resources at their disposal and who turned their resources into businesses; they ran brick production companies or wineries. And they disrupted their local economies further through their philanthropy, often choosing to donate their assets — land or revenue — to the arts or in service to social causes rather than letting it simply line the pockets of their husbands.
In 1881, just a decade and a half after the Civil War, over 3,000 laundresses in the city of Atlanta refused to wash another garment until the municipal government accepted a standard rate of pay. Many of the laundresses were former slaves and committed to receiving fair wages for their work despite push back from white customers. The laundresses of Atlanta organized — they came together, refusing to do any laundry, setting a standard rate of pay no one could undercut, and demanding fair and humane treatment. After the city ran out of fresh drawers and all other garments, it acquiesced to the laundresses’ demands. The strike was a pivotal moment in gaining more autonomy and respect for domestic workers.
On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in New York City burned, killing 145 workers. Nearly all the workers were teenaged girls who did not speak English, and who worked 12 hour days, seven days a week. Women took to the streets in droves after the fire, circulating petitions protesting the sweatshop conditions, lack of safety measures, and the exploitation of their labor. Their efforts not only spurred change in fire codes and workplace safety conditions, it was also the impetus for the Democratic Party taking up the plight of the American worker and adopting an identity as the Reform Party.
Perhaps one of the most revolutionary moments in women’s economic history was when women finally got to assume some control of their bodies. Thanks to Margaret Sanger, founder of the modern birth control movement and what is now known as Planned Parenthood, women could decide if, when, and how much when it came to making babies. Sanger believed that only by liberating women from the risk of unwanted pregnancy would fundamental social change take place, including women’s ability to work outside of the home. She endured numerous arrests and jail time to bring women closer to independence and economic freedom.
If you don’t know her name, learn it! She’s Brownie Wise, creator of the The Tupperware Party. Wise became second in command at Earl Tupper’s company and the one and only reason the Tupperware product is as omnipresent as it is today. The Tupperware party was a way for women to work and earn an income while “staying in their lane” as housewives and homemakers. It also set the standard in a number of other industries from Avon and Mary Kay to scented oils and Rodan and Fields. Wise was a huge success and in 1954 was the first woman featured on the cover of Business Week. We still use Brownie Wise’s methods and have her to thank for shifting perceptions of women’s economic power and sales and business acumen in the mid-20th century.
On June 24, 1974, ten women from a variety of backgrounds began their first day of work at Seattle City Light, the city’s public utility. This was a truly revolutionary moment. For these women weren’t secretaries. They represented the first women integrated into the all-male, unionized, Seattle City Light electricians. These women would become the first female linemen, sub-station constructors, cable splicers, the first unionized female utility electricians not only in Seattle, but in the nation. They endured constant harassment and threats from their male crew members but believed in demonstrating women’s ability to perform work traditionally only thought suitable for men.
Imagine working for a company for 19 years as a supervisor, giving it your all. You are starting to think about retirement when one day you find an anonymous note on your desk. From this note you learn some pretty valuable info: you’ve been making significantly less than the men who have the same position and experience as you. What do you do?
Well, if you’re Lily Ledbetter, you sue the shit outta your employer, who happens to be Goodyear Tire. It was a long, hard legal battle, but Ledbetter prevailed and thanks to her revolutionary courage and dedication, we now have legislation to protect women who want to bring suit for unequal pay. (Cocktail party convo tip: Ruth Bader Ginsburg has a copy of this piece of legislation framed in her office.)
In 2017 journalists from The New Yorker and the The New York Times reported on the stories of women who had been sexually assaulted by the then-exalted Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein. These stories sparked a firestorm of similar accounts, involving Weinstein and his ilk. The likes of Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Louis CK, and Mario Batali. To name a few. As women around the world raised their hands and said not only #metoo but #nomore, we witnessed a movement take hold wherein women began to push back on forces threatening to demean and endanger them. These are our places of work, they said, and don’t you dare.
Our Current Contribution
Calling these revolutionary moments to women’s attention is not only a way to affirm women indeed have a history, but is a reminder our economic system is a product built by people. It can therefore be altered, disrupted, redesigned, and rebuilt by people. People like women. People like us.
It’s difficult to argue our current economic system works for women. We are still fighting many of the same fights. Equal pay, fair wages, safety, access to quality jobs. Maybe it time’s to realize when it comes to valuing, appreciating, and truly working for women, our traditional economy simply doesn’t cut it. It’s time to come to terms with the fact women are economically successful despite systems ill-suited for their participation and ask what women could achieve within systems designed to facilitate their success? In the face of these realizations, we can also ask ourselves, how we, as women, can create something revolutionary today. What is our contribution? What is our disruptive revolutionary moment?
We hope many more women (and men) begin to reflect on women’s economic history and use it as an inventive space to think about women’s current economic status. If necessity is the mother of invention, interrogation — interrogating the taken-for-grantedness of systems and processes — is the fairy godmother of disruption. Denver Startup Week, an event we may often associate with one type of participant, is increasingly a space to think about interrogation and disruption as entrepreneurial tools to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion.