I have been doing quite a bit of reading on the history of the life insurance industry in the US. This is due in large part to the fact that I work in this industry, but also because I find that it is fascinating story filled with countless inspiring individuals. I think we can find heroes anywhere if we just simply look, and the life insurance industry is no exception.
A few quick points on the early history of the industry to help orient you:
- The concept of life insurance can be traced back to ancient Babylon where it is found in the Code of Hammurabi – the family of merchants killed by brigands were awarded silver1
- 1583 – The first recoded life insurance policy, a 1-year term policy that paid out a 400 pound sterling benefit2
- 1759 – The first life insurance company in the US is established in Philadelphia: The Corporation for Relief of the Poor and Distressed Presbyterian Ministers and the Poor and Distressed Widows and Children of Presbyterian Ministers
- 1839-1840 – States pass the Married Women’s Property Act which allows, among other things, life insurance proceeds to be passed to a widow without being subject to the demands of the husband’s debtors3
Women have played an important role in this industry from nearly the start. In this post, I’d like to share two important women from the early years of life insurance in the US.
The first is Bina West Miller.
Bina West Miller (1867-1954) was an incredible pioneer and entrepreneur. She saw a problem, understood how to fix it, and put her plan into action. She did this so well that the company she founded is still here today.
Bina began her career as a young school teacher in Michigan. Through her work, she witnessed first hand the struggles a family went through when the mother of two children passed away while the children were still young. The father carried life insurance on himself, but at that time, no company would cover women – in large part due to maternal fatality rates during childbirth. The father, left with no means to care for his children was forced to send his children to foster homes where they were sent out to work.
Bina saw the injustice in this situation and took bold steps to address it. In 1892, Bina founded the Women’s Benefit Society in 1892. Her objective was to be “The Largest, Strongest, and Most Progressive Fraternal Benefit Society for Women in the World. Offers more opportunities to women than any other fraternal insurance society.”5 Her organization offered women more than life insurance; it offered women a support network and a way to connect to their communities.
Bina successfully served as the CEO of her company for over 56 years. In 1996 the organization was renamed Woman’s Life Insurance Society, (I have linked to the company page on their history) and remains in business today. There is quite a bit of research out there on Bina West – I will list a few sources at the end of the article and I highly recommend you take a look.
The second woman I would like to introduce to you is Minnie Geddings Cox. Minnie’s story is rather different than Bina’s, but like Bina, she was a pioneer, an entrepreneur, and an important leader in the history of the life insurance industry. Much of what Minnie is known for revolves around what is known as the Indianola Affair. Minnie, serving as the first African-American postmistress in Mississippi (serving in Indianola), was forced to flee her city due to racial tensions and personal threats. When she attempted to resign from her post, President Roosevelt refused to accept it, and instead closed the post office for more than a year. Eventually, Minnie did return to Indianola.
Minnie was born in Mississippi in 1869 to former slaves. She attended Fisk University, and initially set out to be a school teacher. After her return to Indianola in 1904, she and her husband opened a bank, the Delta Penny Savings Bank, only the second African-American owned bank in Mississippi.
Shortly thereafter (1908), Minnie and her husband started the Mississippi Beneficial Life Insurance Company, the first African-American owned life insurance company in Mississippi. This life insurance company and the bank were described by Minnie’s husband as “monuments of protest to the injustices inflicted upon him and his wife.”6
When Minnie’s husband passed away in 1916, Minnie immediately stepped into the leadership role of the bank and the insurance company, and began improving the company. She expanded the company to nearby states, added training programs, and organized and held district meetings for her agents. Despite significant hurdles, Minnie was a rousing success. She passed away in 1933. The company no longer exists today, but was swept away in a variety of acquisitions by larger insurance companies.
There is an excellent paper written by Shennette Garrett-Scott on the story of Minnie Geddings Cox and her life insurance company, and I am linking it here. I encourage everyone to give this a read – you will not be disappointed.
To know that in 1892, a woman started her own life insurance company, and in 1916, an African-American woman was running her own life insurance company, should give us considerable hope for the future. We need to talk about these women, celebrate these women and recognize all of the female role models we have in this industry.
As always, keep it positive and smile!
1: Anonymous. “Life Insurance – It Goes Back a Long Way.” Nation’s Business, Jan 1975, p. 24
2: Walford, Cornelius FIA (1885). History of Life Assurance in the United Kingdom. History of Life Assurance, Jan, 114-133
3: Jones, Bernie D. (2013). Revisiting the Married Women’s Property Acts. Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law, 22(1), 1-57
4: Anonymous. “Bina West: Founder of the Woman’s Life Insurance Society.” http://www.historyswomen.com/socialreformer/binawest.html Accessed 3 May 2018.
6: From the Mississippi Historical Society: http://www.mshistorynow.mdah.ms.gov/articles/421/minnie-geddings-cox-and-the-indianola-affair
Additional source on Bina West Miller:
From the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame website: http://www.michiganwomenshalloffame.org/Images/Miller,%20Bina%20West.pdf
Additional source on Minnie Geddings Cox:
From blackpast.org: http://www.blackpast.org/aah/cox-minnie-m-1869-1933