Women in Insurance, a History, Part 4 The 1920s

votes for women

One of the most significant steps forward in the battle for women’s equality took place on August 20th, 1920, when the 19th amendment to the US Constitution allowing women the right to vote was certified into law by the US Secretary of State. This had been a long time in coming. Women had been fighting for this right for nearly one hundred years through marches, protests, campaigns, and political maneuvering.

Women were making progress in other areas as well. In 1929, women controlled approximately 41% of the individual wealth in the United States. The report by Lawrence Stern and Company included impressive statistics:

  • Women [were] the beneficiaries of 80% of the $95,000,000,000 of life insurance in force in the US
  • Women [paid] taxes on more than $3.25 billion of individual income annually
  • Women millionaires, as indicated by individual income tax returns, [were] as plentiful as men
  • Women to the number of more than 8,500,000 [were] gainfully employed

Women were entering the workforce in greater numbers than ever before. That said, women were not generally accepted as equals in the workplace. Blatant sexism was common. In a Forum article from April/May 1920, an argument was put forth that women were, as a rule, incapable of success in business. The author stated “There are more reasons than would fill these pages why women fail in business.” He claimed that women who achieved any level of success did so through pure luck.

One particular statement gave me pause because it may, in fact, be true. Regarding successful women, the author stated:

“And we read about these women over and over again, simply because they are the rare exceptions which prove the rule that women, as a whole, are notoriously unsuccessful in business.”

While I disagree wholeheartedly with the premise of the statement, I worry at the idea that we still read of these singular women today. This, though, is a thought for another post.

In some places knowledge of the nature of the inequality of women was emerging. An interesting 1919 article from the Lancet reads:

“No one has ever denied that a woman is handicapped on account of her potential motherhood, but this handicap is, as a rule, far greater than is necessary… Only in very rare and exceptional cases is it possible to compare with any degree of fairness the ability, both physical and mental, of men and women. Their upbringing has been different and their training and development have been forced along different lines.”

The essay explains that the difference in the responsibilities placed on a young woman at home necessarily puts her behind her male counterparts in terms of education and thereby impedes her abilities to achieve high levels of success throughout life.

WOMEN IN INSURANCE

Women were entering the insurance industry home offices in ever increasing numbers. The vast majority of these women were employed to handle stenography, bookkeeping, and other routine, clerical jobs. Very few women advanced beyond this level. An article from 1924 stated “Men, as a rule, fill the posts requiring extended training, because the majority of women employees take positions only for a limited period between school days and marriage.” According to one report, only 25 officers in the insurance industry were women in 1927.

Although women were insuring their lives at a greater rate than ever before there were still objections to the purchase of life insurance. One woman, describing her own situation, stated that when her husband proposed to buy insurance on his life, her reaction was similar to that of her friends:

“I don’t want my husband to spend money on insurance for me; I think it would be wrong to insure his life; besides, he is in perfect health.”

Not all companies were willing to write business on female lives. Those who did most often included some sort of physical hazard waiver against pregnancy, protecting the companies from a death directly or indirectly related to pregnancy. Some companies included this as a clause covering the first policy year or years. Others outright excluded any deaths related to pregnancy.

One important advancement however, established by the Supreme Court, determined that pregnancy, in and of itself, was not a violation of a warranty of good health. In other words, a woman who is not asked about pregnancy during an application for life insurance, and signs a statement of good health, but then dies shortly thereafter due to complications related to pregnancy cannot be denied benefits.

WOMEN AS LIFE INSURANCE AGENTS

A report from the National Association of Life Underwriters estimated that in 1927 there were approximately 202,000 men and women licensed to sell life insurance in the US, and that 85% of the business was written by 15,000 men. The life insurance business was clearly a man’s business, as exemplified in this quote from a female agent:

“There is a great dovetailing of business. Men give concessions to other men.”

Another woman is quoted as saying:

“Undoubtedly this correlation of business and exchange of patronage does exist. Then, too, men prefer to deal with men when they buy insurance.”

There were certain groups of women who found success in this industry during this decade when they might not have found it elsewhere. Those were women who wished or needed to work part-time, women who were older, and women who were not college educated. Most insurance companies at this time would not employ women under 30, and while college education was desired, it certainly was not required.

Retention of women agents was a concern. Many of the older women recruited into the industry were not able to handle the early lean years almost universal in the industry. Most of the time these women were entering the workforce because of an immediate and acute need for funds that could not be provided in the first few years of an insurance sales career.

Some women were successful. An article from 1927 highlighted several successful women in the life insurance industry. Mrs. Florence Shaal and E. Marie Little are profiled as the only women to head all-female agencies (The Equitable). Mrs. Shaal is credited as the first woman to be elected to office in the National Association of Life Underwriters, and was named the manager of the first ever women’s department in the country.

Emma Ditzler (Connecticut Mutual Life), who wrote policies almost exclusively on women, was “believed to have established a world’s record for her sex in insurance by writing at least one application a week for life insurance for 150 successive weeks.” Sarah Crannell Wells (New York Life) wrote enough insurance to qualify for the Two Hundred Thousand Club, and is credited as one of the most successful insurance women in New York. She is quoted as saying, “I believe women have a special field in family work in insurance…It’s hard work. It means new shoes, or at least new soles every month.”

Another female agent warranted a full page story in a 1924 edition of National Business Woman. Elizabeth Kenney, widowed at a young age, entered the work force as a school teacher in Iowa. She joined the local Business and Professional Women’s Club and became one of the most active members. After attending a national convention of this organization one summer, she was inspired to become an insurance salesperson, working for the Mutual Life Insurance Company in New York. She experienced immediate success, doubling her annual salary in her first six months on the job. Her manager is quoted as saying:

“With practically no experience, she wrote more applications during the third quarter than any other representative in this Agency, comprised of 45 counties, besides having many other duties to engage her attention.”

She was quickly thereafter promoted to district manager over four counties. Her friends said of her:

“Much of her success as a businesswoman rests on the fact that she is so human herself and has such a deep understanding of human nature….[she] gives of herself freely and impartially whenever needed, and brings inspiration to all with whom she comes in contact.”

As in decades past, the life insurance industry has recognized the desire for attracting women both as insurance agents and as policy holders. The industry has not, though, figured out the best way to do this.

Next up, the 1930s. As always, keep it positive and smile!
Sources:
Anonymous (1928). “Insuring the Future.” National business woman, 8(7), 340-341, 380-381.
Anonymous (1929). “Women Control 41 Per Cent of Nation’s Wealth.” Bankers’ Magazine, 118, 5.
Anonymous (1919). “Women in Industry.” The Lancet, July 26, 167-169.
Anonymous (1927). “Women in Insurance.” National business woman, 12(6), 17, 45.
Bruere, Henry (1924). “Number One Madison Avenue.” The Independent, Dec. 27, 113, 3891.
“Excepted Risks in the Law of Life Insurance: Part II.” (1925). The Central Law Journal, 98(20), 350.
Norman, Henry (1920). “The Feminine Failure in Business.” Forum, April/May, 455.
Ravlin, Bernice (1924). “Elizabeth Kenney Insurance Underwriter.” National business woman, 2(8), 11.
Wallace, Eugenia (1927). “Business, Altruism and Insurance.” National business woman, 12(6), 14-16.

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Women in Life Insurance, A History (A difficult chapter)

juneteenthIn my series of posts on the history of women in life insurance, I have worked our way up to the1920s. I realize now, however, I have skipped over an important topic that deserves its own space. It is a topic that is extremely uncomfortable and downright despicable for the industry and for me. I share this information purely as education into some of the dark early days of this industry. The subject matter does not pertain solely to women in the industry and yet I feel compelled to include it. The topic at hand: slave insurance.

I came across two excellent papers written on this subject. The first is entitled “Securing Human Property; Slavery, Life Insurance, and Industrialization in the Upper South,” written by Sharon Ann Murphy, a professor at Providence College. The paper was published in 2005 in the Journal of the Early Republic. The second paper is titled “Actuarial Issues in Insurance on Slaves in the United States South,” written by Cheryl Rhan-Hsin Chen and Gary Simon, and published in the Journal of African American History in 2004. Much of the information I will share can be found in those two papers.


In the 1830s, the Baltimore Life Insurance Company was one of the most successful life insurance companies operating in the United States South. The company’s intent was to write “white lives,” exactly as their competitor companies were doing in the North. The demand in the South, however, was not the same, and in looking for ways to diversify earning, they landed on the insurance of “negro lives.” This insurance, however, only partially mirrored the life insurance offered on “white lives.”

Slave insurance might actually be better described as “property insurance”. Chen and Simon make these distinctions: “(1) the beneficiary upon the death of the slave was never the slave’s family; (2) the face amount of the policy was directly linked to the market value of the slave; (3) the term of the policy was short,” with most policies on record for a year or less, with the maximum being seven years.

Many times, slave owners would purchase insurance on slaves they rented out for dangerous work, such as railroad building or working on the steamboats. Or else they purchased insurance on skilled artisans and house workers. Still other times they purchased the insurance as a means to fund the manumission, or freeing, of the slave. Records indicate this was often done as a means to keep families together when a slave was otherwise to be sold away to the Lower South.

There were difficulties with slave insurance. First, there was the concern that an owner might find more value in the insurance than in the life of the slave. For this reason, companies would limit the amount of insurance to 2/3 of the market value of the slave, and would write policies for short periods of time, allowing them to examine the slave more often should there be a request for a renewal. Records show that in the early days, policies were never written above $800 for males, $500 for females, and the amounts did not go up until the 1850’s when competition was stronger for these policies and the value of slaves had grown.

Closely related to this was the concern that a slave’s owner or overseer would mistreat a slave, thereby diminishing the market value of the slave. This, as above, could result in a situation where once again the slave is worth more dead than alive. In many instances, the insurance company would be underwriting the slave owner as much as the slave him/herself in order to ensure the slave would be treated well.

The third difficulty was in the pricing of the insurance. There were virtually no records on the mortality rates of slaves, so the insurance companies had to simply guess when developing their premium tables. In most instances, they simply doubled the rates charged for white lives of the same age. They would also include risk charges for slaves who were engaged in dangerous employment, and a ‘climate premium’ for slaves traveling south of the border of Virginia or Kentucky.

While the Baltimore Life Insurance Company was the first on the scene selling this type of insurance, many competitors joined the space in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Reflecting the ‘property insurance’ nature of slave insurance, many Fire Insurance companies began to sell these policies. Also, life insurance companies from the North thought they saw an opportunity here as well. According to Murphy, among the companies selling this insurance were New York Life, North Carolina Mutual Life, Aetna Life of Hartford, Hartford Life, Richmond Fire Associate of Virginia, Asheville Mutual Insurance Company of North Carolina, and Georgia Insurance and Trust Company of Baltimore, among others.

We do not have full statistics on how many policies were written, nor how many claims were paid. Murphy reports that the Richmond Fire Association wrote over 1,700 slave policies in Virginia, and that by the late 1850s over 3/4 of the business written by North Carolina Mutual was written on slaves. In addition, of the first 1,000 policies written by New York Life (then known as Nautilus Insurance Company), 339 of them were written on slaves.

Emancipation, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln on this date in 1862 rendered all of these policies void, and many of the southern insurance companies that relied on these sales were forced out of business.

In 2002, the state of California passed a law that required companies to disclose any profits they made through participation in the slave trade. Only three companies in existence today came forward, all of them expressing deep regret for their participation in this market. New York Life was able to produce evidence of 610 policies, Aetna of Hartford produced 19 policies, and AIG produced 173 policies. The analysis Chen and Simon did on these three sets of policies, given the extremely limited information they had, seemed to indicate that these companies did not profit from this business, but in fact likely lost money on these policies.

This was indeed a horrible chapter in the history of life insurance. I felt the need to include it in my history of women in life insurance because of the obvious fact that some of the slaves were women. But also because I feel it is important to recognize all of our history as an industry and as a nation. It helps us understand more about where we are today, and if we use the information right, it will  help us to avoid ever making the same mistakes again.

Thanks for reading, happy Juneteenth, keep it positive, and smile!

 

 

 

 

Women in Life Insurance, a History: Part 3 (1890-1913)

1910-Fashion

The turn of the century was an exciting time for women in the United States. As mentioned in an earlier post, women were gaining more rights and independence all the time. They were entering the workforce in greater numbers than ever before, further fueled by start of World War I. Women could be found in offices across the country, entering fields as diverse as one can imagine.

All of this independence and freedom meant that women were now controlling their own money, or at the very least, taking a significant interest in their financial futures. Life insurance companies were not unaware of this change, and stepped in to take advantage of this new market.

There are many newspaper articles from this time that speak directly to the idea of women and life insurance. Not surprisingly, there were significant barriers to this market, but companies and life insurance agents did their best to address these and to adjust for new information. For example, in an article published in the periodical The Independent in 1894, there is a discussion of the fact that the rates for women were higher than for men (based on rate tables that were 25 years old), meaning that the insurance companies expected women to die sooner than men. This was likely due to the hazards in that day of child birth. This idea, however, was changing. From that same article:

“All authorities seem agreed that a female, if thoroughly examined, is fully as good, if not a better risk than a male.” (The Independent, 1894)

Women also were believed to hold a “lingering prejudice against the insurance of their own husband’s life in their individual favor” (The Independent, 1908). Some writers at the time held that women believed that insuring their husband’s lives and listing themselves (or their children) as beneficiary was akin to wishing their husbands dead.

On the flip side, most articles encouraged women to take advantage of life insurance:

“Women nowadays enter into business pursuits, contract bills and write notes just as men do….there is scarcely a better way for the wage-earning woman to provide for her future than by means of life insurance” (Massachusetts Ploughman, 1900).

“If [life insurance] is a good thing for men and if it is approved and patronized by the wisest and best business men all over the country there is no possible reason why women should not enjoy its benefits if they so elect” (The Independent, 1908).

Even wealthy women are adopting life insurance as the most desirable investment for their money, and one hears more and more of women of means who take out policies simply as investments” (Ladies Home Journal, 1900).

The business or professional woman, in sheer self-defense, ought not to neglect the matter of life insurance. The money it signifies will be equally welcome whether she is married or single when the endowment matures” (The Independent, 1910).

WOMEN AS LIFE INSURANCE AGENTS

It is around this time that we start to see more articles on women as life insurance agents. As more women moved into the workforce, it seemed to be a natural fit for them. The hours were flexible, the start-up capital minimal, and the nature of the sale was congruent with women’s desire to care and protect their friends and families.

Even back in 1894 there was a prediction of women’s entrance into this field:”…women are soon to bear an important part in life insurance as policy holders, solicitors and medical examiners.” An article from 1903 leads off in the opening paragraph with the statement “Life Insurance offers a most attractive field to a man or woman who is fitted for the business,” (The Independent, 1903, emphasis added), and later states:

“Many women entering into this field have found it exceedingly profitable, but women agents find that diplomacy is quite as essential, in so far as they are concerned, as it is with their brothers.”

And in my favorite article from this time period, a Mrs. M.T. Rodgers of Dallas, Texas, was interviewed regarding her career as a life insurance agent, which she happened into by chance. Her husband had passed away, leaving her with four children to raise on her own. After working in an office for a small weekly wage for seven years, and realizing her pay would never be great, she enlisted in business school. In the interview, she was asked if she felt it was harder for women to succeed in life insurance sales than men, and she states:

“No, I don’t think it is. A woman is as well adapted to solicit life insurance as a man, and the beauty of it is that in life insurance she gets the same pay as a man. This is not true of any other business in which women work. I always wonder why more women don’t go into it. I think it is one of the noblest professions, and that life insurance goes right along with a woman’s religion. She comes in contact with the best people; in fact, she can select those with whom she wants to deal. I have never met with insult or rebuff in the thirteen years I have been selling life insurance. I have always been treated courteously. That can’t be said of many businesses in which women engage for far less than they would receive in life insurance” (The Independent, 1913).

It is difficult to track down any numbers regarding how many women were selling life insurance around this time. The closest hint I found indicated that there were “thousands of women” selling at least some life insurance in 1913. What is clear, though, was that the women’s market was already an attractive target for the life insurance industry as far back as the 1890s.

As always, keep it positive and happy Thursday!

Sources:

“Insurance for Women” (1894). The Independent, 46, 238. July 19. Accessed 6/13/18.

“Should Women Insure Their Lives?” (1900). The Ladies’ Home Journal, 17(3), 16. Accessed 6/13/18.

“Women and Life Insurance” (1900). Massachusetts Ploughman, 59(28), 4. Accessed 6/13/18. 

“Diplomacy as an Equipment for the Life Insurance Agent” (1903). The Independent, 55, 2845. June 11. Accessed 6/13/18.

“Insurance for Women” (1908). The Independent, 64, 310. Accessed 6/13/18.

“How Women May Save” (1910). The Independent, 69, 3235. December 1. Accessed 6/13/18.