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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