Following the end of World War II, the US experienced a post-war economic boom. Having dealt with rationing for several years, Americans were ready to spend. Consumerism expanded rapidly, as did the suburbs. Many women, having entered the workforce during the war, now found that they wanted to stay. This allowed families, now with two incomes instead of one, to increase their standard of living.
In 1950, the Korean Conflict broke out, and throughout the 50s the Cold War and McCarthyism continued to develop. Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a WWII hero, was elected president in 1952 and reelected in 1956. The space race began in 1957 with the Soviet Launch of the Sputnik satellite, followed three months later by the launch of the US satellite Explorer 1.
The civil rights movement continued its march forward. With the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, “separate but equal” laws were struck down, paving the way for integration and the major civil rights movement activities of the 1960s. The role of women in business expanded. As the decade moved along, women’s roles in the working world became hotly debated in the public press. In addition, the beginnings of the “equal pay” rallying cry from the women began in this decade.
LIFE INSURANCE DURING THE 1950S
The life insurance industry experienced strong growth during the 1950s, benefiting from the economic boom as much or more than any other industry. In 1951 there were 609 legal reserve life insurance companies. By 1955 there were approximately 800 life insurance firms in the US, and by the end of the decade, there were well over 1,000 life insurance companies.
In 1950, US legal reserve life insurance companies had approximately $235 billion of insurance in force. The new sales in 1950 were estimated at $30.8 billion and included ordinary, industrial and group life insurance. The payments made to beneficiaries totaled $4.25 billion, 63% of which were paid to living beneficiaries. In 1955, new sales reached approximately $47.4 billion, resulting in $373 billion in force. In that year, it is estimated that 80% of US men and 62% of US women held some amount of life insurance. By the close of the decade, the industry had approximately $580 billion in force.
In 1957, the second largest company in the US and the world was Metropolitan Life Insurance Company with $14.8 billion in assets followed by Prudential Life Insurance Company with $13.3 billion in assets. They both followed the biggest company, American Telephone and Telegraph Company with $18.4 billion in assets. Quite literally, life insurance ruled the world.
While sales were growing, mortality was also improving. Advances in the medical field continued throughout the decade, helping insurance companies to price ever-more competitively and to realize greater returns on mortality.The National Service Life Insurance continued to manage an enormous block of business; approximately 6,000,000 policies, representing $36 billion in protection.
With the military action in Korea, the war clause again became a matter of concern for the industry. Competitive action, and legislative action by certain states resulted in many different responses ranging all the way from shutting down sales to members of the armed forces to simply restricting aviation coverage. Early on in the Conflict, a large group of insurance companies came together in an effort to negotiate the pooling of the war risk, but no such deal was ever realized.
Regulation continued to be an issue for the industry. Early in the decade, the salary stabilization legislation was still in effect, not ending until 1953. Tax laws continued to change with two different formulae in the first three years of the decade. Social Security continued to be seen as a threat, especially as benefits were increased and more people qualified for this coverage.
An important advancement in life insurance was the introduction of automation. The potential effects of the ‘electronic machines’ was debated in the newspapers beginning in 1954. In 1955 it was reported that LOMA (Life Office Management Association) had formed an Electronics Committee that worked with a similar committee of the Society of Actuaries. The intent of these groups was to study the impact this ‘potentially revolutionary’ technology could have on the industry.
The industry, continuing the trend that began in the 1940s, was highly concerned with the quality of the Insurance Agent selling their products. A significant amount of energy was expended in developing exams that could determine the likelihood of success of a particular recruit, and robust training programs were made for those agents already in the field.
Competition in the industry grew significantly during the decade. In a 1955 article in Barron’s National Business and Financial Weekly, John C. Perham discussed new policies introduced that year that charged less for higher face amounts, calling them ‘special’ or ‘cut-rate’ policies. Other new policy innovations were introduced including the ‘family policy,’ a policy intended to cover an entire family at a lower rate than the individual rates, the ‘business women’s policy’, intended to offer disability coverage to the working woman, ‘family income plans,’ where the amount of the coverage decreased as the family’s children grow up, and the ‘guaranteed insurability rider’ that insured a client can purchase additional coverage in the future. In 1959, Northwestern Mutual Life introduced lower rates for women, stating:
Northwestern Life Mutual has felt that it is every woman’s right to be considered younger than her age – years younger than a man who has lived the same length of time. Recent mortality statistics now validate this view, and the new rates reflect it! N.M.L. is the largest life firm to recognize lower female mortality rates by reducing gross premiums on female policies, and we are the first company in the United States to give special recognition to present women policy holders thru dividends.
(Investors Guide, Chicago Daily Tribune, 12 Jan 1959)
The Negro companies also continued to grow. Although they were started and initially grew serving only Negro customers (not by choice, but due to segregation), they were now becoming big enough to attract the attention of white customers. The largest companies included North Carolina Mutual, Southern Aid, Atlanta Life, and Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company. In 1954, North Carolina Mutual hit a major milestone surpassing $200,000,000 in force by the end of the year. This put the company at #136 of all insurance companies in the US based on insurance in force, and #124 based on admitted assets. The company was #1 among the 66 Negro life insurance companies in operation in 1954.
An important study came out in 1950 showing that, despite years of thinking otherwise, race had no bearing on length of life. The insurance industry argued otherwise, stating that the mortality of blacks was 50% higher, and therefore a poor insurance risk. This debate was not settled until much later.
WOMEN IN LIFE INSURANCE DURING THE 1950s
Following the end of the War, the question of women in the workplace was a confusing matter. Many Americans expected women to go back home when the men returned to the workforce. The reality proved to be more complicated. In many cases, the need for workers had expanded to the point where women were necessary to fill all of the positions. And in many cases, women found that either their income was required to feed their children, or that they enjoyed work outside the home, and enjoyed the additional comforts for their families that were now possible with two incomes. This led to the question of what positions the women should and/or were capable of filling and how much the women should be paid, among other things.
The place of women in the workplace was debated in the press, most especially around the end of the decade. Headlines such as “Women Just Are NOT Good Bosses – Says a Man” (Chicago Daily Tribune, 27 Jan 1957), “Can Women Get Along Without Men?” (Los Angeles Times, 13 Oct 1957), and “Women in Business Advised Against Being Feminists” (Daily Boston Globe, 25 May 1958) show the contention that was beginning to surface in society.
Of great interest to the people of the times (based on the number of newspaper articles on the subject) was a dramatic shift in the number of married women, generally over the age of 35, working outside the home. In 1950, married women made up more than half of the female working population. One personnel manager suggested that this was in part due to the fact that the employers could pay married women less than single women (and single women less than men) because they had a husband bringing home his pay. Another shift saw more women working clerical office jobs than any other profession.
And yet, at the beginning of the decade, companies still were less inclined to hire married women, if they could avoid it. Some companies even had specific policies against hiring married women. The personnel director at Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. was quoted as saying, “It’s always been our general policy not to hire women who are married. But if they come to us single and get married later we’ll keep them as long as they want to stay.” The general reason given for these policies was that married women tended to miss more work than others due to their need to care for their children.
By the middle of the decade, opinions had changed. Companies were short on workers, and were willing to try new tactics to attract more. In 1956, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and Aetna hired mothers for shorter shifts between 9am and 3pm so that the mothers could be home in time for their children to return from school. Prudential Insurance Company offered employees a paid day of vacation for recruiting their friends, and other insurance companies were paying bonuses for recruiting qualified candidates.
The total number of women in the workforce in the US rose to over 18 million in 1950. By 1955, estimates showed 20 million women in the workforce, and the number continued to climb throughout the decade.
In 1949, women doubled the amount of insurance they had purchased in 1940, reaching $39 billion in force, approximately 1/5 of all life insurance in the US. By 1952 it exceeded $45 billion. By 1957, the amount women held in life insurance exceeded $60 billion. Reasons given for this increase include the growing employment of women, their increasing understanding of their need to protect their families, and a desire for retirement income.
In 1954, Northeastern Life Insurance Company of New York introduced a special policy marketed as a special policy exclusively for women. Of particular interest is the statement in the press release that reads “the policy contains the same provisions and benefits as the company’s principle policy for men, a preferred life contract.” Not many companies at the time were advertising “men only” policies, so this is curious indeed.
An article from the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1955 emphasizes the need to treat women differently when selling to them. One agent “urges attempts to create appeals that acknowledge woman’s real importance and indispensability.” He states that “this would involve new advertising techniques based on a truer understanding of woman’s nature.”
A number of women were elected or appointed to important, high-level positions in the life insurance industry. Each one of the women highlighted below was a “first,” and their nominations were well publicized.
Miss Lucinda B. Mackrey served as Secretary and Director of the Provident Home Industrial Mutual Life Insurance Company, and was one of the very few African-American women to hold an officer position in a large life insurance company at this time. Mrs. Mae Street-Kidd held the position of public relations director for Mammoth Life, and Mrs. Bertha Nickerson was a member of the board of directors of Golden State Life Insurance Company.
In 1950, Mrs. Millicent Carey McIntosh was elected the first woman director of the Home Life Insurance Company of New York. The president of the company explained that this appointment was indicative of the fact that women now had an important place in American business, and that a great number of the personnel in life insurance companies are female.
In 1951, the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company elected its first female officer, Sophie Nelson, assistant secretary; Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company appointed its first female officer, Mary Foster Barber as assistant vice president; Connecticut General Life Insurance Company promoted Mrs. Charlotte Cowan as the assistant comptroller and Leila Thompson as head of the legal department.
In 1953, Bernice Sanders became the Vice President and Controller of the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company, and also handled all company training. She held a bachelors degree from Wilberforce University and did graduate work in mathematics and physics at Radcliffe College and Ohio State University. Quoting from an article in the Chicago Daily Tribune (10 July 1955), “Today she is mainly concerned with the challenges racial integration has brought both to her company and her race. She feels a new process of education is necessary for preparation for the new era dawning.”
In 1955, Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company appointed its first woman to the company’s board of trustees, Miss Catherine B. Cleary, a vice president of the First Wisconsin Trust company and former assistant treasurer of the United States. In the same announcement, the company shared that a woman, Mrs. Marie A. Stumb, placed second among 3,500 agents for sales in April.
In 1956, The Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York elected its first female member of the board of trustees, Mrs. Oveta Culp Hobby. She had served as the first director of the Women’s Army Corps, and the first Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. At the time of her appointment, she was the president and editor of The Houston Press.
WOMEN AS LIFE INSURANCE AGENTS IN THE 1950s
Women were selling as much as ever. One estimate said that in 1950, there were approximately 5000 women selling life insurance. By 1954, three women (and 1237 men) had reached the life membership of the Million Dollar Round Table, selling over $1 million for three years in a row. Mrs. Grace Chow of Los Angeles was one, selling almost exclusively to the Chinese population in LA.
In 1957, the estimated number of women in the field had risen to 6,000 full time female agents with more than 275 women qualifying for the Quarter Million Dollar Round Table, and 13 women qualifying for the Million Dollar Round Table.
As with the executives in the home office, the success stories out in the field were often celebrated in the press, a testament to the singularity of the events. This decade certainly showcased more women than in decades past, but it was clear that successful woman were still a curiosity.
Miss Helen Ann Pendergast was a life member of the Women’s Quarter Million Dollar Round Table. She was quoted as saying that women did not normally enter the field before 30 because “you have to be a little bit older to tell a man how to provide for his family. But being a woman is no handicap, partly because men are accustomed to looking to women for advice all their lives about many things.”
Lesla M. Sabin, in 1951, was the only female general agent in Chicago. She had been in the business for 15 years at that time, and was the mother of nine children. She was nominated in 1951 for the Woman of Distinction by the Chicago Women Lie Underwriters in recognition of her leadership.
In 1953, Muriel Bixby Clark owned and operated her own insurance business in Los Angeles, and was the first woman named to the board of directors of the Insurance Association of Los Angeles, serving as Vice President. She said of the life insurance business:
You starve for the first two years…Really it is a wonderful profession for a girl. It requires a willingness to know your product and more than ordinary willingness to be of service…If you know more about your business and are willing to work just a little bit harder than your competitors, more power to you!
Another woman echoed these sentiments. Thelma Davenport, the national chairman of the National Committee of Women Life Underwriters, the distaff side, and life member of the Quarter Million Dollar Round Table, said in 1956:
The life insurance field is one of the real opportunities for career girls here and now…Women want to help people. They are interested in the welfare of the family, the protection of the home, the education of children – and life insurance provides for these things.
The Insurance Women of Los Angeles, one of 200 similar groups across the country in the 1950s, had the express purpose of elevating and expanding the role of women in the insurance industry. The president of the organization said, in 1954:
Women are receiving more and more recognition in the insurance field and are constantly finding new worlds to conquer…Although women do not often reach executive positions, many who start at the bottom do attain high supervisory capacities.
The 1950s were clearly a decade of significant growth for the life insurance industry and for the women in the industry, and the female customers of life insurance.
Up next, the 1960s.
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