Pioneering Businesswomen Buried in the History Books

As Women's History Month began drawing to a close, it seemed appropriate to mention some of Southern California's outstanding businesswomen of the past.

But that task proved more difficult than it should have last week when the Historical Society of Southern California and the Los Angeles mayor's office drew blanks.

It's easier to find businessmen in history.

Just take a look at the names of parks, streets and various landmarks. There's Griffith Park, named after mining and real estate speculator Griffith J. Griffith; Doheny Drive, named after oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny; Brand Boulevard, after real estate and utility company millionaire Leslie C. Brand; and Mt. Lowe in the San Gabriel Mountains, named after railway and tavern owner Thaddeus Sobieski Coulincourt Lowe.

Oh sure, for the women there's the downtown Los Angeles Biddy Mason "pocket park," a shady concrete walkway with an artfully done wall. But it's likely that the only folks familiar with her or the park--apart from African American history buffs--are probably the smattering of noontime workers who find their way behind the Bradbury Building to lunch at the outdoor tables there.

It's not that Southern California lacks significant female business owners of the past, said Gloria Lothrop, a California historian at Cal State Northridge.

It's that histories and official documents were "typically written by men who reinforced the view that it's a man's world," she said. "Written out of history were those who didn't fit the pattern."

For example, in researching the expedientes, the handwritten official documents by which Californians received ranchos from Mexico from 1834 to 1846, Lothrop discovered that 14% of the 700 ranchos had been granted to women.

But over time, clerks copying the records thought the women's names were errors and "corrected" them, Lothrop said.

"Elaria became Elario and Antonia became Antonio," she said.

Women were also deliberately excluded from policy-making decisions and denied financing for their ventures. The lack of financing is a barrier even today, despite pledges from lending institutions to undertake extensive campaigns aimed at women, said Kathleen R. Allen, a professor of entrepreneurship at USC's Marshall School of Business.

Allen said that as recently as five years ago, three friends of hers, experienced female entrepreneurs who were creating a new plumbing business, were asked to have their husbands co-sign the business loan, including one woman who was divorced.

Women must have equal access to financing, which will allow them to create more of the multimillion-dollar businesses that attract attention, said Vivian Shimoyama, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Assn. of Women Business Owners.

They must also participate in policy and community decisions by becoming part of the mainstream business community before history will accurately reflect their contributions, Shimoyama added.

Until then, maybe a hall of fame, business memorial or even an official businesswoman's history book would help remind others of the legacy of female business owners. Here are some candidates:

Eulalia Perez de Guillen. As the llavera, or keeper of the keys, at the San Gabriel Mission from 1821 to 1835, Perez de Guillen oversaw the manufacture of agricultural products such as lemonade, which was bottled and shipped to Spain. As payment for her service, she was granted a rancho of 15,400 acres in what is now Pasadena.

Biddy Mason. Mason, who was born into slavery, was brought to California, where she successfully sued her owners in 1856 and was freed under state law. She went on to use her earnings as a nurse and midwife to buy downtown real estate, acquire wealth and help found Los Angeles' first African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Harriet Russell Strong. Known as the "Walnut Queen of Southern California," Strong also planted citrus and figs on her Whittier ranch. She hosted Susan B. Anthony and other suffragists there, designed canal and reservoir systems used in the Colorado River water project in the early part of the 20th century and was the first female member of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

Theodosia Shepherd. From her newspaper gardening column, Shepherd went on to found a successful packaged-seed business in Ventura County in the early 1900s.

Laura Scudder. Scudder, the first female attorney in Ukiah, Calif., moved to Monterey Park and started a food company in 1926. It eventually grew to more than 1,000 employees and had captured 50% of the California potato chip market when she sold it in 1957.

More recent candidates would include:

Romana Acosta Banuelos. Founder of Ramona's Foods, U.S. treasurer under President Nixon and former president of Pan American Bank.

Marcia Israel. Founder in 1946 and chief executive of Judy's, a retail clothing store chain. She helped introduce bluejeans as fashion apparel, and her second company, Stoptronics, pioneered electronic tags to help prevent retail theft.

Jan Davidson. A high school teacher with an after-school tutoring business in the Rancho Palos Verdes area. She invented the "Math Blaster" software in 1982 and other best-selling titles. She later sold her company, Davidson & Associates, for more than $1 billion and created a foundation she now oversees.


Times staff writer Vicki Torres can be reached at (213) 237-6553 or

For the Record Los Angeles Times Thursday March 26, 1998 Home Edition Business Part D Page 3 Financial Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction Pan American Bank--Romana Acosta Banuelos' title was incorrect in an article Wednesday. She is president, chairman and chief executive of Pan American Bank.
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