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Adler, Polly (16 April 1900?–09 June 1962), prostitution madam and author, was born Pearl Adler in Yanow, Russia, the daughter of Morris Adler, a tailor, and Gertrude Koval (called “Isidore” and “Sarah” in her autobiography). Later in life Adler also used several aliases, including Joan Martin and Pearl Davis. When Adler was twelve, her family arranged for her to be tutored by the local rabbi in the hope that she would receive a scholarship to study at a Gymnasium in Pinsk. A year later, before learning the results of the scholarship competition, Adler’s father sent his daughter to live in the United States. Traveling alone, thirteen-year-old Adler arrived in New York in December 1913....

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Albert, Octavia Victoria Rogers (24 December 1853–1890?), author and activist, was born in Oglethorpe, Georgia, the daughter of slaves. Details of her life are sketchy. Little is known of her parents or her childhood beyond the date and place of her birth and the fact that she was born into bondage; thus, it is particularly intriguing that in 1870, only five years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and one year after Atlanta University opened, seventeen-year-old Octavia was among the 170 students enrolled at that institution. Further details of her life are equally sketchy. Most of what we know is culled from information in ...

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Alexander, Mary Spratt Provoost (17 April 1693–18 April 1760), merchant, was born in New York City, the daughter of John Spratt, a Scottish immigrant merchant and alderman in New York, and Maria DePeyster, an heiress of a prominent Dutch family of goldsmiths, merchants, and politicians. After John Spratt died in 1697, Maria Spratt married David Provoost, a merchant and smuggler. Alexander and her siblings lived with their maternal grandmother after their mother died in 1700. In 1711 she married Samuel Provoost, an importer and a younger brother of David Provoost, her mother’s husband. The couple had three children. Alexander invested much of her inheritance in her husband’s enterprises and acted as his business partner....

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Anderson, Mary (27 August 1872–29 January 1964), labor leader and federal administrator, was born in Lidköping, Sweden, the daughter of Magnus Anderson and Matilda Johnson, farmers. She received her only formal education at a local Lutheran school. Inspired by letters from her older sister Anna who had moved to the United States, Mary and her sister Hilda traveled to Ludington, Michigan, in 1889. Sixteen years old when she arrived in America, Anderson struggled to learn English while she worked as a dishwasher and cook in a boardinghouse for lumber workers....

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Elizabeth Arden. Photograph by Arnold Genthe. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-G4085- 0381 P&P).

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Arden, Elizabeth (31 December 1878?–18 October 1966), businesswoman, was born Florence Nightingale Graham (her legal name throughout life) in Woodbridge, near Toronto, Canada, the daughter of William Graham and Susan Tadd, farmers. Florence would remain a citizen of Canada until she married an American, Thomas Jenkins Lewis, in 1915. Her mother died when Florence was a small child. Unable to finish high school because of her straitened finances, she entered nursing but found that she disliked working with sick people. She moved quickly through jobs as dental assistant, stenographer, and cashier and finally followed her brother William to New York City. By then she was about thirty, although her youthful complexion made her look about twenty. In 1908, as a cashier in a New York beauty salon, she persuaded her employer, Eleanor Adair, to teach her how to give facials, and she quickly mastered this “art of the healing hands.”...

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Mary Kay Ash. In her office, Dallas, Texas, January 1982. Courtesy of AP Images.

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Ash, Mary Kay (12 May 1918–22 November 2001), founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, known as Mary Kay, was born Mary Kathlyn Wagner in Hot Wells, Texas, north of Houston, the daughter of Edward Alexander Wagner, an invalid, and Lula Vember Hastings, a restaurant manager. Texas has no record of Mary Kathlyn Wagner's birth for 1918—the year she usually claimed—nor for 1916, the date cited second most often; she may have been born as early as 1915. By 1920, her family moved to Houston's bleak Sixth Ward....

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Ayer, Harriet Hubbard (27 June 1849–23 November 1903), businesswoman and journalist, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the daughter of Henry George Hubbard, a real estate dealer, and Juliet Elvira Smith. Her father died when Harriet was three years old, but his legacy of valuable land purchases enabled the family to live comfortably. Poor health limited Harriet’s early education to private tutors. Although Episcopalian, she entered the Catholic Convent of the Sacred Heart at the age of twelve, graduating three years later....

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Bagley, Sarah George (29 April 1806–?), millworker, reformer, and physician, was born in Candia, New Hampshire, the daughter of Nathan Bagley and Rhoda Witham, farmers.

Bagley grew up in a family whose economic situation became increasingly precarious during the course of the nineteenth century. Nathan Bagley originally farmed land in Candia, which he had inherited from his father, but he later moved on to farming land in Gilford, New Hampshire. After losing litigation in 1822, he sold his land in Gilford and eventually moved to Meredith Bridge, New Hampshire (now Laconia), where he became an incorporator of the Strafford Cotton Mill Company in 1833. However, Nathan Bagley did not own a home after 1824; it was Sarah Bagley who made the down payment on a house for her family in Meredith Bridge in the 1840s. She probably used money she had saved during her stints as a factory worker in Lowell, Massachusetts....

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Bambace, Angela (14 February 1898–03 April 1975), labor organizer, was born in Santos, Brazil, the daughter of Antonio Bambace, a shipping company operator, and Giuseppina Calabrese. Antonio’s failing health precipitated the family’s return to Italy. In 1901 they emigrated to the United States, where they settled in New York City’s East Harlem. Due to Antonio’s ill health, Giuseppina supported the family by working in a ladies hat factory....

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Barker, Mary Cornelia (20 January 1879–15 September 1963), schoolteacher and teachers' union leader, schoolteacher and teachers’ union leader, was born in Rockmart, Georgia, the daughter of Thomas Nathaniel Barker, a teacher and small businessman, and Dora Elizabeth Lovejoy, a teacher. After spending her early years in rural Rockmart, Barker moved with her family to Atlanta, where she attended the public schools. She went on to Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, from which she received a diploma for completing the normal course in 1900....

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Barnum, Gertrude (29 September 1866–17 June 1948), settlement-house worker and labor reformer, was born in Chester, Illinois, the daughter of William Henry Barnum, a Cook County circuit court judge, and Clara Letitia Hyde. Growing up in suburban Chicago, Barnum had a privileged childhood. As a young adult, she appears to have rejected the dictates of her class when she refused to make her formal debut into Chicago society. At the age of twenty-five she went to the University of Wisconsin, majoring in English. However, after one year of study at which she excelled, Barnum left the university to become an activist for social change in the settlement-house movement....

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Barry, Leonora (13 August 1849–15 July 1930), labor leader, was born Leonora Marie Kearney in Kearney, County Cork, Ireland, the daughter of John Kearney and Honor Brown. When Kearney was three, the family sailed for the United States and settled on a farm in Pierrepont, New York, not far from the Canadian border. She grew up there, but upon her mother’s death and father’s remarriage, she determined to set out on her own. Though only fifteen, she arranged for a year of preparatory study with the head of a girls’ school in a neighboring town and obtained her teacher’s certificate. She spent the next several years teaching in a rural school....

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Beach, Sylvia Woodbridge (14 March 1887–06 October 1962), bookstore owner and publisher, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the second of three daughters of Sylvester Woodbridge Beach, a Presbyterian minister, and Eleanor Orbison, an artist. Disinclined toward both religion and formal education, she often pleaded illness and eventually fled the Presbyterian parsonage of Princeton, New Jersey, for Europe. Beach spent 1907–1908 and 1911–1912 in Florence, 1914–1916 in Spain, and in midsummer of 1916 settled in Paris, where her father had served as associate pastor at the American Church from 1902 to 1905. Paris would remain her home until her death there forty-six years later....

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Bellanca, Dorothy Jacobs (10 August 1894–16 August 1946), labor organizer, was born in Zemel, Latvia, the daughter of Harry Jacobs, a tailor, and Bernice Edith Levinson. Seeking a better life, the Russian Jewish family emigrated to America in 1900 and began a new life in Baltimore, Maryland. Dorothy’s mother died a short time after their arrival....

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Beyer, Clara Mortenson (13 April 1892–25 September 1990), reformer and labor law administrator, was born in Middletown, California, the daughter of Danish immigrants Morten Mortenson, a carpenter and unsuccessful chicken farmer, and Mary Frederickson. Her father died in a trolley accident when she was fifteen. As the eldest of four children remaining at home, Beyer delayed further schooling until her mother sold the farm. She then worked her way through high school and the University of California, Berkeley, gaining firsthand understanding of labor conditions and unskilled workers’ lives. At Berkeley she absorbed the institutional approach to labor economics, which emphasized the law and social institutions rather than market forces; she received a B.S. in 1915 and an M.S. in economics in 1916 with a thesis called “Organized Labor in San Francisco, from 1892–1902.”...

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Hazel Bishop a research chemist who two years earlier rocked the cosmetics world with her formula for a long-lasting lipstick, uses her own lipstick in her New York City office, 7 April 1951. Associated Press

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Bishop, Hazel (17 August 1906–05 December 1998), cosmetics executive, was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, the daughter of Henry Bishop, an entrepreneur who operated several small businesses, including a motion-picture distributorship, and Mabel Billington Bishop, who assisted in the businesses. Both parents were Jewish. Business discussions around the dinner table were typical family fare, and young Bishop and her brother were encouraged to participate. However, as a bright student with a scientific bent, she was not expected to choose a business career. Upon graduating from the Bergen School for Girls in Jersey City, Bishop enrolled at Barnard College in New York City in 1925 with the intention of becoming a physician. After successful completion of a pre-med program, she graduated in 1929 and planned to pursue medical studies at Columbia University. She began taking evening graduate school courses that fall at Columbia, but the collapse of the stock market in October and the ensuing economic depression put an end to her plans for medical school....

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Bloor, Ella Reeve (08 July 1862–10 August 1951), radical labor organizer and feminist, was born on Staten Island, New York, the daughter of Charles Reeve, a successful drugstore owner, and Harriet Amanda Disbrow, a community affairs activist. While still a child, Ella moved to Bridgeton, New Jersey, where her family led a conservative, upper-middle-class life. An important counterinfluence was Ella’s great-uncle Dan Ware, a former abolitionist, liberal, Unitarian, greenbacker, and general freethinker. After attending local public schools, Ella spent a year at Ivy Hall Seminary, a finishing school she disliked. When she was fourteen, her mother began tutoring her at home....