womens business ownership act

My College Dream Needed a Male Cosigner: 35 Years After the Women’s Business Ownership Act

In college, I dreamt of owning a radio station by age 35. I love the medium and wanted to have a voice in the future of the industry. I graduated with my bachelor’s in 1987 (yes, the other century) with no idea my dream was impossible without a male relative’s help. 

Why’s that, you ask?  

Until 1988, a woman had to have a male relative cosign a business loan. The Women’s Business Ownership Act signed into law on October 25, 1988, prohibited the discriminatory practice.  

In 1987, I turned down a job at a big-name publishing house to work at a small-market radio station. I needed to soak up all the learning I could. Had I known the law, would I have taken the publishing job? 

Today, I’m angry. I’m angry that I grew up facing limits just because of my gender. Even with my privileges, the society and laws I lived under were designed to hold me, and all women, back. 

Would I have taken the journey I’m on had I fully understood the laws and sexist society restricting me? Is it easier to dream when you can’t see how many don’t want you to? 

The old days of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s are more than music and history class for me. They were infancy, girlhood, coming of age.  

When Mary Tyler Moore wore pants on The Dick Van Dyke Show, 1961-66, it was big news. Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance did so occasionally in the 1950s, but Moore’s bold insistence was different. Her character, Laura Petrie, wore them regularly and changed more than fashion. Not only did she wear pants, she wore capris that “cupped” her butt. Now, we wear what we like and can’t make the news unless we take off our pants completely, and even then, maybe not. 

In the ’70s, I wanted to play hockey. I wanted to carry a big stick across the ice and check like Bobby Orr, my hockey hero. But my parents insisted, and the program, insisted that I had to take figure skating because I was a girl. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted in 1992 to approve women’s hockey. Now, it’s an Olympic sport, debuting in the 1998 Nagano Games.

The ’80s were about big shoulders, bigger hair, bold colors and college life for me. My parents also divorced. Mom rebuilt her financial life with her Filene’s credit card because it was the one card in her name only, no husband involved. Entirely unaware that she was a rebel feminist, she eventually bought a home by herself. She didn’t need a male cosigner due to the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act but likely paid more interest than a man, like women still do. Now, according to the US Census Bureau, single women own more homes than single men, 10.76 million compared to 8.12 million in 2022. 

Eventually (in the ’90s), I became a college professor—a job I loved for 30 years—instead of buying that radio station. However, large numbers of other women made the move to entrepreneurship. Now, over 42 percent of businesses are women-owned. These 12+ million companies employ over 10.1 million workers.

There were few women in the 100th Congress that passed the Women’s Business Ownership Act—two in the Senate and 23 in the House. Virginia Littlejohn, a past national president of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) and one of the advocates dedicated to the legislation, explains how the bill was put in motion.

Representative John J. LaFalce, the NY Democrat who introduced the act, said he wanted to make the “biggest bang on the economy.” He recognized the “untapped goldmine in women entrepreneurs.” He then worked with NAWBO, who were critical in the research, presentation, publicity and passing of the law.

Unfortunately, inequity did not take its leave with the Women’s Business Act of 1988. The next playing field is investment funding. In 2021, women-owned businesses receive only 2.4 percent of venture capital. Massachusetts and California are leading the legislative charge with bills intended to create equity in business investments where almost all support goes to those who are “male and pale.”

While times have changed, female entrepreneurs still face a sexist society and legal landscape. Removing legal barriers should be easier for women since we have more seats at the table. But why do we have any laws, then and still now, that limit citizens from pursuing their dreams or enjoying basic rights? And what will we do to tear them down and make opportunities available for all Americans? Who’s with me? 

About the author

Suzanne Drapeau

Suzanne Drapeau taught writing at the high school and college levels for 30 years and recently joined Carlton PR & Marketing. She spends her “free” time working/volunteering for the Hyperemesis Education and Research (HER) Foundation, where her main role is managing social media and building partnerships with other maternal health nonprofits. She lives in Michigan but hopes to become a digital nomad when her children finish their educations.

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