By David Kiger
The Women’s Business Ownership Act, referred to by some as “the big bang of women’s entrepreneurship” recently had its 25th anniversary. (President Ronald Reagan signed the legislation on Oct. 25, 1988.) Looking back at American culture in the act’s first full year — when Tiananmen Square, When Harry Met Sally and the debut of The Simpsons were in the headlines — it’s remarkable to note just how limited women were then when it came to business and entrepreneurship.
Billie Dragoo, chair of the National Association of Women Business Owners, called it a “landmark piece of legislation” that addressed “key barriers that had been impeding entrepreneurism and business growth by women.”
“As a result of this legislation,” she said in a NAWBO press release, “women entrepreneurs were provided with long overdue access to capital, education and technical assistance offered in a woman’s voice, access to federal policymaking circles, and the undercounting of the number and economic contributions of women-owned businesses were finally addressed.”
So what did the bill, also know as H.R. 5050, really mean? Let’s look at some of its greatest effects.
- It added business to the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. The initial equal credit act was created in 1974. That was a time when, as Lynne Ford describes in her book Women and Politics: The Pursuit of Equality, women often needed men to co-sign for loans. The ’74 legislation required lenders to use a person’s ability to repay a debt as the basis for credit decisions, and to eliminate sex, race or age from those decisions. The additions made in 1988 extended the act to businesses as well. Virginia Littlejohn, CEO of women-business advocate group Quantum Leaps Inc., helped organize the hearings. Littlejohn said in a press release, “Women business owners today are often shocked to hear about the challenges that their predecessors faced only 25 years ago. In an era when many states required a male to co-sign a business loan, one witness who was divorced and didn’t have a husband or father who could be a co-signer had to ask her 17-year old son to co-sign for her — when he couldn’t even vote.”
- It created the National Women’s Business Council. The nonpartisan board advises the president, Congress and the Small Business Administration. The council, which bills itself as the “the government’s only independent voice for women entrepreneurs,” researches issues related to women-owned small businesses and provides “a platform for change to expand and improve opportunities for women business owners and their enterprises.”
- It established the Women’s Business Center Program: This program offers training, counseling and other resources to women business owners and women looking to get their start. According to the Small Business Administration, there are now 100 centers in the United States and its territories, aiming to “level the playing field for women entrepreneurs, who still face unique obstacles in the business world.”
- It made women businesses count: The act required the Census Bureau to include women-owned businesses.
That’s progress. But as Barbara Kasoff, president of Women Impacting Public Policy, notes, plenty remains.
“We know all too well that our work is not nearly done,” she said in the NAWBO press release, “and we know all too well that while women are key drivers of economic growth, we continue to face barriers to economic participation and that gap undermines global economic expansion, an important factor in our growth. We are creating partnerships, we are energizing our leaders and we are building a new, more inclusive and robust role for women in our nation.”