By Steve Tarter
Journal Star, Peoria, Ill.
Last week, the central Illinois chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners celebrated its 35th anniversary here in Peoria.
I had the recent opportunity to talk with four of the founding members, Charlene Bowe Dowell, Shirley Sopher-Lewis, DonnaJeanne Rodine and Ketra Mytich, about why the chapter was — and is — so important.
“Thirty-five years ago, there was no place for women to talk to women who owned businesses,” said Dowell, who later organized a NAWBO chapter in Dallas.
“We weren’t a member of the old boys’ club,” said Sopher-Lewis, the former owner of Sopher Machine & Manufacturing, pointing out women had to strive for recognition in the business world.
“Access to credit was a big issue,” said Mytich, a practicing Peoria attorney, who noted that, despite federal legislation passed in 1976, women still faced problems getting credit — and credit cards — well into the 1980s.
Women just weren’t taken seriously as business owners, said Rodine, who continues to do printing and specialty advertising jobs in Peoria. “We had to assure banks and others that our work wasn’t just a hobby but our livelihood,” she said.
NAWBO provided a way for women to network, to gain information and to build clout, said Dowell.
The national association also served as a stepping stone for its members. Dowell said she was later appointed to a board by Gov. Jim Thompson while Sopher-Lewis recalled serving on a White House Conference on Small Business.
The glass ceiling that froze women on the corporate ladder was probably also responsible for driving women toward starting their own businesses, said Mytich.
The group prides itself on being businesslike, she said. “We try not to hit folks over the head with our purse,” said Mytich.
But the attorney can’t help recalling that on a work assignment in Milwaukee in the 1980s, a club denied her the use of a male-only meeting room, or that Peoria’s Creve Coeur Club, while accepting women as members, once restricted women from getting in the “fast lane” for soup and sandwiches that male members had access to.
What was that line Virginia Slims used to use?