Martha Matilda Harper-meet one inspirational woman!



Martha Matilda Harper-meet one incredible woman!
I discovered Martha Matilda Harper while taking a Women in United States History course at York College. My assignment was to find an American woman that was little known and worthy of a place in the history books. Being a hair salon owner and Cosmetologist for over 25 years, I have questioned who opened and where was the first beauty salon in America? No textbook in the beauty industry, historian or professional has been able to answer the question. Miraculously, (I say miraculously because the only known book about Martha is Jane Plitt’s, published in 2000, Martha Matilda and the American Dream.) I dusted off this sleeping woman whose chestnut hair touched the floor. Martha Matilda Harper was an immigrant, innovator, entrepreneur, and shrewd businesswoman. She boast many achievements; developed and marketed a hair tonic, pioneered the beauty industry to new heights, became the first franchiser by sharing her Harper Methods, followed by a multitude of disciples called Harperites and eventually responsible for 500 salons across the world – decades before Ray Kroc franchised MacDonalds.
If the study of history is about uncovering voices we must study beyond male dominated accounts. It is our job to discover these voices even when academia appears to frown on the creative trades and industries such as cosmetology. The beauty industry is one of those areas most influential in creating women’s independence in history-even still today. Martha secures her place and should be acknowledged in not only the Cosmetology history books but in both history and financial studies (her place in history way be for Mr. Kroc). How one woman attracted and cultivated a franchising dynasty with diplomacy and persuasion deserves attention! According to Jane Plitt in the year 2000, American franchising, “the business vehicle Martha created, had become the dominate form of retail. . .” (pg 162). Also, women owned business are the “fastest growing segment of business ownership” (pg 162). Thanks to Jane Plitt for taking the first steps! I insist all Cosmetologists read her book! I personally know the effort both physically and mentally it takes to employ women and service clients. I will leave you with an example of Harper’s ability of rhetorical strategy. A young girl wanted to postpone opening a shop after the 1908 fire that leveled the city of Baltimore, Maryland. Miss Harper replied, “ No, now is the time to do it: the city is flattened and confused. Grow up with it, and about in this spot is the place to do it (Plitt pg 80).” This formula was her prescription for business- slightly vicious, totally determined, yet motivating and inspiring. Like every successful stylist I know!

Inspiration- Girls it is Time to Kill the Phantoms!

ImageDuring my vacation, I was assigned to read Professions for Women, by Virginia Woolf. Virginia wrote, “. . . she (meaning women) has still many ghost to fight, many prejudices to overcome” (pg 247- The Norton Anthology of Literature By Women, third edition).  Further down the page she continues, “even when the path is nominally open — when there is nothing to prevent a women from being a doctor, a lawyer, a civil servant — there are many phantoms and obstacles, as I believe looming in her way.”  These words were written in 1942, and although women have progressed, I wonder if we have become our own obstacle.

Ironically at the same time, my mother insisted I read a piece regarding Hillary Clinton in the commentary section of The Press of Altantic City, How Women See Hillary Clinton, by Gina Barreca.  My mother was sure the piece swayed her not to elect Hillary Clinton for president. I insisted this was not at all the topic this commentary enlightened the reader about. A debate between us and other family members spun into a tornado of opinions and furies. I was surprised at some of the reactions from other women.  Deep inside, I know my mother secretly fears a woman president, and although she wants to be a woman of independence, my mother just can not have ‘grandma’ in the White House. Berreca is right on. 

Berreca comments “will women judge Clinton ‘not good enough’ because we think, secretly, we might be’ not good enough’.”  Yes, Gina, they will be more critical. And to Virginia, I think women have become their own ghost, their own worst enemy. Women sling their own harsh prejudices at each other with envy, condemnation, and scorn. I am not suggesting either way, vote for Clinton or not. . . but take the gender out of the percentage. In fact, we should admire any women or human being with an obstacle such as race and gender, who manages to climb incredible mountains. And although making mistakes along the way, they tried, and trying is the most important virtue of all, right mom? So Gina, Virginia -thanks for paving the way, opening doors, invigorating my mind and killing the phantoms that block our way.  And thank our moms, because they too have paved our path- just wish it didn’t erupt during my ‘once a year’  vacation. (Honestly, my parents did a remarkable job raising three dynamic girls!)