Anna Sutherland Bissell: Shattering the Glass Ceiling as the First Female CEO

By Kimberley Borgens


In a world where the term “CEO” often conjures images of men in boardrooms, the story of Anna Sutherland Bissell stands as a beacon of inspiration and a testament to the power of breaking norms. Imagine, over a century ago, a woman not just participating in business but leading a company to national success. This is not just any story; it’s the journey of the first female CEO, an emblem of progress in the endless sea of male-dominated industries. But how did a stay-at-home mom of five transform into a pioneering figure in the business world? And more importantly, why does her story matter to us today?

The narrative of Anna Sutherland Bissell challenges the deeply ingrained stereotypes about women’s roles in both the household and the corporate sphere. It raises a pressing question: In a landscape still skewed towards male leadership, how can the tales of early trailblazers like Anna inspire current and future generations of women entrepreneurs? This article dives into the heart of Anna’s story, not just to celebrate her achievements but to dissect the layers of courage, innovation, and resilience that propelled her to the pinnacle of her industry.

Understanding the significance of Anna’s legacy is crucial for several reasons. Firstly, it shines a light on the often-overlooked contributions of women in shaping the business landscape. Second, it is a powerful motivator for today’s women, who still navigate the challenging waters of entrepreneurship and leadership in fields where gender disparity is evident. By exploring Anna’s journey, I aim to not only honor a remarkable figure but also to inspire you to envision and chase your own version of success, undeterred by the glass ceilings waiting to be shattered.

Pioneering Pathways: The Journey of Anna Sutherland Bissell

In the heart of the 19th century, amidst a societal backdrop where the business world was exclusively male territory, Anna Sutherland Bissell carved her name as the first female CEO. This marked a personal victory and a monumental shift in the corporate landscape. Her journey from a stay-at-home mom of five to leading a burgeoning empire is a narrative of determination, innovation, and resilience. But what does it take to shatter the glass ceiling in an era where such aspirations seemed almost fantastical for women?

A Partnership of Equals

  • Collaboration with Melville Bissell: Anna’s foray into the business world began alongside her husband, Melville, who struggled to keep his crockery store clean. Together, they invented the carpet sweeper, a revolutionary product that paved the way for their future success. This partnership was a testament to mutual respect and the acknowledgment of Anna’s brilliant mind and problem-solving abilities.
  • Innovation and Patents: The Bissells didn’t stop at invention; they secured patents for both the carpet sweeper and later developments, ensuring Anna’s contributions were legally recognized. This progressive move highlighted Melville’s support for his wife’s intellect and capabilities in an era when such recognition was rare.

Breaking Barriers: Stepping Up as the First Female CEO

  • Overcoming Adversity: Anna’s transition to the role of CEO was not a product of ambition alone but a necessity following Melville’s untimely death. Her ascent to leadership challenged the prevailing norms and showcased her ability to lead and innovate in a male-dominated sphere.
  • Leadership and Expansion: Under Anna’s guidance, the Bissell Company didn’t just survive; it thrived. She expanded the business, improving the product line and securing the company’s place as a household name. Anna’s role as the first female CEO was not just a title but a demonstration of adept leadership and forward-thinking in the face of societal constraints.

Legacy and Impact: Lessons from Anna’s Leadership

Anna Sutherland Bissell’s legacy is not merely historical; it’s a source of inspiration and learning for contemporary and future entrepreneurs. Her life and career offer valuable lessons in leadership, innovation, and resilience.

  • Embrace Intelligence and Learning: Anna’s success underscores the importance of leveraging your skills and continually seeking knowledge. In today’s rapidly changing business landscape, continuous learning and adaptability are vital to overcoming challenges and seizing opportunities.
  • Utilize Logic and Intuition: Anna’s logical approach to problem-solving and her intuitive sense of the market and innovation played a crucial role in her success. This balance between logic and intuition remains crucial for modern entrepreneurs navigating complex business environments.
  • Leadership Beyond Business: Anna extended her leadership beyond the confines of the Bissell Company. Her philanthropic efforts and community engagement, such as founding the Bissell House for immigrant youth and women, highlight the role of businesses in contributing to societal well-being.

Shattering Today’s Glass Ceilings: Drawing Inspiration from Anna Sutherland Bissell

Anna Sutherland Bissell’s story is not just a historical account; it’s a calling for women in business today. Through her courage and resilience, she demonstrated that barriers are surmountable with determination, innovation, and support. Her journey provides a blueprint for modern entrepreneurs to navigate our paths in industries still marked by gender disparities.

  • Challenge Stereotypes: Anna’s legacy teaches us to challenge the status quo and break free from societal expectations. By owning our intelligence, creativity, and leadership capabilities, women can continue to break barriers in any field.
  • Build Supportive Networks: The support between Anna and Melville highlights the importance of fostering partnerships and networks that believe in equality and mutual growth. Surrounding yourself with allies and mentors can be a powerful catalyst for success.
  • Leave a Lasting Legacy: Finally, Anna’s life reminds us of the importance of thinking beyond immediate success to how we can leave a lasting impact on our industries, communities, and the world. Whether through innovation, leadership, or philanthropy, the goal should be to create a legacy that inspires future generations.

Anna Sutherland Bissell’s journey is a testament to what is possible when we dare to dream big and break the molds set before us. Her story is not just about the past; it’s a guidepost for the future, urging us to pave new pathways for leadership and success in a world craving its next generation of Anna Bissells.

Forging Ahead: The Enduring Influence of Anna Sutherland Bissell

Anna Sutherland Bissell’s story transcends the bounds of history to resonate with us today. Her legacy is a powerful reminder that with courage, innovation, and determination, glass ceilings can not only be cracked but shattered entirely.

In a world still grappling with gender disparities in leadership and entrepreneurship, Anna’s story urges us to continue pushing for progress as women in business everywhere recognize their worth, harness their unique strengths, and carve out their paths in industries far and wide. The journey may be full of challenges, but Anna’s life teaches us that these obstacles are not insurmountable.

So, let us take inspiration from Anna’s legacy as we forge ahead. May her story empower you to pursue your aspirations with unwavering determination, to innovate with purpose, and to lead with compassion and strength. Let’s carry forward Anna’s spirit of perseverance and innovation. In doing so, we honor her legacy and contribute to a future where every woman can confidently say, “I got this.”

Kimberley Borgens

About the author

Kimberley Borgens was married at 18, a mother at 19, and divorced at 20, she has journeyed from being a single mom on welfare to recognizing her strengths, fighting for what she believes in, and successfully building 5 thriving businesses with hundreds of employees and million-dollar budgets. Kimberley is a speaker, business mentor, and coaches her clients to transform their small business into a thriving business. Kimberley is living her own legacy as she inspires and motivates women to be fearless, become more like a CEO of their business and life, and enjoy the freedom they've dreamed of. She knows what it's like to start from nothing and build a strong solid business and she can help you too.

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