Ellen Libby Eastman, CPA
Trailblazer and Professional

By Andrew D. Sharp

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AUGUST 2007 - In 1970, the American Accounting Association (AAA) Committee on Accounting History encouraged research, asserting that accounting history should serve intellectual and utilitarian purposes.

Robert H. Parker authored the article “Research Needs in Accounting History” (The Accounting Historians Journal, Fall 1977). He included biographies of early accountants as prime examples of research needed by the profession.

In a June 3, 1989, letter to colleagues, President-elect Barbara D. Merino of the Academy of Accounting Historians introduced the second edition of Biographies of Notable Accountants, edited by Abdel M. Agami. This was a joint project of the Academy of Accounting Historians and Random House. Of the 18 individuals included in the publication, only one—Jennie M. Palen—was a woman.

Merino wrote:

Recent criticisms of undergraduate and professional education have centered on the failure of universities to inculcate in students a sense of identity with their disciplines. For example, the Carnegie Report (1986:19–20) called for “enriched majors” that would enable students to respond to three questions—“what is the history and tradition of the field to be examined? what are the social and economic implications to be understood? what are the ethical and moral issues to be confronted and resolved?” By examining the biographies in the enclosed monograph, students will gain a better understanding of the accounting profession and the complex role that the profession has had in contemporary society.

In April 2001, then–CPA Journal Editor-in-Chief Robert H. Colson penned an editorial titled “The Past: Prologue for the Future,” calling for more books and articles that would reflect the human dimensions of employment in public accounting firms. Additionally, Colson noted the difficulty in locating publications that covered the people involved in significant accounting events. He encouraged members of the profession to take a greater interest in its history by joining the Academy of Accounting Historians and reading more publications about accountants. He also encouraged readers to write for The CPA Journal on understanding the past as a prologue for the future.

The Profession’s Library

The National Library of the Accounting Profession, located on the campus of the University of Mississippi, in Oxford, Miss., is home to the world’s largest accounting collection. This represents a treasure trove for scholars performing historical accounting research. Researchers from around the world travel to this site to conduct studies using these prestigious collections. Myriad dimensions of social research can be analyzed using the library’s holdings. For example, some items relate to the earliest women CPAs.

Housed in the Archives and Special Collections area are two binders from the AICPA collection containing photographs of individuals appearing in the Journal of Accountancy or at accounting conventions from 1887 to 1979. Of the 446 individuals featured, eight are women. One undated photograph shows Ellen Libby Eastman. Why is she included in this collection of photos of the profession’s leaders? Who is she, and what contributions did she make to the accounting profession?

Ellen Libby Eastman

Ellen H. Libby Eastman began her career as a clerk in a Maine lumber company, then steadily progressed to the position of chief accountant there. She studied for the CPA exam at night and holds the honor as the first woman CPA in Maine, receiving certificate No. 37, dated 1918. Additionally, she was the first woman to establish a public accounting practice in New England. Arriving in New York in 1920, Eastman focused on tax work and audited the accounts of the American Women’s Hospital in Greece. In 1925, she held membership in the American Society of Certified Public Accountants (ASCPA). As of 1940, Eastman was associated with the New York law firm of Hawkins, Delafield and Longfellow. She was still there in 1947, at which point the firm was known as Hawkins, Delafield and Wood.

Outspoken and eloquent characterized Eastman’s views regarding a woman’s ability to succeed in the accounting profession. In her article “Speaking of ‘Figgers’ ” (The Certified Public Accountant, May 1929), Eastman vividly recounted her adventures as a woman CPA:

One must be willing and able to endure long and irregular hours, unusual working arrangements and difficult travel conditions. I have worked eighteen out of the twenty-four hours of a day with time for but one meal; I have worked in the office of a bank president with its mahogany furnishings and oriental rugs and I have worked in the corner of a grain mill with a grain bin for a desk and a salt box for a chair; I have been accorded the courtesy of the private car and chauffeur of my client and have also walked two miles over the top of a mountain to a lumber camp inaccessible even with a Ford car. I have ridden from ten to fifteen miles into the country after leaving the railroad, the only conveyance being a horse and traverse runners—and this in the severity of a New England winter. I have done it with a thermometer registering fourteen degrees below zero and a twenty-five mile per hour gale blowing. I have chilled my feet and frozen my nose for the sake of success in a job which I love. I have been snowbound in railroad stations and have been stranded five miles from a garage with both rear tires of my car flat. I have ridden into and out of open culvert ditches with the workmen shouting warnings to me. And always one must keep the appointment; “how” is not the client’s concern.

In the same article, Eastman also explained the relationship between accountants and truth:

There has never lived the perfect certified public accountant, possessing all of the much-to-be-desired qualities: trustworthiness, fearlessness, energy, steadfastness, a studious and inquiring turn of mind, ability to seek the truth and to judge fairly and without prejudice or personality. Forgive us [our] shortcomings; we are but human.

Eastman further discussed the concept of truth in accounting:

The next in order after a passionate love of figures and things mathematical, comes the ability to seek and to find the truth. One must know how to translate it with the fewest possible processes and by the simplest procedure into those figures which all can read, if not understand. And that is all there is to it—to find the truth and translate it efficiently into figures.

Making a Difference

Mary Murphy, another of the eight select women in the two AICPA binders, felt accountants should know who the early practitioners were, what they stood for, and what they did. Murphy desired accounting history in college curricula to accomplish this. She thought biographies of individuals, histories of societies, and discussions of the development of accounting principles and procedures would supply needed literature.

Eastman was indeed a pioneer in the accounting profession, and she deserves recognition for her contributions, courage, and efforts during a period when women faced significant obstacles entering a new field. As of 1933, only a few more than 100 CPA certificates had been issued to women. By 1946, the number of women licensed as CPAs stood at 360.

Eastman served the accounting profession at a high level, paving the way for other aspiring women accountants to prosper. She was an exemplary trailblazer for the accounting professionals of the future.


Andrew D. Sharp, PhD, CPA, is a professor of accounting and the Caestecker Endowed Chair in the Liberal Arts in the division of business at Spring Hill College, Mobile, Ala.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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