The Right to Practice Without the Right to Vote
Reflections on the Legacy of the First Women CPAs

By Dale L. Flesher, Gary John Previts, and Andrew D. Sharp

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JULY 2008 - The practice of accounting enjoys a remarkable heritage and continues to serve a vital role in society. Through the years, many dedicated professionals have advanced this prestigious profession. Because accounting is the language of business, the nation’s economy depends heavily on accountants’ work.

As a social science, accounting encompasses history, culture, norms, values, and society.

Pioneers Surmounting Obstacles

Social research in accounting includes the earliest women CPAs—trailblazers like Christine Ross, Ellen Eastman, Jennie Palen, and Myrtle Cerf. They served the profession at a high level and were indeed pioneers in their chosen field. They deserve special attention and recognition for their contributions, courage, and efforts because they succeeded in an era when women faced a number of obstacles to entering the profession. They paved the way for other aspiring women accountants to prosper.

New York holds the honor of being the first state to pass a CPA licensing law, doing so on April 17, 1896. When New York gave its inaugural CPA exam in December 1896, it is possible that the examiners never considered that a woman might seek such certification. Ross became the first woman CPA in the United States, receiving certificate number 143, dated December 27, 1899.

Eastman holds the honor as the first woman CPA in Maine, receiving certificate number 37 in 1918. Additionally, she was the first woman to establish a public accounting practice in New England. Eastman was outspoken and eloquent regarding a woman’s ability to succeed in the accounting profession. In her article “Speaking of ‘Figgers’” (The Certified Public Accountant, May 1929), she listed the desired qualities of a CPA: “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.”

Palen received CPA certificate number 1322 from the state of New York, dated July 9, 1923. From 1918 to 1949, she worked for Haskins & Sells in that firm’s report department. In her article “Women in Accountancy: 1933–1953” (The Accounting Forum, May 1953), Palen vigorously expressed her feelings regarding women entering the accounting profession: “The woman accountant as a staff employee was an exception, truly, but only because the accountant’s office was about as hard for her to get into as Fort Knox.” She penned additional publications promoting women in accounting, was editor of The Woman CPA, and served for more than 50 years as an active member of the American Woman’s Society of CPAs (AWSCPA), chartered on June 21, 1933. She also was its president from 1946 to 1947.

Certified in 1915, Cerf became the first woman CPA in California and one of five women in the state to be issued CPA licenses before they were granted the constitutional right to vote. Think about it: These women earned the right to practice as CPAs in a learned profession of public trust and confidence at a time when they lacked the fundamental right to vote for their political representatives.

The term “suffrage,” derived from the Latin word suffragium, meaning “vote,” refers to one’s civil right to vote. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted women the right to vote, stating: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Congress proposed the amendment on June 4, 1919, and three states—Illinois (the AWSCPA’s birthplace), Michigan, and Wisconsin—were the first to ratify it, on June 10 of that year. On June 16, 1919, New York (the state that gave Ross and Palen their CPAs) ratified the proposal. Like Cerf and the other women CPAs from California, Ross had the right to practice as a CPA before gaining the right to vote. California ratified the 19th Amendment on November 1, 1919. Maine, Eastman’s state of certification, ratified the amendment on November 5 of that same year—meaning she also earned the right to practice public accounting before she received the right to vote. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee finally ratified the 19th Amendment, making it the 36th and final state to do so. U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the ratification on August 26, 1920.

Serving with Honor

Over the last century, women have made great strides in the accounting profession and in the equal-rights arena.. An analogy to their early plight may be drawn from the current situation where members of the U.S. military can serve and defend their country at age 18, risking their lives, but are not legally allowed to purchase or consume alcohol.


Dale L. Flesher, PhD, CPA, is the Arthur Andersen Alumni Professor of Accountancy and associate dean of the Patterson School of Accountancy at the University of Mississippi, University, Miss. His article, coauthored with Jeffrey S. Zanzig, “GAAP Requirements for Nonpublic Companies: New Views on Big GAAP Versus Little GAAP” (The CPA Journal, May 2006), won the Max Block Award for 2006 in the category of Informed Comment.
Gary John Previts, PhD, CPA
, is the E. Mandell de Windt Professor at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management, Cleveland, Ohio. Previts is president of the American Accounting Association and editor of the journal Research in Accounting Regulation.
Andrew D. Sharp, PhD, CPA, is professor of accounting and the Thomas E. Caestecker Endowed Chair in the Liberal Arts at Spring Hill College, Mobile, Ala.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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