Among the AICPA-donated volumes at Ole Miss are two binders containing photographs of individuals appearing in the JofA or at accounting conventions from 1887 to 1979. Of the 446 individuals featured, eight are women—Christine Ross, Ellen Libby Eastman, Miriam Donnelly, Mary E. Murphy, Helen Lord, Helen H. Fortune, Mary E. Lewis and Beth M. Thompson. In a time when the profession was the all-but-exclusive domain of men, they stood out not only because of their gender but in many cases because of their accomplishments and contributions to accounting. Consider that in 1933, slightly more than 100 CPA certificates had been issued to women. By 1946, World War II had changed traditional notions of gender in the workplace, and female CPAs had more than tripled to 360—still a small contingent but, as information gleaned from the AICPA Library indicates, one capable of exerting a strong and beneficial influence on the profession.
Born about 1873 in Nova Scotia, Ross took New York by storm in the late 1890s. New York state enacted licensure legislation in 1896 and gave its inaugural CPA exam in December 1896. Ross sat for the exam in June 1898, scoring second or third in her group. Six to 18 months elapsed while her certificate was delayed by state regents because of her gender. But she had completed the requirements and became the first woman CPA in the United States, receiving certificate no. 143 on Dec. 21, 1899.
Ross began practicing accounting around 1889. For several years, she worked for Manning’s Yacht Agency in New York. Her clients included women’s organizations, wealthy women and those in fashion and business.
Lord received her CPA certificate from New York in 1934 and in 1935 joined the American Society of Certified Public Accountants, which merged with the American Institute of Accountants (later AICPA) the following year. In 1937, she was a partner with her father in the New York firm of Lord & Lord and a member of the AIA. She served in the late 1940s as business manager of The Woman CPA, published by the American Woman’s Society of Certified Public Accountants–American Society of Women Accountants. Lord reported the journal then had a circulation of more than 2,200.
Helen Hifner Fortune
Fortune, one of the first women CPAs in Kentucky, received certificate no. 174 in 1935 and was admitted to the AIA the following year. She became a member of an AIA committee in 1942 and by 1947 was a partner in the Lexington, Ky., firm of Hifner and Fortune.
Ellen Libby Eastman
Eastman began her career as a clerk in a Maine lumber company, eventually becoming chief accountant. She studied for the CPA exam at night and became the first woman CPA in Maine, receiving certificate no. 37 dated 1918. She was also 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 was a member of the ASCPA. In 1940, Eastman began working with the law firm of Hawkins, Delafield & Longfellow in New York.
She was outspoken and eloquent regarding a woman’s ability to succeed in accounting. In a 1929 article in The Certified Public Accountant, Eastman recounted her adventures:
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
Mary E. Murphy
A long-lived pioneer, Murphy (1905–1985) lectured, researched and taught in the United States and abroad, retiring in 1973. The Iowa native earned her bachelor of commerce degree with a major in accounting from the University of Iowa in 1927, then obtained a master’s in accountancy in 1928 from Columbia University Business School. In 1938, she received a doctorate in accountancy—only the second woman in the United States to do so—from the London School of Economics.
In 1928, Murphy began working in the New York office of Lybrand, Ross Bros. & Montgomery. Two years later, she took the CPA exam in Iowa and received certificate no. 67, to become the first woman CPA in Iowa. She joined the AIA in 1937.
Following her public accounting stint, she served for three years as the chair of the Department of Commerce at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind. Murphy also was an assistant professor of economics at Hunter College of the City University of New York until 1951. In 1952, she received the first Fulbright professorship of accounting, with assignments in Australia and New Zealand. In 1957, she was appointed as the first director of research of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia. Murphy retired in 1973 from the accounting faculty at California State University.
She published or collaborated on more than 20 books and 100 journal articles and many book reviews and scholarly papers. From 1946 to 1965 she was the most frequently published author in The Accounting Review. Murphy investigated the role of accounting in the economy, made the case for accounting education improvements and paved the way for other aspiring women accountants to prosper. More than half her publications explored international accounting, often advocating standardization. She also emphasized accounting history and biographies.
Mary E. Lewis
Lewis received California CPA certificate no. 1404 in 1939. She was admitted to the AIA that year and by 1947 had her own firm in Los Angeles.
Beth M. Thompson
Thompson worked as the office manager in the Kentucky Automobile Agency she and her husband, Charles R. Thompson, owned. After closing the car business, they moved to Florida, where she worked for an accounting firm. She passed the CPA exam in 1951 with the encouragement of her husband and opened her own accounting business in Miami. In 1955, Thompson was one of only 900 women CPAs and the only female president of a state association chapter—the Dade County chapter of the Florida Institute of CPAs.
From 1949 to 1955, Donnelly was head librarian of the AIA library. (In 1957, the AIA was renamed the AICPA.) She began her career with the library as assistant librarian and cataloger in 1927, after working for two governmental libraries and the New York Public Library.
Gary John Previts is professor and associate dean of the Department of Accountancy in the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland. Dale L. Flesher is professor and associate dean of the Patterson School of Accountancy at the University of Mississippi, Oxford, Miss. Andrew D. Sharp is a professor of the Division of Business of Spring Hill College, Mobile, Ala. Their e-mail addresses, respectively, are email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
SOURCES FOR THIS ARTICLE INCLUDE:
A History of Accountancy in the United States: The Cultural Significance of Accounting, by Gary John Previts and Barbara Dubis Merino, Ohio State University Press, 1998.
Mary E. Murphy’s Contributions to Accountancy,
by Margaret A. Hoskins, Garland, 1994.
“An Historical Perspective on Women in Accounting,” by Glenda E. Ried, Brenda T. Acken and Elise G. Jancura, May 87 (AICPA Centennial Issue), page 338.