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25 Years Since Women Needed a Male Co-Signer

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It may not be celebrated with the fanfare usually reserved for our nation's historic events, but this month marks the 25th anniversary of the Women's Business Ownership Act of 1988, a landmark piece of legislation that -- among other things -- put an end to state laws that required women to have male relatives sign business loans.

The National Association of Women Business Owners, which was instrumental in getting then-President Ronald Reagan to sign the law, says the legislation "ushered in a transformation in women's enterprise development" by addressing a number of barriers to women at that time.

The law established the National Women's Business Council, a bipartisan panel that advises the president and Congress on economic issues important to women business owners. It also created Women's Business Centers, a national network of centers across the country which assist women in starting and growing their businesses.

"As a result of this legislation, women entrepreneurs were provided with long overdue access to capital, education and technical assistance offered in a woman's voice," says Billie Dragoo, NAWBO chair.

The law also extended the Equal Credit Opportunity Act to protect women against discriminatory lending practices.

"Women business owners today are often shocked to hear about the challenges that their predecessors faced only 25 years ago," says Virginia Littlejohn, who was part of the NAWBO leadership team that helped the House Small Business Committee organize hearings on the proposed legislation. One female witness at the time who didn't have a husband or father to co-sign her business loan "had to ask her 17-year-old son to co-sign for her -- when he couldn't even vote," she says.

Littlejohn, who also recently spoke at NAWBO's annual conference in Miami on the law, says the common public perception at that time was that women only ran microentreprises such as "candle-making and macramé businesses."

To challenge those conceptions, NAWBO advocated that the 1988 law direct the government to collect data on all women-owned firms, including larger businesses like C corporations, not just sole proprietorships.

Julie Weeks, president of research consultancy Womenable, says "myth-busting data and statistics"  have done the most to propel the growth of women-owned businesses. "It has proven to be the fuel that has opened eyes... and allowed us to measure progress and point out continued gaps," she says.

The 2013 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, which Weeks' firm recently prepared for American Express OPEN, found that the number of women-owned firms today is growing at one-and-a-half times times the national average. There are roughly 8.6 million women-owned businesses in the U.S., generating more than $1.3 trillion in revenue and employing nearly 7.8 million people.

Fortunately, these women can now sign their own loan applications.