Woman’s Federal Oil Company of America
Although later derided for having “petticoat management,” a 1915 oil company run by women was part America’s growing suffrage movement.
At the time, with nine out of 10 wells resulting in “dusters,” far more exploration companies failed than succeeded. Competition was fierce in the technical, speculative and very expensive search for new oilfields.
Most newly formed enterprises were run by men whose ambitions often exceeded their drilling experience and investment capital.
One gender exception was Mrs. H. H. Honore Jr. of Chicago. In 1915 she was named president of a new oil company led exclusively by women – five years before they were granted the right to vote for a U.S. president.
The Woman’s Federal Oil Company of America incorporated on November 22, 1915, in the District of Columbia with $750,000 capitalization. “Mrs. Honore was head of the company, which kept mere males out of the organization,” noted one reporter.
“The history of this woman’s oil corporation forms an intensely interesting story of the rare accomplishment of women, absolutely unaided by man,” gushed the reporter about the widow of prominent real estate businessman Harry H. Honore Jr.
“The reason men were kept out,” the reporter added, “is because ‘women are destined for equal leadership with men in the world of finance and promotion.'”
The company’s officers included, “some fifteen other equally well-known women, as executives and directors, (who) began the tremendous task of establishing a dividend-paying oil industry.”
More than 2,100 women bought shares in Woman’s Federal Oil and by 1917 it had acquired a charter to do business in Kansas.
Although the company acquired leases for 350,000 acres in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana, Woman’s Federal Oil’s first two success wells came in Illinois.
In April and June of 1918, the company drilled near the town of East Oakland, Illinois. Both wells produced commercial amounts of natural gas. The company paid first dividends to stockholders the same year.
“It is no wonder that the entire financial world is doffing its hat to the Woman’s Federal Oil Company of America, and to the able women who manage it,” reported one industry trade journal. “This woman’s enterprise has made good.”
However, the next three exploratory wells drilled by Woman’s Federal Oil were expensive dry holes. Debts soon mounted and investors became wary. An article in a popular investment magazine did not help the company.
“Woman’s Federal Oil Company of America is purely a speculation and in our opinion, you would be better off to leave the stock alone,” declared editors of United States Investor magazine in January 1919.
The magazine frequently issued far harsher criticisms. In May 1919 it exposed the Prudential Oil and Refining Company as a stock scam run by notorious ad-man Seymour E. J. “Alphabet” Cox.
Meanwhile, Woman’s Federal Oil’s former company attorney, George Holmes, led a move against the board of directors to oust Mrs. Honore and her fellow female executives, whom he described as “petticoat management.”
“These women have no idea of the relation between income and disbursements,” proclaimed Holmes at a contentious meeting that included both sexes.
“Jeers, taunts, wild shouts prevailed through every minute of the session,” and the New York’s Syracuse Journal reported this exchange at the meeting:
“I don’t think you’re much of an oil man, Mr. Ellis” interrupted Mrs. Honore. “And your statements are not true.”
“I don’t think you’re much of an oil woman, Mrs. Honore,” replied Ellis.
Mrs. Honore shattered her gavel.
“I am merely trying to get efficient management,” Holmes maintained. “I am prepared to go the limit, in court or out, to get this management, which the stockholders are entitled to,” Holmes said.
In the end, the attorney’s move to change board leadership failed.
“Women Triumph Over Men Foes In Oil Company,” exclaimed the Syracuse Journal headline when a final board vote retained Mrs. H. H. Honore Jr., as president. But the victory lasted only a year.
Despite some reported successful wells in Kansas oilfields, Woman’s Federal Oil’s fortunes continued to diminish. A January 12, 1920, meeting of stockholders in Chicago reviewed the company’s financial position. “The value of the 75,000 shares of stock, held mostly by women, deteriorated from $1,087,500 to $75,000,” noted one reporter.
“Amid heated argument five directors were elected. All were men. Mrs. H. H. Honore Jr….made no effort to retain her place on the board,” added a brief article headlined, “Woman’s Federal Oil Co. Has Merry Meeting.”
Mrs. Honore, who had resigned on December 31, 1919, was unavailable when creditors, including a bank in Independence, Kansas, announced the firm should be thrown into bankruptcy.
A newly formed H & H Oil Company of Kansas City prepared a stock exchange agreement to avert bankruptcy – but the best stockholders could hope for was receiving a fraction of their investment.
“Oil company which tabooed mere man, to pay 20-cents on dollar,” concluded a June 1920 newspaper. Although neither company survived, Woman’s Federal Oil stock certificates are valued by collectors.
The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote, was ratified on August 18, 1920. Mrs. Harriet Denham Honore, widow of Harry H. Honore Jr., died in New York City at 75 on July 18, 1938. “Although her marriage had united her to one of Chicago’s wealthy families, she had been reduced to the gifts of friends and a $20 a month old-age pension,” reported the New York Times.
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