Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Martha's Legacy

Martha Stewart’s Legacy—What it Should be
By Natalie West Criss
Assistant Editor
Metro Business Chronicle
December 2004

On a recent trip to the grocery store, my preteen daughter scanned the prominently displayed tabloid covers and asked, “Why exactly is Martha Stewart in prison?” I immediately donned my homeschooling-mother hat and answered, “Remember the talk we had about stocks…” then, realizing the futility and flatness of my explanation, I seized instead on a greater opportunity: a lesson on entrepreneurial drive, successful leadership, strength of character, and injustice.

Long before ImClone became a household name, Martha Stewart was much maligned in the media. As the cliché punch line and well-worn punching bag for columnists and comedians, the one-liners and caricatures were expected. However, the reaction from women, particularly those in business, came as a surprise to me.

Stewart’s unremarkable background, not unlike many of our own, provides the true context for her inspiring rise to success, for which she should be admired, as well as the tragic contrast of her current imprisonment, during which she deserves our support.

During World War II, Stewart was born to working class parents in the small community of Nutley, NJ. One of six children, she learned the basics of cooking, sewing, and canning from her mother, a homemaker and schoolteacher. At age three, she began a lifelong passion for gardening under the guidance of her father, a pharmaceutical salesman.

As a young woman, Stewart, like many young people today, worked while attending college to pay for tuition. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in history and architectural history, she became a successful stockbroker, a career decidedly dominated by men in the 1960s.

In 1972, when less than 5% of all businesses were owned by women, Stewart opened a thriving catering business which resulted in the publishing of her first cookbook, Entertaining, in 1982. Ten years later, Time Inc. published the first issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine and the syndicated television show “Martha Stewart Living” began airing. Riding the wave of “Martha Mania,” Stewart purchased the company from Time Inc. in 1997. Two years later, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia made its initial public offering.

In a career spanning more than three decades, Stewart has built an empire around the uniquely feminine phenomenon of nesting by elevating even the most mundane of daily tasks (formerly known as “women’s work”) to a level of functional style and simple elegance. Aside from her equally important contributions as an innovator, marketer and employer, her vast lines of products, from flowers to furniture, instill pride in consumers and an appreciation for the finer things in life. Her perfectionism and drive motivated millions of viewers and readers to break free of the mediocrity of their surroundings and raised the standard of household excellence. This is a good thing.

Rather than resent what some see as frivolous pursuits or oppressive duty, her fans have voted with their wallets and remote controls. Yet these are the very things for which she is vilified: the pursuit of excellence, unrelenting drive and determination, impeccable style and taste, matchless success, wholesome values, and respect from colleagues and consumers. Aren’t these the very things we strive for in our own personal and professional lives?

Who could have ever predicted that this woman who came from a small New Jersey town, who paid her way through college, earned the respect of colleagues in what was truly a man’s world, and successfully established a multi-billion-dollar corporation --all without the slightest hint of impropriety-- would be hauled to a women’s prison for simply asserting her innocence against a charge so flimsy that the prosecution dropped it for lack of evidence? Or, worse, that so many would revel in, what one (dim) wit called, her “Just Desserts”?

This unfair persecution of success is not uncommon. Neither is the reaction. Michael Milken and Bill Gates were forced to run the prosecutorial gamut amid public scorn and paid heavily for their revolutionary innovations. However, the precedent set by Stewart’s conviction, based solely on her statement of innocence, is unique and frightening.

How would many of us react in the face of an attack against our character and reputation? How would we answer the accusation of “Liar”? Recall that Stewart went directly to the investigators without the force of a subpoena and to candidly answer the charges against her. With the dismissal of the allegation of insider trading (a non-crime that deserves its own dissertation) this simple utterance was the basis of her conviction. Recall that she voluntarily reported to prison to “end this nightmare” so that she may “reclaim her good name.” Even so, one pundit remarked that he didn’t think Stewart seemed apologetic enough. Where is the outrage?

Rather than tearing Stewart apart, we businesswomen should acknowledge her as an admirable role model for our daughters and ourselves. She is entitled to her success and worthy of our respect.

Unless otherwise cited, all original articles appearing on this blog are property of Natalie West Criss ( Business Ink, Inc. and Metro Business Chronicle). To submit requests for publication, contact


Beth Karow said...

I couldn't agree with you more. Your writing is clear and flowing, your points well made.
I feel so sorry for Martha, she is a successful woman in a man's world, and she had to be taken down. How unfortunate. Worst of all in this tragedy is the atmosphere of glee that we see from the masses, especially from the women. Reminds me of a very interesting article I read a long time ago in Mothering Magazine written by a woman from Iran, I believe. Her point was that, for all our modern, free women in America, we were sadly lacking in what she missed so much from her native land: support for each other, compassion, and true women's friendships. The idea of watching out for each other, covering each other's back: it just doesn't exist here. It seems that in our quest for equality with men, we have dropped one of the most important parts of being women: sisterhood.
How sad.

Good Blog, anyway. It's made my morning procrastination fun.

Sang Smith said...

I wouldn't say that true womens' friendships "don't exist here", but they are rare. It IS hard to find women who don't shred you behind your back or are two-faced, but it IS possible, thank goodness. Maybe we just have to work harder and look deeper for it, here. Is it business and "women's rights" that have done that to us? Or is it just the "American" way? Hmmm...