A hundred years ago this week—on August 26, 1920—the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, guaranteeing a woman’s right to vote. That milestone was made possible by the tireless work of activists including Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It was also a testament to the courage of many other women who had long been breaking barriers and challenging societal norms—women like Julia Babbitt, Prudential’s first female insurance agent.
Babbitt was among several women who responded to a notice published in a Newark, New Jersey, paper on Dec. 18, 1875:
“WANTED: Canvassers for The Prudential Friendly Society. This first effort in this country to establish a Friendly Society worthy of the patronage of all classes is meeting with a generous response. People in these hard times are more than usually thoughtful in making provision for sickness, accident, old age and a burial fund.”
The company then was brand-new. It had no real assets and no support for its fledgling canvassers, the predecessors to modern-day agents. Prudential was looking for “intelligent ladies and gentlemen” to help the business grow, and Babbitt was the first female insurance agent hired, starting on March 6, 1876.
Babbitt made 10 cents in her first week as an insurance agent at Prudential, and just 45 cents in the first month.
“It was the hardest kind of business at first to make headway,” Babbitt said.
Struggling during her first month, Babbitt almost became the first woman to quit. With just 45 cents in earnings, she and her husband decided the job wasn’t worth the trouble. So, she gathered her books and papers, brought them to the State Bank Building at 812 Broad St. in Newark and told John Dryden, Prudential’s founder, she was finished.
Dryden persuaded her to try one more month.
“Putting my heart and effort into my work, I was soon rewarded,” Babbitt said after her retirement in 1912, according to an account in “From Three Cents a Week: The Story of The Prudential Insurance Company of America.” After meeting with Dryden, she wrote 50 new applications in just a few days and visited policyholders each week, to collect premiums as small as 3 cents, making just 10% commission on the collections.
“When I next saw Mr. Dryden, he said with great feeling and pleasure, ‘Now you see what you can do if you make the right try.’”
Babbitt stayed on board and succeeded—at one point her “debit,” or book of policies, became so large it was split in two, with her husband managing the other half. They weren’t the only members of the Babbitt family to be employed by Prudential. Her son George got a job as a mail clerk before he went to college to become a doctor. And her sister, E.J. Carnrike, joined the company as an agent in December 1878, working for a different office.
In 1903, the company’s newsletter, The Prudential Weekly Record, honored Babbitt and her sister among seven “Prudential pioneers.” Babbitt was approaching her 28th year on the job and still “contributing her share of increase to the debit of Newark No. 2,” a district in the city, while Carnrike was finishing her 25th year with Newark No. 1.
Though Babbitt was the first, she was only one of many women who as insurance agents helped Prudential grow through its critical early stages.
In 1909, the Weekly Record reported that a Mrs. W. M. Felker led the staff of the Shamokin, Pennsylvania office, writing the largest monthly income ordinary insurance policy, an early form of whole life insurance, for that office at the time—a policy for $5,000.