February 21, 2024

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Women Accountants at Haskins & Sells During the 1920s

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In the early decades of the last century, women CPAs were not as common in the accounting profession as they have become today. The article focuses on the life and career of Jennie May Palen, the highest ranking and highest paid woman CPA from the 1920s to 1940s. The opportunities seized by Palen and other pioneering women at the firm of Haskins & Sells may have been necessitated by the personal disruptions caused by World War I, but the historical record indicates that once women were in the firm, they were well respected.

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Many young CPAs today might be surprised to learn what an anomaly women CPAs once were. In the early years of the profession, few women pursued accounting careers. The first women partners in what are now the Big Four CPA firms did not reach those positions until the mid-1960s; even into the late 1970s, women were still rare in the profession. Still, there were a few women who were respected by their colleagues and made a lasting impact on the profession.

This article looks at the women CPAs in the New York office of Haskins & Sells during the 1920s—with an emphasis on Jennie May Palen, the woman who would be the highest-ranking and highest-paid woman CPA from the 1920s through the 1940s. Palen got her big break because of World War I, when male accountants were drafted into the military at the same time that firms were being asked to perform more and different kinds of professional services. Thus, to get the job done, a few firms hired women accountants.

The personnel shortages created by the war effort resulted in additional employment opportunities for women in the practice of public accounting. With many men overseas, women became involved in performing accounting assignments, at least on a temporary basis. The firm of Haskins & Sells (H&S), the first truly American large CPA firm, had long included women on the staff, but these were in secretarial positions—even most secretaries were male. The first female employee at H&S was Sarah Isabelle Bolles from Brooklyn, who joined the firm in November 1900. She had attended Northfield Seminary in Massachusetts; according to the Accountants’ Directory and Who’s Who of 1920, she had taken “special courses” at Columbia University (Rita Perine, ed. The Accountants’ Directory and Who’s Who, 1920; The Forty-Fifth Street Press, p. 332). Bolles began as a secretary, but by 1920 she was listed as the firm’s executive secretary; she even signed the firm’s partnership tax return in the 1920s. She was also listed as an accountant in the Accountants’ Directory, but without a CPA certificate. Bolles was obviously well respected within the firm. By 1924, Bolles was earning $9,000 per year, which made her the highest paid nonpartner nationwide. Partners at that time were earning $15,000 annually plus a share of profits. By 1929, Bolles was earning $9,600 per year, while partners were still earning $15,000. Only one nonpartner, Harry A. Finney in the firm’s Chicago office, earned more than Bolles in 1929.

The declaration of war in April 1917 had seriously undermined the professional staff of Haskins & Sells and most other firms throughout the nation. The August 15, 1918, issue of the Haskins & Sells Bulletin included a brief notice:

With the great uncertainty of the “manpower” situation we are considering seriously the utilization of women on the staff. With this in mind we hope to add to the bookkeeping force a number of women, who, together with those already employed, will form a nucleus from which additions to the staff may be developed.

Jennie May Palen

At about the same time as the above notice, the firm hired the first woman who was to become a CPA within Haskins & Sells. Women accountants were rare in the early years of the profession in America, but there were a few pioneering women CPAs, and Jennie May Palen was one of them. It was Palen’s destiny to become the first woman CPA at a major firm. Although she was never admitted as a partner, Palen ably headed the report department and was well rewarded for her efforts. After 30 years of full-time and quality service, including 14 years as a principal in the firm, she retired in 1949. The 20th anniversary issue of The Accounting Forum (May 1953) featured an article “Women in Accountancy: 1933–1953” by Jennie May Palen. She eloquently expressed her insight grounded in experience in the accounting profession. As a principal in H&S, Palen was for decades the highest ranking woman in any large CPA firm. Although she never conducted an audit, which meant that she could not be a partner, for many years she either wrote or reviewed every audit report issued by the New York office of the firm; thus, she became noted as an accounting writer rather than as an accountant. The myriad awards she won for her writings reflect her mastery of the art. Following her career in public accounting, Palen devoted her retirement years to writing (Dale L. Flesher, Gary J. Previts, and Andrew D. Sharp, “Jennie May Palen: Accountant and Poet,” The CPA Journal, December 2009).

Born in 1891, Palen was raised in Samsonville, N.Y. While studying accounting at New York University in 1918, Palen was employed in the auditing department at H&S because of the shortage of men noted above (Wanda G. Spruill and Charles W. Wootton, “The Struggle of Women in Accounting: The Case of Jennie Palen, Pioneer Accountant, Historian and Poet,” Critical Perspectives on Accounting, vol. 6, no. 4, August 1995, pp. 371–389). Upon graduation summa cum laude in 1919, she found herself writing and reviewing reports in the report department at Haskins & Sells—tasks at which she excelled. At age 27, Palen was an accounting pioneer. Coincidently, one of her classmates at New York University was Lillian Doris, who later became a noted business and accounting author in her own right, with dozens of books for the education publisher Prentice Hall (for whom Palen also wrote). Palen reflected on the occurrence of the employment she secured: “The woman accountant as a staff employee was an exception, truly, but only because the accountant’s office was about as hard for her to get into as Fort Knox.” She further commented on the status of women in accounting: “Public accounting, it was said, was not a suitable field for women. They could not stand the long hours; they could not be sent out of town; they could not go into factories to test-check inventories; clients would object to women auditing their books; staff men would resent them.” However, through dedication and persistence, in 1923 Jennie Palen earned New York CPA certificate No. 1322. The following year, Palen was earning an annual salary of $4,000, which made her among the highest-paid individuals in the firm. By 1929, Palen was earning $6,000 per year and was listed in the payroll records as a “B” accountant, the highest classification other than partner. Other “B” accountants (all men) were receiving $5,600 annually; only Sarah Bolles and Harry Finney earned more among nonpartners in 1929. Sarah Bolles was paid $9,600 in 1929. At the same time, future managing partner and AICPA president John W. Queenan was earning $2,700 per year and was classified as a “D” accountant (payroll information from “H&S Payroll Book No. 36,” housed at the Deloitte archives in Hermitage, Tennessee).

As a principal, Palen was for decades the highest ranking women in any large CPA firm.

Palen was the 10th woman to receive a New York CPA certificate. (Christine Ross was the first woman CPA in the United States with New York certificate No. 143, dated December 27, 1899.) From 1896 to 1925, women received only 54 of the 8,322 total CPA certificates issued nationwide. In 1935, Palen was promoted to principal. With this promotion, she became probably the highest ranked female among what was later to become known as the Big Eight firms in the United States. (A woman did not become a Big Eight partner until 1966.) Since accounting firms in that era apparently precluded women from performing audits, Palen was unable to meet the auditing experience expected for partner eligibility; her role was nonetheless significant, as she successfully managed the report department. Palen retired in 1949. Her retirement years lasted longer than her professional career because she lived another 41 years, passing away in 1990—less than a year short of her 100th birthday. These later years were devoted to the activity she loved—writing.

Leading by Example

Palen’s success is now considered as an important example that led the way for other women in public accounting. In her 1953 article, she commended women on their accomplishments: “The women stood up to overtime schedules. They got their hands dirty testing inventories. They loved going out of town. The seniors in many cases preferred them to the available male assistants, and clients liked them so much that they offered a great many of them excellent posts in their own organizations.”

In addition to her membership in the American Institute of Accountants (later to become the AICPA) from 1936 until her death in 1990, Palen also held membership in the New York State Society of CPAs, beginning in 1923, the year that she received her CPA certificate. She penned articles on accounting history as a member of the Society’s Committee on History for its journal, The New York Certified Public Accountant. She also served on its editorial review board.

Palen was also an educator, as she held the rank of instructor in accountancy from 1957 to 1962 at Baruch College in New York. While on the faculty, she served as faculty advisor to the college’s journal, The Accounting Forum. From 1963 to 1966, she worked for Prentice Hall as a senior editor. She contributed “Comments upon Balance Sheet and Operating Statements” (pp. 185–197) to “Designing CPA Reports” in J.K. Lasser’s 1956 Standard Handbook for Accountants. Palen offered words of caution regarding writing techniques for accountants:

An audit report is a signed permanent record and an important document. Transactions involving considerable sums of money are entered into on the basis of it … and as a result of these transactions the accountant’s report sometimes finds its way into court. If the accountant, in writing his report, will visualize himself on the witness stand under cross-examination, he will vastly improve both his thinking and his method of expressing his thoughts.

Her major tome, the 600-page Report Writing for Accountants, was first published in 1955 and remained in print for two decades. Prentice Hall had been looking for someone to author a book on report writing, and Palen had been recommended to a Prentice Hall editor by Dean Emanuel Saxe at the Baruch College of Business at City University of New York, where she was later to join the faculty. Report Writing was a composite of material on audit reports, financial statements, and writing techniques. The topic of the book was not a new one to Palen; it was similar to a pamphlet that she had written for H&S auditors in 1927, “Grammatical Construction and the Use of Words in Accountants’ Reports.” It is interesting to note that the author of the 1927 pamphlet was listed as “J. M. Palen” so as not to disclose her gender (Flesher et al. 2009).

Palen published at least 30 accounting-related articles over the years under her own name, but her total writing output is unknown because she also worked as a ghostwriter. She admitted to writing many accounting and business articles for others, but would not name her clients. She stated: “It is a strange feeling to see every word, every comma that you have written appear under someone else’s name” (Nolan, 1971, p. 25).

Just like the men of H&S, Palen was a leader in the profession. In addition to being active in the NYSSCPA, she also played a leadership role in the American Woman’s Society of CPAs (AWSCPA). A member for over 50 years, she was president for the 1946/47 term. Palen also served for three years as editor of the organization’s publication The Woman CPA. Her presidency was a busy year for the accounting profession; in addition to the tax preparer legislation affecting accountants in New York and California, she was also heavily involved in opposing a “women’s rights” bill in Congress:

We were also faced with a women’s rights bill that we thought was no women’s rights bill at all, but rather a bill that would make even further discrimination possible. I wrote so many letters to Congressmen representing the various states that they asked me to come to Washington to testify on the subject before a Congressional Committee. Unfortunately, I was at the time in Washington working on a Government assignment and my secretary, in an uncharacteristically thoughtless moment, placed the telegram on my desk where I found it when I returned and the hearings were over (quoted in Sue Legge’s unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Mississippi, 1988, p. 111).

In fighting the proposed legislation, Palen argued that she was representing not just women accountants, but all “women who support themselves—and frequently many dependents” (Legge, 1988, p. 118). In a letter sent to all Congresswomen and many Congressmen, she stated, “It is our grim experience that such protective legislation is often one of the added handicaps we must face. We are considerably disturbed lest the wording of H.R.2035 turn out to be a loophole through which discrimination may become sanctioned.”

In New York, Palen, as president of AWSCPA, was involved in the famed Bercu case in which the New York County Lawyers Association brought action against an accountant who performed tax work and gave tax advice to his clients. The case centered on whether accountants were practicing law without a license. On another front, lawyers pressed the same case in Congress by calling for a bill limiting practice by nonlawyers before federal government agencies such as the Treasury Department, SEC, and other agencies that accountants had appeared before for decades (Legge, 1988, p. 117). Another problem in New York during Palen’s term as president was legislation that would have awarded CPA certificates to uncertified accountants who had been practicing public accounting for 15 or more years. Palen, along with the NYSSCPA, opposed the bill (Legge, 1988, p. 116–117).

Palen was also a noted poet, having developed an interest in the art while a student at New York University.

An Accountant and Poet

Palen was also a noted poet, having developed an interest in the art while a student at New York University. She published her poetry in dozens of different periodicals and in three bound collections. Her more than 600 published poems appeared in such august places as The Saturday Evening Post, The Wall Street Journal, Good Housekeeping, Christian Science Monitor, The New York Sun, and The Writer. During her working years, Palen wrote her poetry on Sunday mornings or commuting on the subway. As a young accountant, she often traveled back home to spend weekends with her family. While riding the train, Palen occupied her time by writing poems inspired by what she witnessed through the train window. “I’d sell it to The New York Sun and that paid for my trip” (James Nolan, “Miss Palen Finds Poetry in the Short-Form Report,” Journal of Accountancy, August 1971, p. 25).

Palen’s poems were read on many radio—and later, television—programs. She was honored more than 300 times in national and international poetry competitions, and she often gave poetry readings and talks throughout the country (Legge, 1988, p. 133). During her retirement years, she considered herself a professional writer and even served as the president of New York’s Pen and Brush Club, an association of professional women writers and artists founded in 1894 that still operates today. Palen received the Pen and Brush Club’s annual poetry award in 1958.

Despite her background, Palen did not write poetry about accountants. The authors of this article perused approximately 200 of her poems, but found nothing relating to accounting other than one entitled “All Is Reckoned,” which included the following lines:

There is no romance in accounts, he said, No beauty in this sober reckoning.

or beauty, scan the heavens overhead, And look, he said for romance in the spring.

(Palen, 1949, p. 71)

This was, as far as the authors have determined, the extent of her poetic salute to accounting and auditing. One wonders: why did an accounting pioneer whose career was based on writing about accounting and auditing never author poems about her profession?

Palen’s three bound volumes of poetry were never widely circulated. Today, only eleven American libraries have her 1949 collection, Moon Over Manhattan. Her 1957 volume, Good Morning, Sweet Prince, is held by only seven libraries, while sixteen libraries list her 1964 collection, Stranger, Let Me Speak. (In contrast, her major accounting-related work, Report Writing for Accountants, appears in 376 American libraries.) Of the 11 libraries that hold the 1949 volume, one is the author’s National Library of the Accounting Profession at the University of Mississippi. This library has two copies, one collected by the AICPA; the other, autographed by Palen, is inscribed, “Presented to the library of the University of Mississippi, Jennie M. Palen.” One wonders what prompted Palen to donate a book to a library so far from her New York home. The copies at the University of Texas and Brown University are also known to be autographed (Flesher, et al., 2009).

Women at Haskins & Sells

Palen was not the only woman CPA within Haskins & Sells in 1923. A person listed as a secretary in the Salt Lake City office, Hannah Claire Haines, received her certificate in 1923. She was the first woman CPA in Utah. By March 1924, Haines (1891–1974) was working in the New York City Executive Office Report Department under the supervision of Jennie Palen. Haines started out as a nurse, but then took accounting courses at the University of Utah and at the Walton School of Commerce in Chicago. She returned to her nursing roots when she published an article entitled, “Allocation of Costs and Budget Making for Schools of Nursing,” which appeared in two installments in the January and February 1924 issues of the Trained Nurse and Hospital Review. Haines did not stay with the firm for very long; the 1926 American Institute Yearbook listed her employer as Bead Chain Mfg. Co. in Bridgeport, Conn. By 1930, she had returned to Salt Lake City where she opened her own firm, H. Claire Haines & Co., and spent the remainder of her life.

Deloitte’s predecessor firm of Haskins & Sells was a pioneer in hiring women into the accounting profession. The firm was perhaps forced into this initiative by the disruptions caused by World War I, but once the women were in the firm, they were well respected, if their salaries are any indication. World War II would bring even more women into the profession, but that is another story.

Dale L. Flesher, CPA, PhD. Professor of Accountancy and Holder of the Roland & Sheryl Burns Chair in the Patterson School of Accountancy at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

Gary John Previts, CPA, PhD is a Distinguished University Professor and holds the E. Mandell DeWindt Professorship in the Department of Accountancy at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio.

Andrew D. Sharp, CPA, PhD is a professor of accounting in the division of business at Spring Hill College, Mobile, Ala.

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