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While it’s true that discrepancies persist in men’s and women’s treatment in the workplace, were the women who lived just a century ago able to see where women are today, they would rub their eyes in amazement. And no doubt the women who lived in the centuries before them would do the same to see how far their daughters had come.

For the fairer sex, the path to the right to work has been long and arduous, fraught with roadblocks at every turn and peril for those first brave few who walked it. But thanks to those very women laying the groundwork, 21st century women in the United States, and many other countries, are free to flourish their intelligence, passion, and ambition, no matter where they may take them. We’re looking at the women who have reached the pinnacle of the business world, the ones who are working their way there, and the ones who took those first steps out into the working world.

The Long Road to Inclusion

Every dictator knows the best way to keep the people suppressed is to prevent their access to education. For centuries, this technique worked to keep women in the dark and out of the workforce. It wasn’t until the Age of Enlightenment, which began about 1650 in Europe, that the seeds began to be planted for the idea that women are as competent as men, lacking only education, not intelligence. The British thinker Mary Wollstonecraft enunciated this idea with her 1792 book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, that was very well-received when it appeared.

By the end of the 18th century, women were regular participants in salons and academic debates, though widespread schooling for women was still many years away. In the meantime, the Industrial Revolution was birthed and women began to be needed to fill unskilled worker roles in factories and mills. Young women from New England farms were attracted to cities by the promise of $3 a week wages. United by their circumstances, these women began to wage battles for better pay and working conditions for both men and women.

During this time, a spate of colleges for women appeared. Ironically, since the American Revolution, women’s education had been limited to training as teachers (and even then, society decreed only single women could be teachers). But beginning in the 1830s, “full” colleges began educating girls, and in 1851 the Tennessee and Alabama Female Institute became the first school in the country to offer women a degree equivalent to those given to men. It was an era of first female advanced degree holders: the first female doctor, the first female lawyer, the first female dentist.

Still, it took major catalysts for women to make inroads into the workforce. During World War I, and later WWII, scores of women filled the vacancies left by their brothers, husbands, and sons, doing everything from driving cabs and pumping gas to manufacturing and even designing war planes. Nevertheless, when the war ended and the soldiers came home, women were told to return to their homes. It would take yet one more generation for women to set foot inside not just the factory floor, but the boardroom.

Emboldened by feminist thinkers like Gloria Steinem and buoyed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, women began forging their way up the business ladder. In 1967, Muriel “Mickie” Siebert became the first female member of the New York Stock Exchange. The next year, Mary Kay Ash went public with her cosmetics company, which she had founded with the ideal of creating a place where entrepreneurial women like her could be their own bosses. By the next decade, women like PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi and HP CEO Meg Whitman were earning their MBAs and advanced business degrees on their way to becoming business titans of today.

Standout Businesswomen

Despite significant hurdles, instances of women becoming business sensations go back well into the 18th century and perhaps even before. Eliza Lucas Pinckney was managing three plantations at the age of 16, turning South Carolina into a mecca for indigo production in the 1740s and making it one of the colonies’ strongest economies. The year after Pinckney died, Rebecca Lukens was born. Lukens would grow up to become “America’s first female CEO of an industrial company,” according to Fortune magazine.

In the early 20th century, America got its first female self-made millionaire. A hair loss sufferer herself, Madam C.J. Walker developed her own line of hair care products to promote hair health, and later opened a cosmetics factory and beautician school. Graduates became known as “Walker Agents,” basically the Mary Kay ladies of the day who would promote the products in black communities around the country. Walker’s success is made all the more impressive when one considers that she herself was African American.

Today, female CEOs run companies involved in practically every industry. Fortune’s latest list of the 50 most powerful women in business included women at the helm of computer technology, food, manufacturing, business services, finance, media, and retail companies. The top pick, Ginni Rometty, is the first woman ever to serve as CEO of multinational tech corporation IBM.

Women have also been some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the new business frontier of e-commerce, thanks to the convenience afforded by the technology explosion of the mid-’90s. Stay-at-home-moms, unable to work the entire day but with large chunks of the day free, could suddenly join the virtual workforce as their schedules permitted. Whereas before they had to hope to for a once-in-a-lifetime invitation to sell homemade products and original inventions on TV shopping networks to reach their audience, they could now peddle their wares to the four corners of the earth on their own websites with minimal financial outlays. Or they could use an existing marketplace, first eBay, then Craigslist, then Etsy.

One of the most recent success stories in the e-commerce sector is Brit + Co., a subscription service with accompanying online community for DIY projects that is the brainchild of 27-year-old Brit Morin. The startup has turned over $6 million in investment capital—including $1.25 million from fellow businesswoman and Yahoo! CEO Marissa Meyer — into upwards of $75 million in annual revenue. And there are countless other stories of women creating vibrant Internet companies from the ground up.

Even women in the workforce in careers unassociated with business have found ways to monetize their knowledge and experience on the Web. Case in point, Deanna Jump: the Georgia first-grade teacher was able to garner $1 million in sales of her original classroom materials by using an online marketplace called TeachersPayTeachers. The vast majority of the site’s 15,000 users are women who, like Jump, are transforming the way teachers have been compensated and how our society values its educators.

The Stats: Work and Education

Depending on whether one looks at the big picture of women in the workplace over the decades or examines just the last few years, a different outlook might emerge. Consider, for example, the fact that women’s workforce participation rate was 34% in 1950 and 60% in 2000, going from 18 million women to 66 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Their representation as a gender ballooned from 30% to nearly 47%. But since 2000, 9 million women ages 20 and over have left the labor pool.

According to Vanderbilt Law School professor Joni Hersch, many of the women with the best chance of getting ahead in the workplace — those with advanced degrees and/or who are graduates of elite universities — are dropping out at higher rates than their peers once they have children. Might this be at least part of the reason the percentage of women in leadership positions at Fortune 500 firms has plateaued around 14%? It typically takes years to climb the corporate ladder to the executive rung, and it seems much of the top female talent is abandoning the hike in favor of motherhood.

On a positive note, women are slowly becoming better represented in MBA programs. For example, the average percentage of women in the 25 largest MBA programs in New York was up from 42.8% in 2011 to 45.4% in 2012. In 2013, Harvard Business School enrolled its highest-ever percentage of women. However, female graduates of these and other top business schools face a growing gender wage gap once they earn that degree. Women with Stanford MBAs earn just $.79 on the dollar compared to men. Whereas women at those same top schools had earned on average 98% of their male colleagues’ salaries in 2002, in 2012 the rate had fallen to 93.2%.

These troubling figures notwithstanding, women appear poised to be the leaders of the workforce— or at the very least, true equals at last — in the coming decades. Women eclipsed men in college enrollment in the late 1970s, and the gap has only been widening. The National Center for Education Statistics forecasts a total of just over 13.5 million female college students in 2020 (compared to just under 9.5 million males). That’s good, because if a recent report is to be believed, we’ll need those women working. The McKinsey Global Institute found the world needs another 95 million skilled workers by 2020. If the rightness of their cause has not brought about equal treatment for women in the workplace by then, their sheer force of numbers surely will.