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The time was September 1978, the place was Boston and the occasion, the John Newton Russell Award dinner. And the National Association of Life Underwriters (now the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors) was about to make history.

The chairman of the event announced the winner of that years award, ending the speculation that always precedes the presentation, and it was Ellen Putnam of Rochester, N.Y., the first woman to be so honored. It was a popular choice and the audience cheered as she was escorted to the podium.

At 47″ and weighing no more than 80 pounds, she presented a diminutive figure as she came to the head table where a box had been placed for her to stand on so she could be seen over the podium. But there was nothing small about her voice or passion as she delivered her acceptance speech. Her deep voice boomed out over the audience, extolling her long-held beliefs in our products and how she had been able to “take care of her people,” and the importance of our business and our association. Her favorite and most often used word in her speech was T-E-R-R-I-F-I-C. Everything was terrific!

John Connally, former governor of Texas, our featured speaker of the evening, was sitting next to me. About halfway through Ellens talk about her life experience, he turned to me and exclaimed, “My God, what a woman,” and he was rightshe was herself, “terrific.” Ellen was the personification of Napoleons assertion that “height is measured from the eyebrows up.”

In my two previous columns, I have written about the men who led our association in its formative years and founded important institutions, and others who enlivened our meetings and taught us valuable lessons. But along the way, there have been great women who, in their own way, have provided quality leadership to our business. But the trail they blazed often has been different than the one pioneered by the men. Different maybe, but just as important.

Perhaps this can be best epitomized by looking at the life of Ellen Putnam during her insurance career. Given the prominence of women in our business today, it is a bit hard to realize that when Ellen first attempted to join the life underwriters association, her application was turned down because of a “no women allowed” rule. Persistency pays off, though, for she was undaunted by this rebuff and continued to apply. She not only gained admission to the Rochester, N.Y., association, but also went on to become its president and most distinguished member.

As an industry trailblazer, she was the second woman to serve as president of a local association, the third woman to serve on the NALU board and a founder of the Womens Leaders Round Table. Additionally, she was one of the countrys first CLUs and served as a regional vice president and trustee of the American Society of CLU. She helped plan the first CLU institute and was an avid fund-raiser for the American College. Ellen attended her first NALU convention in 1926 and for the next 60 years, missed only 5 annual meetings.

I last spoke to Ellen when she was 92 to wish her a Merry Christmas. She was in poor health but expressed hope that she would soon recover so that she could continue to “help her people.”

There have been other great women leaders. Florence Shaal was the first, and only, woman to serve as a vice president of NALU. Shaal was elected to this position in 1920 after an extended period of working to raise the visibility and importance of woman life underwriters in the New England states. In 1899, she was given a general agents contract by the Equitable Society and led the all-woman agency to become one of their most profitable and famous agencies. While her election was a popular choice in 1920, the road to that position had, to say the least, been bumpy. She fought long and hard and over many years for the recognition of women, and often did battle with the establishment of that era.

In 1950, Eunice Bush became the first woman elected to the board of trustees of NALU. She was a talented speaker and very popular at association meetings, where she shared her experiences as a successful salesperson for Mutual of New York. Eunice was the third woman to qualify for the Million Dollar Round Table, thereby blazing that trail for the hundreds, if not thousands, who now qualify. Since her election as trustee, a number of other women have been elected to the NALU board and I have had the privilege of serving with many of them. They bring a perspective about our business that continues to help NALU chart the future.

On the walls of NAIFAs headquarters building, hang the photographs of 122 men who have served as president of NAIFA. The absence of women presidents is all too obvious. However, in another part of the building, Ellen Putnams name is inscribed on a plaque listing the names of the John Newton Russell Memorial Award recipients, thereby serving as a reminder that others have provided exemplary service to our business besides the 122 men.

Now that the MDRT has joined other associations by electing the very talented Adelia Chung as its first woman president, I am convinced that it will not be long before NAIFA will be led by a woman following in the footsteps of those who have blazed the trail in years past. When the day arrives that the photograph of NAIFAs first woman president is placed alongside the men, Im sure that Ellen Putnams voice will boom from out of the blue and proclaimthats terrific!


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, October 7, 2004. Copyright 2004 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.