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November 29, 2017

The Coal Queen You Need to Know Now

It’s often said that we can not be what we can not see. But, to effect change that is really bold and positive, we must be able to do or be what no one has seen.

For better or worse, history repeats, and it provides a great role model for this. Sarah B. Cochran lacks the name recognition of her contemporaries Frick and Carnegie, and when she is mentioned, she may be recalled as a coal magnate’s widow. That is true, but it’s only the beginning. When her husband died early, she took over his business responsibilities and balanced business leadership with bold public and private philanthropy that included women’s suffrage. It is a story that’s incredibly relevant today.

Her Twitter bio could have read “Unexpected coal queen, traveler, philanthropist and suffrage supporter” with assorted hashtags about breaking a glass ceiling or being the first. Sarah Cochran (nee Moore) was born of humble means in Fayette County, Pennsylvania in 1857. As a young woman, she was the maid in the home of James Cochran, whose son, Phillip, fell in love with her. They married in 1879.

In a move that seemed ahead of its time, Phillip taught Sarah the coal business because he believed in her ability to learn it. His father had built a fortune selling coal and its byproduct, a key steel component called coke.   By the mid-1890s, Phillip led the family business before dying of pneumonia in 1899. Their only child died just a few years later. The deaths must have felt devastating to Sarah. Professionally, she was a vice president in what was considered one of the most extensive coal and coke operations in Pennsylvania, with business in Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. In her early forties at the time, Sarah could have lived the rest of her life comfortably as a coal magnate’s widow. Instead, she chose to act boldly and took on her husband’s business responsibilities. This was at a time before American women could universally vote or serve on juries.

Sarah became the unlikely president of multiple coal and coke companies, a bridge company and a bank. During her lifetime, she was a founder and stockholder of yet another coal and coke company and another bank. Her business was said to have grown threefold in her charge, and she expanded it to sell coke overseas. She was considered one of the wealthiest women on the East Coast, and “at one time the nation’s only coal queen,” according to the Evening Standard in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.

Business endeavours seemed to be balanced with philanthropic ventures, some private and some public. Sarah focused on results, not the personal publicity these could attract. For example, she was known to quietly fund higher education for local men and women of promise, and when the sixty Italian stonemasons who worked on her mansion wanted to become American citizens, she sponsored them for citizenship. Her public philanthropy included multiple projects in academia, including funding a Sarah B. Cochran Chair of Philosophy at Bethany College and construction of Cochran Hall at Allegheny College. She became the first female trustee of Allegheny College and was on the board of directors of American University in Washington, D.C.

Sarah’s experience in the coal business may be what led her to support a woman’s right to vote, and it’s in her support of women’s suffrage that she put her name and home to use in a strategically public way. In 1915, she opened her mansion for a suffrage fundraiser to benefit the Fayette County Woman Suffrage Party, charging $1 per person. Newspapers estimated that the event drew 500 or 600 people, each greeted by Sarah. A woman identified as Mrs. E.E. Kiernan used a potato masher to call the meeting to order, exclaiming, “Even our meetings show that suffragists are domestic!” The keynote was by Dr. Anna Howard Shaw.

Although she died in 1936, Sarah left a mark in rural southwestern Pennsylvania’s built environment. Linden Hall at St. James’ Park is the 35-room mansion that she built after traveling in Europe and Asia. She built it for herself as a widow, and it was the site of her suffrage fundraiser. The Gothic style Methodist church that she built and named for her husband is also there. Both the Phillip G. Cochran Memorial United Methodist Church and Linden Hall are on the National Register of Historic Places.

If Sarah were alive today, it would be interesting to know what causes she would support, what advice she would give women in business, and if or how she might use social media to shine a light on particular issues. Regardless, her real life is full of lessons in being and doing what no one has seen. Here are just four of those.

  1. Choose to go out into the world, even if no one is expecting you there. Comfortable isolation is safe, but it’s not usually where new things happen.  In some cases, just being seen in a particular space is bold change in itself.
  2. Your choice of personal and professional partnerships makes a difference, so find people who know your value and are willing to do something with it. Phillip Cochran chose to teach Sarah about his business, even though some of his contemporaries chastised him for it. His belief in her intelligence fostered her bold steps later in life and prevented her total dependence on advisers. How different could Sarah’s life have been if she had married someone with a different mindset?
  3. Own your power and empower others.       Consider the multiplier effect of the education Sarah funded and the voting rights she supported.       Not everyone suddenly becomes a coal magnate, but everyone makes choices to use whatever resources they have. The power of both choice and resources can be used effectively, either to quietly make change or to draw public attention to an issue.
  4. Don’t let other people’s expectations hold you back. Bold change takes vision that doesn’t always fit existing expectations. People might not have known what to make of a first female trustee, a coal queen, or a woman who was bold enough to build and travel abroad. Just as the rally’s potato masher visibly represented the past while introducing the future, there are ways to manage expectations and set new ones.

 


 

~ Kimberly Hess, Guest Blogger

Kimberly Hess received a B.A. from Smith College, an MBA from Rutgers Business School and a Certificate in Historic Preservation from the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies at Drew University.  During a nearly twenty-year business career, she held volunteer leadership positions at the local and global levels for Smith College and was a trustee of the Alice Paul Institute.

 

All contributions and bequests are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by federal and state law. The Women’s Museum of California is a 501(c)(3) non-profit charitable corporation. Tax ID is 95-3893212.

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