The Women of Credit Union History

Written by Meg Kramig

March is Women’s History Month! We would be remiss to not take a minute to highlight just a handful of the women who started it all and played a big part in making the credit union movement what it is today.

Elizabeth F. Burkhart – NCUA Board Member & Equal Access Advocate

Nominated by President Reagan and confirmed in 1982, Elizabeth F. Burkhart was the first female member of the NCUA Board. Burkhart strove to modernize the NCUA’s technology as a means of ensuring credit union members of all economic means had fair and equal access to credit and basic financial services. She served the NCUA Board until 1990.

Louise McCarren Herring – “The Mother of Credit Unions”

What started as a passion for economic equality, turned into something much bigger. At just 23 years old, Louise McCarren Herring started her activism at the front of the not-for-profit cooperative (credit union) movement.

A graduate of the University of Cincinnati, Herring was employed by Kroger Company, a large grocery store chain. At the time, most Kroger employees didn’t qualify for bank loans and so instead were having to turn to a “bucket shop” that charged very high interest rates. Seeing how debt was affecting lives, Herring took action, tirelessly working to found what ended up being 13 volunteer-run credit unions to serve Kroger employees.

And that was just the start.

By the time she passed away in 1987, Herring was a key delegate at the 1934 Estes Park conference that established the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), the first director of the Ohio Credit Union League, and is credited with organizing over 500 credit unions. She was inducted into the National Cooperative Business Association’s Cooperation Hall of Fame in 1983.

Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard – Author of “Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice”

Though she is technically a “modern” credit union fixture and ambassador, Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s recent 2014 publication makes her an important highlight on this list.

Nembhard’s recent book features 15 years of careful research documenting credit union (cooperative) empowerment and transformation within low-income and minority communities and the people who made a big impact. Within its pages, she argues that credit unions have not only been a historical tool of economic and social justice for women and within African American communities - but are also a modern one.

Angela Melville – Spreading credit unions to the south…by horseback

Born in 1886, Angela Melville spent the 1920s traveling extensively throughout the south as a field representative for the National Credit Union Extension Bureau (CUNEB). By horseback, Melville spread the word of the credit union movement and how it could help farmers, railroad workers, postal workers, the poor, women’s groups, miners, and many others gain economic equality and benefit as they struggled to get credit and access at standard banking institutions.

By the end of her short service with the credit union movement, Melville had helped organize several credit union leagues and chapters, and wrote the first guide to credit union practice, which ran through many editions and was the only publicity item for the credit union movement for years.

Dora Maxwell – The founder of multiple “baby banks” and namesake of a CUNA award

Another attendee of the historic Estes Park Conference that founded CUNA, Dora Maxwell (1897-1985) organized hundreds of credit unions, often referred to as “baby banks.” Her work was primarily for oil and gas industry employees and additional trade associations, giving them access to advantageous financial options where banks were repeatedly failing them. Maxwell also held numerous volunteer positions at the local and national level.

After her years of service, CUNA established an award in her name called the “Dora Maxwell Social Responsibility Community Service Award.” It is awarded annually to credit union chapters or groups for social responsibility projects within the community . over $12.079 billion in damages

Ella Jo Baker – First Executive Director of the Young Negroes’ Co-operative League

Ella Jo Baker was the very first Executive Director of the Young Negroes’ Co-operative League. The Young Negroes Co-operative League was founded in 1930 with a mission of “gaining economic power through co-operation.” Though short-lived, it was the inspiration for many future cooperative efforts and trained many people who later became activists for the credit union movement and other social justice causes.

Thank you to all the women who helped credit unions get started. Happy #WomensHistoryMonth.

Fun fact: Did you know that a recent CUNA study found that 51% of credit union CEOs are women?

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