Founder of the Woman’s Life Insurance Society
In 1891, Bina M. West was a 24-year-old schoolteacher in rural St. Clair County, Michigan. It was a time when women had few rights, few opportunities for personal growth, and little financial value placed on their contributions to society. Women could not vote, could not serve on juries, and were generally unable to obtain life insurance due to the high mortality risk from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. In spite of this prevailing attitude, Miss West recognized that women were independent individuals with their own financial needs and political concerns separate from their husbands’.
At the same time, Miss West saw firsthand the tragic impact of such an attitude when the mother of two of her most promising young students died. Of course, there was no insurance on the mother’s life and the father could not afford to hire a housekeeper or nanny to care for the children. He found it necessary to place the children in separate foster homes, denying them a normal family life and the opportunity for a formal education. Later, Bina learned that the girl was hired out as a domestic servant and the boy was sent to work in a livery stable. Bina had a difficult time accepting the cruelty of their fates, as well as the fates of many similar families headed by women. This heart-wrenching breakup of a family was not uncommon during Bina West’s days, but it catapulted her into action. She was determined to give women something of their own — an organization that would build their net worth by providing insurance for them and also serve as a fraternal society of women dedicated to bolstering their self-worth.
And so the Woman’s Benefit Association, now Woman’s Life Insurance Society, was born. In 1892, with $500 in borrowed capital, Bina West founded in Michigan one of the first fraternal benefit societies established for and managed by women. Besides insurance, the Society provided women with new social outlets, assistance in times of need, and opportunities to display and develop their unique talents. The Society emphasized financial support for the home, along with education, patriotism, recreation, social involvement and volunteer service, providing varied opportunities for women to expand their previously limited horizons.
To recruit members and sell life insurance certificates, Miss West traveled alone, often by horse and buggy, throughout the United States and Canada, asking women to band together for mutual benefit, entertainment and expression. Within 10 years, membership had reached 100,000. As the Society grew, countless women were employed at the Port Huron-based Home Office and as state managers and deputies throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Striving to strengthen the reputation of fraternal benefit societies and to ensure their endurance, Bina West was a pioneer in encouraging regulators to adopt standard insurance rates and reserve requirements for insurers to guarantee that funds would always be available to pay claims. Although women were still strangers to the business community, by 1906 she had achieved for her own Society a $1 million reserve fund. Woman’s Life Insurance Society members are still enjoying the benefits of the keen business sense Miss West employed during her 56 1/2-year tenure as chief executive. The Society has weathered various economic storms, including the Great Depression, and remains one of the leading financially secure fraternal benefit societies in North America today.
Miss West was a vocal supporter of the women’s suffrage movement, representing the National Council of Women of the United States at the International Council of Women in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1908. Later she made speeches throughout the U.S. and Canada and in several European and Near Eastern countries, urging that women be given the right to vote. Summing up her belief in women’s rights and capabilities, she said, “Women of our society have, by their acknowledged success in the business world, proven their ability to think and act in matters of public importance.”
Bina West was highly respected as a businesswoman, a fraternalist, a social worker, and a women’s rights activist. Various state and national appointments throughout her career attested to her reputation. The importance of the Society’s work was acknowledged by the attendance of Michigan Governor Albert E. Sleeper and U.S. Senator Charles E. Townsend at the dedication of the Society’s stately new Home Office building in Port Huron in 1917. In 1923, U.S. Senator Hiram W. Johnson of California wrote to Miss West: “Your Society has always had my admiration. Its ideals for the betterment of women and the preservation of the home strike a sympathetic chord with us all.” When the University of Michigan conferred upon her an Honorary Degree of Master of Arts in 1924, Miss West was cited for “courage in pioneering a woman’s institution to unparalleled success.” This event was described in the press as “a tribute to the state’s outstanding career woman.” She was also described by the Associated Press as “one of the five greatest women in America.” In 1993, the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame honored Miss West as an inductee into the Hall of Fame.
Bina West was described by those familiar with her as “a believer in womankind” and “a woman’s woman.” As demonstrated in her own words, she believed that a woman’s potential knows no bounds: “There is nothing unusual about success. I only carried out my ideas. Too many people fail because they are afraid of other people’s opinions. Especially this is true of women. The only thing to do is to go ahead.”