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Paving the Way for Women in the Title Industry

By Patrick T. Roe

Although women today hold many leadership positions in title insurance companies, agencies, state trade associations, and the American Land Title Association (ALTA) , we know this was not always the case. In fact, ALTA would not have a woman president until 2000 when Cara L. Detring NTP had the honor. But that does not mean that the title insurance industry did not embrace the progress of women in the business world. In fact, I found evidence that it did.

Chapman feb 1925The 1920s represented a monumental period of change for women’s roles in the United States. Women won the right to vote through the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on Aug. 12, 1920. By the mid-1920s, women had successfully entered the title insurance industry. “(Women) have arisen to high places in business, and in title business too - as owners, managers, executives and what not.” (October, 1925, Title News, Vol. 4, No. 9).

So much so that, in October 1923, it was announced that the American Title Association of Title Men changed its name to the American Title Association. The organization also encouraged state associations to make similar changes (October 1923, TitleNews, Vol. 2, No. 9). With this, recognition was made that women were an important part of the title industry. Furthermore, the association’s publication, TitleNews, included a separate section called “NEWS OF THE TITLE WOMEN: Their Column” edited by a woman.There is one woman of title from this period on whom we’ll focus. Her name was Jessie L. Chapman, and her story was buried in past issues of the ALTA’s TitleNews. She was pictured on page 8 of the October 1925 edition (Vol. 4, No. 9). By this time, it was noted that she was already, “…the most well-known woman in the United States in this line of business… (And the) first woman to occupy an official position in the American Title Association.” 

And that is one of the reasons she got her picture in the publication (she appeared three times).

“Jessie” or “J.L.” or “Chappie,” as she was fondly referenced in the publication, was born Jessie Lorena Sebrell around 1874 in Lexington, Ohio. According to various U.S. Census Records, Jessie completed one year of high school. She married William R. Chapman around 1898 and lived in Cuyahoga, Ohio. He was a life insurance salesman who traveled for business. She also traveled to Havana, and through British Columbia and up the coast to Alaska. (December 1924, TitleNews, Vol. 3, No. 11, and August 1922, Vol. 1, No. 9).

A scan of the Ohio Land Title Association website revealed that J.L. Chapman was its 1918-19 president. Was this the same J.L.? A quick call to that title association confirmed it.

Perhaps that was one of the reasons she was asked to present at the 13th Annual Convention for the American Association of Title Men. We’ll never know, but she spoke to attendees on “The Modern Title Company.” (The author notes that her speech almost 100 years ago is an interesting read—largely dealing with attorney opinions of title versus title reports showing evidence of title and a shift to the latter.)

She, along with the title industry’s good fit for women, was also highlighted in the 1921 edition of The Lawyer and Banker and Southern Bench and Bar Review:

We note that women find in the abstract business a suitable sphere of their endeavors. There …(is) Mrs. J.L. Chapman, Manager of Land Title Abstract and Trust Company, Cleveland, Ohio…There are large numbers of women engaged or employed in the business in diverse parts of the country.

In 1924, she continued to garner attention. This short story about her appeared in various publications, including The Daily Messenger (Canandaigua, N.Y.):

A box of cigars on her desk is the way of the business woman to ‘man to man’ business talks, according to Mrs. J.L. Chapman, secretary of the Land Title Abstract and Trust Company. It took her ten years to learn the secret of making men in business ‘treat her like a real executive.’

‘Don’t let them ask you if they may smoke,’ she advises. ‘Make them feel you want them to smoke. Some nights the floor of my desk is littered with ashes—but, I have a good day.’

By 1925, TitleNews reports, she (along with other women) had “… been attending the association’s annual meeting for years.” In that same issue Jessie is quoted as saying:

As a woman in business there is no discrimination, and that in the deliberations of the convention, men and women meet on a plane of absolute equality.

Chapman oct 1926What makes her even more impressive is while she was married, unlike some of the other women of the day, she did not appear to have been brought into the industry through that union. She found it on her own, and was accomplished at it as demonstrated by this feature in a 1925 issue of TitleNews (Vol. 3, No. 11):

Mrs. J. L. Chapman of Cleveland, Ohio, Secretary of the Land Title, Abstract & Trust Company, has helped build four plants. Her present company has two hundred employees of which forty are lawyers and title examiners. Mrs. Chapman began her career as a copyist in the title department right after she finished school. Now she has entire charge of the Abstract Department. Other activities claim much of her valuable time. She is Vice President of the Delphian Society, First President of the Women’s Savings and Loan Company, and now serves on the Executive Committee of that great financial institution.

She really was remarkable, having started at Land Title Abstract and Trust Company in Cleveland, and eventually attaining the position of vice president of the same company. 

Jessie’s celebrity and role in the title insurance industry in the early part of the last century is indicative of an industry ahead of its time in regard to accepting and even celebrating women in business.

By 1926, women had made great strides in the United States. Nellie Taylor Ross became the first female governor in the United States when she entered office as Governor of Wyoming (uwyo.edu/lawlib/libraryinfo/displaycase/nellietayloeross.html). In addition to achieving suffrage in 1920, one of New Jersey’s own championed the Equal Rights Amendment. Alice Paul was a Quaker from Mount Laurel, N.J. Not only did she play a key role in getting the 19th Amendment passed, she “believed the true battle for equality had yet to be won … and announced (in 1923) that she would be working on a new constitutional amendment … later renamed in 1943 as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).”(alicepaul.org). Though it wasn’t until 1972 that the ERA passed Congress, the 1920s clearly were a seminal period in re-writing the rules for women. (The ERA has not been ratified to the Constitution.)

At the forefront of that period of change, and leading the way was Jessie L. Chapman. As the 1925 edition of the TitleNews (Vol. 4, No. 9) attests, she was “… known to most everyone who attends the convention as her friend and warm acquaintance … (She) has been an active supporter, worker, and influencer in the Association for years … As a real title woman she is one of the leaders of the entire profession, title women or title men.”

Sometime in the 1930s, Jessie left the title business and was listed as a housewife in the 1940 census. It appears from some further research that she and William later moved to California, where she died in 1948 (The San Bernardino County Sun, July 16, 1948). Jessie may have passed on in relative obscurity, but she was a trailblazer of her time, creating a path for many women to follow. There are so many extraordinary women who continue to follow in her path, and create new ones for both men and women in the title insurance industry. But Jessie L. Chapman was one of the first leaders of title women.

While women have risen to such prominence in our industry, it seems the turning point may have been almost a century ago. So, here’s to Jessie Chapman, and all the women like her breaking barriers throughout the last 100 years. Today, we clearly have many, many “real title women.” Thankfully, women in title no longer need to make men feel like they want them to smoke during meetings to have a good day at the office. They are not only on equal footing, but in many cases, they are leading the way!

Patrick T. Roe is general manager of Charles Jones LLC. Linda L. Martin, marketing and customer experience manager, provided research assistance. A version of this article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of the New Jersey Land Title Association’s The Advocate.


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