Sabina (Bina) West Miller (1867–1954) is proof that one person can change the world. She saw a social injustice and corrected it through hard work, entrepreneurship, and good will. In the process she broke through one of the strongest cultural barriers in history: bias against women. The injustice she confronted was the inability of average women to secure life insurance in the late nineteenth century. This left women—and in many cases their children—without a benefit available to men. Miller achieved her goal in a resounding way that changed insurance practices in America.
As a 24-year-old teacher in rural St. Clair County, Michigan, Miller was profoundly affected by the fate of her two favorite students—a brother and sister. Their mother died, and their father could not afford a housekeeper to care for them. The precocious children were placed in separate foster homes where the girl worked as a domestic servant and the boy was “lent out” to work in a livery stable. The children lost their mother, their family, and their futures at the same moment. Miller believed the family would have survived the death of the father because he had life insurance through a fraternal society; the money meant resilience and provided options. Unfortunately, at that time average women were considered uninsurable because of their high mortality rate in pregnancy and childbirth. And so the mother had been uninsured. The scenario was not uncommon.
Shortly afterward, in June 1891, Miller and her aunt Nellie attended a picnic held by the fraternal society Knights of the Maccabees in Port Huron, Michigan. The society offered life and disability insurance to members, as well as providing self-improvement programs and other social benefits. The members were male. An inspiring speech gave Miller the idea of extending those advantages to women, and the idea burned in her like a fire. The booklet A Golden Anniversary Tribute to Bina West Miller (1942), written by Miller’s longtime associate Mary MacEachern Baird, described the moment. It opened by repeating Miller’s words:
“Aunt Nellie, I believe this [life insurance for women] is the greatest thing I have ever heard of,” said a serious, dark-haired girl to her aunt, as their horse jogged along a quiet country road at the close of a hot summer afternoon from a picnic which they had attended together. “I think I shall make this my life work. Here is a real need, and I know I can fill it.”
It was a bold statement, uttered at a time when women could not vote for president, did not have the same property rights as men, and could not serve on juries.
Nevertheless, Miller confronted the challenge and started creating women’s auxiliaries for the Fraternal Society of the Maccabees. Fifteen years later, the Milwaukee Sentinel (October 7, 1916) carried an advertisement for the Women’s Benefit Association of the Maccabees (WBA)—Miller’s umbrella organization. The WBA announced itself as “The Largest, Strongest, and Most Progressive Fraternal Benefit Society for Women in the World. Offers more opportunities to women than any other fraternal insurance society. Non-political and non-sectarian. Established in 55 states and provinces. Organized October 1, 1892.” The advertisement went on to state the current membership at 188,008 women and the benefits paid since organization at $13,863,295.70 (estimated to be $303,743,462.84 in current dollars). Its reserve fund was $9,478,870.02 with a 1916 interest earning of $450,000 on “gilt edge investments.” The ad assured readers that every dollar went into homes “in time of want and distress. We cannot begin to record the deeds of loving kindness and sympathy that have gone hand in hand with these disbursements.” And, indeed, the WBA established a reputation for the immediate and uncomplicated payment of member claims.
Life Insurance Throughout History
Private societies have been providing health and life insurance at least since Greek and Roman times, circa 600 AD. In Rome members of “benevolent societies” would make regular payments in exchange for financial assistance with burial costs and other expenses. In the seventeenth century, friendly societies emerged in England and became popular by the late nineteenth century. These mutual-aid groups comprised paying members who came together to establish a general fund to provide insurance, pensions, and other financial benefits to members; social benefits like education were also prominent aspects of the societies. While insurance companies offered coverage to the affluent, these organizations insured the common man. They exploded in popularity. The Insurance Cyclopeadia (1871) by Cornelius Walford listed 9,497 friendly societies in existence between 1828 and 1847, with total membership on July 8, 1847, of 740,581. In the nineteenth century female friendly societies were also commonplace.
The early American model of insurance was based on the English one, with the first life insurance company founded in 1735 in Charleston, South Carolina. Benjamin Franklin was instrumental in establishing the efficacy of mutual-aid insurance when in 1752 he founded one of the first effective fire insurance companies in the colonies, the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire; Franklin also recommended life insurance. The first life insurance association based on mutual aid was chartered on May 2, 1759. The Corporation for Relief of Poor and Distressed Widows and Children of Presbyterian Ministers was a general fund established by Presbyterians in Philadelphia and New York for ministers and their families. Ten years later the Episcopalians followed suit.
Meanwhile the first insurance policy for members of the general public was issued in 1761 in Philadelphia. But such insurance was still uncommon. In his chapter on Bina West Miller in Ladies for Liberty, John Blundell explained, “Life insurance provided by joint-stock companies had come to the U.S. as early as the 1750s followed by mutual life insurance companies in the 1840s. . . . But the policies of both such companies were out of the reach of the average person.”
By the late nineteenth century, however, life insurance for working people thrived due to the emergence of fraternal organizations that provided a massive private safety network of all races and incomes. In “The Rise and Fall of Fraternal Insurance Organizations” (Humane Studies Review, volume 7, number 2 Spring 1992), Leslie Siddeley wrote, “At this time, the insurance industry in America was young, and life insurance was a luxury reserved for the rich. This began to change, however, when a group of railroad mechanics from Readville, Pennsylvania formed a fraternal organization [in 1868] which had among its functions the provision of life insurance for its members.”
The word fraternal comes from frater, the Latin word for brother. Thus fraternal organizations are brotherhoods in which members share common values, like religion or profession, and where they associate for mutual advantage. In nineteenth-century America, membership was almost always limited to one sex, generally men. Gradually, it became acceptable for women to “join” by forming separate auxiliaries, but they did not necessarily enjoy the same benefits.
Siddeley noted that “by 1920 the National Fraternal Congress (NFC), an association of fraternal societies, boasted 200 member societies with 120,000 local affiliated lodges. These 200 societies insured nine million members with over $9,500,000,000 of life insurance in force. The member societies of the NFC were just the tip of the iceberg. For example we know that in 1918 there were 313 non-NFC fraternal organizations providing insurance to the immigrant poor in Chicago alone. In fact, fraternal insurance was by far the most popular type of insurance among the immigrant poor, as well as among native blacks. Despite their poverty, these groups had levels of insurance equal to, and sometimes greater than, native whites.”
The fraternal organization with which Bina West Miller associated was the Knights of the Maccabees. Established in 1878 in Ontario, Canada, the group was active in her home state of Michigan, where it became renowned for low-cost members-only insurance. At first the Maccabees provided insurance on an assessment basis. When a member died, all the others put ten cents into a general fund to provide the widow with a payout. After a massive reorganization, however, the Maccabees began collecting monthly fees based on recent payouts. In 1890 they expanded to offer sick benefits, as well as disability and funeral benefits. People flocked to the financial and social benefits offered by the Maccabees. Sick benefits ran from $4 to $10 per week. Benefits in the case of permanent disability were $50, $200, or $300 annually, depending on how much a member had been assessed while working. Other benefits were similarly well defined. In 1896 the organization boasted a membership of 209,831.
This was the organization as Miller knew it in 1891, when she made the fateful decision to push for the inclusion of women. Her timing was excellent; three years later New York Life became the first company in America to offer life insurance at the same rates to both women and men; previously, women had been charged more. Clearly a demand for women’s equality in benefits was in the air.
Working from the basement of a local Maccabee Temple, on October 1, 1892, Miller began to create women’s auxiliaries called Ladies of the Maccabees; as noted, they would be collectively known as the Women’s Benefit Association—a nonprofit, dues-supported organization run exclusively for and by women. The first certificate for a death benefit was issued on November 4. The first death claim was paid out on September 25, 1893; it was $1,000. Gaining a reputation for fairness, Miller grew the membership from 319 in 1892 to 5,770 in 1894. By 1900 there were 75,000 members in 42 states.
“Hard Work and Ever At It”
According to Albert C. Stevens, author of Cyclopedia of Fraternities, Miller’s organization was not recognized by the Maccabees at first. Her success changed many minds. Stevens, a contemporary of Miller, wrote, “Its successful career has surprised many, even among its well-wishers, and has shown that women may safely be intrusted with the conduct and management of many of the broader business affairs of life.”
How did she do it? The motto that graced her office was: “Hard Work and Ever At It.” With $500 of borrowed money, Miller traveled extensively and alone, often by horse and buggy. She not only sold memberships to women in the United States and Canada but also formed local chapters and auxiliaries. Moreover she did so without pay at first.
Blundell described Miller’s method: “Her strategy from day one was to contact the head of the male fraternal society in a particular town and to ask to talk to its members about how a women’s auxiliary could benefit their female relatives. If successful (and she nearly always was) she would parlay this meeting into a second one with the women.”
More than Insurance
Women flocked to her presentations. The benefits Miller offered were more than financial. They included self-improvement programs, emotional support networks, and service in the community, such as volunteering at hospitals.
Each chapter met monthly to provide the women with a social outlet, which many of them sadly lacked; the Maccabees organized largely in rural areas. The various chapters were connected by the Ladies Review, a periodical from Port Huron, Michigan, which became the WBA’s home base.
The WBA is a success story that deserves to be explored in far more depth. For example, in 1931 membership was opened to men. Miller continued as chief executive officer of the WBA for over 56 years until her retirement at age 81. In 1996 the organization was renamed Woman’s Life Insurance Society and remains a vibrant concern.
Much more could also be written about Bina West Miller, including her achievements unrelated to the WBA. But the network she established has particular significance for the modern day.
Miller’s network is not merely a remarkable accomplishment, it is also a reminder that average people can provide admirably for their own needs, especially when they band together in mutual aid—as they are inclined to do. By 1924 the WBA’s membership passed 250,000 and chapters were active in most of the states as well as Canada. This membership feat was achieved in the days of cumbersome travel, without the Internet, and despite social taboos.
The ability of average people to address complex social problems is often denigrated or dismissed outright in favor of bureaucratic solutions. Miller is one of many historical examples that give the lie to such dismissals. Sadly, if Miller were to attempt a similar task today, the main barrier would be government.