A Man’s World No More: Phyllis Papani Godwin ’48

By Zachary Block '99 / March / April 2003
June 22nd, 2007
When Phyllis Godwin took over her father’s electrical supply business in 1973 the company had one store in Quincy, Massachusetts. Three decades later, Godwin has transformed Granite City Electric Supply into a regional outfit with fifteen stores around New England and nearly 200 employees. Last year, she says, the company posted revenues of $60 million. Godwin has managed to do it all, while fending off the challenges posed by do-it-yourself behemoths like Home Depot and dealing with the conflicts that dog a woman of her generation trying to succeed in business.

As a child, Godwin says, she had no desire to run Granite City. Her father’s store, full of contractors, seemed like a “man’s world.” Besides, she says, growing up in the Great Depression and coming of age during World War II, she could not imagine that a woman could have a career in business. “There wasn’t a woman that I knew that even worked when I was young,” Godwin says. “What we were supposed to do is find a husband and get married. Because I didn’t accomplish that—I flunked husband 101—I had to look for my next step.”

With top M.B.A. programs closed to women—Harvard didn’t fully open its program to women until 1963—Godwin, who studied psychology at Pembroke, enrolled in a business-certificate program at Radcliffe. Eventually she moved to Philadelphia to work as a management consultant, but the lure of a more traditional life was irresistible: she married and had two daughters. Although she’d stopped working, she continued to harbor ambitions beyond mother and wife. A turning point, she says, was reading Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. “I realized I wasn’t crazy,” she recalls. “It just validated so many of my thoughts and ideas.”

By the time Godwin assumed control of Granite City, she had gotten a divorce and earned an M.B.A. from Suffolk University in Boston. The degree gave her the confidence to run the company, though she still had to find her own way. “I looked and looked for role models,” she says. “Certainly in my industry there were none.”

Godwin’s experience sparked a commitment to help others avoid her own circuitous and pioneering route. As the first female chair of the South Shore (Mass.) Chamber of Commerce, Godwin started a group called the Women’s Business Connection to provide support for the region’s female executives and entrepreneurs. “Those of us who have arrived,” she argues, “have a moral responsibility to help other women who are trying to climb the ladder.”

Although she turned seventy-six in December, Godwin says she has no plans to retire. She hired a president three years ago to run Granite City’s day-to-day operations, leaving her with the title of chairman and CEO and the freedom to concentrate on the work she enjoys most, including strategic planning and marketing. “We still have so much to do,” she says.

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March / April 2003