FORTUNE — The year was 1973. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique had been out for a decade; Ms. magazine had published its first issue. Women were pouring into the workforce, hitting 40% of the total working population that year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over half of married women with school-age kids held a paying job. And yet, as Fortune’s Wyndham Robertson surveyed the world of big business in an April 1973 story, she had a question about this supposed female surge: “Where in blazes are they?”
A mere 3% of women in the workforce were “managers and administrators,” according to the BLS, and, as Robertson wrote, “in jobs where visibility is greatest — i.e. in corporate management — women are seldom seen.”
How seldom seen? Fortune looked at its list of the 1,000 largest industrial companies, plus the 50 largest companies in six non-industrial businesses. From this list of 1,300 firms, 1,220 had to file proxies with the SEC that provided information on the top three paid officers, and any director earning over $30,000 (equivalent to just shy of $160,000 today). Of the 6,500 names generated that way, a mere 11 turned out to be women. After subtracting a woman who appeared not to be closely involved in running her company, Robertson profiled the others in a piece called “The Ten Highest-Ranking Women in Big Business” that is notable both for showing what has changed in 40 years and, as importantly, what has not.
In 1973, it was almost impossible for a woman to work her way up the ranks to a leadership role. Robertson wrote that while the women on the list — which included names such as the Washington Post’s (WPO) Katharine Graham and Barbie creator Ruth Handler — were “highly capable and hard-working executives,” they also, with only two exceptions, “were helped along by a family connection, by marriage, or by the fact that they helped to create the organizations they now preside over. In short, most of them did not have to deal with at least two problems that have over the years held back even the most able and qualified women: They did not start out in their companies in jobs with limited futures, and they did not have to work their way through a corporate hierarchy that discriminated against them.”
The irony of this was that “none of these women, obviously, has to work, and in fact some of them wouldn’t have — or wouldn’t have had careers — without the family tie-in.” Dorothy Chandler of the Times Mirror Co., reported in her profile that, “If I had not been Mrs. Norman Chandler, I would not have had the opportunities I’ve had.”
But, as Robertson wrote, “Each of them plays an effective and important role within her corporation — an impressive bit of evidence that other female executive talent is going to waste.”
Forty years later, this seems pretty apparent. Fortune’s annual Most Powerful Women in Business list can easily rank 50 women vs. the 10 on the 1973 proto-list, and as Fortune noted in its October 2012 rankings, “While there are currently 19 female Fortune 500 CEOs … the talent pool was so deep that two of them didn’t make the cut.”
Some of these 50 women climbed the harrowing ranks of their companies. IBM (IBM) CEO Ginni Rometty, for instance, joined the tech giant in her early 20s in 1981. That’s a mere eight years after Robertson pointed out the “absurd” discrimination female executives faced, such as the Milwaukee Estate Planning Council’s refusal to grant membership to Catherine Cleary, president of the First Wisconsin Trust Co. (and a member of Fortune’s 1973 list), despite the fact that the $1.25 billion in assets under her management meant she was running the largest trust company in Milwaukee (“indeed in all of Wisconsin.”)
What’s also interesting is how similar some of the issues brought up in Robertson’s 1973 article are to what’s rehashed now.
Robertson dutifully informed readers that “Most of the women were able to combine careers with families. Six of them are married, and three are widows. Seven of those nine are mothers.” But one key reason there weren’t more women in leadership roles, Robertson wrote, is the view that careers and kids were incompatible. Indeed, “highly educated women are the ones who most frequently quit their jobs during the rearing of preschool children — and they are presumably the women whose chances of advancement would otherwise be greatest.”
And then there’s the question of ambition — whether women “leave before you leave” to quote Facebook (FB) COO Sheryl Sandberg. “Among these highly successful businesswomen there is general agreement that women’s aspirations are still far too low,” Robertson wrote.
“Women may get to the top of the heap at some low level, but they don’t try to move up to the next plateau,” said Tillie Lewis of Ogden Corp. “Somehow they’re not inspired. Maybe they will be, now with women’s lib.”
Bernice Lavin of Alberto-Culver, whose profile noted that she took off a Marissa Mayer-esque one month when her three children were born and “has never felt that running a home made her paying job more difficult,” reported that the women in her sales force did a better job than the men. But, writes Robertson, “she finds lots more women unwilling to take on responsibility and unduly fearful of making mistakes. She says ‘A lot of girls want to be secretaries, and that’s it.’”