Back in October 1998, when we published our inaugural ranking of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business, it was not so easy to find powerful women in business. Among the chief executives of Fortune 500 companies, a mere two were female: Jill Barad of toymaker Mattel (MAT) and Marion Sandler of Golden West Financial (who was a co-CEO with husband Herb). Among the top executive slates at Fortune 500 companies overall, only one in 10 were women. Among corporate directors, the same dismal share.
Indeed, our No. 1 pick for that first MPW list wasn’t a CEO at all, but rather a division president at a telecom firm (Lucent) that no longer exists as a stand-alone company. That was Carly Fiorina—and, at the time, hardly anyone outside of the telecom industry had heard of her, recalls Fortune’s Pattie Sellers, who was then a senior writer for the magazine and who helped compile our landmark roster for many years.
“We thought about power as something much greater than simply profile, position, or pay,” Pattie explained in the introduction to that first MPW package. “We measured power broadly—by revenues and profits controlled, influence inside the company, the importance of the business in the global economy, and its impact on American culture.”
See the full Most Powerful Women 2017 list.
And while we’re still gauging corporate clout in the same way today, there’s one big difference between then and now: Women wield more of it than ever. A telling data point? Just as in 1998, a woman— Margo Georgiadis—sits in the corner suite at Mattel. But in this year’s Fortune 500 issue, she was joined by a record 31 other female CEOs. (Three of those names have since dropped, owing to company changes.)
For nearly every step forward (note the seven new faces on our 20th-anniversary MPW list) there is a stumble, it seems—or even a backward lurch (note the endless revelations about degrading sexism in Silicon Valley). Sums up senior writer Beth Kowitt, who coedited this year’s extraordinary cover package and list with deputy digital editor Kristen Bellstrom: “It’s complicated—and critically important, surprising, fascinating, and inspiring too.”
And that mouthful helps explains why Fortune is so committed to reporting this epic saga of business, power, money, office politics, and culture—and why we strive to tell it in whatever way we can, and on whatever platform our audience wants to hear it.
We share it in dynamic conversation—in curated dinners and conferences for everyone from CEOs to next-generation leaders. (Our 19th annual Most Powerful Women Summit will be held in Washington, D.C., in mid-October.) We deliver it straight to your in-box—as tens of thousands of the Fortune faithful already know—in “The Broadsheet” newsletter reported daily by Kristen and Valentina Zarya. And we reveal it, as always, in deeply reported features like the ones you’ll find in this issue.
“We don’t just profile the five women CEOs who everybody knows,” says Kristen. “We tell the stories of Fortune 500 soldiers who aren’t gracing a dozen magazine covers, but who are running massive operations nonetheless. These are the women who are driving global business.”
Subscribe to the Broadsheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the world’s most powerful women.
A version of this article appears in the Oct. 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “Fortune’s MPW VIPs.”