On Dec. 28, 1967, Muriel "Mickie" Siebert became the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange -- a full 175 years after the exchange was founded. According to Siebert, her NYSE member badge was the most expensive piece of jewelry she ever bought (at $445,000), and it was also the hardest earned. She had been turned down by nine prospective sponsors before finding the two she needed to endorse her application.
As the lone woman among 1,365 men at the exchange, Siebert wasn't universally welcomed. Headlines such as "Skirt Invades Exchange" and "Powder Puff on Wall Street" conveyed a reluctance on "the Street" to accept a sea change that had been making its way through many other professions for years. In fact, when Siebert purchased her seat, she wasn't issued the standard scroll all new members received, and which she was required to display. She didn't receive it until the following year, when the exchange had a new president.
Siebert wasn't the first woman to rise above gender discrimination in the world of finance. One of the earliest documented female investors in the U.S. was Abigail Adams, who ignored her husband John's instructions to invest in land while he was stationed overseas, and instead made a much larger return investing in U.S. government bonds. Contemporary accounts describe Abigail's foray into the investing world as the one source of contention in the couple's otherwise happy marriage, despite her success.
There are also abundant examples of women who went out of their way to de-emphasize or even hide their gender to foster their careers in finance. Among them were the first women to own a Wall Street brokerage, sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, who had custom-made business dresses designed to hide their femininity and blend in with their male colleagues. Even so, the New York Times headline that announced the firm's opening in 1870 read "Wall Street Aroused," and the story's reporter concluded that "A short, speedy winding up of the firm of Woodhull, Claflin & Co. is predicted."
Decades later, in the 1930s, respected bond analyst Isabel Benham took to signing her name "I. Hamilton Benham." Benham, who turned 102 this year, said she recognized that her early reports would have been disregarded if readers had known she was a woman. She didn't reveal the fact until she had solidified her reputation as one of the country's foremost authorities on the railroad industry.
It wasn't only women in senior-level positions who had to contend with maltreatment in the financial world. In 1968, less than a year after Siebert was admitted to the stock exchange, an article appeared in the New York Times describing a crowd of more than 5,000 brokers, bankers and clerks waiting to gawk at a female bank employee as she emerged from the Wall Street subway stop.
"Miss Gottfried, who is 5-feet 4-inches tall and has measurements of 43-25-37, has been working since May as an I.B.M. machine operator in the Chemical Bank New York Trust Company at 2 Broadway," the article said. "Last evening Miss Gottfried said that when she got her first job at 16, her father had warned her 'the business world was very different from this world where we live.'"
Aside from the fact that Gottfried's measurements were printed in the New York Times (gasp!), the most surprising revelation in the article may be that women working on Wall Street -- in any capacity -- seemed to be such a rarity at the time.
In the four decades since that article appeared, women have made significant strides toward equality in the world of finance. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010 women held 53.2 percent of the financial management positions in the U.S. and 35.7 percent of the financial analyst positions. The 2011 Catalyst Census of Women Executive Officers, which tracks women in Fortune 500 companies at the upper-management level, found that women now account for 18.4 percent of executive officers in the finance and insurance industries.
Not bad, but perhaps in the next 40 years that number will edge closer to 50 percent.
(Kristin Aguilera is the deputy director of the Museum of American Finance and the editor of Financial History magazine.)
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