November 11th, 2009 11:24 EST
Women on Wall Street: America's New Street Walkers
When Abigail Adams realised in the 18th century that she could earn a higher rate of return on the money she and her husband were investing by putting their funds into US government bonds, she had a hard time convincing him she was right. But when their profits soared because of Abigail`s strategy, John Adams, the future President of the United States, had to admit that her financial acumen outdid his.
`The New York Times` railed against noted spiritualist and suffragette Victoria Woodhull when she and her sister opened the first female-owned brokerage firm on Wall Street in 1870. Their alarmed article on the opening of Woodhull, Claflin & Co., "Wall Street Aroused", predicted a "short, speedy winding up" of the firm. Still, Woodhull and her sister managed to earn over $12 million in today`s terms.
The notable 19th century "tycoon" Hetty Green read the financial pages as a child and said of herself at age 14 that she knew "as much about finance as any man". She managed her own money and turned her inheritance into a fortune by investing conservatively, keeping enough cash handy to ride out a market crisis, and never borrowing funds.
These three women and many of their progeny are now being featured at the Museum of American Finance in a groundbreaking exhibit, `Women of Wall Street,` which showcases notable women in the world of finance. Among them are Isabel Benham, Muriel Siebert, and Ann Kaplan.
Benham, who is 100 years old, wanted to study economics when she attended college in the late 1920s but no courses were offered in that field so she was advised to take typing instead. She held firm, insisting that Bryn Mawr College offer the subject. In 1931, she became one of five women to graduate with a degree in economics. Despite the Great Depression, Benham found work as a bond statistician and later went on to become one of the most distinguished railroad analysts on Wall Street. She was also the first woman to be named partner in a Wall Street bond house. "I. Hamilton Benham," as she signed correspondence early in her career to prevent gender discrimination, is now one of the most respected experts on the economics of railroading.
In 1967, Muriel Siebert, known as "the first woman of finance," was the first female to purchase a seat on the New York Stock Exchange - there were over 1,300 men at the time. In 1975, Siebert & Co. became the nation`s first discount brokerage and two years later, Siebert became the first female Superintendent of Banks for New York State, overseeing all of New York`s banks, representing combined assets of $500 billion. It is notable that no banks failed during her tenure. Today, Muriel Seibert continues to serve as president of Siebert & Co. while supporting projects that advocate on behalf of women and minorities in the financial industry as well as those that teach financial literacy.
Ann Kaplan, formerly a general partner and managing director of Goldman Sachs & Co., is the chair of Circle Financial Group, an investment and wealth management membership organisation. Kaplan has made a unique contribution to the world of high finance; as a trained social worker she has focused on cultural shifts in the financial sector and on achieving work-life balance, a topic neither discussed nor accepted before women entered the hallowed halls of Wall Street. She advises women who want to have Wall Street careers to understand the environment they are working in, to take risks, and to think through their career strategy. And, she says, "Take on assignments without asking the question, do I know enough?"
The idea for the Wall Street Women exhibit came from Leena Akhtar, director of exhibits and archives at the museum, following the signing of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act earlier this year. Akhtar wanted to tell the story of these extraordinary women, while inspiring young professional women who might want to enter the field of finance.
"The story of women on Wall Street is the story of women in America," Akhtar wrote in the museum`s magazine, `Financial History`. "Issues of self-determination, freedom and financial independence clashed with societal norms in the all-male domain of finance. Until recent decades, women had been excluded from Wall Street - with some notable, pioneering exceptions. The Museum`s exhibit explores the progress that has been made... through when women began to work with men on Wall Street, to today, when women have more opportunities than ever and are able to balance their careers with their family lives."
"I don`t think (the environment on Wall Street) was particularly set out to be discriminatory," says Nancy Peretsman, Managing Director of Allen & Co. LLC, in a video interview included in the exhibit. "It was just a band of people who were comfortable and familiar with each other... They would give opportunities to people who they felt comfortable with, and the people they felt comfortable with were other white men."
Abby Joseph Cohen, Senior Investment Strategist and President of Global Markets Institute, Goldman Sachs & Co. adds that "women and people of diverse backgrounds has had an enormously beneficial impact on not just the office culture, but on the quality of the work that`s getting done." Rosemary McFadden, Former President of the New York Mercantile Exchange and Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, Jersey City, NJ, agrees. "With the sheer numbers of women entering the workforce," she says, "organisations have had to change... and it`s made for a much more healthy and much more productive society. It`s given women the opportunity to earn a career and to be independent... and I think it`s also been liberating towards men. It`s taken some of the burden off them in terms of being the sole breadwinners within a family."
For more information about the exhibit which runs till January 26, 2010, or to learn more about the museum - located in the heart of the financial district in the former headquarters of New York`s first bank - visit www.moaf.org
(Â© Women`s Feature Service)
By Elayne Clift