In honor of Women’s History Month, we are shining the spotlight on five women pioneers in the world of finance. These women did much more than break through glass ceilings. They transformed paradigms. The results of their courage took time to manifest into full equality for women. Nevertheless, without the legacies they created, it would be a very different world for women today.
First of all, it is important to remember that the world of finance was closed to women for a very long time. The early women pioneers had to involve themselves in subtle and oftentimes secretive ways. However, the impact they made was anything but subtle.
The first woman to be involved in the world of finance was Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams. Abigail Adams sensed an opportunity and began trading in bonds before her husband became president. He was not very supportive, but her intuition told her it was a smart move. The results proved her right. Adams traded in government-issued bonds during the Revolutionary War. She did quite well, earning 24% in a single year. Compare this to the 2% their farm was earning and you can see that Abigail Adams was right on the mark.
Victoria Woodhull may have been the first to disrupt the world of finance by opening her own brokerage house in 1870. Woodhull opened the brokerage house with her sister and it was named Woodhill, Clafton, and Co. The office was right on Broad Street. Born in Ohio in 1870, Woodhull was a disrupter on many levels. She was considered by many to be a political radical, opening and running her own newspaper company too. Woodhull was also the first woman to run for President.
In the 1930s, the Wall Street doors creaked open a bit and women began to find some small opportunities to join their male counterparts. Around this time, Isabel Benham joined the Wall Street firm of R.W. Pressprich & Co. as a bond statistician and analyst, becoming the first woman to work on Wall Street. It helped that she possessed a tremendous knowledge of the railroad industry. Since the world at large was still not embracing women, Benham never used her first name when signing correspondence or company documents. Thirty years later, in 1964 she became the first female partner in the firm, in fact, the first in any Wall Street firm. Benham would go on to gain great respect for her strategic thinking and ability to read the market. However, in her eyes, she was simply someone with a keen ability to build successful rail lines.
The first woman to purchase a seat on the New York Stock Exchange was Muriel Siebert. It was not without a struggle. A candidate needs at least two sponsors and the first nine that Siebert approached refused to sponsor her. She succeeded with two and took her seat in 1967, an act that would not be repeated for another ten years. Siebert was also the first woman to be appointed Superintendent of Banking, appointed by N.Y. Governor Hugh Carey in 1977. She held the position during a particularly rocky time for the banking industry.
Grace Hyslop was the first woman to hold a seat on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME). Hyslop grew up on a farm in Nebraska. Graduating from school at the age of 12, she became a teacher. Wanting to improve her income, she went to the University of Nebraska to study accounting. While there she met her husband who had founded several businesses. One of these was a poultry and egg business. And, believe it or not, this was how Hyslop would ultimately become a pioneer in the world of finance.
Eggs futures were a hot commodity on the CME. Since her husband was an expert in the business, he applied for and was accepted to sit on the Exchange. In 1960 he died and Grace Hyslop applied to take his seat. She was already quite an expert in financial matters, working alongside her husband throughout the time he was sitting on the Exchange. It took a month, but ultimately her application was accepted and she took her place among the 500 men sitting on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. However, still discriminating against women, Grace was not allowed to be on the actual floor. She had to strategize trades from her home while her son was physically on the trading floor executing his mother’s directives.
Today, if you peruse the Forbes lists you will find a global network of women leaders in the world of finance. In every sector from traditional banks to peer-to-peer lending, women are leading the way and continuing to disrupt old paradigms.