The story of women on Wall Street is the story of women in America. For many years, women who worked in the typically male world of finance openly defied societal norms, and they were forced to grapple with issues of self-determination, freedom and financial independence. Until recent decades, women were excluded from Wall Street entirely--with some notable, pioneering exceptions. In June, 2009, the Museum of American Finance opened "Women of Wall Street," an exhibit exploring the progress women have made in the financial industry, from the time when a woman's property was legally her husband's to when women began working on Wall Street alongside men to today, when women frequently balance family lives with careers in industries that were once dominated by men.
One of the first pivotal figures in "Women of Wall Street" is Abigail Adams, who, in the 1770s, traded bonds--sometimes against the wishes of her husband, statesman and future President John Adams. Abigail wisely took the opportunity to invest in government issued bonds during the Revolutionary War, when state governments and the Continental Congress were paying their soldiers and buying provisions with government-issued bonds. Because hard currency held its value better than the debt issued by a government at war, these notes were often sold at a steep discount to speculators who had access to gold and silver. Even though they were selling at a discount, the government was still paying holders at face value. Abigail's bond trading activities earned 24% a year. (In comparison, John and Abigail Adams earned approximately 2% a year from their land holdings.) The exhibit displays reproductions of some of the Adams' letters, including one where Abigail explains the advantages of investing in "State Notes" to John, and another in which John tells Abigail not to participate in a speculative land run on disputed territory in Vermont.
Victoria Woodhull is best known for being the first woman to run for President, but she was also the first woman to open a brokerage in the Financial District. In 1870, she and her sister Tennessee Claflin opened Woodhull, Claflin and Co. on Broad Street in New York City. The sisters used the earnings from their brokerage business to finance their radical newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly, in which Woodhull waged war on Victorian sensibilities, particularly on marriage, which she viewed as social bondage. Newspaper stories from when the brokerage first opened, a copy of the Weekly are on display in "Women of Wall Street," as well as a reproduction 1871 dress based on contemporary accounts, showing how Woodhull would tailor her clothing to look more masculine in order to fit in with Wall Street businessmen.
Also featured in "Women of Wall Street" is Hetty Green, a woman called the "World's Greatest Miser." Most who know about her have heard the apocryphal story of how she was too stingy to pay for medical treatment for her son, who later lost his leg as a result. However, she was also an unusually sharp businesswoman. As a young girl, she would read the financial pages to her near-blind father. She later fought the trustees of her family's estate for control of her inheritance, which she was able to grow into a fortune that would be billions today.
Later, women began to work on Wall Street as men's equals. Isabel Benham began her Wall Street career in 1931, when she joined the firm R. W. Pressprich & Co. as a bond statistician. Initially hesitant to reveal that she was a woman, she would sign her letters "I. Hamilton Benham." She later went on to become partner at the firm, and earned the nickname "Mother Superior" because of how influential her research was to the railroad industry.
In 1967, Muriel Siebert became the first woman to purchase a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. She was rejected by nine prospective sponsors before finding the two that were required by the Exchange, and she was not given the scroll that all NYSE members were required to display in their offices until the next president of the NYSE took over. "Women of Wall Street" displays the New York Stock Exchange Constitution in which her signature appears along with those of notables like J.P. Morgan, Jr. and John D. Rockefeller.
The exhibit also features interviews with notable women in the contemporary world of finance, including Sallie Krawcheck, Nancy Peretsman, Abby Joseph Cohen, Rosemary McFadden and Anne Kaplan. In a series of video stations, these influential women speak about their experiences, how they handled discrimination, and about the changes that they have seen on Wall Street during their careers. They also address issues of work/life balance, the differences in management styles between men and women, and how the addition of women to the workforce has made Wall Street and corporate America more diverse, more professional and more competitive.
The Museum of American Finance, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, is the nation's only public museum dedicated to finance, entrepreneurship and the open market system. With its extensive collection of financial documents and objects, its seminars and educational programming, its publication and oral history program, the Museum portrays the breadth and richness of American financial history, achievement and practices. The Museum is located at 48 Wall Street, New York, N.Y., on the corner of William Street, and is open Tues-Sat, 10 am-4 pm. "Women of Wall Street" will be on display through January 16, 2010.