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Charting Their Own Course

The first generation of women who changed Wall Street 

Cultural anthropologist Melissa Fisher ’85 has always had an interest in women pioneers. As a girl, she would delight in her grandmother’s stories of being one of the few women attending the University of Pennsylvania law school in the 1920s. “The other students said they knew her by the click-clack of her high heels in the hallway,” says Fisher, a visiting scholar in the Department of Social & Cultural Analysis at New York University.

That image of a woman standing out in a man’s world inspired Fisher’s interest in the first generation of women working on Wall Street. In her new book, Wall Street Women (Duke University Press, 2012), she details stories from women who pioneered in professional finance in the 1960s and 1970s. They began as anomalies in a world dominated and populated almost entirely by men, and went on to positions of wealth and power. The stories are told in the women’s own words (all names were changed in the book and this article*) in a series of interviews that began in the 1990s, went on through the market meltdown of 2008, and concluded in late 2010 with a roundtable discussion among the women. They cracked the glass ceiling, making success in the financial industry a possibility for other women, and their influence still resonates. They also helped to feminize the market, according to Fisher, who believes, like many, that women provide a necessary balance, a long-term focus, and an aversion to risk that today’s market requires. Although the number of women on Wall Street has decreased in recent years, there are those market- watchers who believe a feminized market is a safer one for the average investor.

Wall Street Women began as a dissertation. While doing her post- graduate study in anthropology at Columbia in the mid-1990s, Fisher wanted a topic that would take a peek behind politics or economics to show the human workings. She was interested in women’s roles in finance, but met many of her subjects initially in the context of women’s politics. In one of her initial interviews with a prominent New York fundraiser, she learned about an interesting new political class—self- made women on Wall Street. Whereas upper-class New York women who married wealth tended to give to their husbands’ causes, these new donors were also wealthy, and motivated to support female candidates on both sides of the aisle. Fisher was fascinated and wanted to know more, “These women were in their 40s, all reasonably to extremely successful. Many were managing directors of their firms: How did they get there? What was it like for them to move up?”
 
Fisher was surprised to find that most of those she interviewed did not fit her initial assumptions. They were not, for the most part, brought up in privileged families with roots in finance. Many came from middle-class backgrounds. They did not did go to Ivy League colleges. (Many were not open
to women at the time.) Most attended small women’s colleges, and went on to get MBA degrees through night- school classes at New York University. They were not drawn to Wall Street by the promise of untold wealth; they just wanted careers. “When they went in, Wall Street wasn’t such a glamorous place,” says Fisher. “They wanted to be something more than secretaries. New York held promise, there was something beyond what they had.”
 
She was also surprised to find that the women were not fiercely competitive with one another. They may not have identified as feminists publicly, and they tended to keep their politics outside of the office until decades later. But, they had come of age during the time of The Feminine Mystique, and were influenced by the ongoing feminist debate. While their goal was to blend in, they were focused on supporting each other and helping each other succeed.
 
The women found ways to share information and opportunities early on, through membership in the Financial Women’s Association of New York, an organization initially begun in 1956 by eight women who were denied membership in the Young Men’s Investment Association. The group subscribes to a mission of fostering a community to support its members and promote their success. Their goal is to give women in finance a voice. By the mid-70s, the FWA had over 100 members. “I think a lot of closeness was born out of struggle,” recalls member Patricia Riley.* “You know in the ’70s, you were alone for so long—and then you found these people through the FWA.” Wall Street Women illustrates how completely different the financial world was then. In 1966, there were about 60 professional women on Wall Street. Most other women working in finance were in clerical or secretarial jobs. The secretaries wore hats and gloves to work, and were so tethered to their male bosses that there were light bulbs with their names next to them in the lavatory. If your bulb was lit, you needed to stop everything and run to your boss. Potential Merrill Lynch hires in 1972 were tested with questions such as, “When you meet a woman, what interests you most about her?” The correct answer—beauty. The fewest points were given for those who answered— intelligence.
 
The FWA became a place where women could share more than mutual respect; they could share tips to navigate this new world. “Relationships were important [as was] talking about what it meant to be a successful woman on Wall Street,” says Fisher. This included nitty-gritty things; for instance, what do you wear to a business meeting? Do you drink red wine or white? Do you laugh at a bad joke? Even the smallest misstep could lead to a career setback.
 
—by Melissa Phipps
—Photograph by Dustin Aksland