Sunday, August 7, 2016

248. Women of Wall Street

     What I meant to be a single post on Wall Street (again!) got longer and longer, and finally split in two.  So this post is about women on Wall Street.  The next one will be about Wall Street otherwise – not a history, just a quick take on my impression of it today.  It might be more logical to do them in reverse, but let’s face it, these girls kind of grabbed me.  Have you heard of Abby Joseph Cohen?  Or Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin (whom I’ve covered before)?  Or Hetty Green, the “Witch of Wall Street”?  Hang on, here they come. 

     Wall Street is thought to be mostly a male world where financial Titans, or would-be financial Titans, maneuver, scheme, or claw their way to success, “success” meaning a vast fortune, two or three beautiful wives (sequentially), and national or international repute.  But there are women on Wall Street, too, as this post will make clear.  But first, a word of caution: by “Wall Street” I don’t mean just that little street that begins on the west across Broadway from Trinity Church, whose pious chimes sound futilely on the financial brouhaha, and then runs east a few blocks to the East River, where sailing ships once thrust their prows over a busy waterfront jammed with carts and piles of merchandise being received from or shipped abroad.  By “Wall Street” I mean the whole financial community, whether headquartered on Wall Street or not.

     And the women of Wall Street?  Years ago I used to read, in Barron’s, the self-proclaimed leading source for market news and analysis, the semiannual survey of a dozen or so leading analysts of the day, who gave their views on the current and future state of the markets, what securities to buy or sell, and so forth.  To be among the dozen so chosen was certainly an honor, and usually there were two or three women at the top of their field, and often fairly young and attractive.  But my favorite was Abby Joseph Cohen, who is now a partner and senior U.S. investment strategist at – of all places – Goldman Sachs, the vampire squid of my post #158 (December 21, 2014), which she joined in 1990. 

     Abby was no glamour puss; photos showed a woman in her early forties, New York-born and obviously Jewish, with short, curly hair and glasses, a Brooklyn mama (she was in fact from Queens), married, with two daughters.  Nothing stylish about her; she seemed like one of us.  Except, of course, for her Street smarts, meaning Wall Street smarts: her uncanny ability to predict the raging bull market of the 1990s, which won her national, if not international, acclaim.  Alas she was a perennial optimist and bull, and as such failed to predict the disastrous bear market of 2000, and the even more disastrous crash of 2008. 

     Well, who’s perfect?  I liked her anyway; she struck me as being for real, down-to-earth, a sort of Bella Abzug of finance.   And Ladies Home Journal likes her, too; in 2001 it named her as one of the thirty most powerful women in America.  And Abby’s advice today, at age 63?  U.S. stocks are the best place to be; the S&P 500, widely seen as the best indicator of the general market, should end the year at 2100.  That prediction was made in January 2016, with the S&P around 1800; the S&P 500 is now at 2166.  Not bad, Abby; but the end of the year is still far off, and in an election year at that.

     Wall Street has always been male-dominated, but even in Victorian times some women invested on their own.  During the Civil War boom in the North, when the public flocked to Wall Street to speculate in stocks and gold, fancy carriages were seen there with affluent women reclining on cushions inside, while sending a servant to fetch the latest prices.  (No Internet in those days, and no telephone either.)  One wonders how their spouses felt, when they reported dramatic gains in the market.  And one wonders how they fared when the boom, as all booms must, went bust.

     Those women were only investors, but in 1870 Wall Street was astonished when Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, two fiery feminist reformers of the day, opened a brokerage office and began trading stocks; gentlemen flocked to get a close look at what the press labeled “the bewitching brokers” (they were, in fact, young and attractive).  But how, many wondered, could these two young women do so well on the Street, where so many males went bust?  The answer came when a reporter interviewed them in their suite at the fashionable Hoffman House and noticed a portrait on the parlor wall of Commodore Vanderbilt, the richest man in the country, and under it a framed motto: “To Thy Cross I Cling.”   Old Eighty Millions was obviously giving them tips and advice, until their shenanigans caused him to distance himself, at which point their income plunged, and they moved to less stylish quarters and ceased to be a wonder on Wall Street.  (For the full story of the fiery twosome, see posts #39 and #40, December 23 and 30, 2012, or chapter 14 in my book.)  Hardly an encouraging sign for the future of women on Wall Street.

     But then came Hetty Green (1834-1916), the so-called “Witch of Wall Street,” who was born Henrietta Robinson of a wealthy Quaker whaling family in New Bedford, Massachusetts, from whom she inherited a large fortune.  An only child, in her early years her father and grandfather taught her to invest shrewdly, reading her stock market prices the way other parents read their children bedtime stories.  Suspicious of men eager to marry her because of her growing wealth, in 1867, at age 33, she married Edward Henry Green of a wealthy Vermont family, but only after making him sign a prenuptial agreement renouncing all rights to her money, which shows that she was one smart cookie.  They would have a son and a daughter.

     Moving into her husband’s home in Manhattan, Hetty began investing on her own, devising a strategy she stuck to all her life:
  1.  conservative investments
  2.  cash reserves to see her through market fluctuations
  3.  a cool head during market turmoil
The result: she engaged in real estate deals, bought and sold railroads, in bad times made loans to banks and municipalities, raked in millions.  Had our big banks followed her strategy, the financial convulsion of 2009 would have been much less severe, or maybe wouldn’t have happened at all.

File:Hetty Green cph.3a42973.jpg     But what kind of a woman was Hetty Green?  Photographs show a hefty older woman, full-faced with a solemn look, no frills whatsoever (she was raised a Quaker), always dressed in black, which helps account for her name “the Witch of Wall Street.”  She was stingy too, and it became legendary.  Worth millions, she rode in an old carriage, wore a ragged old black dress and underclothes until they were worn out, lunched on graham crackers or dry oatmeal, never turned on the heat or hot water.  It is said that she once spent half the night searching her carriage for a lost postage stamp worth two cents.  But when, during the Panic of 1907, the city of New York appealed to her for a loan, she wrote a check for $1.1 million and took her payments in short-term bonds.  A widow, in her later years she moved about from one small unheated apartment to another in Brooklyn Heights and Hoboken, New Jersey, hoping to escape the notice of the press and tax collectors.  But in a rare interview she said,

              “I am not a hard woman.  But because I do not have a secretary to announce every kind act I perform, I am called close and mean and stingy.  I am a Quaker, and I am trying to live up to the tenets of my of my faith.  That is why I dress plainly and live quietly.  No other kind of life would please me.”

What kind acts she ever performed has escaped the scrutiny of historians.

     In 1916, at age 81, Hetty Green died at her son’s home in New York, reputedly of apoplexy or stroke after arguing with a maid about the virtues of skimmed milk.  Estimates of her wealth ranged from $100 to $200 million ($2.17 to $4.35 billion in 2016 dollars), making her the richest woman of the Gilded Age.  She is buried with her husband in Vermont.

     Yes, there have been women on Wall Street, and some of them, then and now, have done remarkably well.  On July 29 of this year a financial thriller film entitled Equity opened, showing women not as demeaned assistants or hookers, but as female executives on Wall Street, including a heroine who announces early on, “I like money.”  And who invested in the film, so that it could be made?  Some 25 female investors, many of whom appeared in a photo in a New York Times article of July 24, some of them youngish and attractive, some of them older (it takes time to accumulate money); none of them an Abby Joseph Cohen, much less a Hetty Green, all of them well dressed and stylish. 

     These investors told of what an uphill fight it was for them to succeed on Wall Street.  They had to prove they could do the job before being hired, whereas male applicants got the job so they could prove they could do it.  And there was always the thought that they would marry one of the partners and be gone.  Just as in politics, a woman on Wall Street has to be tough … but not too tough.  And in the 1990s it was understood that, if married, you wouldn’t have a child until you were managing director; today, younger female associates have children, but it may diminish their chances for promotion.  The heroine of Equity is single and childless, but some of the other women in the film have to deal with the problem.  The status of women on Wall Street has improved, said one female investor, but “it still has a long way to go.”

     As for the film, I haven’t seen it, but reviews vary.  Says one, it “proves that the women of Wall Street can be just as cold-heartedly corrupt as the boys.”  Says another: it “invites us to slot its characters into stereotypical frames and then breaks the glass.”  And another: it “tries to draw attention to the struggles unique to being a woman working in the cutthroat financial industry.” 

     So what kind of woman wants to make it big on Wall Street today?  Will she become addicted to money and greed, like so many of the males in the field?  Time will tell.

     My poems:  For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down.  To avoid five terrible poems, don't click here.  For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.

     My books:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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     Coming soon: Wall Street, its bad press, greed and addiction, "bro talk," etc.

     ©   2016   Clifford Browder

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