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Feminism for Women in 1970s Finance Professions

When a group of feminists marched down to Wall Street in the 1970s they were met with something akin to apathy. There was little sympathy in the world of bulls and bears for women's liberation, particularly among the more successful women in the finance professions.

By Patty RamsenPublished 6 years ago 10 min read

When a group of feminists marched down to Wall Street in the 1970s they were met with something akin to apathy. There was little sympathy in the world of bulls and bears for women's liberation, particularly among the more successful women in the finance professions.

The movement members expected the women of the Street to rise up in protest against male attitudes but no such revolution took place. What the feminists failed to grasp was that most women in the investment community across the nation (commonly called Wall Street—no matter where it's located) considered themselves successful, particularly when compared to women in other industries. Like their male counterparts, the women of Wall Street were drawn to the business for the excitement it offered, and the rewards it provided. There were few other industries in which a person with only two or three years experience could have made the kind of money a broker or bond trader did during the revolutionary decade of the 1970s.

Good As Your Last Trade

But as one woman who worked for Kidder Peabody back in the day stated, "The business was like show business. You could have one great trade worth a great deal of money, and then, like a good hit performance, be forgotten. We had a rule, that you're only as good as your last trade." While trading and sales were the most lucrative end of the security business, the female analysts also had little to complain about. They too made more than any female peer in another industry.

By the time consciousness-raising infiltrated Wall Street, many women had already cracked the tradition of male dominance there and moved into the higher echelon of management. Never having experienced discrimination (or not admitting to it at any rate), the women of Wall Street had little patience with feminist complaints. One of the pioneers of the Street is Shirley Chilton, who was once president of Daniel Reeves & Company, a small Los Angeles brokerage house. Mrs. Chilton started at Daniel Reeves as a switchboard operator, and worked her way to the top. The toughest problem she faced, as discovered by VIVA magazine in an interview, was one that the women’s movement often addressed itself to.

That wasn’t the only key to her success; it was an indication of her basic philosophy as well. Mrs. Chilton started out as a social worker: “I wanted to save the world, but I found that too great a percentage of my cases wanted to be taken care of, not to take care of themselves." She left social work and did brief stints in menial positions at an airline and an accounting firm before moving to Daniel Reeves. "I knew nothing about the securities industry, but it intrigued me," she said.

Working her way up, Mrs. Chilton became a registered representative, her firm's contact with its customers (a registered rep suggested to customers what to buy or sell, depending on the recommendations from the firm’s research department at the time). After that she held a number of other positions within the firm, all of which provided her with really extensive knowledge of Reeves's inner workings. When she reached the top, Mrs. Chilton was responsible for the company's future growth plans. Obviously, she was not a woman who rests on her laurels. While many women complained that their husbands didn’t support their goals, Mrs. Chilton received encouragement all the way. In the VIVA interview she said, "My husband said you can do anything you want to do, and he gave me great support. He never felt threatened. He's a gourmet cook, and so am I. As far as the housework goes, I love all the domestic chores, except scrubbing floors!"

First to Arrive in the Morning

Shirley Chilton may not have endeared herself to the feminist movement, for success stories like hers were often dismissed as atypical. But Shirley Chilton's experience wasn’t really all that different from that of Linda Lake, who during the women's movement, at the age of thirty-two, was a partner in Wilson White, Belt, Labe and Rochlin, a NJ bond-trading house.

In an interview with VIVA magazine, Linda, the daughter of a regular army man, explained how she moved all around the country during her childhood. "I never had a job, I never even baby-sat, because we were always on some army post.” All this changed when Linda moved to New York to pursue her career as an artist. “I had studied art in Europe, and I wanted to continue, so I moved to New York and starved for a few years. Living without money for art's sake was awful, and I decided to get a job." She got one—at $85 a week. "That was big money to me in 1964," she says smiling, and then adds, "My parents gave me three months at working, and figured I'd be coming home."

Like Shirley Chilton, Linda started at the bottom as a clerk on the trading desk at Wilson White. Mostly, this consisted of filing and answering phones. In her zeal to learn all she could, Linda was usually the first to arrive in the morning, and often the last to leave at night. Her zeal was rewarded when she was promoted to trader, buying and selling bonds for the firm and its customers. The bond market was more complicated than the stock market because bonds were then traded over the counter. Traders had to rely on their own judgment for pricing an offer to buy or sell. Linda said that she liked “making the instant decisions which involve a lot of money." She also found that a lot of men "can't make the necessary split-second decisions." What she found most difficult was maintaining the trading desk's enthusiasm during a falling market. "As a partner you have to keep everything inside, and when you've just bought millions in bonds and the market starts going down that isn't easy.”

First Priority Was the Job

Linda was quick to point out that in a social led "man's world" her boss' attitude was always pro-women. He wanted to have a balanced trading desk, and he gave everyone an opportunity to move ahead. Still, as Linda said, "We've had a parade of women on the desk, but was the only one who made it." She made it big too. As a partner, Linda's income depended on the firm’s annual profit. In a good year her income was up in the six-figure bracket. Perhaps what set Linda apart from the rest of the women who had the same opportunity was the fact that she wanted her career more than anything.

"My first priority was my joband the reality is that I loved my job." This devotion to her work caused a major conflict in her personal life. Unlike Shirley Chilton, who successfully mixed business and marriage, Linda's domestic life suffered. "When I first got married, we were equals and making about the same amount of money. But my salary doubled, then tripled, and my husband lost his initiative and drive." At the same time, Linda tasted success, and she loved it. "I was assuming more responsibility, working harder, and going out more. I did a lot of the entertaining for the firm. Bringing my husband along, while we sat and discussed bonds for hours and hours, just didn't work." Linda separated and dated other men, most who found that they were able to adapt to her unusually arduous schedule.

Linda's only admission of inequity was that "I’ve had been introduced at least ten thousand times as the finest woman trader on the Street, which got to me." She quickly added, "But in general I'm not a libber." In spite of her own drive and ambition Linda credited Wilson White (the president of the firm) as a major factor in her success story. Other successful women in the financial community at the time also felt indebted to their male employers.

Carol Jones, once employed by the Harris Trust and Savings Bank, then BMO Harris Bank, in Chicago was a prime example. Carol was hired at the bank as an investment assistant after getting a B.S. in economics and math, and within a year she was promoted to investment account supervisor, a move which few men made in the same amount of time. She explains why: "I had a wonderful boss who gave me lots of responsibility on his accounts, and then pushed for me when an opening came up."

Success is Synonymous with Money

Not having a mentor didn't stop the then-thirty-one year old Susan Robbins from reaching her goal. By the time Susan was twenty-two, she was a matron with two children in a suburban setting, suffering from the typical suburban syndrome. “I tried all the charity and volunteer work, because I had to be busy." Susan's desire to be busy ultimately led to a divorce, a job as a U.N. guide, and later as a private detective, while her desire to make money finally led her to Wall Street. Starting as a clerk on an options desk in a brokerage house, Susan eventually became a trader in this complicated market. She then moved into an even more technical position as a registered rep specializing in puts and calls, which is buying and selling shares for a specified future date at a predetermined price. This type of trading was highly sophisticated and involved substantial risk for the investor.

Susan was very successful, and on the Street success is synonymous with money. Yet she needed more of a challenge. She went back to school at night, to study accounting and comparative analysis, and switched her career over into the research area. As a research analyst at the Heine, Fishbein and Company, Susan studied a company, decided if its stock should be bought or sold, and then wrote up her recommendations for registered reps to suggest to their customers. There was a time when women analysts had to follow what were considered women's stocks, i.e., cosmetics, department stores, and foods. This barrier came down in the late 1960s, however, and then women could follow any industry they chose. The were literally certain companies a woman could not follow at certain Wall Street firms, into the late 20th century.

Susan chose to stay with cosmeticsplus high technology stocks. The high technology group consisted of companies that developed new products, particularly those related to the computer and other advanced electronics industries. Susan's success in this area led to her becoming a partner in the company. Her partners respected her work so much that she was put in charge of starting an institutional department, which catered to larger investors like insurance companies and banks rather than to the general public. Susan remarried to a financial writer, who she said was her "dream man." While she admitted to an "ego as big as the Ritz," there were no conflicts between career and marriage. "At home my husband's the star."

Can't Argue with Success

Women's liberation, Susan thought, had an adverse effect on the men on the Street. "The novelty wore off and there was a backlash. In the past I could have spoke my mind, but then I had to play politics or someone would say, 'Stop behaving like my wife!’ ” As a group, these successful women on Wall Street denied major inequities in the financial community, but they admitted that there were small, subtle ones—like being referred to as "good for a woman." These problems have never stopped women from making it, however, and once they arrived, they could make changes effectively. One woman described an encounter with discrimination: "When we would have a lunch meeting, I'd always end up taking the lunch orders. I didn't complain, because I was the newest partner, but once another new partner was named, I calmly announced how happy I was to welcome him, particularly as he'd now order lunch. The room was strangely silent for a minute, and then most of us laughed. Now he orders the lunch."

businessfact or fictionwall streetvintage

About the Creator

Patty Ramsen

Just another 20 something trying to break the glass ceiling one blazer at a time. Get your own coffee...

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