The female financiers that history forgot

50 years ago to the day, on 23rd March 1973, women were first admitted to the London Stock Exchange. It was another two years before a woman could open a bank account in her own name. This didn’t stop women participating in capital markets though, as Abika Martin, Investment Manager, explores.

Abika Martin
Woman standing on table with hands up surrounded by a group of men in suits

I’ve never needed much encouragement to dust off my History degree, and Women’s History Month seemed like the perfect excuse to look into the stories of female investors through time. 

When we think of prominent historic investors, we tend to think of the likes of Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt, who made their fortunes in America’s Gilded Age.

This apparent rarity of notable female investors, however, is misleading. Their lack of visibility should not be taken as a lack of activity. Women made up some 40% of shareholders in the British railways and were more likely than men to be sole investors[1]. Across the pond, the 1910 census lists 207 women as stockbrokers, of which four were African American[2]

Challenging perceptions

Whilst Mary Ellen Pleasant (1814-1904) didn’t feature in this census, she described herself as a “capitalist” in the census of 1890[3], by which point she had made millions through her investments. Likely born a slave, she became a prominent abolitionist, and is believed to have invested the inheritance received from her first husband based on information she learned from the conversations of wealthy Californians while undertaking domestic work. Pleasant partnered with the capitalist Thomas Bell and many of her investments were held in his name, due to the discriminatory nature of the time. 

First female stockbroker

She was not the only woman to leverage the support of the powerful men of the era. With the backing of industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt, Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927) became the first female stockbroker, opening her own brokerage for women alongside her sister Tennessee in 1870. Woodhull went on to run for president two years later, despite not being of eligible age (she was under 35) or, indeed, legally allowed to vote. Had she been successful in that unlikely bid, she certainly wouldn’t have been the first female investor to reside in the White House.

Value investing

Abigail Adams (1744-1818), wife of the second US President, John Adams, was known to be a savvy investor – ignoring her husband’s advice to buy up farmland and instead making investments in US government debt, which was seen as highly speculative at the time. 

Adams’ rationale centred on buying up undervalued investments – she wrote as much to her uncle – which was also the approach of Hetty Green (1834-1916), who was dubbed the ‘Witch of Wall Street’ on account of her frugal lifestyle, despite being the richest woman in America. While J. P. Morgan is rightly credited with rescuing the financial system in ‘The Panic of 1907’, it is less commonly known that Green was one of the few people involved in those discussions. Thanks to her shrewd reading of the market as overvalued, she had also accumulated enough liquidity to issue a bail-out loan of over $1m to New York City during the crisis.

“A little project” 

Green was disciplined in her approach, undertaking careful research before committing to any investment. She preferred real estate, infrastructure and loans to the stock market, stating that her first rule of success was “never speculate in Wall Street”[4]. The same cannot be said for Viola Turner (1900-1988), who joined North Carolina Mutual Assurance as a secretary and progressed through the ranks to the Board through her natural aptitude for finance. She boldly shifted the company’s assets from government bonds into stocks, a move regarded by her peers as a “little project.” That little project made the company millions.

Paving the way

Whilst history is inclined to forget these hidden figures in finance, these women were pioneers and, given societal norms of the time, they certainly represented a minority. Nevertheless, there was a sufficient market of wealthy women looking to invest to justify their own stock exchange – opened by Mary Gage (1837-1912) in 1880.[5]

The wealth they accumulated challenged contemporary perceptions that women were “too impulsive and impressionable”[6] to succeed in the world of finance. More often than not, the financial activities of these women also served a social purpose, funding suffrage and civil rights action, and, through intergenerational acts of philanthropy, financed some of the great institutions of the present day.

[1] Independent Women: Investing in British Railways, 1870-1922. / Acheson, Graeme G.; Campbell, Gareth; Gallagher, Aine; Turner, John D.

[2] Ladies of the Ticker: Pioneering Women Stockbrokers from the 1880s to the 1920s, Robb, George


[4] Female speculators rattle Wall Street traditions, Wall Street Journal


[6] Female speculators rattle Wall Street traditions, Wall Street Journal

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