Wall Street Women

Wall Street Women

by Melissa S. Fisher

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Wall Street Womenn tells the story of the first generation of women to establish themselves as professionals on Wall Street.See more details below


Wall Street Womenn tells the story of the first generation of women to establish themselves as professionals on Wall Street.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, even as the media celebrated women as potential saviors of the economy, the financial world had removed women from senior Wall Street jobs. Most of the women who broke through glass ceilings to become leaders in finance were gone by the time of the crisis, not necessarily of their own volition, including the subjects of this lively and provocative historical ethnography. Georgetown University anthropologist Fisher, co-editor of Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy, combines the detached curiosity of an anthropologist studying the folkways of a tribal village with a sure grasp of history, politics, and economics, as well as an affectionate regard for her subjects, a small group of highly successful women who entered Wall Street in the ’60s. “nfluenced by the tenets of liberal feminism,” they advanced their careers by playing on traditional assumptions about women—cautious, caring, family-oriented—that had previously been used to exclude them from leadership roles, and recast them in market terms: risk-aware, value-oriented long-term investors. By the ’90s they became an active force in politics, openly supporting pro-choice women running for office. Fisher’s argument about the emergence of “market feminism,” a synthesis of liberal feminist values with neo-liberalist ideology that could provide new opportunities for women on Wall Street, is worthy of readers’ attention. (July)
From the Publisher

"Detecting gendering in high finance is a long-standing challenge—it is a domain inhospitable to the main categories of feminist analysis. Melissa S. Fisher goes at it with gusto and gives us a great book."—Saskia Sassen, author of Territory, Authority, Rights

"Melissa Fisher's Wall Street Women introduces us to a feminist world that we can hardly imagine. As they dream of changing the hostile domain of finance, women find themselves drawing on traditional notions of gender equality and coaching each other in old-fashioned survival skills. Written in enticing prose, Wall Street Women offers us an illuminating peek into a wholly unexpected fusion of feminism with the market."—Alice Kessler-Harris, author of A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman

American Ethnologist - Sarah A. Tobin

“Fisher presents a world to us that taps into a current public interest in women pioneers in business, is methodologically innovative, is theoretically rich, and is ethnographically vital in understanding how to move forward as both gendered and market-engaged persons in the post–?nancial crisis world.”
American Journal of Sociology - Louise Marie Roth

“Melissa Fisher has written a fascinating, fresh, and accessible account of the pioneering women who started careers on Wall Street in the 1960s and 1970s and established themselves as successful financial professionals. . . . This book offers a readable ethnography that would be a valuable course adoption in both undergraduate and graduate courses on social aspects of finance or gender and labor markets.”
Reviews in Cultural Theory - Megan Brown

Wall Street Women serves not only as an helpful reminder of women’s struggles and successes, but also as an enlightening depiction of changes—and continuing challenges—in a part of the business world often seen as mysterious at best and oppressive at worst. Indeed, the material Fisher gleans through ethnographic and archival research establishes the importance of her project, even if the book raises troubling questions about the compromises that women continue to make in the name of success, and about the nature of high finance itself.”
Administrative Science Quarterly - Alexandra Michel

“[W]ell-argued and superbly researched. . . . Fisher’s in-depth case study of a Wall Street women’s cohort adds ethnographic specificity to the typically cross-societal literature on market feminism.”
Women's History Review - Alison C. Kay

Wall Street Women offers insightful interpretations of the noticeable changes in the rhetoric and practice of the first women of Wall Street, encouraging further comparative study of elites in this area. Fisher’s extensive fieldwork, conducted over many years, has produced a detailed, wide-ranging and thoughtful exploration of the first women of Wall Street and their navigation of a competitive corporate culture structured by ideas about masculinity. Furthermore, it makes a significant contribution to our wider understanding of capitalism and finance as gendered and the resulting complexity of this for women in a market-driven society.”
Library Journal
From a historical and ethnographic perspective, Fisher (anthropology, Georgetown Univ.; coeditor, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy) studies the first generation of women who entered Wall Street in the 1960s. This small group of highly successful women began their careers in research and investment banking sectors; over time, individually and collectively, they climbed the corporate ladder and broke through the glass ceiling. Fisher also analyzes the impact of their involvement in professional and political networks, particularly the Financial Women's Association of New York and the Women's Campaign Fund. She demonstrates how these networks allowed the female financial elite to advance a kind of market feminism, emphasizing reproductive rights and opportunities for women in politics and the workplace. VERDICT Extensively researched and thoroughly documented, this portrait of a pioneering generation of women provides context for understanding the emergent discourse of feminizing markets. Strongly recommended for readers interested in business anthropology or gender studies, particularly for gendered discourses of finance and the female financial elite.—Rebekah Wallin, Paris
Maria Siano

“[A] well-researched and enlightening account. . . . Ethnographers in all fields can also benefit from Fisher’s approach, which consists of a combination of individual interviews, observation of and participation in association meetings where the women networked, and a final group discussion.”
Rebekah Wallin

“Extensively researched and thoroughly documented, this portrait of a pioneering generation of women provides context for understanding the emergent discourse of feminizing markets. Strongly recommended for readers interested in business anthropology or gender studies, particularly for gendered discourses of finance and the female financial elite.”
Elizabeth Dwoskin

“Fisher shows how women who made it on Wall Street deftly deployed their supposedly innate risk-averse qualities to stay afloat long term. . . . [W]e get the pleasure of hearing conversations that normally take place behind closed doors. When the women dish about the guys in the office, they really dish.”

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Product Details

Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt


By Melissa S. Fisher

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2012 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5330-0

Chapter One


Muriel Siebert went to the New York Stock Exchange for the first time in 1953, as a twenty-year-old tourist. She got to see a new public reception and exhibition room at the exchange, recently opened as part of an expanded public relations campaign on Wall Street aimed at the burgeoning middle class after the Second World War (Traflet 2003: 6–7). She loved it: "After absorbing all that fierce energy, I turned to my friends and said, 'Now, this is exciting. Maybe I'll come back here and look for a job.' At the time tourists were given a piece of ticker tape printed with their name as a souvenir. I still have the few inches of worn and faded tape that said, 'Welcome to the nyse Muriel Siebert'" (Siebert 2007: 1).

In 1954 she did indeed return to Manhattan, a few months shy of graduating from a small women's college in Florida; having grown up in Cleveland in the worst of the Depression, she had five hundred dollars in her pocket and drove an old Studebaker. But when she arrived in New York, she found few job prospects. "Turns out I wasn't so welcome after all," she noted wryly in her autobiography. Merrill Lynch turned her down because she did not have a college degree. She then lied to Bache & Co. about having a degree and was offered her choice of two positions: one in the accounting department that paid $75 a week and the other in research that paid $65 a week. She chose research because "it sounded more interesting" (Siebert 2007: 5–6). Thirteen years later, in 1967, Siebert became the first woman to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange; two years after that she founded her own brokerage firm. She was a pioneering woman on Wall Street, and a singular figure. But right as she was opening up her own business, other women were following in her footsteps, albeit a small group of roughly sixty individuals—the first generation of women in finance.

Born just after the end of the Second World War in the Northeast (see Mayo et al. 2006: chap. 2), these women were the children of the members of a vastly expanding postwar American middle class. Their childhood and adolescence occurred during periods of enormous economic growth in the United States. Economic prosperity enabled most of their parents to send them to college, albeit often smaller women's colleges rather than the Seven Sisters or other top schools. All of this went a long way toward producing a particular gender and class profile of this generation as they worked their way into the professional-managerial class. Fresh out of college, the cohort made their initial entry onto Wall Street circa 1969. They read Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) and, like Siebert, were drawn to the excitement, energy, and possibilities of Manhattan. The possibilities of huge salaries and power did not entice them; rather, they were inspired by the onset of the feminist movement and the idea that they could make a different kind of life and independent living for themselves in New York City (Ortner 2003; Coontz 2011). Some found jobs in brokerage firms through ads in the New York Times; others came to work in finance at the suggestion of a family member or college friend.

Their individual and collective career biographies intersected with a particular moment in the history of financial capitalism, the engendering of Wall Street institutions, and the feminist movement to shape the women as gendered market subjects. From the start of their career paths, the women encountered a disconcerting combination of new opportunities and constraints. The economy was beginning to crater and the city was about to sink into the depths of the recession of the seventies. Working in a bank was not a glamorous career path. An MBA was only just starting to be a useful credential, but prospects of being wined, dined, and lured onto working on Wall Street by major firms, making lots of money, and climbing the class ladder were not yet fantasies in the career dreams of men or women. Most graduates of elite East Coast colleges were pursuing careers in business, rather than on Wall Street. Such students, predominantly men from old-moneyed wealthy families, found their jobs through family ties. It would be another decade until Michael Douglas's Gordon Gekko in Wall Street captured the American imagination and Melanie Griffith's Working Girl made her triumphant climb on Wall Street (Traube 1992).

But change was beginning to stir in the worlds of education, business, and finance. Deregulation and increased competition among firms were opening the class system in finance to a new cadre of workers recruited mainly out of the top elite university's "families," rather than individual families (Ho 2009: 60). Admission to this new kind of club depended less on social factors such as family background and more on educational credentials, particularly pedigreed business-degree credentials (Mayo et al. 2006: 149). More and more firms offered training programs within their firms, but training programs on Wall Street did not open up to women until the mid-seventies.

Most members of the first generation were thus double outsiders: first because of their gender and second because of their educational backgrounds and class. Instead of attending business school and training programs, they worked to gain occupational experience in low-level, white-collar work (see Buhlmann 2009). Like Siebert, they tended to land jobs in what was becoming a more feminized area of finance—research—and, unlike her, they attained educational credentials later on by going to business school at night while working fulltime in research, a "back-office" support function on Wall Street. But the women were also uniquely positioned to push through emerging cracks in the gender system in finance in the context of the deregulation and globalization of finance. Beginning in the mid-seventies, the area of research became increasingly important to firms, and analysts became valued employees: they eventually joined investment bankers and traders in the "front office."

And the first generation worked together to lift themselves up. At the beginning of their careers, each woman felt isolated as one of the only professional women working within her respective firm. But gradually many were able to form ties with one another, at night classes in business school and at meetings of the Financial Women's Association (FWA) of New York City. They fostered their own female financial networks early on that were connected to Wall Street but were outside the walls of their specific firms. This network became an alternate training ground for the women. The professional and personal relationships they formed within the FWA became central to their working lives, some far outlasting their initial involvement. The women were never entirely defined only in relation to elite men on Wall Street, as important as some of these relationships became in terms of mentorship.

We can see the importance of the biographical and institutional in constructing financial subjects: pioneering Wall Street women emerge out of a specific set of early entry routes into finance, career positions, experiences, and trajectories within a particular economic period and, in a majority of their cases, a tough bear market. We can also read the importance of feminism to their career pathways, aspirations, and networks, and to the cultural values they formed about gender and finance along the way (Ortner 2003; Laird 2006).

The Male-Dominated Landscape of Finance through the Fifties

Wall Street is the general name given to New York City's downtown financial district, a physical place composed of small colonial streets, the New York Stock Exchange, and the towers of major investment banks. "Wall Street" also signifies an ethos and set of practices embedded in an intricate network of institutions, investments, and people (Ho 2009: 6). Even its landscape is steeped in the history of American politics, culture, and finance. After the American Revolution, New York was the nation's first capital. The site of the city's first City Hall was 26 Wall Street. The First Congress of the United States met in Federal Hall in the district to write the Bill of Rights. George Washington was inaugurated in Federal Hall on April 30, 1789. In 1792, a group of male traders allegedly met under a buttonwood tree—on the location of what is now 68 Wall Street—to establish a formal stock exchange. While the buttonwood story appears to be largely legend, there was, according to the historian Steven Fraser, a concerted effort at self-regulation during the late eighteenth century on the part of the embryonic Wall Street community (2005: 17). For most of the two centuries to follow, aristocrats, confidence men, and financial tycoons understood Wall Street to be a male space where elite men participated in the market, making money for themselves and their families. Despite this segregation, a few women defied gendered conventions and made a name for themselves early on in finance. For example, the late nineteenth-century female speculator Hetty Green was nicknamed the "Witch on Wall Street" because of her supposed magical abilities to predict the future of the stock market with success. But she was a rarity.

With the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, women appeared to have finally attained the political equity they had long been fighting for. New social and legal ideas about gender, along with the ascent of corporations and professionalism, began to open certain business arenas for women (Kwolek-Folland 1998: 87). For the most part, women could not enter the male-dominated fields of management, law, or medicine, but they did enter the workforce in increasingly higher numbers in clerical and secretarial positions (101).

During the twenties, Wall Street, along with flappers, jazz, and the radio, symbolized an era in the United States that was marked by enormous optimism. For most of the decade, the majority of Americans dreamed they could become part of the burgeoning middle class by investing in the stock market (Fraser 2005: 366–67). In the meantime, urbanization, in places like New York City, reached a climax with the onset of the erection of several major skyscrapers (Willis 2001: 8). New cathedrals of capitalism, like Irving Trust's headquarters, transformed the financial district and the lower Manhattan skyline (Abramson 2001: 3).

The Great Crash of 1929 abruptly shut down the American dream of becoming rich through investing. Americans suddenly viewed Wall Street as the principal villain in the nation's financial and social downfall, and they stopped trusting it with their money or their hopes (Fraser 2005: 414). The industry shrank. Bankers, nicknamed "banksters," were considered manipulative at best and corrupt at worst (Hayes and Hubbard 1990: 25). The enormous grip Wall Street had had on the social imagination of the United States evaporated, not to be experienced in such a way again until the Reagan revolution in the eighties (Fraser 2005: 396). The allure of making lots of money and being part of the professional-managerial elite by working on Wall Street practically vanished.

Wall Street became a state-regulated, closed, domestic financial space (Hayes and Hubbard 1990: 25). The Crash, the Depression, and the Second World War had significant effects on the regulation and structure of investment banking in particular. Financial-market stabilization was finally achieved by a series of governmental acts under New Deal reforms, notably the Glass-Steagall Act in 1933 and the Securities and Exchange Act in 1934 (Fraser 2005: 459). Glass-Steagall separated commercial banking (the deposit and lending of loans) from investment banking (the mediation between sellers and buyers or various assets) (Eccles and Crane 1988). Unbeknownst to the majority of Americans, banks during the twenties had gambled with and lost their depositors' money in bad investment deals. To avert future massive losses, Glass-Steagall forced banks, such as J. P. Morgan, to choose one of two institutional paths. In the Morgan case, the firm decided to maintain its commercial practice and private banking clients. Several partners, however, remained in investment banking and then created Morgan Stanley.

The "Chinese wall" separating Wall Street firms from commercial banking in the securities business created a cartel-like industry. Other new governmental measures targeted the gambling practices that risked producing another crash. The Securities and Exchange Act of 1934, which set up the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), was designed to ensure that the American public was provided with adequate information regarding securities and training practices in order so that they could make wise investment decisions (Sobel 1980: 167; Fraser 2005).

New Deal reforms helped the domestic situation, but the Second World War had a devastating effect on international financial practices. It destroyed confidence in bond issuers and credit institutions (Hayes and Hubbard 1990). Out of this situation emerged the development of strategies intended to ensure the growth and stability of national capitalist economies and agendas. The postwar years witnessed the organization of a new international regulated space composed of nation-states managed by a set of international institutions. Under the Bretton Woods system, constructed in 1944, governments of leading economies practiced collective management based on a set of agreed-upon rules, including fixed exchange rates and national controls over employment, savings, and interest rates (Corbridge and Thrift 1994).

Postwar Wall Street was a ghostly place (Fraser 2005: 474). The new regulatory shifts had transformed the Wall Street of the forties into a small wholesale industry that dealt primarily with corporations and wealthy investors, who were mainly well-to-do businessmen and their families (Welles 1975: 145). Investment banks were caught up in an impoverished war environment for underwriting and trading. In contrast with the large institutional structures of commercial banks and their high volume of business, Wall Street firms experienced a relative dearth of activity (Hayes and Hubbard 1990: 103–4).

A handful of firms—Morgan Stanley; First Boston; Dillon, Read; and Kuhn, Loeb Co.—emerged in the reorganized industry as the strongest and most prestigious investment banks (Hayes and Hubbard 1990: 105). The Street hired only small numbers of new personnel, and those who were hired reflected the visible religious-ethnic characteristics of different investment banks that went back to their nineteenth-century origins. Morgan Stanley's roster of clients was composed of blue-chip corporations. The firm's partners matched their clients' wasp, Ivy League, "white-shoe" pedigree (Hoffman 1984: 36). First Boston, a spin-off of Chase Bank, also boasted blue-chip clientele (49). Kuhn, Loeb Co., the archetype of a German-Jewish "Our Crowd" investment house, specialized in rails, steel, and utilities (51). These financial institutions did not compete for their clients. In theory, a "gentleman's agreement" prevented firms from raiding each other's client lists. Bankers engaged in ongoing professional and social relationships with industrial capitalists and affluent individuals. The three-martini lunch symbolized the masculine style of long-term "relationship banking" practices.

Partnerships, in both wasp and Jewish firms, were the predominant organizational form, though these partnerships were often closer to the model of the "family firm" of nineteenth-century businesses (Kwolek-Folland 1994: 129). The banks were deeply hierarchical. At the upper tiers, male partners ("fatherly executives") exercised total control over decision making. A small supporting cast of clerical workers, predominantly male, operated in the lower tiers. Entry and advancement into the higher echelons depended on family, religious, and school connections. Fathers prepared their sons (and nephews and sons-in-law) to take over their positions as partners of their firms (Laird 2006).

The men occupying the power structure worked in an elite homosocial world. Although the white, upper-class male dominant order was never completely dominant or static, gendered boundaries remained fairly rigid until bankers and office workers were drafted into the armed forces during the Second World War. In the men's absence, Wall Street firms recruited white women with experience in education, hospital administration, and welfare work to fill clerical and professional positions (Kwolek-Folland 1998: 149). Firms generally prohibited black women from taking advantage of these opportunities (Gregory 1998: 54).

In spite of white women's entry into the financial world, the dominant gendered imaginary, in social policies and everyday practices, still linked women's proper role to the home. Indeed, as the feminist historian Alice Kessler-Harris points out, "In the 1940s, through the 1950s, and into the 1960s, the idea of gender difference remained embedded in marriage patterns and family lives, social traditions and economic possibilities" (2001: 204).


Excerpted from WALL STREET WOMEN by Melissa S. Fisher Copyright © 2012 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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