Remembering the 'First Woman of Finance'
Far removed from Muriel Siebert's mind when she strolled one afternoon with her friend, fund manager Gerald Tsai Jr., was that their conversation that spring day in 1967 would prompt her to change Wall Street history or to become a role model to others. Siebert had no such grand mission; she just harbored a festering grudge. She resented that she did not get paid on par with her male peers who earned 50-100 percent more. She also felt confined by the limited capabilities of the small firm where she worked but did not view larger firms with their limited partnership opportunities for women as a viable alternative.
She had shown determination from the beginning of her Wall Street career, when in 1954 as a 22-year-old she moved to Manhattan with only her Studebaker and $500. She recalled the exciting floor action on the New York Stock Exchange that she had once observed during a high school trip and had even saved a piece of ticker tape given to her then that read "Welcome to the NYSE, Muriel Siebert."
Ironically, the exchange did not extend such a warm greeting to her when she later became a member; nor did the greater Wall Street community embrace her when she first sought employment. She applied to Merrill Lynch, but the firm rejected her because she lacked a college degree. During her next interview, at Bache & Co., she lied about her uncompleted degree. This falsehood remained unrectified for 14 years.
Siebert was not the first woman transportation analyst; Isabel Benham had blazed that path as a railroad analyst two decades earlier. While other female analysts also worked on Wall Street, their numbers were few and they tended to cover industries viewed as appropriate for women, such as retail, food, or cosmetics.
Although she had doubled her income in two years, [Siebert's] salary still lagged those of her male counterparts. She reasoned that she would have to change jobs to advance. Eventually, she landed a research job with Shields & Co. in 1958but only after the placement bureau of the New York Society of Security Analysts sent out her resume with her first name replaced by an androgynous initial. Siebert next joined Finkle & Co. and remained a partner there from 1962 to 1965 before going to Brimberg & Co. for the next three years.
The passage of Title VII in 1964 prohibited job discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, religion, or national origin. Yet, real advances remained illusory but for a select few. The next year, a Harvard Business Review study concerned senior executives reported that "In the case of both Negroes and women, the barriers are so great that there is scarcely anything to study." Siebert, despite her success and financial comfort, chafed under conditions that impeded her career. She often could not attend luncheon meetings held at clubs that did not allow women. Her income still lagged behind men and she yearned to participate in dealmaking activity centered at the larger brokerages, which were the same firms that did not have female partners and were unlikely to offer her commissions.
When she voiced these concerns to Tsai during their fateful walk, he admonished, "Don't be ridiculous. There's nowhere you can go. Buy a seat on the Stock Exchange and work for yourself."
Siebert was not the first woman to seek a seat on a national exchange. According to rumor, a woman may even have unsuccessfully sought NYSE membership in 1927. Florence Stephens, who founded her own investment firm in 1928, never submitted an application. She opined nearly three decades later, "I think they'd drop dead if a woman applied." More recently, in 1965, the Amex had admitted Julia Montgomery Walsh and Phyllis S. Peterson, who both conducted their business from their Washington, D.C. firms. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange made history in 1966 by becoming the first major commodities exchange to allow a woman to work on its floor when it permitted Sandra Stevens.
On December 28, 1967, 35-year-old Siebert received her acceptance [to the NYSE].
After becoming an NYSE member, personal inequities she had resented privately now turned into fodder for a more proactive commitment to combat gender discrimination for both herself and on a broader scale.
[As Siebert once said], "I've seen things I've wanted to do and I've done them. In some cases being a woman was an obstacle, but it probably gave me more incentives than I would have had if I'd been a man.
Excerpted from "Petticoats and Pinstripes: Portraits of Women in Wall Street's History" by Sheri J. Caplan. Published 2013. Condensed and reprinted with permission from ABC-CLIO.