March is Women’s History Month, so we’re saluting five bold and brilliant boss ladies who made their marks in the worlds of business and finance. They may not all be household names yet, but their accomplishments make them worthy of honoring all month long.
Madam C.J. Walker
First Female Self-Made Millionaire
The inventor of a highly successful line of African-American hair care products, Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 on a Louisiana cotton plantation to a pair of former slaves. She was the first of her parent’s children to be born free but was orphaned by age seven, married by 14 and widowed by 20.
However, it was her struggle to support her daughter on a washerwoman’s wages of $1.50 a day that made her realize she needed to do something bigger to build a future for herself and her family.
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Her first foray into business came about, surprisingly, as a result of suffering from hair loss. After discovering a hair-growth treatment that worked for her, she began selling it as a local sales agent before experimenting with formulas herself. With the help of her third husband, Charles “C.J.” Walker, she started marketing her own products under the moniker she’s now known for.
By 1908 her business had grown enough for her to open a factory and beauty school. Two years later, her profits were the equivalent of several million dollars today. Her African American sales associates benefited too, raking in a reported $5 to $15 a day at a time when unskilled white workers made roughly $11 a week. In her later years, Walker became known for her philanthropic efforts in the African American community, creating scholarship funds and donating to the NAACP and campaigns to stop lynching.
First Female Fortune 500 CEO
Katharine Graham took the reins of the Washington Post Co. in 1963, following the suicide of her husband Philip (who had himself inherited the role of CEO from Graham’s father). Under her watch, the Post expanded its business and transformed from a newspaper with a modest readership into one of the top publications in the country.
Graham fiercely defended her staff against backlash from the federal government through two of the most controversial — and consequential — moments in American journalism: The publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and the uncovering of the Watergate scandal, which ultimately led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Under her near 30-year leadership, the Washington Post Co. also grew almost twentyfold in revenue, became listed on the New York Stock Exchange and evolved into a diverse media company.
Graham was also the first woman to serve as director of the Associated Press and won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1998 autobiography, "Personal History." Although she stepped down as the Washington Post Co.'s CEO in 1991 and as its chairman in 1993, she continued to serve on the board of directors until her death in 2001. By that time she was widely regarded as one of the most powerful women in publishing.
Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin
First Female Stockbrokers
Even by today’s standards, 19th century women’s rights advocate Victoria Woodhull was a bit of a wild child. She and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, had little formal education and spent their early years roaming the country with their family working as child mediums. Eventually, however, the pair would make waves on Wall Street in addition to becoming controversial society figures.
The sisters’ fortunes turned when they moved to New York City in 1868 and started giving psychic advice to railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. Soon after, he provided them with the financial backing to open their own brokerage house, Woodhull, Claflin & Co. The press and fellow Wall Streeters flocked to the business on opening day to get a glimpse of “The Lady Bankers,” and by most accounts they were successful early on. Woodhull and Claflin would use the profits from their business to start a newspaper that espoused their views on such issues as women’s suffrage, sex education, free love and fair wages, as well as to fund Woodhull’s 1872 bid as the first female presidential candidate. (She ran under the Equal Rights Party, which she founded.)
The brokerage eventually shut down during the Panic of 1873, but Woodhull continued her advocacy, trying twice more to run for president. The sisters’ financial legacies would later be outshined by other scandals, but there’s no denying Woodhull and Claflin broke the mold on Wall Street: Not only were they the first women to run a brokerage, they also catered to female clients and encouraged them to take charge of their money.
First Female Member of the New York Stock Exchange
After Woodhull and Claflin, it would take nearly another hundred years for the next woman to make her big mark on Wall Street. Known as “The First Woman of Finance,” Muriel Siebert had a knack for, well, firsts.
Siebert arrived in New York City in 1954 as a college dropout “with $500, a Studebaker and a dream.” She started her career in finance doing securities research and eventually achieved partner status at leading brokerage firms before finally branching out on her own. She became the first woman to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange in 1967, as well as the first to run an NYSE member firm, Muriel Siebert & Co. It had been an uphill battle, however; nine out of the 10 men she asked to sponsor her application turned her down, and it took two years before she found a bank that was willing to loan her the money to cover the high price of membership.
Then in 1975, on the very first day NYSE members were permitted to negotiate commissions, Siebert turned her company into a discount brokerage firm, claiming pioneer status in the burgeoning field. But she didn’t stop there. Siebert later became the first woman to serve as New York State’s Superintendent of Banks, holding the position for five years.
Irritated by Wall Street’s gender ratio (as she put it, "For 10 years, it was 1,365 men — and me”), Siebert donated millions of dollars to help other women get started in finance, while also standing up for minorities in the industry. She was an early and outspoken advocate of women’s inclusion in Manhattan social clubs, and famously threatened to have a portable toilet delivered to the NYSE’s seventh floor, near the exchange’s restaurant, unless the chairman installed a ladies’ room there. When asked about her approach to roadblocks, she once said: “I put my head down and charge.”
First Female Secretary of Labor
In the words of one biographer, Frances Perkins “did more to put more money in the pockets of average Americans than almost any other leader in American history.”
Perkins was a lifelong public servant who spent her career advocating for many of the policies modern workers might take for granted — things like pensions, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation and the 40-hour workweek. After years in a variety of social work, public policy and local government roles, she was tapped by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933 to be the Secretary of Labor, becoming the first woman to hold a seat in a presidential cabinet.
During her 12 years in that role, she advised Roosevelt through the Great Depression, wielding substantial influence — if not acting as the principal architect — in his New Deal programs. She also sat on his Committee on Economic Security, where she helped establish Social Security, and pioneered other laws that would ban child labor and establish a minimum wage and maximum work hours, among other labor standards.
Her unwavering pragmatism is what likely helped her get so much done during her tenure; she reportedly swore off stylish garb, believing men were more receptive to women in power when those women resembled their mothers. Indeed, she only failed to accomplish one item on the agenda she had presented to Roosevelt back in 1933: universal health care.