Financial History 142 Summer 2022 | Page 30

Woman of Steel

Why isn ’ t there a woman on the Board of Directors ? Women are not represented in a company which is financed by their capital and which does business in an economy in which women have a plurality of the vote .
— Wilma Soss to the U . S . Steel Board , Hoboken , NJ , 1947
University of Wyoming , American Heritage Center , Wilma Soss Papers , Accession # 10249 , Box 8
By Janice M . Traflet and Robert E . Wright
In December 1945 , at the behest of none other than the legendary B . C . Forbes , public relations consultant Wilma Soss researched and authored a highly unusual piece for Forbes magazine — an article that would attract widespread attention in the upper echelons of the business world . Soss tracked down the extent to which women were represented in the country ’ s shareownership ranks at the time . Much to her own and others ’ surprise , she found that women shareowners outnumbered men in some of the country ’ s largest listed companies , like AT & T , General Electric , DuPont and General Motors , to name just a few . She predicted that women would be a growing presence in the postwar workforce and in the shareownership ranks , and that
Wilma Soss speaks at the General Motors Annual Meeting , 1953 . It was one of the countless times she literally stood up and let her beliefs be known at a stockholder meeting . they deserved more of a voice in corporate management as well .
Although Soss ’ s Forbes headline in 1945 declared that women in the workforce were “ Here to Stay ,” corporate executives had other plans . Employers fired roughly 675,000 women workers within a month of the war ’ s end . As returning GIs took back Rosie ’ s positions , the number of women in the US labor force fell by some 750,000 by 1946 . Some women were happy to return to domestic life after answering the country ’ s call and content to leave the paid workforce .
But roughly 75 % of women employed during the war wanted to retain their wartime positions . The figure was even higher for women over the age of 45 , few of whom needed to care for young children . Women wanted , and often needed , to work , and many had become accustomed to doing so .
In the backdrop of these changes , the economy started to grow quickly . Servicemen returned to their old jobs . Technological advances made in the war effort , like jet engines and early computers , entered civilian life and spurred productivity . New families formed and brought with them a “ baby boom ” of new mouths to feed . American consumers , well aware of the costs of their newfound peace , had a new motivation to spend and invest — giving their children the comforts war had made elusive .
Soss sensed , as did many families , that they might be able to achieve these goals more easily if the mother worked for wages or a salary , if only part-time or for a portion of the family cycle . Many employers also came to realize the benefits of a broader workforce , and the trend toward employing more women ( including married women ) remained strong in the long-term .
The short-term , however , was a bit more combative . When a manufacturing company in Connecticut laid off wartime hires , labeling the work as “ too physically demanding ” for the women who filled in during the war effort , 24 women picketed in protest . In Detroit , many who
28 FINANCIAL HISTORY | Summer 2022 | www . MoAF . org