Financial History 142 Summer 2022 | Page 31

had served as bus drivers during the war were dismissed in the summer of 1946 . The job ’ s new requirement , “ for men only ,” caused roughly 300 newly laid-off employees to protest the street railway company ’ s action at City Hall . That same year , at a General Motors plant in Pontiac , Michigan , executives fired several of their female workers for being a “ distracting influence .” Six of them , all members of United Auto Workers Local 653 , successfully filed a grievance against GM and won their jobs back .
A similar case would unfold at the NYSE , but with less desirous an outcome . During the war , dozens of women had been hired to work as pages on the floor , running orders between the posts where specialist broker-dealers plied their crafts . Historically , NYSE membership was , in-practice , only for men . Women were not allowed on the floor , unless accompanied by a man . The page “ girls ” were pioneers , and by all accounts performed their jobs well .
By 1947 , some of these women pages had worked the floor for years and were ripe for promotion to floor broker positions — something previously unachievable for women in the industry . The NYSE , when given the opportunity to break this barrier , would send the pages back to their original back-office clerical jobs instead .
Highly dissatisfied with the monotony , especially after the excitement of the exchange floor , several of the reassigned women turned to their union for help . Lengthy arbitration hearings ensued , but the women ultimately failed in their bid to remain on the floor . As one NYSE official later recalled , “ We used girl pages on the exchange floor during World War II , but we replaced them with men again the moment we could .”
As stories like this played out across the country , Soss strove to induce companies to elevate more women into top executive positions and directorships . Thinking ahead , she believed that placing more qualified women in corporate leadership positions would be the means to open up greater opportunities in the workplace . Women , she reasoned , would help other women . Of course , she had other motives too for the advocacy . No one said the job of “ economic suffragette ” should be thankless .
In her Forbes article , Soss surprised many readers with her claim that more females owned shares in many leading US public corporations than males . Though
Soss , pictured here in one of her many stockholder meeting costumes , was often featured in news and magazine articles and once even in a motion picture .
the distribution of share ownership was ignored , her claims were true and her presentation of the facts was compelling . Business executives reading Soss ’ s story , some of whom were in the process of deciding the fate of their women wartime employees , contemplated whether they should start cultivating women as investors and customers as well as employees , given that all three categories often overlapped . For Soss and others looking to solidify women ’ s place in the corporate world , a plethora of women shareholders was a feel-good story , one that suggested women could exert greater influence in corporate America with their ownership stakes .
But most women were not shareowners . Neither were most men . Relative to the American population , owners of common shares — male or female — were uncommon . AT & T had by the far the largest number , but even its rolls contained only about 668,000 names . U . S . Steel had 225,414 shareowners , about the same number as General Electric , which reported a record number of investors in 1945 .
Moreover , investors in one company often showed up on the rolls of other companies , so the number of investors in corporations totaled well below the sum of each individual company ’ s tally . Neither Soss nor the NYSE completely understood the full share ownership picture and the NYSE wouldn ’ t commission
University of Wyoming , American Heritage Center , Wilma Soss Papers , Accession # 10249 , Box 1 a comprehensive shareholder census until 1952 . At that time , the Brookings Institute concluded that less than 4.5 % of the US population ( roughly 6.5 million Americans ) owned even one share of any stock in any company , even indirectly . Share ownership remained concentrated , a problem for those espousing the rising notions of democratic capitalism .
In fact , in 1945 , while writing about the state of share ownership in America , Soss herself owned no common stock . Like many citizens , she vividly remembered the 1929 Crash , and the sickening , almost 90 % plunge of the Dow Jones Industrial Average ( DJIA ) from its peak in September 1929 to its nadir in the summer of 1932 .
She remembered , too , the hearings , led by Ferdinand Pecora , into unsavory Wall Street practices that dominated headlines during the Depression , convincing many that the “ little fellows ” in the market were bound to get fleeced , as insiders had stacked the deck against them .
As a young woman , Soss had inherited some money from her grandparents placed in the care of a trustee , who proceeded to lose it all in the swooning market . Stung by the losses , she vowed to steer clear of stocks , viewing equity investing as too risky for her taste , and more akin to speculation than genuine investment . She recalled , “ I swore when I grew up that I would never own another share of stock .”
Swearing off the market during the 1930s was fairly common . Plus , few Americans during the Great Depression , a time of terrible unemployment , had enough disposable income to buy stock anyway .
Soss , of course , was unusual in that she weathered the Depression quite well due to her rapidly rising career . She had money , and could have invested in the market had she desired . But memories of the Crash deterred her .
Even during the war years , the DJIA did not fully return to its pre-Crash highs and neither did Wall Street ’ s reputation . World War II spurred growth of what President Dwight D . Eisenhower would later term the military-industrial complex , but high wartime taxes muted corporate profits and dampened their stock prices . Americans , fearful of another crash , or at least an immediate postwar recession , remained wary of stocks .
After writing the Forbes piece , and likely due to her research for it , Soss changed her takeaway from the Crash — it
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