Financial History Issue 119 (Fall 2016) | Page 24

Attired in a Victorian outfit, she sought to visually convey that US Steel management was mired in old ways of thinking and doing things. She also reiterated the Federation’s demand for at least one woman to be appointed to the board. The immediate results at the 1949 meeting typified what would be Soss’s experience at most other annual meetings: her proposal was defeated by a wide margin. Not only did Hoboken remain the site of f uture annual US Steel meetings, but also no woman was elected to the board that year. Nevertheless, she attracted considerable media attention, and she vowed to return the next year with the same resolution if management did not voluntarily change the location of the meeting. (Later, in an effort to counter such a strategy, the SEC ruled that “independent shareholders” could not bring forth the same failed resolution immediately the following year unless it originally had carried a certain percentage of votes.) Though she became a household name for her attention-seeking antics at annual meetings, Soss was not the first corporate gadfly, nor was she the wealthiest. For example, more than a decade before Soss began fighting for shareholder rights, Lewis Gilbert and his brother John already had been staunchly advocating for corporate reforms. The Gilberts possessed substantial shareholdings in several companies, which they sought to protect by actively monitoring management. While Soss would come to join forces with the Gilbert brothers, she more closely fit the mold of the average investor of the time: she owned relatively few stocks, and not a particularly large holding in any of them, yet she took her responsibilities as a shareowner seriously. She also seemed to grasp the trend that was just beginning to emerge — that more and more Americans would become involved in the stock market, putting aside as best they could their memories of the 1929 Crash and putting their faith in common stocks as effective vehicles for wealth creation. Individual share ownership in the United States, according to NYSE shareholder censuses, would grow from less than 6.5 million Americans in 1952 (approximately 4.5% of the population) to almost 31 million (over 15% of the population) by 1970. During most of that time, the stock market experienced an extended bull run. Soss emerged as a champion of little investors at a time that was arguably the heyday of the individual investor. In the mid-20th century, the vast majority of shareowners were still individuals, not institutions, and the overwhelming number of stock trades were executed by them as well. Soss saw herself — and the Federation she headed and founded — as acting in the interests of ordinary investors, especially women. Despite the fact that roughly half of the nation’s shareowners were women when the organization debuted, the Federation of Women Shareholders under Soss’s leadership never grew to be a large organization with much clout. In interviews, Soss repeatedly declined to state how many members the Federation had, as she was anxious not to detract from the perception of the organization as strong and vibrant. However, according to The New Yorker, the Federation in 1951 only had approximately 1,500 members. Given its small size, it is not surprising that most of the organization’s resolutions failed. Soss, though, always extolled the strides made by the Federation, not its weaknesses. For example, she invariably claimed victory whenever a woman was named to a corporate board, even if that corporation had not been specifically targeted by the 22    FINANCIAL HISTORY  |  Fall 2016  | Federation. To be fair, Soss and the Federation’s efforts indeed contributed to getting at least some women on boards across the country and in other high places in corporations. Soss bristled, though, that more women who rose to positions of prominence were not sufficiently grateful to the Federation for their assistance. She also recognized the extent to which more progress needed to be made to improve board gender diversity. As she remarked to The New Yorker in 1954, “…one woman on these big boards isn’t enough.” In the late 1960s, the leadership of the Federation fractured, as some of Soss’s colleagues disagreed with her tactics. The concern was that her sometimes dramatic boardroom stunts might be diminishing the organization’s efficacy by reducing its perceived legitimacy. For example, Soss goaded management at times to forcibly remove her from meetings. While she believed that such mistreatment of a shareholder by management could be bad publicity for the company, some within the Federation viewed Soss’s conduct as unseemly. In May 1966, Federation Vice President Beatrice Kelekian resigned in the wake of Soss being ejected from an IBM annual meeting. Complaining to The New York Times of Soss’s “latest wrinkle of being tossed out of annual meetings,” Kelekian said, “I just can’t take it any longer.” At IBM’s annual meeting on April 25, 1966, Soss had to be carried out of the assembly room at the Shamrock Hilton Hotel, reportedly to the applause of many of the roughly 1,300 shareholders present who were irritated by her interruption of the meeting. Soss had stubbornly continued to try to nominate a woman director even though Chairman Thomas Watson repeatedly told her he was not yet taking any nominations. A similar episode where Soss was ejected