In the 1880s, women were decades away from earning the right to vote. Few owned property, if they were even permitted to do so. In addition to childcare obligations, many toiled in work that was either underpaid, or not paid at all. Essentially, the gears of progress for women were moving slowly in just about every arena of life.
Especially when it came to money.
On Wall Street, Mary Gage found herself frustrated with being shut out of stockbroking on venues like the New York Stock Exchange, the artery of America’s growing place on the international financial stage. So, in 1880, the finance-savvy associate of suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton started her own exchange—just for women—who wanted to use their own money to speculate on railroad stocks.
Previously, women had needed to rely on men to invest their money for them; these men pocketed handsome commissions. Gage wanted to cut out the middleman and not only avoid having to pay high commissions, but make her own decisions about how and where she moved money. Gage, like many women of her era, previously had little say in her own finances.
Throughout the 19th century and into the start of the 20th, when Gage and her colleagues formed at least one exchange, stockbroking—the act of buying and selling stocks for a client—was seen as an unseemly pursuit for either gender. Some religions saw it as a form of gambling and an immoral way to make money compared with manual labor.
“It was bad enough that there were men who would do that,” says George Robb, author of Ladies of the Ticker: Women and Wall Street from the Gilded Age to the Great Depression. “But women were seen as being purer than men and that they should uphold the purity of the family. They especially shouldn’t be out in the market to make money this way.”
Critics of female stockbrokers tried to dissuade the public from investing money at the exchanges. “People also thought that women were too emotionally unstable, that when the market went up or down they couldn’t handle that—but men could,” says Robb. “Clearly that’s ridiculous.” (If anything, there’s research showing the opposite.)
Wall Street trading floors have long been seen as bastions of testosterone that rewarded, literally, those with sharp elbows who could throw a punch. But since the America’s inception, women like Gage have been essential to the history of finance and stock-trading in the country.
When they couldn’t participate or create their own market, like Gage did, many wielded influence from the sidelines. Abigail Adams had the foresight in her time to see the advantages in trading bonds over farmland and persuaded her husband, John, to do so, according to letters between the two displayed at the Museum of American Finance in New York.
Before she made her bid for the U.S presidency in 1872, Victoria Woodhull worked as one of the first female stockbrokers in the country, starting a firm, Woodhull, Claflin & Company, with her sister in 1870. The venture was part of what made her a millionaire by 31, cash that she used to promote her own campaign and other women’s rights-related causes. In finance, she landed clients like the transportation magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, a partnership that led to hefty profits for both of them (and fueled speculation in the media of a romantic liaison).
Unlike Gage, Woodhull had clients that were male and female, and saw her profits as a means to achieve her political goals. “Woman’s ability to earn money is better protection against the tyranny and brutality of men than her ability to vote,” Woodhull stated. “I demand equal pay for equal work.”
In spite of major trades and powerful clients, women in stockbroking were largely considered by their peers and the public to be a joke. When stockbrokers like Gage and Woodhull were written about in their time, it was either as sirens (if young) or witches or hags (if older). Gage herself faced “lunacy proceedings” when she accused a prominent male banker of impeding “her social progress and that of her daughter.” (Gage was arrested, but later deemed “sane.”)
Businesswoman and financier Hetty Green, once hailed as the richest woman in America, pushed societal norms further. In addition to her abundant wealth and miserly attitudes about spending or giving money, Green was known for swearing profusely and moving to ramshackle apartments to avoid tax collectors. Her strategy was one of buy and hold, investing over a long horizon and avoiding the euphoria of speculation, similar to the tactics that would later help Warren Buffett. However, he didn’t earn Green’s nickname: “the Witch of Wall Street.” (When Green died in 1916, her two children funneled some of her wealth into charitable causes.)
As women continued to struggle for legitimacy on Wall Street, they formed investing clubs in greater numbers starting around the 1920s. At the time, they worked largely in back office positions, but rumors of a woman seeking a seat on the New York Stock Exchange percolated and made the front page of The New York Times on in January 1927. A seat would have represented a trader having a permanent place on the floor, the right to buy and sell shares in the heart of the market. The Times did not even name the female applicant in its story.
“Many women now hold partnerships in Stock Exchange Firms,” The Times noted. “Some are rated as among the best brokers in Wall Street … A great many are known to have made fortunes in the stock market. All commission houses have successful women customers, some notably successful in their market operations.”
However, that woman’s effort to join the NYSE would fall flat. It wasn’t until 40 years later, in 1967, that Muriel “Mickey” Siebert would become the first woman to purchase a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, a job she performed well until her death in 2013 at 84.
While women have made some progress since Gage’s time, a gap remains. Women in finance bore the brunt of layoffs more than their male counterparts during the Great Recession in 2008 and were also more likely to have been in back office jobs that were replaced by computers. Women exclusively manage less than 2 percent of mutual fund assets, according to Morningstar. As the World Economic Forum recently pointed out, one is more likely to find a global hedge fund run by someone named Paul than a woman of any name. At the entry level, 77.5 percent of first-year bankers are men, according to Vettery.
It’s better than in Gage’s time, no doubt, but still would not have been enough for the original women on Wall Street.
Meanwhile, much of Mary Gage’s life has remained a mystery. Today, 71 Broadway in Lower Manhattan, where she once traded, has been converted into a luxury apartment building. There’s some evidence her career inspired others, however. Robb notes that according to the 1886 History of Woman Suffrage, “after Miss Gage was fairly settled, other women who had labored under the same disadvantages began to drop in, their numbers increasing daily.”