“Princess Charming of Wall Street:” Forgotten Legacy of Sylvia Porter and Persisting Gender Inequality in Finance
A holder of fourteen honorary doctoral degrees and a syndicated columnist with a readership of over 40 million people, Sylvia F. Porter once was America’s most famous financial editor. She was the first woman in the history of U.S. journalism to challenge the male-dominated world of business and economics writing. Porter’s works on personal money management, income taxes, and United States government securities, span across more than four decades – from the turbulent 1930s, through the booming 1950s, and to the crisis-stricken early 1980s.
However, Sylvia Porter’s legacy has since faded away, and few are now familiar with the name that used to be synonymous with financial journalism. As the ongoing conversation on gender equality in finance is expanding to include women’s role not only as receivers and providers of financial services but as leaders and decision-makers, shaping the fundamental ways in which the financial system is structured, it is a fitting moment to revive the memories of Porter’s immense contribution to the field of finance, which she made through her writing, policy advising, and public appearances. While considerable progress has been made on providing women access to the financial sector of the economy, most of those efforts are focused on ensuring women’s essential rights to open a bank account separate from their husbands’, receive a business degree, and compete with men for employment at financial institutions on fair terms. Countless decades after Sylvia Porter’s extraordinary career took off, it is time to expand this focus and work on closing the gender gap not only in MBA programs and hedge funds or investment banks but in the establishments that oversee the operations of the entire financial system and have the power to profoundly impact it: central banks, regulatory institutions, and international organizations.
Sylvia Porter’s career is a telling example of the significance women leadership can carry in a male-dominated professional world. Although her leadership was mostly ideational by the virtue of her occupation as a journalist, Porter left a long-lasting mark on numerous aspects of America’s financial life. In 1935, shortly after graduating Hunter College, New York, magna cum laude with a degree in economics, Porter wrote an article for The American Banker that vocally criticized then-Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr.’s handling of government debt. The article carried the byline of S.F. Porter to conceal her gender. When Secretary Morgenthau sent a request to meet with the author of the piece, presuming in his letter that S. F. Porter was a man, The American Banker responded with a vague note, from which all pronouns were conspicuously missing. Nevertheless, the Secretary persisted and eventually succeeded in his attempts to meet the author of the piece. Sylvia Porter arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1940 to advise senior policymakers on the issuance of a new class of government bonds. Porter was only twenty-two when she wrote the milestone article that would make her column a must-read for every secretary of treasury since Morgenthau. Despite her tremendous professional achievements and undeniable expertise, it was not until 1942 – eight years after the beginning of her career as a financial editor – that S.F. Porter revealed her full name and gender to the readers.
Nicknamed by the press the “glamour girl of finance” and the “Princess Charming of Wall Street” once her identity became public, Porter wrote about complex business and economics issues with authority assumed only by men at the time. Not only did she tremendously influence the way ordinary Americans handled their money but also worked to shape U.S. fiscal and monetary policy. Throughout the 1960s, she advised presidents Gerald R. Ford and Lyndon B. Johnson on the anti-inflation fight and export financing. In 1966 Porter recommended President Johnson the appointment of Andrew Brimmer, the first African American to serve on the Federal Reserve Board. She was regularly invited to speak on radio and television and gave hundreds of speeches to the audiences of financiers and policymakers.
Porter passed away in 1991, leaving as legacy of a score of books on money management and investment and a daily financial column circulated by 450 newspapers, read virtually by every economics professional in the nation. Her hope throughout a half-a-century-long professional journey was that women take charge of their personal finances. Today, nearly ninety years after Porter’s transformative career began to shape the landscape of the financial world controlled by men, at stake is something even more important: women’s access to spaces where critical decisions about the functioning of the financial system are made.
Financial regulation is not something we think of when gender equality is brought up. But it is exactly because the topic has not been given the attention it deserves in the echelons of powerful financial authorities. When the conversation on gender in global and national financial governance is initiated, it tends to be confined to the feminine-stereotyped and masculine-stereotyped features of women’s and men’s leadership styles. Such traits as lower risk tolerance, weaker propensity for competitive behavior, and natural “protectiveness” are typically attributed to women and deemed desirable for individuals overseeing the functioning of financial institutions and markets, due to unsustainable leverage appetites and irresponsible risk management policies financial actors are susceptible to. In May 2010, almost two years after Lehman Brothers filed for what was the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history, Time magazine featured Elizabeth Warren, Sheila Blair, and Mary Schapiro on its cover, with a subheading that read: “The women charged with cleaning up the mess.” Times was among the dozens of prominent publications advancing the narrative that female leadership in financial governance is the key to “cleaning up the mess” in the short run and economic stability and sustainable growth in the long run. The world needed less of self-interested, risk-taking male financiers and regulators and more of cooperative, caring female leaders.
Those narratives of expanding women’s involvement in supervision and oversight for the sake of safer financial practices - aside from being products of binary thinking grounded in poorly supported behavioral psychology research and gender essentialism - never materialized. National and international regulatory institution have indeed gained salience since the crisis exposed hidden fragilities of the modern financial system. Establishments like the European Banking Authority, the Bank for International Settlements, the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, and the International Monetary Fund are now looked upon as upholders of global financial stability. While those organizations gained a considerably more prominent role in the operations of the global financial system since the devastating turmoil of 2007, women did not.
From 2007 to 2018, only four of the twenty-eight member-states of European Monetary Union - Cyprus, Serbia, Macedonia, and Norway - had a woman central bank governor. Despite the fact that global financial governance institutions did witness some improvement in its gender composition, women still comprise only 21 percent of all key decision-making bodies in national central banks across Europe, and an overwhelming 76 percent of leaders in supervision agencies globally are men. All twenty-four members of the IMF’s executive board are men, and the Basel Committee, established in 1974, is yet to have a woman chair.
The current state of gender equality in financial governance is therefore not much different from that of the business and economics world at the time Sylvia Porter was carving out her extraordinary professional path as one of America’s most celebrated financial experts. While women now have more liberties as consumers and providers of financial services, an astoundingly high proportion of seats at the tables where critical decisions about the global financial system are made still belongs to men. In her famously controversial 1959 speech to women journalism students, Porter expressed frustration with media hysteria surrounding the growing number of women joining the labor force, and the financial industry in particular, in which, as Porter noted, American women had been active since the 19th century. Exasperated, Porter proclaimed finance to be a “woman’s field,” hoping to once and forever put an end to the debate over whether women belong on Wall Street as authoritative decision-makers shaping the financial world. Regrettably, more than five decades later, the case is still being pondered.