Our Women in Finance series would not be complete without a nod to the late-great Muriel Siebert, a pioneer for women’s rights on Wall Street as well as Main Street. Many of the financial career options that women enjoy today are a result of her work that began nearly half a century ago. Ms. Siebert was an advocate, not only for equality in finance, but also for other women’s rights including things we take for granted today such as literacy.
Known as ‘The First Woman of Finance’, Muriel Siebert was the first women to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, which she purchased in 1967.1 In 1969, she went on to found her own brokerage firm, Muriel Siebert & Company which she ran until she lost her battle with cancer in 2013. Her name-sake firm is still in existence today, almost fifty years since its founding.
Known by friends as “Mickie”, Muriel Siebert was born in 1928 in Cleveland, Ohio.2 After attending what is now Case Western Reserve University, Ms. Siebert drove an old Studebaker from Cleveland to New York City with $500 to her name.3
As many from our Women in Finance series seem to do, Ms. Siebert began her career in finance as a research analyst (at Bache & Company) before moving her way up the ranks. She covered the airline industry and eventually took flying lessons herself.
Determined to earn what she’s worth (the same as a man), she was half-jokingly informed by a colleague that the only way to do that would be to have her own seat on the stock exchange. So she did just that, buying a seat for $445,000.4
In 1977, she was named Superintendent of Banks for the State of New York, essentially overseeing all of the banks in the state.5 She also served on the Board of the Economic Club in New York City and was a frequent guest on various financial news networks.
New York Stock Exchange
The exchange, known as ‘The Big Board’, can be traced back to the Buttonwood agreement of 1792 when 24 brokers got together to trade mostly Revolutionary War Bonds issued by the government.6 Today, the exchange has over 2400 companies listed, worth almost $20 trillion in combined market capitalization.7
The Muriel Siebert Era
Siebert will always be known as the first woman to purchase a seat on the New York Stock Exchange in 1967. But it certainly wasn’t easy for her. Back then, you needed two sponsors to purchase a seat. These sponsors were essentially “vouching” for the applicant and there were not many willing to do that. So it’s no surprise that she found difficulty getting sponsored. She was turned down by 9 out of the first 10 exchange members she asked for sponsorship.8
In addition to gender bias, many probably resisted fearing that admitting her would open the door for scores of females to buy seats, driving up competition for what was then, lucrative fixed-rate trading commissions.
Further, the exchange made it difficult for her to purchase the seat financially.
They required her to get a bank loan for $300,000 of the $445,000 purchase price before she could be admitted.9 Conversely, the banks wouldn’t lend her the money until she could prove she was admitted to the exchange. This ‘Catch-22’ delayed her admission by a couple years.
Now that she had gotten herself into the stock exchange, she faced new challenges. The New York Times ran a great article a few years ago about Siebert’s continued attempts to get the exchange to provide a woman’s bathroom near the lunchroom she frequented.10 The stock exchange dragged its feet on the matter until Siebert frankly declared to the chairman of the exchange that she was having a portable toilet delivered.11 Envisioning the less than prestigious alternative outside the famed Luncheon Club inside the NYSE, he relented, and a bathroom was installed so women didn’t have to travel down flights of stairs to use a restroom. At the time, the Luncheon Club was the famed, members-only restaurant on the exchange’s seventh floor which had been opened for dining since 1898.12
It is worth noting that Ms. Siebert was not the first woman to have a seat on any stock exchange. In 1965, two women had actually purchased seats on the American Stock Exchange (known as ‘the Curb’) a few blocks west of the NYSE. Their names are Julia Walsh and Phyllis Peterson but noone seems to talk about these two women because 1- they purchased the seats essentially in name only and didn’t appear to actually visit the floor of the Amex and 2-the Amex isn’t considered by some to be on the same level as the NYSE.13
Manhattan Social Clubs
But it wasn’t just Wall Street firms themselves that endured the ire of Ms. Siebert. In the early 1970’s most of Manhattans business social scene was also dominated by men. That employed rather sexist practices such as not allowing women to ride in the elevator to go up to the dining floors. Instead, they were required to take the stairs. One such occasion occurred at the Union League Club, where she was having a business lunch with several male colleagues.
She was told she’d have to take the stairs. So she did, but after lunch. And all the members of her dining party took the stairs down with her in protest.14 That’s the kind of affect Ms. Siebert had on those around her.
Access to these clubs was absolutely crucial if you wanted to be a mover and shaker on Wall Street. The networking done (back then over liquid lunches) was very important for business development. Today, networking remains as important as ever, but much is done in an increasing impersonally fashion on social media networks. While this is fine, it is very important to get out and meet people at events and do some in person networking as well.
Siebert & Company
Despite Muriel’s passing, Muriel Siebert & Company still exists today as a viable discount brokerage firm, competing against the likes of TD Ameritrade and Scottrade. The company is known for its inexpensive transaction fees for traders worldwide. Muriel Siebert & Company’s stock, ‘SIEB’, hasn’t fared very well, trading at $1.29 per share (which makes it technically a penny stock).15
Some may recall that SIEB was once caught up in the dotcom boom and bust of the late 1990’s.
The stock had a December 1999 low of $5.75 (when fears that the ‘Y2K’ computer glitch was going to shut down all the computers and possibly the internet were peaking) then vaulted 1200% to $70.63 by February as fears subsided and the pent up demand exploded.
On paper, Siebert was technically a billionaire at the February 2000 peak because she owned the vast majority of her company’s shares. But by December of 2000, the stock had crashed back down below $4 per share. She said of her roller coaster ride, “the day-traders giveth and the day-traders taketh away.”16