Finding your medium – the first female brokers of Wall Street

Two reports over the summer held both good and bad news for women in finance. In July, it was revealed the numbers of women holding senior boardroom jobs had fallen. In August, however, we found increasing numbers of women have been qualifying as financial advisers. Overall, however, the figures are startlingly low: approximately 13% of financial advisers, 10 % of lead fund managers are women, according to a recent panel on diversity in financial advice.

You’d think we might have come further from nearly 150 years ago when two sisters set up Woodhull, Claflin & Company, the first female brokerage firm in New York. Opened in January 1870 by sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, the firm had backing from no less an august source than Cornelius Vanderbilt. Visitors were so curious about the new enterprise that 100 policemen were needed to keep order at their upmarket premises.

Unconventional routes to Wall Street

Victoria Woodhull

The curiosity was well-placed. The sisters came from a rural town in Ohio where they were raised by their illiterate mother who believed in spiritualism and their con-man father.

Following the success of another family of spiritualist sisters, their father trained Victoria and Tennessee as fraudulent mediums. Their talents transformed the family fortunes, and even after Victoria married at aged 15 and moved away, their reputations continued to flourish.

The link to Wall Street came through Vanderbilt who was interested in spiritual healing. With Victoria positioned as a medium and Tennessee as a healer, their father approached Vanderbilt who quickly became especially close to Tennessee. Victoria rapidly became known for her investment success, which may well have been founded on tips from Vanderbilt.

Tennessee Claflin

Their broker firm hit the headlines, not just because of their gender but also due to their spiritualist links. Dubbed ‘the Queens of Finance’ and ‘Bewitching Brokers’, the coverage was often sceptical. But the critics missed an important element of the sisters’ success. A firm of brokers led by high profile women attracted other women with capital to invest.

They were approached by society women, newly enriched widows and small businesswomen of varying guises (including madams of high class brothels) looking for ways to make the most of their money. This untapped stream underpinned the firm’s huge success.

Advocacy and political ambition

Using their wealth as a platform, the sisters branched out into radical advocacy. They founded a newspaper – Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly – which they used to advocate for women’s suffrage and the Free Love movement. They also published the first English translation of Marx’s Communist Manifesto. Victoria was the first woman to testify to Congress on the issue of woman’s suffrage, although as a proponent of the legalisation of prostitution, she eventually split with leaders of the suffrage movement.

Both also sought to move into politics. Long before Hilary Clinton’s run, in 1872 Victoria became the first woman nominated as candidate for the President of the United States, by the Equal Rights Party. Although he didn’t take part in the campaign, the renowned former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass was nominated as her Vice President. A more radical pairing is hard to imagine.

At the same time, Tennessee was running for political office in New York. Her first run was in a largely German congressional district in the city, where she campaigned in German, her mother’s native tongue. She then made a bid for the long-vacant colonelcy of a New York National Guard regiment. She was rebuffed, but succeeded in being elected to the Eighty-Fifth regiment, a newly organised regiment for black soldiers.

Scandal and exile

A life-changing scandal at The Weekly meant that Victoria actually spent election day in jail. The sisters spent several years fighting trials for obscenity and libel against the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, a celebrated preacher they accused of hypocrisy, after they published an entire edition claiming he had had an affair with his best friend’s wife. The scandal rocked and divided the country, and ruined the Claflins. Legal bills, the death of Cornelius Vanderbilt and the crash of 1873 lost them the short-lived broker firm and their major source of income.

The sisters moved to England where each married again. Tennessee ended up as Lady Cook, Viscountess of Monstserrat, whilst Victoria deployed her radical zeal in education.

Last week marked Victoria’s 180th birthday. Needless to say, there is a film in the works. In the case of the Claflin sisters, however, you really don’t need to make anything up.

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