October 4, 2013 — John D. Rockefeller, Bernard Baruch, Russell Sage, Edward Harriman, and J.P. Morgan Jr—the scions of American industry and finance—all had seats on the New York Stock Exchange. And so did Muriel “Mickie” Siebert.
Siebert, who died on August 24, 2013, was the first woman to own a seat on the exchange. A seat entitled its holder to buy and sell securities on the trading floor, either as an agent for others or for one’s own account, and granted access to an exclusive club of wealthy, influential, financial movers and shakers.
Siebert purchased a seat in 1967 after a two-year battle with banks and exchange officials intent on keeping “the ladies” off the trading floor. She went on to become the first woman to head one of its member firms, the first woman Superintendent of Banks for New York State, and she founded the Women's Financial Network as well as a popular financial literacy program for high school students that has been adapted for both middle school students and adults. Her philosophy with dealing with obstacles in her path: “I put my head down and charge.”
Mickie’s legacy highlights the importance of female firsts. Almost ten years would pass until the next woman purchased a seat on the NYSE—and few followed. In 2005, the exchange did away with the seat system after NYSE become a for-profit, publicly traded company. Seat owners received cash and shares in the newly formed corporation, and now the NYSE sells one-year licenses to trade on the exchange floor. While these changes open up the floor to any firm that can afford a license, to this day, Mickie’s firm, Siebert & Company, remains the only nationally known brokerage headed by a woman. Sadly, this isn’t surprising as the US financial sector largely remains a boy’s club—the number of women in leadership thins as you look higher and higher up the corporate ladder.
The true honor to Mickie’s legacy would be parity in this industry and beyond. That’s why I think the second, tenth, and hundredth is as important as—if not more important than—the trailblazing first. In 2012, I was honored to ring the closing bell at the NYSE to commemorate Catalyst’s 50th anniversary. As I said at the time, it felt great to ring the bell because fifty years earlier, women weren’t even allowed on the floor of the exchange. So now the door is open, but there remains much work to do.
In her autobiography, Changing the Rules: Adventures of a Wall Street Maverick, Mickie tells the story of how she was forced to go through the kitchen and walk up the back stairs at the Union League Club on Park Avenue in order to attend a board meeting. At the time, the club barred women from using the elevator—a policy reversed by a court ruling years later.
As dated as this story may seem, many private clubs today remain closed for women. Even at clubs that have opened their membership to all—like Augusta—women are few and far between. Yet these clubs, especially golf clubs, remain critical spaces for doing business. Segregated spaces of commerce and sport have no place in society, then or now. So let’s follow Mickie’s lead—let’s put our heads down, lean in, and take our seats at the table.