Muriel Siebert was quite a dame.
Before last week I’d never heard of Muriel “Mickie” Siebert, who passed away on August 24 at the age of 84. Ms. Siebert was the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. She often appeared in public holding one of her long-haired Chihuahuas, Monster Girl and Monster Girl 2, saying that neither she nor her Chihuahuas were “intimidated by the big dogs.” For someone who worked in an all-male domain as the only woman working with 1,375 men, that was saying something.
After reading various versions of her obituary, I became more and more inspired by this pioneer who was described as “scrappy,” a woman who didn’t take no for an answer. As the story goes, Ms. Siebert was a college drop-out from Ohio who came to New York in a Studebaker with $500 and a dream of working on Wall Street. She was hired as a trainee and worked her way up the ranks of several brokerage firms. But she was increasingly frustrated because she knew she was getting paid half of what the men earned. In a 2003 interview by Susan Tomchin in Jewish Woman Magazine, Ms. Siebert shared how she came up with the idea of breaking into the all-boys club of the NYSE:
“The idea came from a client, Gerry Tsai, a well-known Chinese fund manager. I asked Gerry which large firm I could go to and get credit for the business I was doing. ‘None,’ he said, suggesting that I buy a seat on the Stock Exchange and work for myself. So I took the constitution of the New York Stock Exchange home and studied it and realized there was no law against it. There were problems buying the seat, but I got the seat and he was right.”
All she wanted, according to Ms. Siebert, was to be paid equally. Getting there, however, took some time and perseverance. She couldn’t buy her $445,000 seat on the Exchange without obtaining a bank loan of $300,000, something no other applicant had ever been required to do. “There would be no loan until I was accepted and I couldn’t be accepted without the loan,” she’s quoted as saying in an August 25, 2013, story in the New York Times. Although it took nearly two years, she obtained a loan from Chase Manhattan Bank and was elected to the New York Stock Exchange on December 28, 1967. It would be nearly ten years before another woman was elected.
She founded her own company, Muriel Siebert & Company, in 1969, becoming the first woman to own and operate a brokerage firm that was a member of the NYSE. When the federal government did away with fixed commissions in 1975, she became one of the first discount brokerage firms.
Among Ms. Siebert’s other achievements was her appointment by then-Governor Hugh Carey to become the first woman Superintendent of Banks (‘S.O.B.’s,” as she liked to say) in the state of New York. She also created a financial literacy program for high-school students and funded philanthropies and start-ups, supporting other women in the world of work. She ran for the United States Senate but lost in the primary to Assemblywoman Florence Sullivan, who ultimately lost the race to Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In 1996 she took her firm public.
It’s hard to imagine a time when women weren’t allowed into the luncheon clubs where deals are cut and businesses are built. Not only was she not allowed in the clubs, but Ms. Siebert wasn’t even allowed on the elevators to the clubs. In 1987 she won a fight to have a ladies’ room installed on the seventh floor of the stock exchange after threatening to have a porta-potty installed. At a luncheon where she was being honored, she warned working women not to rest on our laurels but to “just keep fighting.”
On this Labor Day weekend when we celebrate the social and economic contributions of workers, I lift my glass to Mickie Siebert, a woman who taught us that some things like equal opportunity and equal pay are worth fighting for.