Isabel Benham was the first woman to become a partner at a Wall Street bond firm, but it wasn’t easy. When she graduated from Bryn Mawr with a degree in economics in 1931, a dean at the school gave her some advice on how to get a job in the financial industry: Learn to type. Others were more dismissive. “Go home to mother, join the Junior League, get married and live happily ever after,” she recalled them saying.
Fortunately, Benham, who died on May 18 at age 103 in New York City, didn’t listen, even though opportunities for women in the financial industry in those days were few and far between. Instead, she attended a course for college graduates who wanted to sell bonds, and sold subscriptions to the New Yorker to make ends meet – even peddling them to executives who declined to hire her at job interviews, as she explained in a 1964 New York Times profile.
In 1932 she finally got a break, landing a job as a clerk at the Reconstruction Finance Corp., created by Congress and President Hoover to lend money to banks and railroads in distress during the Great Depression. A few years later, she became a $30-a-week statistician with R.W. Pressprich & Co., starting the job on April Fool’s Day. (“I’ve been fooling them ever since,” she told the Times.) Benham gradually rose through the firm’s ranks – circumventing those who didn’t think a woman belonged on Wall Street by signing her business correspondence with the gender-ambiguous “I. Hamilton Benham.” In 1964, she was appointed a partner at the firm.
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As the Times noted in 1964, Benham built her credibility the old-fashioned way, spending years studying Moody’s rail manuals and inspecting railroads to become an expert on the industry. Her office was filled with toy trains above her desk that she used to explain the railroads’ workings to visitors. “The biggest thrill I get is when a rail president calls and says, ‘Isabel, I want to raise a million dollars,’” she explained, back in the days when a million was a big number.
Benham went on to work at Shearson Hayden Stone as a vice president and in 1978 joined Printon, Kane Research, where she rose to the position of president before retiring in 1991. As a 1985 Forbes article noted, she was proud of not having to have behaved like “one of the boys” to succeed.
“We want all the rights and privileges of being a woman and all the opportunities of being a man,” she said. “We want the whole ball of wax.”
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