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date: 27 September 2022

Siebert, Muriel Fayefree

(12 Sept. 1928–24 Aug. 2013)

Siebert, Muriel Fayefree

(12 Sept. 1928–24 Aug. 2013)
  • Debra Michals

Siebert, Muriel Faye (12 Sept. 1928–24 Aug. 2013), financial expert and the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the younger of two daughters of Jewish parents, Margaret Eunice (Roseman), a housewife, and Irwin J. Siebert, a dentist. From childhood on she was known as “Mickie.”

After graduating from Cleveland Heights High School, Siebert enrolled at Flora Stoner Mather College, the women’s division of what would become Case Western Reserve University. She defied pressure to study teaching, a traditional field for women at the time, and instead signed up for business classes on such subjects as money and banking, where she was often the only female student. In 1952, when her father was diagnosed with the cancer that would soon claim his life, she left college. Two years later, in 1954, Siebert packed up her used Studebaker and headed east to New York, where her divorced sister, Elaine, was already living, to seek a job on Wall Street.

Always good with numbers—and determined not to join the secretarial pool, as was common for women at the time—Siebert sought first a job with Merrill Lynch. The company did not hire her because she had not finished her college degree. So, on her next interview with the New York investment firm Bache & Co., she lied about having graduated and was hired as a researcher for $65 a week. Wall Street was a largely male bastion, and as a woman, she was given accounts male researchers considered unimportant, specifically, motion pictures and the aviation industry, which would later prove fortuitous for her career and knowledge base. In the 1950s aviation had not yet emerged as the major industry it would become in subsequent decades, but by the 1960s reporters joked that Siebert was the only woman at the beauty salon reading Civil Aeronautics Board Reports. Siebert’s research was stellar and made vast sums of money for her firm and its clients, yet she always earned considerably less than her male counterparts—as much as 50 percent less. Siebert often said she had no difficulty “running with the big dogs,” as she called the men in the financial world at the time, but what was unacceptable to her were the gender pay differences, especially when her work was the same as, or often superior to, that of her male colleagues. Even when male coworkers advocated for her, the raises she received never resulted in gender parity.

Her dissatisfaction with the pay gap led her to switch jobs three times, but it did not lead her to join the women’s movement that was emerging in the early 1960s. Siebert’s brand of gender politics focused on maximizing one’s potential and on clearing the paths that blocked women from achieving. A self-proclaimed “bleeding heart Republican” (Siebert, p. 28), she was fiscally conservative as well as a fierce advocate for women’s equality. She was avowedly pro-choice and supported passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. She hired women at her firm, and as her success and power grew, she helped women enter finance or launch businesses of their own. As she observed in her 2002 memoir, “I think equality will come only when women who gain power on the Street begin to use it on behalf of other women” (Siebert, p. 212).

At first that power eluded her. When she expressed frustration about her career to a trusted male ally and client, he answered bluntly, “There’s nowhere you can go. Buy a seat on the stock exchange and work for yourself” (Siebert, p. 29). No woman had ever owned a seat on the NYSE, and while there were no rules forbidding women, there was a longstanding practice and male bias to overcome. The application process required she find a sponsor: the first nine men she asked—some of whom knew the high quality of her work or had been mentors or clients—all declined. Ultimately, two brave men agreed to sponsor her: Jim O’Brien, a partner at Salomon Brothers, and Ken Ward, a research partner at Hayden Stone. Even then, Siebert faced hurdles that male applicants did not: Ward told her he was asked about her personal life, something never inquired about for men seeking NYSE seats. (Siebert never married and did not have children.) Unlike male applicants, she was asked to secure a bank letter promising her a loan for $300,000 of the $445,000 cost of the seat. The problem: banks wanted proof that she had been approved to purchase a seat before issuing such a letter, but she was told she would be unable to buy the seat without it. After nearly two years and assistance from loyal male contacts, she secured the letter and on 28 December 1967 became the first woman to own a seat on New York Stock Exchange. She was the lone woman among 1,365 men; it would be ten years before another woman would join her.

Her battles continued, including a successful fight to secure a women’s restroom outside the NYSE lunchroom (she threatened to install a portable toilet if it didn’t happen). In the early 1970s, when she attempted to attend a board luncheon of the Sales Executive Club at the Manhattan Union League Club, she was told she could not enter through the main elevator, but rather had to go through the kitchen to the back stairs. Realizing that such clubs were sites where business deals were made and career networking took place, she later helped lead the fight to end laws that allowed for gender-segregated clubs, testifying in government hearings that resulted in legislative changes in New York by 1983. Along with gender discrimination, Siebert also faced anti-Semitism, typically in the form of whispered comments or jokes by those who were unaware of her Jewish heritage.

Beginning with the NYSE seat, Muriel Siebert took pride in being the “first” of many things: In 1969 she opened her own brokerage firm, Muriel Siebert & Co., the first woman-owned firm that was a member of the NYSE. The company became a discount brokerage in 1975, when the federal government ended fixed broker commissions. She was involved with the First Women’s Bank of New York in the mid-1970s and was the first discount broker to establish itself in a bank when she conducted business there. In 1977 she became the first woman to serve as superintendent of banking for the State of New York, a position she held for five years. Though her role in mergers was hotly contested, she would proudly note that there were no bank failures during her tenure, a time of economic downturn and high interest rates when banks nationwide were struggling. During the same five-year period she was also director of New York City’s Urban Development Corporation and Job Development Corporation.

Her time in government inspired Siebert to run in the Republican primary in 1982 for the U.S. Senate seat held by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. She spent $400,000 of her own money on her campaign, but after losing that bid, decided that a life in politics was not her path and too expensive to keep pursuing. Instead, she returned to her investment company, where she was once again president and chair.

Muriel Siebert used her wealth as a force for social change. In 1990 she launched the Siebert Entrepreneurial Philanthropic Plan (SEPP), which was funded by donations of half the net profits from new securities underwriting by her company. She was among the founding supporters of Emily’s List, an advocacy organization seeking to ensure more women in government. Her mission there was to make certain that Republican women were included among those supported by Emily’s List. She also concentrated on initiatives that she hoped would have far-reaching effects—funding women in business and supporting animal welfare, a favorite cause.

In 1996 she took her company public, and as part of this move, renamed it Siebert Financial. Not long after, she became an internet pioneer when she launched Siebertnet, one of the first computerized trading companies. In 2007 she was invited to ring the closing bell of the New York Stock Exchange to commemorate her fortieth anniversary as a member. As she put it, “I don’t know if I’ve ever broken into the old boys’ network, but I’ve survived without it, and a lot of people who didn’t accept me at first learned to respect me” (Siebert, p. 112) When she died in New York City, her net worth was estimated at $48 million, $100,000 of which she left for the care of her beloved Chihuahua, Monster Girl 2, who was always by her side and often photographed with her.

Bibliography

For Muriel Siebert’s trailblazing career on Wall Street, see her autobiography (with Aimee Lee Ball), Changing the Rules: Adventures of a Wall Street Maverick (2002). For a sense of her place in women’s business history, see Siebert’s interview in the documentary series, Makers: Women Who Make America—Women in Business (dir. Jamila Wignot, 2014). Obituaries appeared in The New York Times on 25 Aug. 2013 and The Washington Post on 27 Aug. 2013.