There’s a whole modern industry devoted to promoting women’s financial literacy. The tone of articles on the subject often seems to suggest that it’s time for women to step up to the plate and deal with the hard number stuff that they’ve traditionally left men to tackle alone. But, as George Robb explained in a 2006 paper, there’s a long history of women trying to be smart with their money in the face of huge institutional forces that worked against them.
In the late nineteenth century, the British and American economies were expanding and becoming more complex, with banks, insurance companies, and stock and bond markets playing a larger role. That meant new opportunities for individual investors, including women.
Robb quotes one American stockbroker commenting in 1880 on the common sight of “a dozen or more showy carriages” waiting outside brokerage houses for the “gorgeous dames who ride in them” to finish meeting with their brokers.
This was the heyday of laissez-faire economics. There were few laws governing accounting, audits, or the promotion of investment opportunities. And women were particularly vulnerable to fraud. In many cases, the property of married women was under their husbands’ control. Women were discouraged from learning about financial matters thanks to the era’s concept of appropriate bourgeois behavior. Female stock owners weren’t even welcome at shareholder meetings.
Many female investors were among the “gentile poor,” members of upper-class society by birth who were now low on funds and struggling to maintain social standing. Since they were generally barred from entering professional jobs or becoming entrepreneurs, the only way to make money was through investments.
An article in the British magazine Blackwood’s described how a young widow trying to live on the returns from a low-risk investment of her inheritance might fall “out of the circle of family acquaintances where her boys would be likely to find helpful friends and the girls to make happy marriages.” Despite her better judgement, the article continues, she might ultimately resort “to some of those more highly priced stocks which are the refuge of the widow, the clergyman, and the reckless.”
Because of this sense of desperation, or simply because they had no idea what their (male) trustees were actually doing with their money, women became the frequent targets of crooks.
Victorian newspapers and novels framed this problem in terms of women’s weakness and vulnerability. In some cases, women and their lawyers used this framing to their advantage. Robb suggests that some women who made bad investments played up their image as ignorant victims to win back their money in the courts.
But many observers saw women’s financial failures as a sign that they were too prone to excitement and emotion to invest rationally. In a rather circular fashion, this became an argument that they should leave investment decisions to the more sober and rational decisions of men.
That notion is the one that modern financial writers are still responding to today.