From Untold Stories to Wall Street Titans: A History of Women in American Banking

March 26, 2024   |   Written By Lexicon Bank
From Untold Stories to Wall Street Titans: A History of Women in American Banking

The image of American financial tycoons typically conjures up images of cigar-chomping men—kingpins from around the turn of the twentieth century sitting in boardrooms, wearing the finest power suits of the times. However, this stereotype fails to acknowledge the rich history of women who shattered glass ceilings, reshaped banking and finance, and scaled to the highest heights. From pioneering entrepreneurs to groundbreaking CEOs, these women have paved the way for future generations.

Table of Contents

Early Women Trailblazers in American Banking

Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927) and her sister Tennessee Claflin (1844-1923) were among the first women to challenge the male-dominated world of finance in the 1870s. With the help of railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, they established the first woman-owned brokerage firm, Woodhull, Claflin, and Company, while challenging social norms of the times and advocating for 8-hour workdays, and women's suffrage, the right to vote. At one point, Victoria professed that they opened their brokerage not so much to profit from Wall Street but to “plant the flag of women’s rebellion.” While their unconventional approaches landed them in occasional controversies, they broke barriers and inspired future generations of women to pursue careers in finance.

Maggie Lena Walker (1864-1934) was born into slavery and yet rose to become a prominent entrepreneur and the first African American woman to charter a bank in the United States. 1903, she founded the St. Luke's Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Virginia. It specifically catered to the African American community, largely excluded from mainstream financial institutions. By 1924, after mergers with two other banks, Walker went on and even managed to survive the Great Depression of 1929. Walker's dedication to economic empowerment within her community broke down racial barriers in banking and laid the foundation for future financial inclusion initiatives. Walker's house in Richmond, Virginia, has been designated a National Historic Site.

Mid-20th Century Champions

The mid-20th century saw a continued influx of women making significant contributions to the financial sector. Louise M. Weiser (1901-1990), nicknamed "The Duchess of Dow Jones" by Fortune Magazine, became the first woman to head a major financial news organization when she assumed the presidency of Dow Jones & Company in 1967. Weiser championed financial literacy for women and was instrumental in making financial news more accessible to a broader audience.

Breaking Down the Walls on Wall Street

Muriel Siebert (1928-2013) faced relentless resistance throughout her career. She was denied a seat on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) multiple times until she finally broke through in 1967, becoming the first woman to hold membership. She was the only woman among 1,365 men. Siebert didn't stop there. She went on to found her own brokerage firm, Muriel Siebert & Co., Inc., and later, in 1977, began serving as the New York State Superintendent of Banking. She continued to advocate for fair treatment of all in the financial services industry.

Modern Day Banking Leaders

Janet Yellen currently serves as the 78th United States Secretary of the Treasury. She is the first woman to hold this prestigious position. With a distinguished career as an economist and public servant, Yellen tackled some of the nation's most pressing economic challenges. She was the first woman to chair the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and its monetary policies. She chaired the Federal Reserve from 2014 to 2018 and became U.S. Treasury Secretary in 2021. She is the only individual, woman or man, who has achieved the trifecta of once overseeing the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department, and the White House Council of Economic Advisers. Yellen helped guide the U.S. economy out of the Great Recession and, to this day, continues to play a pivotal role in fighting the plague of inflation.

Beyond These We Have High Flying Local Talent

Stacy Watkins is currently the President and CEO of Lexicon Bank. Accordingly, she oversees all aspects of the bank, including operations, client services, and commercial lending. Additionally, she is deeply involved in new and ongoing business and community partnerships.

Under her leadership, Lexicon Bank expanded new product offerings, tripled its team size, and hit profitable revenue growth targets. Very few institutions can claim to have achieved these feats in their first four years of operation.

Stacy possesses over 30 years of banking experience, including 18 years in a regional management level position overseeing a range of 15-74 locations, 100 to 400+ team members, over $1.1 billion in deposits, and $300 million in loans.

Watkins is a leader in the Southern Nevada community. She is dedicated to furthering Las Vegas’ economic mobility and financial literacy and continues contributing to educational and charitable institutions across the valley and the state of Nevada. She volunteers with several nonprofits and community service entities. She is past Chairman of the Board for Junior Achievement of Southern Nevada and currently serves as Co-Chair of the Capital Campaign, Family Gifts Division. She also proudly serves as a member of the Vegas Chamber Executive Women’s Council, Vegas Chamber President’s Club, Nevada Forum of the International Women’s Forum, Nevada Corporate Giving Foundation, and Nevada Bankers Association. Stacy is a past recipient of Real Vegas Magazine, Women Who Wow 2022, Las Vegas Woman Fearless Females, Las Vegas Business Press Women Who Mean Business, and Vegas Inc.’s Top 40 Under 40. In 2022, Watkins was appointed to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s Community Depository Institutions Advisory Council (CDIAC) for a three-year term.

Hilary Nelson joined Lexicon Bank in 2020 as Senior Vice President and Director of Operations and Compliance. Nelson brings over 16 years of regulatory compliance operations to Lexicon Bank, 6 of which were spent in management and ten years in executive-level positions. In 2023, Nelson was recognized by the American Banker as one of the Most Powerful Women in Banking. She's well-rounded in all aspects concerning banking regulations, compliance, and project management—while keeping the customers foremost in her mind.

Because Las Vegas and the State of Nevada have more cash-based economies than elsewhere in the country, we are subject to higher levels of scrutiny from banking regulators, anti-money-laundering agencies, and federal and state audits. Compliance and adherence to banking standards and best practices are mandatory. Nelson’s well-honed systems and attentive monitoring make all the difference. Her expertise and background in regulatory compliance have proven successful and unparalleled at other financial institutions in the area.

Nelson continues to be an active leader in Southern Nevada. She has been a longtime advocate of financial literacy, helping young people discover what is possible by connecting what they learn in school with life outside the classroom. In 2021, her passion led her to be appointed a board member for Junior Achievement of Southern Nevada.  She also helps organize many community efforts within her church’s congregation, giving back directly to her community.

These Women Represent! These are just a handful of the countless women who have shaped and continue to shape American banking. From community bankers who empower local businesses to financial analysts and risk managers on Wall Street, women make significant contributions across the entire financial industry spectrum.

Challenges Remain

Despite strides, the journey towards gender equality in the financial arena continues. Women remain underrepresented in leadership positions, and the gender pay gap persists. However, these stories of pioneering women serve as testaments to the resilience and determination that pave the way to lasting change.

Moving forward, attentive people in banking and finance continue to address bias in hiring, promoting mentorship programs, and fostering inclusive work environments. They are also taking significant steps to attract and retain talented women in the industry.

As we celebrate the achievements of women, it's important to amplify these stories and foster more inclusive environments where we can ensure that the future of American banking reflects the full diversity and talents of its potential leaders.

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