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Speculative Women: A History of Female Investors

Happy Sunday, everyone! In honor of Women’s history month, today’s newsletter delves into the lives of some of the most remarkable female investors and speculators throughout history, and examines their unique contributions to the world of finance.

From the South Sea Bubble to the railways of the 19th century, women have played a vital role in shaping the financial landscape. The first article, “The Lady of The South Sea,” explores how women investors were intimately involved in one of history’s greatest financial disasters, and how their participation challenged traditional gender roles.

The second article, “Lady Brokers on the Street,” introduces us to Victoria Woodhull, who became the first woman to open a brokerage firm on Wall Street in 1870. She also ran for President in 1872 with Frederick Douglas as her Vice Presidential candidate, and developed a close business relationship with Cornelius Vanderbilt. Her pioneering spirit and commitment to equality paved the way for the diverse, thriving financial markets we have today.

“Independent Women – Investing in British Railways”, examines how female investors exercised independence in their financial affairs during the period of 1915-1922. Using a novel dataset of almost 500,000 shareholders in some of the largest British railways, the authors explore how women were much more likely to be solo shareholders than men, and how they prioritized their independence above other considerations like where they invested or how diversified they could be. This article highlights the increasing prominence and independence of female investors during a time of great change and social upheaval.

Finally, in “The No. 1 Ladies’ Defrauding Agency,” we learn about Sarah Howe, a clairvoyant charlatan who became the founder of the Ladies’ Deposit Company, a bank run by women for women. Unfortunately, her innovative “bank” was an elaborate pyramid scheme, and her investors were ultimately ruined and left with nothing.

Now let’s dive in!

The Lady of The South Sea

Why This Is Relevant:

Although their role is less widely covered, women were at the heart of financial markets in cities like London from inception. That said, the history of financial markets is inextricably linked with the rise of female investors and speculators. As early as the 17th century, paper credit and joint-stock companies enabled women to try their luck on the stock exchange. This challenged the traditional gender roles of that era, which caused cultural anxieties.

The South Sea Company, for example, offered generous subscription terms and financial lures to attract investors, including women. This paper is relevant for investors today as it emphasizes the importance of understanding how cultural and economic forces shape financial markets. 


“The South Sea bubble presents a unique merging of social histories. Traditionally women have been associated with the history of domestic life and shifts in the private sphere, and men have been tied to the history of financial tools and the rise of markets in the public sphere. However, in this paper, I wish to present a new perspective in which women are tied to the market in an important and often overlooked way: as investors. Gendered descriptions and depictions are pervasive in the dialogue of the South Sea Bubble. This gendered portrayal is used to express cultural anxiety about the development of paper credit, the increased participation of women in speculative investment, and the perceived feminization of culture.”

Visualizing History:

South Sea Scheme by William Hogarth


Lady Brokers On The Street

Why This Is Relevant:

In 1870, women’s suffrage leader and activist Victoria Woodhull opened Wall Street’s first female owned brokerage firm in NYC with her sister Tennessee Claflin. Even better? The firm was financed by none other than Cornelius Vanderbilt himself.

“The brokerage profits also underwrote the sisters’ newspaper and Woodhull’s presidential campaign. Three months to the day after opening the brokerage (May 14, 1870), the first issue of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly was published. It was dedicated to disseminating their radical reform agenda, including Free Love—the promotion of sexual freedom within or without marriage, and birth control.

Tennessee Claflin [Woodhull’s sister], soon joined by her sister, broke other sexual taboos by wearing men’s apparel—business jacket, vest, and tie—with shorter, ankle-length skirts. In 1871, Woodhull presented a petition for women’s voting rights to Congress and became a leader in the women’s suffrage movement. In 1872, she became the first woman to be nominated for president, running on the Equal Rights ticket.


Victoria Woodhull made an indelible mark on the history of investing, becoming the first female broker to open a business on Wall Street in 1870 and the first woman to address a Congressional House committee in 1871. Oh, she also led the suffrage movement and ran for President of the United States in 1872 with one Frederick Douglass as her Vice President. Despite the scandal that surrounded her for her views on free love, she showed the power of financial opportunity, and her story is a reminder of the importance of women and people of color in finance. Her story is as relevant today as it was then, as her pioneering spirit and commitment to equality paved the way for the diverse, thriving financial markets we have today.

Visualizing History:

A satirical depiction of Victoria Woodhull, dubbed “Mrs. Satan”, from 1870.


Independent Women: Investing in British Railways

Why This is Relevant:

Like the South Sea Bubble, women were intimately involved with the railway manias that plagued 19th century markets.

Our evidence therefore indicates that, during the period 1915-1922, women were exercising independence in their own financial affairs, taking full control of the risks and rewards of share ownership. The increasing prominence and independence of female investors is reflective of the broader changes in social perceptions, demographics and legal restrictions occurring at the end of the nineteenth century which subsequently influenced women’s investment behavior moving into the early part of the twentieth century.”


“The early twentieth century saw the British capital market reach a state of maturity before any of its global counterparts. This coincided with more women participating directly in the stock market. In this paper, we analyze whether these female shareholders chose to invest independently of men. Using a novel dataset of almost 500,000 shareholders in some of the largest British railways, we find that women were much more likely to be solo shareholders than men. There is also evidence that they prioritized their independence above other considerations such as where they invested or how diversified they could be.”

Visualizing History:


The No. 1  Ladies’ Defrauding Agency

Why This is Relevant:

Women can be fraudsters, too! Fraud has no bias!


The story of Sarah Howe reveals how fraudsters commandeer seemingly benevolent movements like “ESG” to scam investors.

In 1877, Sarah was a fortune-teller living in Boston. Before long, however, this clairvoyant charlatan became the founder of an innovative bank: The Ladies’ Deposit Company. A bank run by women, for women.

Howe’s bank had strict qualifications for depositors. For example, it did not accept deposits from men, wealthy women, or women with husbands that could financially support them. Eventually, the bank boasted more than 1,000 depositors, and some estimate the bank received $13 million in deposits by modern values. Even more impressive, the bank never advertised its services and relied entirely upon word of mouth.

So, what was the problem? The Ladies Deposit Company offered depositors 8% interest paid monthly, and new clients received the first 3 months’ interest up front. Thus, a $100 deposit would gain $96 in interest by end of year. Essentially, the deposit would double.

As you’ve probably guessed, Howe’s bank was a pyramid scheme that relied upon using new depositors’ funds to pay out interest to existing clients. This scheme worked until 1880, when a run on the bank caused everything to collapse, and exposed Howe’s fraud. She was sentenced to 3 years in prison.

Yet, Howe clearly did not learn her lesson. When she was released in 1884, she founded “The Woman’s Bank”, which offered depositors… wait for it… 7% interest paid monthly, and 3 months interest paid up front to new clients. She kept up the new scam for 2 years before investigations ran her out of town and into hiding.

Unfortunately, all the women that had invested with Howe were left with nothing.

Visualizing History:


Missed last week’s article? Catch up here!