If Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters, the 2008 financial crisis might never have happened. At least that’s what Christine Lagarde, then France’s finance minister and now head of the International Monetary Fund, famously suggested.
It’s no secret that men dominate finance, and according to the economist Irene van Staveren, gender stereotypes in the financial sector perpetuate a macho culture and adversely affect women’s likelihood of getting to the top. All this makes a book suggesting that women have been actively involved in finance from the very beginning, which is precisely what Amy Froide’s Silent Partners does, potentially explosive.
The beginnings of England’s finance industry can be found in the financial revolution at the end of the 17th century. It was a time that gave birth to an active market for securities, the Bank of England and long-term national debt. In each respect, and using three types of sources – government and financial company archives, the periodicals of the time, and the personal papers of individual women – Froide notes that women were far from being absent players.
Previous work, usefully summarised here, has already revealed that by 1753, 25 per cent of Bank of England shareholders were women, while between 17 and 34 per cent of holders of national debt up to that time were female. However, Froide underscores that these women were not simply passive participants under the control of male relatives; many were skilled investors who showed an appetite for risk.
As the book shows, finance opened up new opportunities for women (who were, after all, generally made to feel unwelcome in more traditional sectors of the economy). It offered alternative ways of making money at a time when women were locked out of most professional occupations, and when certain occupations were deemed “ungenteel”. And, from the point of view of those selling financial products, gender was irrelevant: whether it was male or female money did not matter. At the end of the day, money is money. And, unlike traditional institutions, the market cared much less about whether a buyer (or seller) was male or female. Fail to recognise what a woman could offer, and another firm would beat you to it. Competition – together with the anonymity and impersonal nature of markets – has always acted as a discipline device against discrimination, albeit not a perfect one.
While Froide shows that women were actively involved in finance, it would be going too far to suggest that there was no gender gap. The figures speak for themselves: men held the vast majority of shares and the bulk of national debt, and, just as today, were even more dominant on the selling as opposed to buying side. Nevertheless, Froide adds to an important burgeoning literature that suggests that, far from being passive responders to capitalism, blown in the wind by its rough nature, women were actively involved. Whatever you think about capitalism, this new understanding of the past demands a reassessment of the way we think about the interactions between capitalism and gender. Coming back to earth, it also offers some of those all-important role models for our daughters today.
Victoria Bateman is fellow and director of studies in economics, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and author of Markets and Growth in Early Modern Europe (2012).
Silent Partners: Women as Public Investors during Britain’s Financial Revolution, 1690-1750
By Amy M. Froide
Oxford University Press, 240pp, £60.00
Published 18 October 2016