March 8: women who made economic history

From the Industrial Revolution up through to today, many women have made economic history. To commemorate International Women's Day, we are taking a look back at some of history’s important female investors, financiers, economists and stock brokers that have often been overshadowed by their male counterparts.

As is the case with other disciplines, the role of many female economists throughout history has often been overlooked. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century all the way up to modern times, many women took finances into their own hands, unafraid of breaking the mold. Today, women are running international institutions and have gained prominence in the world economy and the investment industry. So to celebrate International Women’s Day, we are taking a look back at some of those women who made their mark on the history of economics


The first of these women witnessed the beginnings of the United States as a modern nation. Abigail Adams was a prominent figure at the end of the 18th century. As the wife of the second president of the United States—John Adams—she managed the family’s finances and, contrary to her husband’s opinion, she decided to invest in war bonds, a high-risk asset with which she managed to multiply the family’s wealth and forge her own fortune. 


Another notable figure was American leader of the women’s suffrage movement, Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927), who was not only the first woman to run for president, but she also created the first female-run stock brokerage alongside her sister, Tennessee, earning them huge profits. This success earned them the nickname “the Bewitching Brokers”. In fact, the initial capital for this was earned while advising business magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt not only financially, but also spiritually.


Another woman to receive a nickname —and quite a grim one— was Hetty Green (1834-1916), who was known as the “Witch of Wall Street”. Born into a wealthy family, her keen eye for investing made her the richest woman in America, by applying a formula that now, a century and a half later, is still followed by some of the most renowned finance gurus: buying quality assets when they are cheap and selling them when they are in demand.


Another pioneer was British economist Mary Paley (1850-1944), one of the first women to take the entry examination to University, although ultimately she was not allowed to graduate. This discrimination did not hold her back from becoming a lecturer, taking part in founding the Department of Economics at University College, Bristol, and writing, alongside her husband, Alfred Marshall, The economics of industry, a manual that was used for decades as a basis for training economists. 

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Moving into the 21st century, we have the American Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, awarded for her research on shared resources and how societies interact with the aim of maintaining the production of common property in the long term. A specialist in public administration with a Ph.D. in Political Science, she was also an advocate of public choice theory.


Another important female figure is Dambisa Moyo, born in Zambia and educated in the United States, she has worked as a consultant to the World Bank and was head of Economic Research and Strategy for Sub–Saharan Africa at investment bank Goldman Sachs. Her critical view of international aid and its detrimental effects on local African economies has made her a respected authority in the search for new solutions. 


Meanwhile, Indian-born Gita Gopinath served as the first female Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). She deals with global challenges including inequality among regions, the repercussions of rising prices and trade wars across continents, taking accountability for those that guide the global economy.


And last but not least, it is important to mention one of the world’s most powerful women at present, France’s former Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, who has held the role of President of the European Central Bank (ECB) since 2019. Since then, she has led changes in the institution’s monetary policies, such as raising interest rates as a strategy to fight off inflation. She previously served as Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund. 

Photo: own production from Wikipedia images