There was a time in the United States when many markets and many businesses in those markets were dominated by men. Wall Street was specially a place where one could hardly find a woman doing business, and for that reason, we tend to imagine those old days as a time for men, and only for men in Wall Street. Even today some people still think that Wall Street needs to produce yet a female figure able to succeed there. But this is in fact a deep misconception about the actual history of Wall Street and the presence of women in it. It will therefore be useful to take a look at the life and work of, businesswoman and financier, usually regarded as the richest woman of her time, and known then and now as the Witch of Wall Street.
Henrietta Howland “Hetty” Green, née Robinson, was born on November 21, 1834 in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Her parents were Edward Mott Robinson and Abby Robinson (née Howland). Her family was in the whaling business, but also was involved in the China trade. Both types of activities were very profitable for them, and thanks to them, the family became the richest whaling family in New Bedford.
The main influences for Hetty Green during her childhood were her father Edward and her grandfather, Gideon Howland. She started reading financial papers to her father when she was around 6 years old, and at 13, she was already seen as the family book keeper.
Hetty Green received different amounts of money from her relatives before making her own career in business. Her mother, Abby, left her $8000 when she died in 1860, whereas her aunt left her $20000, and her father, Edward, left her approximately $5 million when he died in 1865. These $5 million included a $4 million trust fund that produced earnings annually, and that Hetty Green employed to invest in war bonds during the Civil War.
At the age of 33, Hetty married Edward Henry Green. He was a member of a wealthy family from Vermont at that time, but even so, Hetty made him renounce all rights to her money before they got married. After a legal battle with her cousins, the Green moved to London. They had two children there. Edward Howland Robinson “Ned” Green born on August 23, 1868, and Harriet Sylvia Ann Howland Green Wilks (called Sylvia), born on January 7, 1871.
Hetty Green stuck to the same basic investment strategy during her whole life. She described that strategy to The New York Times in November, 1905. She explained that she liked to buy things when nobody wanted them, so they were low. Then, she would like to keep them until people became anxious about them and wanted to buy them, so they went up again. In other words, she prefered to do rather conservative investments and at the same time have cash reserves to deal with unexpected movements in the market. That strategy helped her to become one of the major players at New York Stock Exchange, and an important investor in bonds and real estate.
The press often targeted Hetty Green for her odd quirks and particularly for her supposed miserliness, which included popular stories about different aspects of her personal life. People liked to said things such as that she only had one dress that she would only change after it was worn out, that she did not spend money on heat or hot water, that she did not wash her hands, and that she would spend a whole night searching her carriage for a stamp worth a couple of cents. Apparently she ate really cheap food, and even there existed rumors about her eating only oatmeal. She is also said to have instructed her maids to wash her dresses in a way that they could save as much money on soap as possible. She was even listed in the Guiness Book of Records as the world’s greatest miser at that time, though it is not clear how extreme her miserliness actually was.
All these rumors and stories led the press to call her the Witch of Wall Street. But probably the rumors and the stories as well as the nickname was related to the fact that there was a stiff competition in her business environment, which was completely dominated by men. In any case, nobody would deny that she was a very successful businesswoman in this aggressive male environment. She did business especially in real estate and invested in railroads and mines. She also lent money at the same time that she acquired several mortgages. With this money, she helped the City of New York with loans in different occasions, including the Panic of 1907, a financial crisis that took place for three weeks in October of that year.