“Stockholders Have Civil Rights, Too”

When Wilma Porter Weissman Soss (1900-1986) declared that “Stockholders have Civil Rights, Too,” she sought a catchy tagline for the “Economic Bill of Rights” promulgated by the Federation of Women Shareholders in American Business (FOWSAB), a financial literacy and stockholder advocacy nonprofit she formed in 1947.[1]

Soss wanted the tagline, which she emblazoned on a button that she wore to annual stockholder meetings in the 1970s, to be provocative but also empirically rooted in the lived experience of America’s many minority investors. Soss was the first to empirically demonstrate, in an article for Forbes published in December 1945, that most stockholders were women, not men or institutions. Despite their numerical superiority among stockholders, Soss (and B.C. Forbes) lamented, women held almost no board seats and were rarely seen, let alone heard, at annual stockholder meetings, which had long since become short, perfunctory events rather than venues where stockholders could obtain information or air ideas.

Soss, with the help of FOWSAB members and a small group of corporate “gadflies,” changed that by making the meetings interesting and important, worthy of print media coverage. By the mid-1950s, many annual stockholder meetings had become daylong affairs, contentious and even raucous events attended by hundreds and increasingly thousands of stockholders. In the process, Soss managed to get qualified women on several dozen major corporate boards, including New York Life Insurance Company, New York Central Railroad, and IBM. She also became a visible advocate for improved financial literacy among millions of small investors, male and female.

Soss emerged from the zeitgeist, the spirit of her times, because she had the right experience and contacts to champion stockholder rights. A graduate of Columbia’s new School of Journalism in 1925, Soss launched a career in journalism that soon transitioned into the emerging field of public relations. She worked for the legendary publicist Harry Reichenbach, one of the founders of the modern public relations industry, known for pulling sensational stunts in the 1920s.

After Reichenbach died in 1931, Soss set off on her own, landing numerous top clients and raking in as much as $750 per week from Saks Fifth Avenue, Shoecraft, and The Tailored Woman. While most Americans languished during the Depression and New Deal, Soss represented Gladys Swarthout (1900-1969), enabling the mezzo-soprano opera singer and actor to rise to the $100,000 per annum income bracket. For her efforts, Soss earned ten times more than most men and even out earned her husband Joe, who brokered billboard advertising in Brooklyn. Instead of languishing when she lost a major client, Imperial Japan’s silk industry, due to the outbreak of World War II, Soss began to represent manufacturers like Detroit-based Evans Products and Philadelphia-based Budd Company.

After revealing that most stockholders were women in her Forbes article shortly after the end of the war, Soss started to invest in the stock market on her own account, first buying a share in the iconic manufacturer US Steel.[2] Following the stock market crash of 1929, she had lost a small inheritance in the care of a trustee and was not about to let that happen with her own hard-earned savings. She started attending the annual meetings of US Steel, which were open to anyone who owned at least one share. She realized that the corporation was run by what she saw as a small group of stodgy old men for their own benefit, to the exclusion of the majority of stockholders, like herself. So, Soss stood up, literally, at Steel’s annual 1947 stockholder meeting and gave the Board a lecture, the main point of which she would repeat often over the next few decades – put qualified women on your board, or else. US Steel ignored her demand, which induced Soss to form FOWSAB. When that proved to have little immediate effect, she tried another tactic. She showed up at the 1949 meeting in Gay Nineties (1890s) garb, a wool dress with bustle, a small fan, and checked spats and spectacles. Journalists flocked to Soss, as the PR whiz knew they would. Soss then gleefully explained that she was dressed in a hand-me-down from her mother to match the outdated, old-fashioned thinking of the US Steel board.

Wilma Soss speaks in her mother’s 1890s dress at the 1949 Annual Meeting to stress the old-fashioned thinking of US Steel’s board of directors. Note the small size of the audience and the presence of only one other (unidentified) woman, center background. Photographs Box, Wilma Soss Papers, Accession #10249, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming.

Within days of her picture going out over the Associated Press wire (the postwar equivalent of a viral video), Soss became a national celebrity, and the game was on! The publicity boosted FOWSAB, which, despite enticing some of the nation’s most influential women, including banker Mary Roebling (1905-1994) and politician Ruth Bryan Rohde (1885-1954), to join its board, had remained less influential than Soss wanted. So, she also abandoned her lucrative PR consultancy to focus full-time on trying to convince more women, and eventually their husbands, to become active investors in the stock market. FOSWAB offered a lecture series to educate people about the market so they would feel more comfortable investing.

Soss believed this process had broader implications within the context of the Cold War.  As the threat of communism loomed, Soss encouraged Americans to invest in the American capitalist system. She argued that small investors could help the nation defeat the Soviet Union and prevent the expansion of communist regimes. The best way to share wealth, the lifelong Republican believed, was via market mechanisms, not government redistribution of resources. If businesses had to compete for capital and customers, Soss and many of the speakers at FOWSAB events believed, only those creating real value would persist, rendering the American system more efficient and prosperous than any centrally planned economy. So, she sought to convince Americans that they all had a big enough stake in capitalism to combat collectivism. As one iteration of FOWSAB’s letterhead proclaimed: “If you are a stock or bondholder, a savings bank depositor, an insurance policyholder or beneficiary, a business or professional woman, or a consumer, YOU are a shareholder in American Business.”

Soss informing FOWSAB members of the creation of a foundation that will concentrate on advancing female financial literacy, no date. Box 10, Folder “FOWSAB Meetings,” Wilma Soss Papers, Accession #10249, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming.

As the long Cold War dragged on, Soss continued to buy shares in corporations and use them to gain access to annual stockholder meetings, often costumed in clever ways designed to garner media attention. When she wanted to make a point about important financial details being buried in 4-point font footnotes, for example, she showed up looking like Sherlock Holmes, replete with a magnifying glass. Soss professed to understand fashion more than numbers, but she clearly understood accounting. She advocated for stockholders or their representatives to run independent audits of corporate accounts. Audits paid for by management, she repeatedly pointed out, tended to be skewed in the interest of managers, not the stockholders.

Sherlock Soss educating stockholders about the importance of paying attention to the fine print in corporate accounting statements. Photographs Box, Wilma Soss Papers, Accession #10249, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming.

Soss’s publicity stunts inspired a 1953 Broadway play and 1956 film adaptation, Solid Gold Cadillac. Academy Award winner Judy Holliday (1921-1965) played the fictionalized Soss in the movie version. Magazine spreads about Soss appeared with regularity, including an issue of Cosmopolitan that also featured stories about Bob Hope, Ayn Rand, and the Kennedys. Even her fiercest critics, such as the corporate executives who came to fear and even loathe Soss, conceded that the fiery blonde – often referred to as Apple Soss, The Woman of a Million Words, or Queen of the Corporate Gadflies — was a serious intellectual force in corporate governance, financial literacy, and financial journalism circle.

In 1957, on the heels of release of the film Solid Gold Cadillac, Soss landed a nationally syndicated weekly radio show on NBC that ran under the titles “Pocketbook News” and “Wilma Says” until 1980. She used that platform, which reached into an estimated one million American homes each week, to teach Americans how to invest. The basic format was pedagogical, teaching listeners to turn the general news of the week into investment insights. (For copious quotations and examples, follow @WilmaSoss on Twitter. For more context regarding Soss’s journalism career, click here.)

Soss also shared stories of her annual meeting exploits, especially the occasions when she was forcibly ejected from meeting halls. Although often derisively termed “gadflies” by their corporate critics, Soss, FOWSAB, and their allies won several major battles, mostly through moral suasion and disinvestment threats. Rather than see many small investors “vote with their feet” and sell their shares if their views were ignored, business leaders negotiated with the gadflies. Reforms — including placing more qualified women on corporate boards, providing more convenient and comfortable annual meeting venues, and increasing corporate transparency — resulted.

FOWSAB and the gadflies also pushed for corporate election reforms, including the adoption of cumulative voting, which made it easier for small shareholders to elect at least one board member to represent their interests. Another reform they pushed was the introduction of secret ballots, which made it possible for employees and institutional investors to vote their shares in corporate elections without fear of management retribution. AT&T adopted the secret ballot in 1978, for example, after Soss showed up at its annual meeting with a 50-pound apple pie. Secret ballots, she explained to the cloud of journalists still eager for a Soss headline, were as American as apple pie.

Despite such successes, many corporations placed only one woman on the board, sometimes an unqualified token. Others later reversed their cumulative or secret ballot bylaws. And almost none adopted the most important reform that Soss advocated, allowing stockholders to hire their own auditors. Such a policy would have greatly reduced the likelihood of accounting scandals like those later suffered by stockholders in Enron and Xerox.

Today’s Environment, Social Justice, and Governance (ESG) investor movement would be very different were it not for Soss, FOWSAB, and their allies because they restored the right of stockholders to monitor, criticize, and cajole corporate executives. She would argue that there is not much social justice, or civil rights as she would have termed it, in any governance reforms that diminish the voting or other rights of stockholders. For additional discussion and evidence, and many more examples of Soss’s exploits and her impact on corporate governance today, see Fearless: Wilma Soss and America’s Forgotten Investor Movement, my new biography of Soss coauthored with Bucknell’s Jan Traflet. Not everyone will agree with all of Soss’s ideas or actions, but it is difficult not to feel inspired by her fearless and learned critique of America’s postwar crony capitalism.

[1] While historians regard the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th Century to be about the Black Freedom Struggle, Soss applied the broader definition, meaning anyone seeking the right to engage on equal terms in any aspect of civil society, including political but also commercial or nonprofit economic activities. For an extended discussion of the concept’s origins and evolution, see G. Edward White, “The Origins of Civil Rights in America,” Case Western Reserve Law Review 64, 3 (2014): 755-822.

[2] For details about stockholder patterns throughout U.S. history, see Robert E. Wright, Corporation Nation (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014) and Janice M. Traflet, A Nation of Small Shareholders: Marketing Wall Street After World War II (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

Featured Image: Wilma Soss, University of Wyoming, American Heritage Center, Wilma Soss Papers, Accession #10249, Box 1.

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