Trailblazing Bryn Mawr alumna Isabel Benham ’31, whose many accomplishments included being the first woman to be named a partner in a Wall Street bond house, passed away on May 21 in her New York City apartment at the age of 103.
The below profile of Benham first appeared in the Alumnae Bulletin:
A career in motion
But Isabel Benham ’31 beat the odds then and hasn’t stopped, forging for herself a career of distinct firsts: first woman on Wall Street to study the railroad industry; first woman to be included in rail inspection trips with male analysts and rail officers in the United States; first woman to be named partner in a Wall Street bond house; first rail analyst, in the ’70s, to propose the business concept of “open access,” now applicable to the railroad, telecommunications, pipelines and utilities industries. “I. Hamilton Benham,” as she used to sign correspondence early in her career to prevent gender discrimination, is today one of the most respected experts on the economics of railroading, an “expert’s expert.”
At Bryn Mawr, she studied economics. A dean told her to enroll in typing school if she intended to work on Wall Street, while many others urged her to “go home to Mother, join the Junior League, get married and live happily ever after.” Benham instead attended a course for college grads who wanted to sell bonds, run by the Guaranty Trust Company. That was in 1931. In February of 1932 she sold subscriptions to the New Yorker for $20 a week while job hunting on Wall Street. She sold subscriptions to every interviewer who didn’t hire her. “I think many executives felt sorry for me when they could not offer me a job,” she says.
According to Benham, getting a job then was not a whole lot different than it is today. “Having a little bit of luck and being at the right place at the right time might be more important than ability and charm,” she says. This was certainly true in her case. She interviewed at the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, whose purpose was loaning money to distressed banks and railroads. Though she was at first turned away, she persisted, returning two weeks later to inquire again. She rode the elevator with the man who had interviewed her on her first visit; he granted her another interview, and she got the job. “I did not even know what a mortgage was,” Benham claims. “But I had heard that banks and railroads were having financial problems.” A few years later she became a statistician with R. W. Pressprich & Co., building up its railroad files with maps and annual reports. Then, when her boss was fired, she filled his shoes as railroad analyst. He had made $6,000 a year, but her yearly salary was $2,080 for the same position. She considered herself lucky, though, and maintains that during her years on Wall Street she never felt “discriminated against because I was a woman.” She stayed at Pressprich for the next 30 years, becoming a partner in 1964. “There was much more loyalty to employers then, when jobs were scarce,” she says.
There have been many other changes during Benham’s 60-year career. She went from Pressprich to Shearson Hayden Stone and then to Printon, Kane Research. “A major change is that we are part of a global world,” she says. “Railroads today are globalizing, one of the most exciting developments of the 1990s.” Railroads in the mid-’90s were healthier than at any time in the last 50 years, says Benham: “Deregulation and new technology has led to more efficient operations; traffic moves on faster schedules and at lower per unit costs. Rails are seen as a growth industry because of the increasing value of its assets-its tracks and right-of-way.”
Railroad analysts today need a knowledge of the law and an understanding of the value of the rails’ physical assets, says Benham. In addition, financing has changed, with an increasing emphasis on earnings, growth and cash flow.
More women are railroad and transportation analysts. The work involves many details, and “women are very good at details,” says Benham. She believes that she set the course for women on Wall Street. “A lot of firms hired women because I was a success.” Wall Street, too, has changed. It is “no longer a place, but a concept.” She laments that almost weekly there are fraudulent schemes designed by men greedy for money and power and without any sense of responsibility for those who work for them. “I am a practical railroader, dealing only in finance. What is romantic to me is putting two railroads together where they can become a more profitable system.”