24th April 2024

Better business. Better community

Business Industry and Financial

The 20th Century Expansion of Women in Banking


A key development toward the turn of the century was the rise of Women’s Banking departments. In 1882, the First National Bank of Chicago – a predecessor of JPMorgan Chase – created a parlor in the lobby to provide women with a comfortable space to wait for their husbands. While this may not seem progressive, it was a stepping stone in attracting potential female customers. In no time, the Ladies’ Department was outfitted with a teller and became a place where women felt comfortable conducting their banking. Many of the department’s earliest customers were wealthy widows.

By 1905, the Ladies’ Department was a fully operational portion of the bank. Importantly, it was First Chicago’s first foray into retail banking. Up until this point, First Chicago’s business consisted of mostly corporate clients and a personal banking department did not yet exist. It was this highly personalized experience that propelled the Women’s Banking Department for years to come.

An increasing number of women were empowered to take a more active role in their finances by the mid-20th century. The Women’s Banking Department began to offer educational programs to their current and potential female customers. On April 20, 1957, the bank sponsored its first Women’s Luncheon Program, which delved into the foundations of money management before an audience of 450 women. Activities like this made banking with First Chicago appealing to many women. The number of female customers continued to grow over time. By 1969, the Women’s Banking Department included 11,000 female customers whose deposits totaled $50 million.

During this time, the number of female employees at JPMorgan Chase’s predecessor institutions grew alongside the rising number of female customers, and Women’s Banking Departments appeared across the country to support women seeking financial products and services. Financial education offerings catered to women like the Women’s Luncheon Program also expanded. In 1958, Union Bank and Trust Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a National Bank of Detroit predecessor institution, hosted a four-day Women’s Finance Forum. The goal was to promote Union Bank’s services to women, and to educate them on the fundamentals of personal and family financial planning.

Chemical Bank, another predecessor of JPMorgan Chase, launched a campaign in 1965 targeting the female market: “The New York Woman, when her needs are financial her reaction is Chemical.” The ad appeared in print and on television. Chemical Bank recognized the financial power in women, especially given that as of 1965 women in the New York area were earning more than $5 billion a year and oversaw 75% of the total family income. In 1966, the advertising campaign was featured in Vogue magazine, a first for the bank.

In 1967, The New York Woman commercial was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s unique film archive. The films in this collection are distributed to education and cultural institutions all over the United States.

The success and widespread of the appeal of the campaign reflected the larger cultural shifts happening for women’s careers and finances. This is emulated in the fact that the modern, urban, independent woman the campaign portrayed was a woman who had, and could act on, her own financial needs.

Of course, real women were at the forefront of this cultural moment. Take Elizabeth Gloucester, for example. She was a documented customer of Chemical Bank as early as the 1850s. As a Black entrepreneur with ties to the abolitionist movement, she gained renown in New York City as a businesswoman through her operation of a well-known boardinghouse in Brooklyn Heights. She accrued her wealth through her eventual operation of multiple boardinghouses as well as investments in real estate. At the time of her death in 1883, she was considered the richest Black woman in the United States.

Elizabeth’s story is remarkable. In a time when most banks catered to white men and husbands were the ones who typically conducted the family’s financial management, Elizabeth found incredible success as an entrepreneur and became a valuable customer to Chemical Bank.

Clara Porter is another woman who successfully defied the norms of the time. She earned her reputation as a savvy banker at the Guaranty Trust Company of New York (later to become part of JPMorgan Chase). After graduating from Smith College, she began selling Liberty Bonds in 1918. By 1920, she had become Guaranty Trust Company’s first female officer.

In an article for the Guaranty Trust newsletter in 1920, Porter challenged the notion that gender should be a determinant for making investment choices. “All bonds,” Porter claimed, “that are a good investment for some man are equally good for some woman.” Recognizing the growing financial power of women, Porter wrote, “The woman investor is fast becoming a very important factor in the development of the community.” While this was certainly a bold claim to make at the time, Porter was unapologetic in her delivery.

Women like Elizabeth Gloucester and Clara Porter challenged the status quo and played an important part in setting the stage for greater inclusion of women in banking.

Banking for women looks much different today than it did 100 years ago, thanks to major advancements that took place in the 20th century. While banking departments exclusively for women are a thing of the past, they were a key development that helped normalize women in financial spaces. Financial education for women, on the other hand, is an offering that has persisted and evolved at many financial firms, even today. In 2002, JPMorgan Chase hosted its very first Women’s Leadership Conference in London, and the firm continues to hold a range of events each year that reflect its growing segment of female clients, employees and leaders. While there is always more to be done, there is also much to be proud of in the progress that has been achieved for women in banking over the past century.