When Kamala Harris was sworn in there was indeed a reason to celebrate.
Of course, we could point out the fact that she’s not actually a head of state, and there are over one-hundred-and-fifty women who have been or currently are, from Khertek Anchimaa-Toka in 1940, to Grazia Zafferani in 2020, and who we could be celebrating, but that’s beside the point.
In the United States, where a stunted ideology that dictates who can actually be a President is ingrained in the American psyche, Harris has achieved what many saw as the unachievable.
There are also women that are heralded today as heroes in a world dominated by men, like the author Mel Robbins, or CEO Bethenny Frankel, or the Editor-in-Chief, Radhika Jones, but it always feels somewhat patronizing when they’re ‘listed’.
One person hardly ever talked about though, is the businesswoman, financier, and ‘richest woman in America’, Henrietta Howland Robinson.
For Robinson’s story, you’d have to travel almost one-hundred-and-fifty years into the past, way before Indira Gandhi led India, or Golda Meir Israel, or Isabel Martinez de Peron Argentina.
And in many ways, Robinson outdid all of these women.
Born into the richest whaling family in Massachusetts, in 1834, Robinson could quite easily have rested on her laurels, or the piles of money that adorned the family home, but didn’t for one second.
Before she was ten years old, she could be found reading the financial papers to her father, and stock quotations and commerce reports to her grandfather, and began honing her business acumen while studying at a boarding school, where she learnt reading, writing, arithmetic, and how to decipher ledgers and understand trade commodities.
By thirteen she was shadowing the male members of her family as they visited countinghouses, and watched stockbrokers and commodity traders at work. In her evenings, to relax, she would read the financial news to the family.
And by twenty years of age, in 1854, Robinson was living with her aunt in New York.
There then followed a series of events, unfortunate or fortunate (depending how you look at them), that furnished Robinson with the financial foundation she needed to put her commercial education into practice.
First, her mother Abby died, leaving Robinson $230,000 (in today's equivalent).
Next, her aunt gifted her stocks she had invested on Robinson’s behalf. Add $580,000 (in today's money) to Robinson’s balance.
Then, her father Edward died, leaving her an inheritance from his whaling business.
Put another $101,000,000 into her checking account.
I think at this point I might have upgraded my dishwasher and headed off on a grand tour of somewhere, but Robinson’s cash foundation was not yet finished being laid.
Her other aunt, Sylvia died, soon after her father, leaving Robinson her loose change.
A cool $35,000,000.
She also left more in trust for her, which was challenged in court, but Robinson won her case and got an extra $13,000,000, as a kind of bonus.
It was a few years later that Robinson met and fell for Edward Henry Green, and married him on that condition he renounce all rights to her money and sign a waiver stating that he would not inherit her fortune, and that her wealth would forever be ‘free from the debts, control or interference of any such husband.’
And, with that sorted, Robinson - or Green, as she now was - began work.
Her strategy she said was simple, she would ‘buy when things are low and nobody wants them. I keep them until they go up and people are crazy to get them. That is, I believe, the secret of all successful business.'
Her annual profit during her first year of investment, from Civil War bonds and railroad stocks, was around $125,000,000, with a gain of $200,000 per day not unheard of. And, her discounted greenbacks bought during the War - ‘I believe in getting in at the bottom and out on top. I like to buy railroad stocks or mortgage bonds. When I see a good thing going cheap because nobody wants it, I buy a lot of it and tuck it away’ - increased substantially in value, as she had predicted, when Congress backed them with gold.
Meanwhile, her lacklustre husband, Edward, suffered huge losses on Wall Street, and Green was forced to cover his debts three times in the first half of the 1880s, to the tune of around $1,000,000. She never forgave him for his ineptitude, saying that ‘before deciding on an investment, I seek out every kind of information about it,’ something it seems Edward wasn’t in the habit of doing.
She separated from him in 1885.
Back in New York after a spell in London, Green set up a kind of office in the Chemical Bank in New York, which became both the third-largest bank in the United States, and Chase Manhattan later. For some reason, she continued to live in boarding houses, apartments, and hotels, rather than decide on a home of her own - ‘in business generally, don't close a bargain until you have reflected on it overnight’ - and, as a result, began to acquire a certain reputation
Her refusal to hire office space added to this, particularly when she began to ‘camp’ on the floor of the Seaboard National Bank, surrounded by her work, stuffed in and hanging out of trunks and suitcases. She believed ‘It is the duty of every woman, to learn to take care of her own business affairs’. In her own peculiar way, she may have added.
This eccentricity gave rise to other stories of Green’s behavior, some true, some concocted to divert attention to her eccentricities rather than on her astonishing ability, something women have had to deal with eternally.
Some claimed she only ever ate oatmeal and pies, warmed on the bank’s radiator, because she never heated any of the rooms she rented, and eating hot food would have increased her fuel bill.
Others called her the ‘Witch of Wall Street’, because of the old black dress that she always wore, and changed only when it had become threadbare, though she retorted that ‘just because I dress plainly, and do not spend a fortune on my gowns, they say I am cranky or insane.’
She apparently had only the dirtiest parts of her dress cleaned to save soap, and never washed her hands.
She traveled thousands of miles alone to collect any small debt, and once spent an entire night trying to locate the whereabouts of a single, lost stamp.
And she refused to pay for a doctor to examine her son’s infected leg, and wasted so long searching for a free clinic that the limb had to be amputated.
And yet, the City of New York came to her regularly for loans of millions of dollars, and they began to call her the ‘Queen of Wall Street’, or the ‘Wizard of Finance’ and the ‘Richest Woman in America', which she most certainly was.
When she died in 1916 at the age of 81, of apoplexy, after arguing with a maid over the virtues of skimmed milk, she’d amassed around $4,700,000,000 in personal wealth, and though she’d certainly been given a good start in life, there is no doubt she maximised that gift multiple times, and gave discretely to charity often and without accolade.
As Green always said, ‘a girl should be brought up as to be able to make her own living…’
And that she did.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska