Women Wrangling and Regulating Wall Street

by Rachel Monroe

Last week Mary Jo White was confirmed as the first female chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the federal agency that regulates the nation's stock exchanges and securities markets. White spent more than a decade as United States attorney in Manhattan (she was the first woman to hold that job, too); the general consensus is that by nominating a former prosecutor for the top SEC job, Obama was sending the message that he plans on holding Wall Street accountable for financial misdeeds.

 
Because women are still relative outsiders in the male-dominated financial world, they're sometimes more able to challenge the system from within. "If you're not one of the good old boys to begin with," Stanford Professor Deborah Rhode, who chairs the American Bar Association's Commission on Women in the Profession, told the San Francisco Gate "it makes it easier when you see something flat- out wrong to raise your voice." In honor of White's confirmation, we present the stories of a few women who have taken on Wall Street in recent years. Interesting note:  although several of them worked in the financial industry in the past, none are currently employed by Wall Street.

Brooksley Born

As head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) in the late 1990s, Born tried to get Congress to give CFTC oversight of the off-exchange derivatives market, after noticing that the dangerously unmonitored market comprised multiple trillions of dollars. Her tenacious efforts were stymied by then-deputy Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and Treasury Secretary Robert Robin (who notably called Born's complaints "strident"). Vindicated by the financial collapse of 2008, in which derivatives played a major role, Born was awarded the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award in recognition of  the "political courage she demonstrated in sounding early warnings about conditions that contributed to the current global financial crisis." Born is now retired.

Sheila Bair

Bair, who shared the JFK Profiles in Courage Award with Born, became an unlikely (Republican!) hero to the anti-banker crowd during the financial crisis. The former head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), Bair was outspoken in her objection to "too big to fail" rhertoric and bank bailouts. In 2008, Bair came in first on the Wall Street Journal's "women to watch" list, and was ranked as the second-most powerful woman in the world by Forbes. She is currently leading a crusade against what she sees as our current "bond bubble," and is serving as a senior advisor to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Elizabeth Warren

In a move that may have surprised her Republican colleagues, Bair endorsed the staunch liberal Elizabeth Warren in her race for the Massachusetts Senate last year. The two women worked together often during the financial crisis, when Warren served as the chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, which was created to oversee the Trouble Asset Relief Program (TARP). The video of Warren challenging the "too big to fail" principle at the Senate Banking Committee has been viewed nearly a million times, possibly a record for a Congressional video clip. Warren is currently the senior U.S. senator from Massachusetts -- the first female senator from that state.

Christina Romer

Obama's former top economic adviser co-authored the administration's plan for recovery from the financial crisis -- for which her personal area of expertise, the Great Depression, certainly came in handy. She calculated that the nation needed a $1.8 trillion stimulus package to spur economic recovery, but  Larry Summers (head of the president's National Economic Council) didn't include her proposal in the official memo, fearing that a package with the word "trillion" on it would never make it through Congress. (Congress eventually passed a $800 billion stimulus package.) After stepping down from her position with the administration in 2010 (for reasons having to do with her disagreements with Summers, some believe), Romer returned to her job as a tenured professor of economics at Berkeley.