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Today in history… first women members at stock exchange

12:00am | & Lifestyle

It was a red letter day for the historic London Stock Exchange 45 years ago today, when women were admitted to the previously male-only institution for the first time in its 200-year history.

Described by equality campaigners as the “last bastion of misogyny”, the exchange was steeped in tradition, but was finally forced to move with the times. Admitting women as members was seen as a major step in modernising the institution, and the first of many more over the following decades as new technology made its mark.

On March 26th, 1973, six newly-elected “lady members” entered the London Stock Exchange (LSE) on the first working day since their election. The historic decision to introduce allow female stockbrokers to join “the House” had been announced on February 1st, ending years of campaigning by women working in the financial sector, especially in the City of London.

One of the most prominent campaigners and one of the pioneering first six female LSE members was Muriel Wood. Arriving on her first day, she told reporters: “There is a great deal of activity and bustle, but it seems it is going on at a rather leisurely pace.”

Another new member and the first to set foot on the institution’s hallowed floor was 37-year-old Susan Shaw. She said the move represented a breakthrough for women in finance which would enable them to forge strong contacts in the industry. But it was only a first step and there was still a long way to go to achieve true parity between men and women.

The next hurdle would be allowing women dealers onto the trading floor of the LSE, which was frequently frantic, noisy, aggressive and definitely not considered ‘a suitable place for ladies’. Bookies were laying long odds on that happening any time in the foreseeable future.

The hurly-burly of the trading floor, where dealers competed noisily to buy and sell shares at the best prices, had been a feature of the LSE since its foundation. The origins of the LSE dated to 1760, when 150 brokers who had been fired from the Royal Exchange for misconduct and rowdiness set up their own ‘club’ to buy and sell shares.

Originally they met in coffee houses close to the Royal Exchange, but in 1773 moved to a new home in Sweeting’s Alley which was officially named “The Stock Exchange”. It had a dealing room on the ground floor and a coffee room above, but had problems with non-members and fraudsters gaining entry.

It led to another move to a purpose-built home at Capel Court. Its opening in 1801 also marked the introduction of a formal subscription system for members, making it the world’s first regulated stock exchange. In 1972 the exchange moved again, this time to a new 26-storey office block in the heart of the City of London, with a 23,000 square foot trading floor. Many things had changed over the years, but one thing had not – membership of the LSE remained staunchly men only.

There was actually no rule barring women members, probably because when the rules were written such an event was simply unthinkable, but all membership applications from women had been systematically rejected. Even when the first women were admitted in 1973, it was only because the LSE had agreed to a merger with regional exchanges in cities such as Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. They already had female members, leaving the LSE without a leg to stand on.

Despite the change, the London exchange retained the feeling of an exclusive gentlemen’s club, with considerable resistance to admitting women. One male member told reporters: “There are certain professions best done by men, like coal mining and stockbroking.” Another argument against it was that the institution had no female loos!

The admission of women did little to diminish the ‘public school atmosphere’ of the LSE, which included a culture of schoolboy nicknames. One female member who joined in 1975 said: “I was the Night Nurse, there was Sweaty Betty, Super Bum, the Grimsby Trawler, the Road Runner, Stop Me and Pick One. They were very cruel. Stop Me and Pick One was because she had acne. You had to have broad shoulders and a good sense of humour because you would be the butt of a lot of jokes.”

It would be another 28 years before a woman was appointed to one of the LSE’s most senior posts, when Clara Furse took over as chief executive in 2001. By then the prospect of ‘fragile ladies’ braving the bear pit of the trading floor had long since faded. In 1986 the introduction of computer technology put an end to face-to-face trading on the exchange’s market floor.

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