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Published by EH.Net (May 2024).

Janice M. Traflet and Robert E. Wright. Fearless: Wilma Soss and America’s Forgotten Investor Movement. All Seasons Press, 2022. 227 pp. $28 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1958682302.

Reviewed for EH.Net by John A. Moore, Walsh College.

 

American business and finance was a male-dominated world in the immediate post-World War II era. The highest executive levels were decidedly parochial, a small and close-knit collection of owners, investors, and managers. Control of companies at the top of an expanding American economy resembled a country club culture in many ways. Business and important decisions came about through personal friendships and the cooperation of powerful individuals serving on multiple boards of directors with one another. Existing state and federal laws helped to preserve this status quo.

Janice M. Traflet (Bucknell University) and Robert E. Wright (American Institute of Economic Research) have authored a revealing study of an underappreciated episode in American business history in their book Fearless: Wilma Soss and America’s Forgotten Investor Movement. Their book centers on the colorful career of Wilma Soss, who challenged the kings of American business through flamboyant shareholder activism. Soss spent a lifetime promoting the interests of the “small investor.” She relentlessly extolled the virtues of ordinary Americans investing in American business. At the same time, she crusaded for American businesses to embrace a more transparent manner of governance, arguing that management had a fiduciary responsibility to all stockholders, whether large or small.

The book’s thesis argues that although Soss did not ultimately win her “war” against corporate management, her single-handed efforts planted the seeds for fundamental and beneficial changes in the governance of American business over time. While she continually lost individual battles, her efforts eventually represented the spearhead of a larger movement that ultimately established greater accountability from American public companies.

Traflet and Wright provide a convincing picture of Soss’s talents. The book’s title of “fearless” aptly describes her personality. However, she was much more than just that. Her early career in marketing for major companies earned her credibility and brought in significant earnings for her services and expertise. She was also able to be a center of attention through her charm, quick wit, and attractive looks.

Soss particularly advocated on behalf of two major constituencies. These were women and small investors. Early on in her career, she forged a working partnership with B.C. Forbes and Forbes magazine to publish an article in late 1945 that highlighted the great number of female investors in the stock market, albeit in relatively small amounts. She added that women were clearly underrepresented in the business workforce (pp. 9-12).

Wilma Soss was clearly talented and multi-dimensional. By the time of her Forbes article, she had already carved out a successful career. After graduating from Columbia University with a journalism degree, Soss made a name for herself as a marketing consultant in the 1930s and working in the private sector during World War II (pp. 4-5). She was intelligent, experienced, and self-assured.

Her early professional background undoubtedly influenced her subsequent career as a “gadfly” investor who proved to be a constant thorn in the side of corporate America. Her first challenge at an annual stockholders meeting occurred in 1947 when she protested the lack of women on the board of U.S. Steel Corporation (p. 30). In subsequent years Soss would pull off theatrical stunts at shareholders meetings, including dressing as Sherlock Holmes and wearing loud and colorful outfits (pp. 105, 112). Her activist activities ultimately inspired the Broadway play and eventual movie The Solid Gold Cadillac, both of which were hits in the 1950s (pp. 72-73).

Soss’s activities went well beyond shareholder meeting theatrics. She engaged in important endeavors that included founding the Federation of Women Shareholders in American Business (FOWSAB) to invest on behalf of women (p. 33). She also hosted a radio show that focused on investing and financial literacy issues (p. 127).

The investor meeting activities included serious business issues as well. She advocated for holding investor meetings in locations accessible to shareholders in order to promote greater attendance. Soss also advocated for the secret ballot and cumulative voting for shareholders (pp. 216, 220).

While Wilma Soss is the star of the book, Traflet and Wright also reference her important allies such as the Gilbert brothers and her younger protégé, Evelyn Davis. An entire chapter is devoted to Davis and her personal story. The impact that the Gilberts and Davis had in the overall effort for greater shareholder rights, as well as their specific relations with Soss, is a potential area of valuable future research.

Many of Soss’s efforts did not reap immediate rewards. FOWSAB was always a small venture, consuming much of her time. Her challenges at annual meetings were typically rejected. She likely would have earned more money had she continued to focus on her career in consulting.

Soss sacrificed much to engage in her crusade for almost forty years. There was more to her crusade than simply badgering corporate America to change its ways. She was in fact a relentless advocate for American business. She consistently insisted that the American economy would continue to grow, and that ordinary Americans could reap the rewards that came from it. She was a consistent cheerleader for market capitalism and a vocal foe of communism, and these themes were consistently addressed on her radio show and in her writings (p. 96).

This book represents a valuable addition to the history of the evolution of American capital markets and big business. Wilma Soss has largely been forgotten until now, but Traflet and Wright have resurrected her compelling and important story. She was an intrepid warrior who committed most of her life to the cause of corporate responsibility. The immediate returns on her investment of time and talent were largely frustration, obstruction, and scorn. However, the long-term dividends from committed activism instigated the process of improving both American business and its governance.

Soss also exemplifies the story of women breaking through the gender barriers of American business during the post-World War II era. This was made possible by her talent, determination, and persistence. Although it was not easy, her efforts began the process of shattering the glass ceilings of corporate America.

Wilma Soss witnessed only some of these long-term triumphs before her death in 1987. Many more triumphs were achieved later. She never achieved personal wealth because of the sacrifices made in pursuit of her crusade. Soss lost most of her shareholder meeting battles. However, her efforts were a critical contribution to a war that was eventually won. Traflet and Wright can be commended for restoring the successful legacy of a “fearless” reformer. Their contribution is important, and one that should inspire future reformers in the business world.

 

John A. Moore is the chair of the Finance and Economics Department at Walsh College in Troy, Michigan. His research interests include the history of American trade policy, the United States economy in the 1920s, and intersections between economics and religion.

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