First Women’s Banks

by Mary Goljenboom

A group of Chicago businesswomen saw a problem with the range of banking options available to women. Female business owners were denied credit from banks at a far higher rate than their male counterparts. It stifled women’s ability to start, operate, and expand their firms.

The Chicago women reasoned that a bank that specialized in the female market, led by women who knew the financial industry, and supported by female stockholders and depositors, could address that credit gap. The result is First Women’s Bank, chartered in Illinois in July 2021 with plans to open in the autumn. It will be one of the few US banks primarily owned and managed by women, and whose products and services are specifically designed to support women in business.

The new First Women’s Bank has predecessors. Some of them even used the same or similar names. For instance, in the mid-1970s, as throngs of American women agitated for equal rights, female-led groups established:
First Women’s Bank, opened in New York in 1975
Women’s Bank, opened in San Diego in 1976
Western Women’s Bank, opened in San Francisco in 1976
First Women’s Bank of California, opened in Los Angeles in 1976
Women’s Bank, opened in Richmond, Virginia in 1977
Connecticut Women’s Bank, opened in Greenwich in 1977
Women’s National Bank, opened in Washington, DC in 1978
Women’s Bank, N.A. opened in Denver in 1978.

Many savings-and-loan associations and credit unions which were owned, managed, and staffed by women also opened in this period.

One of the earliest predecessors dates back a century, to another period when women were agitating for equal rights and seeking opportunities to improve society. It was the need to be useful that impelled Brenda V. Runyon to establish First Woman’s Bank in Tennessee in 1919.

During World War I, Runyon had headed the Clarksville chapter of the Red Cross. After the war ended, she told a reporter, “I found it impossible to settle down to the old life of ease and inactivity. There was the desire to do something for the public good—something worthwhile.”

At the suggestion of a banker friend, she settled on a bank for women. Runyon and four of her friends incorporated the First Woman’s Bank in Tennessee on August 1, 1919, sold stock, and held the first shareholders’ meeting on August 16. Shareholders voted in a board of directors: eight women including Runyon and the incorporators. Following the shareholder’s meeting, the board elected officers: Brenda Runyon, president; Mary Elder, vice president; Love Lyle, cashier and secretary. The group found space in the Montgomery Hotel building, which was owned and managed by Lulu Bringhurst Epperson.

While organizing the corporation and preparing the space, Runyon and Lyle also spent at least three days each week at a bank in a nearby town, learning the trade. They initially did all the work to keep costs to a minimum. Newspapers delighted in reporting that all the bank’s personnel were female, including the janitor.

First Woman’s Bank in Tennessee opened for business on October 6. Lulu Epperson was the first depositor. By 2pm, customers had deposited $20,058.75—five thousand dollars more than the capital raised by the sale of stock.

The bank did not limit its clientele to women and had male stockholders and depositors. It made an effort to “influence women to economize and save their money,” according to Runyon. “We shall try to teach them business methods and encourage them to do things for themselves.”

First Woman’s Bank grew and operated successfully for six years. In 1926, growth slowed and Runyon retired from the bank after a fall incapacitated her. First Woman’s merged into First Trust and Savings Bank. Love Lyle continued as cashier at First Trust.

First Woman’s Bank in Tennessee, the women’s banks formed in the 1970s, and Chicago’s new First Women’s Bank were all founded on the same concept: women helping women. In each period, women recognized a financial problem or need and fashioned a solution that educated women, provided jobs, and increased their participation in the economy.

Sources

First Women’s Bank, https://www.firstwomens.bank/

From the Clarksville, Tennessee Leaf-Chronicle accessed via Newspapers.com
“First Woman’s Bank in the State of Tennessee”, 30 July 1919
“First Woman’s Bank in the State of Tennessee, the Charter for which has been Filed for Registration—the Incorporators”, 31 July 1919
“First Meeting of Stockholders of New Bank”, 18 August 1919
“Clarksville’s New Bank Opens”, 6 October 1919

“Story of State’s First Woman’s Bank is Told”, Nashville Tennessean, 21 September 1919 accessed via Newspapers.com

“The First Woman’s Bank in Tennessee: 1919-1926” by H. Bruce Throckmorton. Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Winter 1976), pp. 389-392. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/42623608

“First Woman President of the First Woman’s Bank in the United States” by Vonnie Rector Griffith. Ladies Home Journal, June 1920, p. 149

Copyright © 2021 Ferret Research, Inc.

Lillian G. Jones, Bank Cashier

by Mary Goljenboom

The banking career of Lillian G. Jones was uncommon in many ways.

It started in 1910, when Jones took a job as a stenographer at the New York branch of the National Bank of Cuba. She worked her way up, becoming an expert in foreign exchange. This was a critical area for the bank because of its deep involvement in the Cuban sugar trade. A woman with this kind of expertise was rare. Many of the women who went into banking in the late nineteen-teens were hired—at least in part—because of their extensive social networks; they were then taught the necessary banking skills.

Jones’s work was rewarded when, in May 1916, she was appointed assistant cashier of the Bank of Cuba of New York. (It was the same bank, but renamed to reflect it becoming a state bank). Jones, then in her mid-20s, was one of the country’s earliest female bank executives.

Two years later, newspapers across the country noted how “Wall Street precedence was shattered” when Lillian Jones was appointed the cashier of the bank. The job opening was created when the bank’s cashier, Charles F. Plarre, was called to World War I military duty in July 1918. The New York Tribune noted how the even “the more important” financial posts were being filled by women because of the war. The Associated Press said she was first woman in New York to hold the cashier’s position.

As cashier, Jones was responsible for receiving and paying out the bank’s money, collecting and paying its debts, receiving and transferring its commercial securities, and overseeing the work of assistant cashiers, auditors and accountants, and tellers. The position of cashier is similar to the modern position of controller (comptroller).

Jones’s tenure as cashier was temporary. The war ended in November 1918; Plarre was discharged in January and returned to the bank as cashier shortly thereafter. Jones was again assistant cashier. Her achievement was valued by the bank for in all of its ads her name and title, L. G. Jones, Assistant Cashier, are listed with the president, vice president, and cashier. She also showed that women were capable of so much more than the standard of the day assumed.

Jones’s career was not long. Bank of Cuba of New York closed in 1921 after a precipitous drop in sugar prices caused the failure of its parent, the National Bank of Cuba. She married in 1923. It’s possible that she continued to apply her skills behind the scenes to her husband’s business (real estate), like countless other wives who have worked unacknowledged.

 

Sources

The Commercial & Financial Chronicle, July 29, 1916 p 380 via Google Books

“Precedent Shattered.” Richmond Times-Dispatch, September 22, 1918, column 7, via Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers from the Library of Congress

 

Copyright 2016 Ferret Research, Inc.