Abstract: Capitalism with a Woman's Face: Women's Departments in American Banks at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Nancy Marie Robertson


At the turn of the twentieth century, many American banks had special departments to serve female customers. They were one of the few bank divisions to hire women as professionals (as managers of the departments). At a time when customers (male and female) routinely complained about service (that is, the lack of it) from banks, these departments emphasized the services they provided their customers—including what to do with their money and how to balance a checkbook as well as providing tickets for social events or locating lost purses. The female managers of these departments often entered the business world by way of voluntary associations and brought with them (or developed) a range of service-oriented skills useful during the expansion of white-collar occupations in increasingly bureaucratic and impersonal large-scale organizations. This paper explores the process by which banks (and the women themselves) developed and promoted these departments. The departments were a means to gain access to the financial assets of women who, increasingly, were coming into financial resources (whether through their own earnings or from being widowed). At a time when men were using their activities outside work to define ''service'' as manly through sex-segregated service groups like Rotary clubs, women emphasized that they were adept at service as they worked to teach women financial literacy. On one hand, female bankers, promoted the ''domestication of American business'' to define a distinct place for themselves in the world of business (à la Paula Baker). On the other hand, then (as now), it appears that financial institutions favored a female face when they encountered criticism in times of economic crisis. Their presentation of women—as managers and as customers—may have served to ameliorate such criticism.