Sylvia Led the Way
The genre of personal finance journalism got its start thanks to this indomitable daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants.
by Sue Tomchin
In 1942, the directors of the New York Stock Exchange were disturbed to learn that S. F. Porter, one of the most experienced and prolific financial writers of the day, was, shockingly, a woman. How could this have happened in a sphere that (at that time) was regarded as exclusively male terrain?
The perpetrator of that incident—Sylvia Porter—carved a remarkable 60-year career in a realm where only a few women had gone before, laying the groundwork for today’s burgeoning personal finance genre. Tracy Lucht tells her story in the book: Sylvia Porter: America’s Original Personal Finance Columnist (Syracuse University Press). An assistant professor of journalism at Iowa State University, Lucht focuses primarily on Porter’s professional life, looking at the choices she made to build her career within the context of women’s status and gender norms at the time.
Porter was born Sarianni Feldman, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, and grew up in a family that “didn’t think it was unfeminine for a girl to think,” Lucht writes. Her mother, Rose Maisel Feldman, had given up her own ambitions for paid work when she married, but insisted that her daughter have a career. The early death of Porter’s physician father when she was age 12 meant a drop in the family’s financial fortunes. That experience, coupled with the 1929 stock market crash when she was a college freshman, changed the way Porter viewed money. She loved writing but changed her major from English literature to economics, graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Hunter College in three years.
At the time, the financial world was a “den of masculinity,” but Porter persisted. She worked at an investment firm and as a freelance writer for financial journals while she taught herself about business and the bond market. At 21, she even had the chutzpah to challenge one of the policies of FDR’s Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau. Rejected for jobs by the Associated Press and the New York Sun, in 1935 she was hired by the tabloid newspaper, the New York Post, and developed a populist writing style that translated economics into language people understood and wanted to read.
In 1938, Porter became the financial editor of the Post after the editor had fired everyone else in the department in order to save money. At that time, she began writing a column five days a week in which she provided analysis of financial issues and cultivated a unique voice and personal connection with readers. Until 1942, she wrote under the gender neutral byline S.F. Porter. Even after her editor decided to run her full name, she skillfully quelled the fears of those who might have considered her gender a threat by playing up her femininity and attractiveness, at the same time as she promoted women’s empowerment and the value of working women.
Plying a technique for achieving success and building a brand that has now become commonplace, Porter used “multiple media platforms to reach different audiences.” She inspired women through articles in women’s magazines such as Vogue and Ladies Home Journal; wrote for general interest magazines; maintained her professional status as an insider in the banking industry by offering a subscription-based newsletter on bonds; gave hundreds of speeches; and was interviewed widely on radio and television, including Meet the Press. Her newspaper column, which was syndicated in 1949, Lucht writes, “was her biggest accomplishment—and vehicle for her rise to prominence” since it ultimately “put her name and face in front of forty million readers around the country five days a week.”
In 1975, she published Sylvia Porter’s Money Book: How to Earn It, Spend It, Save It, Invest It, Borrow It—and Use It to Better Your Life. The book, Lucht writes, “Solidified her status as the nation’s foremost expert in personal finance and created a new genre in journalism and book publishing.” The book became a popular graduation and wedding gift and sold over a million copies.
Lucht does not shy away from pointing out Porter’s failings, especially her refusal to acknowledge the role of ghostwriters, many of whom were women, in her work. From the late 1950s onward, she used them while she herself focused on media appearances and promotion. The ghostwriters’ work was uncredited and often underpaid, a sad commentary on the career a woman who did much to inspire and encourage women to pursue professional careers.
“Porter’s legacy, like so much of history, is complicated,” Lucht writes. “Most young journalists today do not know who Sylvia Porter was, yet one cannot fully understand the history of financial journalism without knowing her story….One only has to visit the personal finance section of a bookstore and imagine that, in the beginning, there was only Sylvia.”