At the start of the twentieth century, women made up a small proportion of shareholders in American publicly traded companies. By 1956, women were the majority of individual shareholders. Although this change in shareholder gender demographics happened gradually, it was evident early in the century: Before the 1929 stock market crash, women shareholders had come to outnumber men at some of America’s largest and most influential corporations, including AT&T, General Electric, and the Pennsylvania Railroad. This Article synthesizes information from a range of historical sources to reveal an overlooked narrative of corporate history—the feminization of capital, or the transformation of American public-company shareholders from majority male to majority female. It charts the growing proportion of women shareholders over the first half of the twentieth century, describes the business community’s response to this trend, and explores the impact of the rise of intermediation on the gender politics of corporate control.
Corporate law scholarship has never before acknowledged that the early decades of the twentieth century, a transformational era in corporate law and theory, coincided with a change in the gender composition of the shareholder class. Scholars have not considered the possibility that shareholders’ gender—which was being tracked internally at companies, disclosed in annual reports, and publicly reported in the press—might have influenced business leaders’ views about corporate organization and governance. This Article considers the implications of this history for some of the most important ideas in corporate law theory, including the separation of ownership and control, shareholder “passivity,” stakeholderism, and board representation. It argues that early-twentieth-century gender politics helped shape foundational ideas of corporate-governance theory, especially ideas concerning the role of shareholders. Outlining a research agenda where history intersects with corporate law’s most vital present-day problems, this Article lays out evidence showing that the feminization of capital shaped changing ideas about the role of shareholders in corporate governance. In so doing, it invites scholars to begin a conversation about gender, power, and the evolution of corporate law.
* Professor of Law, Washington and Lee University School of Law. The Author thanks the following individuals for their generous and thoughtful comments: Afra Afsharipour, Alexandra Andhov, Margaret M. Blair, Naomi Cahn, June Carbone, Christine Sgarlata Chung, Richard Chused, Aaron A. Dhir, Jill E. Fisch, Carola Frydman, Jeffrey N. Gordon, Joan MacLeod Heminway, Jennifer Hill, Eric Hilt, Andrew Jennings, Kristin N. Johnson, Nancy Levit, Ann M. Lipton, Gregory A. Mark, Veronica Root Martinez, Martha T. McCluskey, Benjamin Means, Bill Nelson, J.S. Nelson, Chuck O’Kelley, James Park, Elizabeth Pollman, Mark Roe, Darren Rosenblum, Noah A. Rosenblum, Laura A. Rosenbury, D. Daniel Sokol, Faith Stevelman, Janice M. Traflet, Andrew Verstein, Harwell Wells, Bob Wright, and Larry Zacharias. The Author gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Frances Lewis Law Center, and the excellent research assistance of Franklin L. Runge, Alex Zhang, and law student Sasha Hoyt. Finally, the Author thanks the editors of the Stanford Law Review, especially Megan R. Izzo, Taylor Nicolas, and Danielle Tyler Roybal, for their extraordinary efforts in preparing the Article for publication.