On October 28, 1958, Mary Roebling became the first woman to become a governor of the American Stock Exchange. When she received this honor, Roebling had already achieved another major first for businesswomen in 1937 when she became the first female president of a major American commercial bank, Trenton Trust Company. The self-named “Banker in High Heels” leveraged her powerful position to make revolutionary changes in commercial banking, encouraging more female involvement in economic matters and influencing government policies related to the military. Forbes magazine accurately summed up her boundary-breaking success in banking when they wrote, “Mary G. Roebling didn’t wait for women’s lib, she was ahead of it, way ahead.”
In 1907, she was born Mary Gindhart in West Collingswood, NJ to a telephone company executive father and music teacher mother. Although her family lived comfortably, they instilled in her the value of hard work. In high school, Roebling earned pocket money selling strawberries for a penny a box. She married World War I veteran, Arthur Herbert, at 17, but he died three years into their marriage from blood poisoning.
In order to make a living, Roebling’s parents encouraged her to take night classes at the Wharton School in Philadelphia while working as a secretary by day at a brokerage firm. It was at the office where she met, Siegfried “Sig” Roebling, grandson to Brooklyn Bridge builder, Washington Roebling. Sig was wealthy, with interests in the family’s wire-rope plant and the family bank, Trenton Trust. They married in 1933, but in 1936 Sig tragically died from a stroke at age 46.
Recognizing her strong business acumen and clout in Trenton society, the trustees of Trenton Trust invited Roebling to take over her late husband’s seat on the board. On January 21, 1937, she was unanimously elected to the position and she increased the bank’s assets to $70 million by 1951 and they had risen to $1.3 billion when she retired as board chairman in 1984. She was responsible for many innovations in the banking business, most notably the walk-up window in the 1940s and creating a more overall customer-oriented environment at the bank.
Aside from serving as the first female governor of the American Stock Exchange (now called the NYSE American) from 1958-1962, Roebling was director of various other corporations and charities in her lifetime, always a passionate advocate for more economics-related jobs for women. In a 1965 speech, she said, “As a woman who for years has competed in the business world, I would be the first to agree that the American woman has almost unbelievable economic power, but American women, like women of all civilized nations, do not use the influence their economic power gives them.” As a staunch supporter of the military and a political conservative, Roebling worked with every administration from Nixon to George H.W. Bush on matters related to American armed forces.
After retiring in 1984, Roebling died in 1994 at 89 years old. Her enduring legacy is the countless women boldly breaking the glass ceiling of the banking industry today, high heels or not.