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When President Joseph Biden nominated Janet Yellen to become the first female Secretary of the United States Treasury, references to Alexander Hamilton began immediately. Invoking Lin Manuel-Miranda’s hit musical, Biden quipped that Yellen, like the first Treasury secretary, deserved her own production. In response, American Public Media’s Marketplace commissioned hip-hop artist Dessa to release “Who’s Yellen Now?” a “Hamilton”-style song about Biden’s appointee. Dessa’s playful lyrics recognize Yellen’s history-making nomination: “Watch your step, there’s busted glass/Janet broke another ceiling.”
Yellen has indeed shattered ceilings. But celebrating Yellen alongside Alexander Hamilton leaves out an important part of the story. Yellen is equally the heir of Hamilton’s female contemporaries, women like Temperance Talmage Grant, a shrewd and powerful shopkeeper from Newport, Rhode Island, then one of colonial New England’s largest ports.
Temperance Grant’s story teaches us that Yellen has not broken barriers that have existed unchanged since time immemorial. It forces us to consider both when and how the United States limited women’s financial powers, and how forward progress is not guaranteed.
Scores of colonial Newport’s men earned their livings from trade and the sea. All of this work led to men’s prolonged absences. Illnesses, injuries, shipwrecks, and battles led many to die far from home. By 1774, women dominated Newport’s population: the city possessed five adult women for every four adult men. A census in that year found that women headed one in five households, and women presided over even more households in practice.
During men’s absences, free white women stepped into the breach. They managed their families’ businesses and legal affairs, even hiring lawyers and filing court documents. Many did so while caring for growing families. Urban women bore, on average, six children.
Grant was one of these women. In 1735, Grant ran her family’s shop while her husband, a merchant and shopkeeper, was away on business. Twenty-six years old and a new mother, she juggled her shopkeeping duties and caring for her sickly infant. She managed inventory, waited on customers, and kept accounts documenting purchases. In a letter to her husband, Grant lamented that she felt alone and overwhelmed. It was, however, preparation for her future. Temperance Grant, like so many other Newport women, was widowed young. Her husband was surveying a warehouse in 1744 when a freak explosion occurred. He suffered severe burns and died within a week.
The widow Grant joined Newport’s ranks of women who ran stores and taverns. She harnessed her expertise by continuing to run her family’s shop. In so doing, she helped shaped the fiscal policies of her city. Grant faced weighty choices when soldiers, sailors, and their wives entered her shop. This clientele often arrived without cash, because maritime and military service compensated laborers only following the completion of their tours. Allowing such individuals to buy goods based on uncertain promises of payment involved risk, while turning them away deprived families of necessary clothing, food, and supplies.
As Grant sized up her customers, she also appraised the uncertain economic climate. Alternating periods of war and peace drove unpredictable cycles of economic growth and recession. These led to fluctuations in the value of money, consumer demand, and the prices and supply of goods, all of which affected Grant’s shopkeeping business.
Temperance Grant had no choice but to act as her own financial institution. There were no large private banks to provide loans. There was no United States Treasury or Federal Reserve to stabilize markets or the monetary supply. Grant’s lending policies contributed to Newport’s financial infrastructure. Like other female retailers, she consistently allowed sailors, soldiers, and their families to purchase goods on credit against their future wages. Her actions greased the wheels of Atlantic commerce and provided an important safety net to lower-class households.
Grant defended her business practices in the face of criticism. In 1746, less than two years after her husband’s death, she sued a local ship captain for slandering her. Her words in that lawsuit made clear that she saw herself as a powerful entrepreneur. She boldly insisted that she “carried on a large share of Trade and Merchandize” and that she was “well esteemed” for her “just & honest dealing among mankind.” The case helped preserve her reputation. She remained a prosperous shopkeeper, regular litigant, and important lender for decades. She died in 1791 at the age of eighty-two.
When George Washington assumed the presidency in 1789, neither he nor anyone else could fathom appointing Temperance Grant or any other women to the position of Treasury Secretary. Yet the prospect of a female nominee only became even more remote as the United States grew beyond its infancy. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the United States grappled with the meanings and boundaries of capitalism and wage labor. Sermons, magazines, and schoolbooks discouraged middle-class and elite women from following in Temperance Grant’s footsteps and didn’t make mention of the efforts of those who did. Business and finance became the purviews of men; the ideal woman was a dutiful wife and mother who cultivated the home as a refuge from the workplace.
Legal and financial institutions reinforced these cultural shifts. During the early nineteenth century, legal theorists and courts restricted wives’ ability to contract by narrowly interpreting marriage law. In comparison with the colonial period, men who wrote wills left fewer assets to their widows and restricted their daughters’ control over their inheritance. New financial institutions of the nineteenth century, credit bureaus and banks, hesitated to loan to women, viewing them as less trustworthy than male borrowers. In Temperance Grant’s hometown of Newport, a city battered by the American Revolution, these transformations curtailed women’s power as the city shifted from a bustling colonial seaport to a nineteenth-century summer retreat.
Today we often tout the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which ensured that women could apply for credit in their own names and without male co-signers, as enabling women’s entry into finance. In fact, this act unraveled barriers erected in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, not ones present in Temperance Grant’s world. In colonial British North America, women could be recognized as skilled financiers and power brokers. The glass ceiling of Dessa’s lyrics gained new strength during the nineteenth century. When we situate Janet Yellen only within the lineage of male Treasury secretaries, we feed a reassuring but problematic narrative: that women have enjoyed a continually upward trajectory since the United States’ founding. That simply isn’t so.
Now, amidst a global pandemic, we are witnessing another crucial redefinition of women’s workforce contributions. Women have lost a majority of the jobs lost since the start of the pandemic. Due to the struggles of balancing work and childcare, many others have exited the workforce. These trends have disproportionately affected Black, Hispanic, and Latina women. Women’s workforce participation is now back to where it was in the late 1980s – decades of growth wiped out in mere months.
It is against this backdrop that Yellen’s appointment and Dessa’s song stand out as bright spots. If we want to ensure that the glass ceiling shattered by Yellen remains dismantled, we need to remember that only concerted legal, institutional, and cultural measures can preserve other women’s ability to follow in Yellen’s footsteps. While celebrating Yellen alongside Hamilton acknowledges her historic appointment, recalling Temperance Grant and her female descendants underscores the power of Yellen’s office.
Sara T. Damiano is an Assistant Professor of History at Texas State University. She is the author of To Her Credit: Women, Finance, and the Law in Eighteenth-Century New England Cities, forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.