The Unforgettable Wilma Soss
The first person ever to demand that directors put women on their boards
Wilma Porter Soss (b. March, 1900 in San Francisco, d. Oct. 1986 in Brooklyn) was one of the most colorful, persistent and totally unforgettable people ever to storm an Annual Shareholder Meeting… and actually one of the most successful, and widely admired shareholder activists ever.
She started off in the PR industry - successfully repping for department stores, motion picture studios - and the silk industry. In 1948, she and eight other women founded The Municipal Bond Women’s Club of New York. Shortly thereafter she founded the Federation of Women Shareholders in American Businesses, Inc.
And then, in 1949, she launched her second career - as a shareholder activist - when she descended on the U.S. Steel meeting in a long, purple, Victorian costume - set off by an enormous purple hat - and where she had obviously tipped-off the press in advance: “This costume represents management’s thinking on stockholder relations” she announced at top volume, in her cultured and rather melodious voice…and then went on to demand that U.S. Steel put at least one woman on their board.
Soon she was a fixture at almost every large-company meeting, where she used her PR skills to great effect. Usually, she was impeccably turned out - in a fashionable dress or suit and usually with an eye-catching hat and gloves and veil to boot. She also had impeccable diction, that always-melodious and aristocratic-sounding voice, and an imperious speaking style when it came time to make her demands…that assured she would always get attention from the audience - and from the management too. But every so often she’s come to a meeting in an elaborately outlandish costume… designed to make a point…and to be sure the press would pick up on it.
Aside from her tireless campaigning to get women onto corporate boards, her top mission, she said, was to educate women - and eliminate financial illiteracy. So she always peppered the management with lots of other questions, with that objective in mind. In the 50s and 60s she was often on the radio - and, for a while, had her own 25-minute radio program, “Pocketbook News” - where she’d remind women that most of them would outlive their husbands, so they’d better learn to balance a checkbook - and to have their own bank accounts - and their own stock and bond portfolios, which was a very rare thing back then… and that even before a husband’s demise, “women own half of all the stock in America” she’d constantly remind.
In 1960 she made the front pages and the TV evening news when she appeared at the CBS annual meeting dressed as a cleaning woman, with pail and mop, to “clean up everything” at CBS after the quiz-show scandals, where CBS was caught giving answers to the “$64,000 Question” to the more interesting and telegenic participants. (We think that Carol Burnett got her idea for the cleaning lady costume straight from Wilma’s meeting get-up.)
Then in 1970 she arrived at the famous GM meeting at Cobo Hall in Detroit. Your editor’s great friend and fellow industry historian Al (Alexander) Miller, who founded the old Shareholder Communications Corporation, and later bought and chaired Georgeson for quite a while, was there, “at the behest of the organizers of Campaign GM…helping them with the mechanics of proxy statement distribution, pro-bono” he told us.
”Soss came into the meeting hall in a wheelchair, swathed in gauze bandages with fake blood, to dramatize the unsafe cars that were the subject of Ralph Nader’s book. The then-Chairman, James Roche presided, standing at the podium and taking on all comers for seven hours straight. Watching the last episode of ‘Mad Men’ and seeing the Coke commercial brought it back to me…as did your email” he emailed us. And another tid-bit for historians, most people say the leading character in the movie “The Solid Gold Cadillac” - where an indefatigable lady singlehandedly wins a proxy fight and ousts the management against all odds - is based on Wilm Soss.
We have our own indelible memory of Wilma - where we were so embarrassed we wanted to hide behind the draperies. We still laugh out loud every time we think of the “who’s on first” shareholder meeting imbroglio at the Japan Fund, which was held in the old Manny Hanny’s swankiest conference room, because one of our most senior officers was a director.
For the first time ever, the Fund wanted their Chairman to preside, instead of the U.S. based President, so he came specially, from Japan, to do so. But OUCH! He did not speak a word of English. And despite the last-minute efforts to coach him with the “phonetics” - no one - and least of all Wilma, who had become very hard of hearing - could understand a single word. “This is an outrage” she shouted…not knowing, or perhaps forgetting how much the Japanese value courtesy and proper respect for their ‘seniors.’ “So the honorable Chairman will speak in Japanese, and our honorable Vice President will translate” the Corporate Secretary gamely announced. But OUCH AGAIN! The Vice President’s English was nearly as incomprehensible as the Chairman’s was. Wilma went wild…while all the other attendees (except for those on the dais) were laughing uncontrollably. A meeting to remember, for sure.
Wilma attended her last meeting - of The New York Times - just a few weeks before she died. Chairman Arthur Ochs Sulzberger remarked, in the Times of course, that “She represented the small shareholders with dignity, pride and courtesy. Sometimes we may have grown a little impatient with her long lists of questions, but she never provoked dismay or anger” (except for that one time at old Manny Hanny, where rollicking laughter turned the language flap into a fun-fest - and where even Wilma had to laugh come the end.)