In the 1930s-1980s, where did you get your financial news? The smart money was on an insightful journalist and economist with the enigmatic byline S.F. Porter.
Only after nearly a decade of leadership and a daily column did this writer’s full name appear, plus a photo: Sylvia Field Porter. Unmistakably female! In an interview for New Women in Social Sciences, Porter later reflected, “On that day I became a woman.” By the time she died in 1991, Sylvia was a nationally syndicated columnist with 45 million readers in 450 newspapers across the country. Historian Peggy K. Pearlstein tells her story, which goes like this:
Sylvia’s young mother, widowed, changed the family name from Feldman to Field and built a successful millinery business. She lost what was to them a great sum the 1929 stock market crash. Shocked, Sylvia wanted to understand, so she switched her Hunter College major from English and history to economics, graduating magna cum laude. She married a banker and apprenticed at several Wall Street investment firms, building her expertise.
In 1934, when “S.F. Porter” began writing for American Banker, her bosses thought it better to hide her female identity, giving birth to her byline. In 1935, she started freelancing for The New York Evening Post. Her editor initially found the idea of a woman reporter “amusing.” It surely amused Sylvia to become the Post’s financial editor in 1938, the first woman to head up a big city financial news desk. Readers turned to Porter’s daily column, ultimately titled “S.F. Porter Says,” in droves. It took four years for her editors to recognize her identity as an asset, adding her full name and photo.
Sylvia devoted herself to making finance easily understandable to the public. She saw herself as a consumer advocate, encouraging everyone to get educated. She especially pushed women to take charge of their own finances in an age when many people thought thinking about money was best left to men. She disdained what she termed “bafflegab:” the art of making finance and government confounding. Her 1,105-page handbook, “Sylvia Porter’s Money Book: How to Earn It, Spend It, Save It, Invest It, Borrow It, and Use It to Better Your Life,” based partially on a quarter century of her columns, became a bestseller. Not baffling at all!
Read more about Sylvia Field Porter in in her entry by Peggy K. Pearlstein in “Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia,” from which this introduction is adapted, and discover hundreds of inspiring stories in the Jewish Women’s Archive: jwa.org.
As part of our month-long series dedicated to Jewish American Heritage Month, Kveller and the Jewish Women’s Archive bring to light little-known stories of inspiring, intriguing Jewish American women whose legacies still change our lives today. To explore even more, visit jwa.org.