Sarah C. Haan


Even a cursory review of the history of American environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) shareholder activism reveals the presence of women leaders. This Article sketches some of this history and interrogates the role of women in the shareholder activism movement. That movement typically has involved claims by minority shareholders to corporate power; activists are nearly always on the margins of power, though minority shareholders may, collectively, represent a majority interest. This Article ascribes women’s leadership in shareholder activism to their longstanding position as outsiders to corporate organization. Women’s participation in shaping corporate policy—even from the margins—has provided women with unique opportunities for leadership and challenged stereotypes about the role of women in public life, while also challenging and reforming business practices and policies.

Much of this Article sketches the history of American women in shareholder activism, beginning in the 1890s with Ellen M. Henrotin, perhaps the first person to recognize the potential for collective action among women shareholders. This Article describes the ESG activism of Louise de Koven Bown, another Chicago socialite, and explores the rise of women activists after World War II, led by Wilma Soss, who pursued a mix of social and governance reforms and even achieved some fame in popular culture. Unlike their male counterparts, such as Lewis Gilbert, women activists were savaged by the press. This Article describes the role of women shareholder activists after the emergence of institutional investing, from the Sisters of the Precious Blood, a group of nuns who waged a shareholder activism campaign against the manufacturers of infant formula, to the Corporate Social Responsibility movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the leadership of such women as Alice Tepper Marlin, Joan Bavaria, Amy Domini, and Nell Minow. Finally, this Article describes the experience of a twenty-first century asset manager who ran into sexism in the shareholder-manager dynamic and exposed it in the Financial Times in 2018. This Article concludes by summing up some key insights from this history.

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