September 2015 Features

A Pioneer’s Transformative Gift

Archways_Isabel-BenhamIsabel Hamilton Benham ’31, one of the first women to make partner at a Wall Street bond house, recently bequeathed a gift of $15 million to Bryn Mawr.

“Isabel Benham defied convention and broke barriers throughout her life,” says President Kim Cassidy, “and through her accomplishments and her philanthropy, she continues to be an inspiration to successive generations of students here at Bryn Mawr. Her transformational gift will support the College’s top priorities by providing permanent endowment funding for women in science as well as our faculty in international studies.”

An economics major at Bryn Mawr, Benham’s post-collegiate dream of working on Wall Street was unheard of in her time. In fact, she was advised to enroll in a “secretarial course.” She persisted nonetheless, and her many remarkable accomplishments include being the first woman on Wall Street to study the railroad industry, the first female vice president and voting stockholder at Shearson Hammill (later Salomon Smith Barney), one of the first women to be named partner in a Wall Street bond house, the first woman to be on the board of directors of a railroad, and one of the first women to hold a seat on the New York Stock Exchange.

Benham’s groundbreaking career in finance and railroads spanned more than six decades. She did not just study the industry on paper but also “rode the rails” and inspected the facilities for herself. Benham thrived through the busts, such as the widespread railroad bankruptcies of the 1930s and 1970s, and the booms, including the mergers and conglomerates of the 1950s and 1960s. She was the first rail analyst in the 1970s to propose the business concept of “open access,” which came to characterize the railroad, telecommunications, pipeline, and utilities industries.

Benham’s love for Bryn Mawr, and her generosity throughout her lifetime, literally changed the face of the Bryn Mawr campus. With her help, the College was able in the late 1980s to restore the iconic clock in the steeple of Taylor Hall. She also funded the construction of the current admissions building, which is named in her honor, and helped pay for improvements and renovations to several other campus buildings. Beyond bricks and mortar, the Isabel Benham Fund for Faculty Research has provided critical early career support, for more than 20 years, to faculty at the start of their Bryn Mawr lives.

As Cassidy notes, “Her pursuit of excellence regardless of the obstacles she faced and her desire to share her wisdom and success with Bryn Mawr is truly Isabel’s greatest legacy. It is fitting that, through her bequest, she will be helping today’s students pursue their passions and change their own worlds.”

Born in Buffalo, New York, Benham passed away in May 2013 at the age of 103.

Above: Isabel Benham ’31 during an inspection tour in 1956. “I am a practical railroader, dealing only in finance,” she told one interviewer. “What is romantic to me is putting two railroads together where they can become a more profitable system.” Photograph courtesy of The Museum of American Finance.