top of page

The Witch of Wall Street by Nigel Roth

When Kamala Harris was sworn in there was indeed a reason to celebrate.

Of course, we could point out the fact that she’s not actually a head of state, and there are over one-hundred-and-fifty women who have been or currently are, from Khertek Anchimaa-Toka in 1940, to Grazia Zafferani in 2020, and who we could be celebrating, but that’s beside the point.

In the United States, where a stunted ideology that dictates who can actually be a President is ingrained in the American psyche, Harris has achieved what many saw as the unachievable.

There are also women that are heralded today as heroes in a world dominated by men, like the author Mel Robbins, or CEO Bethenny Frankel, or the Editor-in-Chief, Radhika Jones, but it always feels somewhat patronizing when they’re ‘listed’.

One person hardly ever talked about though, is the businesswoman, financier, and ‘richest woman in America’, Henrietta Howland Robinson.

For Robinson’s story, you’d have to travel almost one-hundred-and-fifty years into the past, way before Indira Gandhi led India, or Golda Meir Israel, or Isabel Martinez de Peron Argentina.

And in many ways, Robinson outdid all of these women.

Born into the richest whaling family in Massachusetts, in 1834, Robinson could quite easily have rested on her laurels, or the piles of money that adorned the family home, but didn’t for one second.

Before she was ten years old, she could be found reading the financial papers to her father, and stock quotations and commerce reports to her grandfather, and began honing her business acumen while studying at a boarding school, where she learnt reading, writing, arithmetic, and how to decipher ledgers and understand trade commodities.

By thirteen she was shadowing the male members of her family as they visited countinghouses, and watched stockbrokers and commodity traders at work. In her evenings, to relax, she would read the financial news to the family.

And by twenty years of age, in 1854, Robinson was living with her aunt in New York.

There then followed a series of events, unfortunate or fortunate (depending how you look at them), that furnished Robinson with the financial foundation she needed to put her commercial education into practice.

First, her mother Abby died, leaving Robinson $230,000 (in today's equivalent).

Next, her aunt gifted her stocks she had invested on Robinson’s behalf. Add $580,000 (in today's money) to Robinson’s balance.

Then, her father Edward died, leaving her an inheritance from his whaling business.

Put another $101,000,000 into her checking account.

I think at this point I might have upgraded my dishwasher and headed off on a grand tour of somewhere, but Robinson’s cash foundation was not yet finished being laid.

Her other aunt, Sylvia died, soon after her father, leaving Robinson her loose change.