Although she's little-remembered today, personal finance columnist Sylvia Porter was one of the best-known and most admired women in 1950s America. A nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, she also wrote books, appeared on TV shows such as Meet the Press and advised presidents. Her monthly column in the Ladies Home Journal broke ground by encouraging women to control their own finances.
Porter came of age during the Great Depression, and she studied economics to understand why the stock market had crashed. In 1934, she began writing a regular column on government bonds for American Banker under the byline "S.F. Porter." She soon graduated to the New York Post, where she earned fans by translating complex financial issues — what she called "bafflegag" — into concepts that ordinary readers could understand.
"At the time, most financial news was written for the business class or for the wealthy," Lucht says. "She took the middle class seriously and she began writing for regular people. She thought it was immoral for large corporations and large investors to profit at the expense of regular Americans. So that is why she engaged in a campaign to increase people's financial literacy."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now, if you rely on advice like this to make decisions about buying insurance or setting up a budget, you are not alone. These days, you can turn on the radio, the TV; open up a magazine or fire up a website; and get all kinds of advice about how to handle your money. But did you know that before there was Suze Orman, before there were our own Alvin Hall or Louis Barajas, there was just one - Sylvia Porter, who basically invented the genre. Now, there is a new biography about her - amazingly, the first. It's titled "Sylvia Porter: America's Original Personal Finance Columnist." The author is Tracy Lucht, who teaches journalism at Iowa State University. And she's with us now from Iowa Public Radio, in Ames. Professor Lucht, thank you so much for joining us.
TRACY LUCHT: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: You know, you remind us that at one point, in the '60s and '70s, Sylvia Porter was one of the best-known, one of the most admired women of her time. She was a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist. She wrote books. She was on "Meet the Press." She had a column in Ladies' Home Journal. But you're too young to remember all that, so how did you get interested in her story?
LUCHT: Well, I came across her while I was doing research in graduate school. And I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that I had not known who she was. And I started doing some research and realized what she had done, and how significant she was. And, to be honest, I was shocked that nobody had written about her in this way before.
MARTIN: As was I, to be honest. So thank you for this. How did she get into financial writing, to begin with?
LUCHT: Well, it's just a fascinating story. She started writing during the Depression, when women were not usually hired to cover finance for newspapers. But she had majored in economics at Hunter College. She changed her major after the market crash of 1929 because she wanted to understand how this had happened. And she also wanted to write for a general audience. Several news outlets would not hire her. Finally, the New York Post did, in 1935. And she wrote under the byline of S.F. Porter, to hide the fact that she was a woman. Now, she became so popular with readers because she was very adept at boiling down complicated topics into average, everyday language that regular people could understand. And from there, she just built a following; and she expanded it to include a magazine column, books, media appearances.
MARTIN: She was a personal brand before we even knew what that was.
LUCHT: Exactly. Exactly.
MARTIN: You know, and you talked about the fact that she was - if I could use this term - evangelical about trying to explain complicated concepts to people. She said - in fact, you quote her this way. She says: I feel that I'm conducting what almost amounts to a crusade...
LUCHT: That's right.
MARTIN: ...To try to put these economic developments that affect everything we do, into language which the average man and woman cannot only understand but will want to read because they are really interested.
What was it about that, that was so revolutionary at the time?
LUCHT: Well, at the time, most financial news was written for the business class or for the wealthy - people who had money and, you know, wanted information that was right up their alley. She took the middle class seriously. And she began writing for regular people. She thought it was immoral for large corporations and large investors to profit at the expense of regular Americans. And so that is why she engaged in a crusade to increase people's financial literacy. She wanted us all to understand all of this stuff so that we could make better decisions with our money - and also with our votes.
MARTIN: You know, it's interesting that you write about the fact that she was this kind of interesting bundle of contradictions - if I can put it that way. You say that...
LUCHT: Very much so.
MARTIN: ...She was, in a lot of ways, a populist...
LUCHT: She was.
MARTIN: ...In that she wrote for the little guy, for Mr. and Mrs. America. But she had some - how can we describe this? Some - I don't know how to describe...
LUCHT: Blind spots?
MARTIN: If you will, about - why don't you characterize it.
LUCHT: OK, so she did have a lot of blind spots that came with her success. And that came from, in some ways, where thinking on issues - for instance, related to equality - where at the time, she was a proponent of professional women's rights; she wanted a level playing field. But she wrote about, and thought about, equality. She didn't talk about difference. And so that led her to have a certain bias, in terms of class. She really believed that everybody, if they were given a level playing field, that you really could succeed if you wanted to. And that led her, I think, to paper over some of the differences and experiences that people of color were having, that people of the working class were having, and so on.
MARTIN: Give some examples.
LUCHT: She wrote a lot about what she called the servant problem - meaning, the trouble that she, in particular, was having in finding what she would consider...
MARTIN: Good help.
LUCHT: Good household help. And so...
MARTIN: That pesky help.
LUCHT: (Laughter) That's right. So, yeah, that led her to...
MARTIN: So she didn't really see these women as working women, too?
LUCHT: I think that she would not see them at her level, and I think that's what her bias was. You know, she was a bit of an elitist, in that particular way. And she didn't think that as the employer of domestic workers, that she should have to pay their portion - her - the employer's portion of Social Security. However, she also felt that they would not necessarily be responsible enough to pay their own share of Social Security. You know, so there were some contradictions in her writing, in those ways.
MARTIN: Do you have any idea how she sorted all that out in her own mind?
LUCHT: Well, you know, if I'm honest, I think that she - she wrote five days a week, so she was writing a column every day. And I think that she didn't necessarily step back very often from her work, and look at it in its entirety. She was a brilliant economist. I mean, that's really undeniable. But on a personal level, I don't think that she really had the awareness to step back and examine consistencies or inconsistencies in her thinking.
MARTIN: What do you think her legacy is today? It's interesting that in a way, the shine came off her reputation...
MARTIN: ...Later in her career, in part because of the very thing you talk about. I mean...
MARTIN: She was writing so much and that she started to delegate...
MARTIN: ...Some of this work, not just to household help...
MARTIN: But also to ghostwriters.
LUCHT: That's right.
MARTIN: And they didn't always attend to the quality of the work, to the degree that they might have. And then - kind of some of the shine came off her reputation. So what do you think her legacy is? And do you have a theory about why it is that we don't remember her in the way we do other women pioneers? So two things: What do you think her legacy is, and why do you think she is not better known at this point?
LUCHT: Yeah. I would say that it's perhaps her large impact that has contributed to the fact that we don't remember her as much as we might. And the reason I say that is because, as you mentioned, personal finance has become so ubiquitous. We see it everywhere. So I think it's so almost - I don't want to say ordinary, but it's so familiar to us that perhaps we haven't questioned its origins. And I think that speaks to her legacy to how influential she was. But perhaps it's led us to look at what she did as maybe less notable than we would look at, say, Eleanor Roosevelt.
MARTIN: I don't know if you feel comfortable speculating about this. But having done this deep dive into her work, if she were alive today, what do you think she'd be writing about?
LUCHT: Well, she would be all over income inequality. We've been hearing about what the gap is, the biggest that it's been, I think, ever. And certainly for a while, we were making comparisons with the 1920s, you know, leading up to the crash in 1929. But she would be writing about that, in terms of what it means for us as a country, what it has meant historically and the potential consequences of it.
She would also have been all over subprime lenders and the mortgage crisis. I found myself actually, in 2008, wishing that she were still with us because she would have, I think, taken the banks to task - because she sided with the little guy. And I think that she would have been mortified by a lot of what was going on at the time.
MARTIN: Tracy Lucht is the author of "Sylvia Porter: America's Original Personal Finance Columnist." She's also an assistant professor in the Greenlee School of Journalism, at Iowa State University. And she joined us from Iowa Public Radio, which is in Ames, Iowa. Professor Lucht, thank you so much for speaking with us.
LUCHT: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.