Undo Undo Wilma Soss | History News Network
Robert E. Wright (Ph.D., history, SUNY Bufalo, 1997) is a senior fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research and (co)author of 24 books on economic and political history.
Janice M. Traflet (Ph.D., History, Columbia, 2004) is associate professor of management at Bucknell University’s Freeman College of Management and author of A Nation of Small Shareholders: Post-World War II Wall Street Marketing (Hopkins 2013).
They are the co-authors of Intrepid: Wilma Soss and the American Forgotten Investor Movement
Cancel culture is big news because of the new way it’s being done, via social media. But it’s actually an age-old practice called social ostracization. Shunning and shaming anyone for mere words, especially in a country that celebrates free speech, is rarely justified, so we hope to see many cancellations undone.
Above all, we hope to dismiss Wilma Soss. Chances are you’ve never heard of her except here at HNN. But you should have! Soss (1900-1986), one of the most prominent shareholder activists of her time – and a well-known radio host – was a household name in America in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Cadillac in solid gold, a hit Broadway play and Hollywood movie starring leading actors, was based on his life and personality. High-profile magazine articles recount his exploits and popular newspapers such as the New York Times often discussed his activities. Additionally, Soss’ voice filled homes weekly with his popular radio show, “Pocketbook News,” which aired on NBC radio from 1957 to 1980.
We believe powerful players effectively canceled her when she couldn’t hold her own, but today she deserves renewed recognition and respect, especially among those who consider themselves progressive. Yet Soss does not have a Wikipedia page, and apart from a few obituaries and a few mentions in law review articles, almost nothing has been written about him since his death in 1986. Until, that is -to say, Without fearour biography of her, comes out in bookstores on August 30th.
Social ostracism has a long history which must be carefully distinguished from organizational exclusion. Being excommunicated by the Pope, disavowed by Quakers, or expelled from a fellowship or country club for misconduct is different because the rules have been broken, the evidence assessed, and the formal rulings rendered. Social ostracism is less formal and is ultimately only enforced by individuals who choose not to interact with accused offenders. Abolitionists and slave owners canceled each other out in the 1830s, for example, as did teetotalers and drinkers.
Ostracism, avoidance or cancellation are not the only sanctions that social groups use to punish unacceptable behaviors or beliefs. Another, called rough music or charivari, involved singing bawdy songs and banging on pots and pans outside the offender’s home at night. Destroying someone’s dinner is a modern equivalent.
Many cases of hullabaloo involved efforts to enforce community norms around gender and marriage. The traditional practice had largely died out in urban America by the time Soss married in the early 1920s, but her then highly unusual relationship with husband Joseph Soss was precisely the kind of thing that earned people a chilling midnight serenade. . In the 1930s and 1940s, Soss, née Wilma Porter Weissman, not only continued to work, but surpassed her wife, probably by far thanks to the resounding success of her public relations consultancy. And after World War II, she made her own investment decisions and started a nonprofit to help other women do the same. Joe supported Soss in all of his endeavors, but others weren’t so enamored with his bold efforts to defy convention.
Throughout her career, particularly as a corporate activist, Soss has minimized her marital status as much as possible. But she couldn’t minimize the fact that she was a woman, and an attractive, fashionably dressed woman. Worse still, she developed independent ideas that she shared widely in print, on air and, even more shockingly, to halls full of men at annual shareholder meetings. Unescorted by her husband Joe! Not only did Soss not defer to her not-so-natural superiors, but she sometimes talked so much that she was ordered to be physically escorted from meetings by big, burly Pinkerton detectives hired by corporations to keep onlookers in check. line.
But the most disturbing thing of all was that Soss spoke truth to power. Too many CEOs overcharged themselves, engaged in shady accounting and business practices, and abused their power at shareholder meetings. They ignored The Rules of the Order of Robertmuted his microphone and blocked voting reforms, like cumulative voting and the secret ballot, that would have somehow curbed their power.
Soss was too shrewd and fearless to be completely undone in her lifetime, hiring her own bodyguards and employing megaphones if necessary. But when she died with no close relatives alive and only one young friend, Evelyn Y. Davis, more concerned with making a name for herself than protecting Soss’s, calling it off was as simple as never mentioning her name.
When our biography of his successes, however, Soss will not be canceled. Not everyone will agree with everything she has done or said, but everyone will agree that her story is important and worth telling, perhaps still by Hollywood. Standards change and Soss has been instrumental in creating some of the best standards today.