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In the 1940s and ’50s, when Madeline McWhinney was a young economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, banking was such a men’s club that meetings were often held inside one. At such gatherings at the Union League Club on Park Avenue, which didn’t allow women to join until the late 1980s, Ms. McWhinney had to enter through a side door and be chaperoned by an older Fed official.
“Her approach was you power through it,” her son, Tom Dale, said. “But you do it on the basis of performance, competency, the value you’re delivering — not jawboning.”
In her quiet, confident, determined way, Madeline McWhinney rose through the organization’s ranks, becoming the first female officer of the Federal Reserve Bank in 1960. Five years earlier, she was the first woman to run for election to the board of trustees of the Federal Reserve Retirement System, which administered a $160 million pension fund. The position had traditionally been filled by a male vice president in an uncontested election.
“The man I’m running against is a nice guy,” she told The New York World-Telegram and Sun. “But it’s time he stepped down to make his chair available to a woman.”
A young Paul Volcker, later chairman of the Federal Reserve, was Ms. McWhinney’s campaign manager when she decided to challenge the incumbent, Frederick M. Smedley, for the spot on the board.
“We had fun. I got together a makeshift four-man band to parade down each floor (except the hallowed executive floor), passing out ‘Win With McWhinney’ campaign buttons to every employee,” Mr. Volcker wrote in his 2018 memoir, “Keeping at It.” “McWhinney won in a landslide.”
Ms. McWhinney was 98 when she died in her sleep on June 19 at her home in Red Bank, N.J., her sister Susan McWhinney-Morse said.
“My sister,” Ms. McWhinney-Morse wrote in an email, “represents what was most ambitious and most successful for a woman in the second half of the last century.”
Madeline McWhinney Dale — as she was known after her marriage to John Dale, a management consultant, in the early 1960s — had a 30-year career at the Fed, rising to assistant vice president, another first for a woman. But that was just a warm-up.
In 1974, she became president of the First Women’s Bank, the first full-service commercial bank in the United States that was majority owned and operated by women.
Headquartered at 111 East 57th Street in Manhattan, in a stylish office that was likened in press write-ups to an art gallery, the bank became a cause célèbre in feminist circles. Betty Friedan was one of its organizers. But Ms. McWhinney Dale made it clear that her decisions would be guided primarily by sound fiscal principles.
“It doesn’t do the woman a favor or our shareholders a favor to give a loan to a woman who cannot repay it,” she told The New York Times in 1975.
At the time, women were widely viewed as bad credit risks and had difficulty obtaining business loans or charge cards. Until the 1970s, a woman generally couldn’t open a personal checking account without her husband’s permission.
Ms. McWhinney Dale used her executive position to prove, as she told Newsweek, that women were “both an important source of executive talent and a group of potentially very good customers.”
And she instituted many ideas for improving the banking world. Those included requiring officers to work at desks on the banking floor, making them accessible to customers, as well as offering classes on money management and making libraries of financial and consumer publications available to the public.
Helen Dudar, a journalist who was a member of the bank’s recruiting committee, explained to a reporter why Ms. McWhinney Dale was chosen for the job.
“What stands out in my mind about Madeline is her self-image,” Ms. Dudar said. “There was never a question in her mind that she was capable of being president of a bank.”
Madeline Houston McWhinney was born on March 11, 1922, in Denver, to a family with a history in banking. Her father, Leroy McWhinney, was a lawyer who became president of the International Trust Company, a Denver bank. Her mother, Alice Barse (Houston) McWhinney, earned an economics degree from Smith College — though, like many women of her day, she stayed home with the children.
The McWhinneys were “Western with Eastern aspirations,” Ms. McWhinney-Morse, her sister, said, noting that all seven McWhinney children were sent east to college. Madeline McWhinney, like her mother, attended Smith. There, inspired by her father, who would discuss banking with her on their Sunday strolls, she earned a bachelor’s degree in finance. She later earned her M.B.A. at New York University, whose alumni association once named her “man of the year.”
Ms. McWhinney Dale went to work for the Fed in 1943, attracted by the higher salary (the Fed offered $300 more a year than other banks) and advancement opportunities (the men had all gone to war). As she reflected in a 2004 talk, one of her strategies for keeping her job and rising in the ranks of a male-dominated world was “doing all the things that the men didn’t want to do.”
That included specializing in computer technology and electronic communication, which in those days male bankers tended to view as beneath them. In 1960, Ms. McWhinney Dale’s knowledge led to her appointment as chief of the Fed’s newly created Market Statistics Department, which used computers to monitor the government securities market. It was an officer’s position, but as a woman she could not use the restroom on the officers’ floor.
Ms. McWhinney Dale’s presidency of the First Women’s Bank, though high-profile, was short-lived. She resigned in 1976 — frustrated, she later told her son, by how the politics of feminism on the board was interfering with her own mission of creating a successful financial institution. The First Women’s Bank never reached profitability, and it folded in 1992.
“But that’s a theme for her,” said Mr. Dale, who also became a banker. “She had goals. She got very frustrated when people got in her way.”
In addition to her son and her sister Susan, Ms. McWhinney Dale is survived by a stepson, John Dale Jr.; a brother, Rodney McWhinney; another sister, Cope McWhinney Craven; and four grandchildren. John Dale, her husband, died in 1993.
In later years, Ms. McWhinney Dale held a number of positions, among them board member of the Carnegie Corporation, trustee and chairwoman of the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, and life trustee and treasurer of the Institute for International Education.
In 1980, she was chosen to serve on the first New Jersey Casino Control Commission, when the state was planning to redevelop Atlantic City around casino gambling. In 1983, she joined the Whitney Museum of American Art as chief financial officer.
Although Ms. McWhinney Dale was undoubtedly a trailblazer who broke a glass ceiling, she preferred to do it quietly.
“She had a mild personality,” Ms. McWhinney-Morse said. “She took the world as it was and dealt with it. She was simply incredibly smart — smarter than most of the men she worked with.”
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