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The spotlight proved to be a springboard, catapulting Porter from city columnist to nationally recognized financial authority. Her name could soon be relied on to sell books, newsletters and magazines; radio and television reporters regularly sought out her commentary.
In the coming years, a number of U.S. presidents would ask for her help. John F. Kennedy would appoint her to his Consumer Advisory Council; Lyndon B. Johnson would ask her to preside over the Export-Import Bank of the United States, a position she ultimately declined; and Gerald Ford would name her chair of Citizens Action Committee to Fight Inflation.
Tracy Lucht, in her new book, “Sylvia Porter: America’s Original Personal Finance Columnist,” attributes Porter’s success to her ability to “convince both colleagues and readers that although her authority was as valid as a man’s, she was not trying to overturn society.” Lucht, an assistant professor at the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University, explores how Porter would shrewdly adapt her arguments to the prevailing gender norms of the day.
In the 1930s and 1940s, she framed her case for women in the workforce in terms of individual liberties and documented how their work buoyed the U.S. war effort. In the conservative postwar years, she attributed women’s march into the workplace to economic need, rather than a desire for self-actualization.
Porter went so far as to suggest that husbands in two-income families ought to pay for larger expenses, such as housing, taxes and insurance, while wives should foot the bill for groceries, at-home entertainment and housekeepers — not your standard feminist rhetoric. But as one of Porter’s former assistants put it: “Sylvia wasn’t really interested in social movements. She was interested in Sylvia.”
And Porter remained interested and interesting until the end, continuing her syndicated newspaper column until two months before she died in 1991, just shy of her 78th birthday, from complications of emphysema.
Lucht’s academic biography provides a fascinating contextual analysis of Porter’s six-decade career in business journalism. By her own admission, she includes few details about Porter’s personal life, making only passing references to the columnist’s fiery personality, heavy drinking, chain smoking, devotion to her Russian immigrant mother, and relationship with her own daughter, Cris. Her motivations, inspirations, challenges and demons remain largely unexplored. So, too, does Porter’s Jewish upbringing on Long Island and her ongoing affiliation, if any, with Judaism or other faith traditions.
Her impact is evident in the work of Jane Bryant Quinn, Suze Orman, Jean Chatzky and other contemporary stars of the personal finance genre she helped create. It can also be seen in the rise of the journalist-as-multimedia celebrity. Porter was the original cross-platform star, honing her personal brand decades before it became de rigueur for scribes to do so.
Gabrielle Birkner is a Forward contributing editor. She is co-founder of Modern Loss, a site geared toward young adults who have lost loved ones.