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Editor’s note: While researching this story, Nav.it reached out to the New York Federal Reserve. The Bank provided a transcript of an interview Madeline McWhinney gave in July 2008 for the Bank’s Oral History Program. All of Madeline McWhinney’s quotes are from this transcript.


hat do Lin-Manuel Miranda and Madeline McWhinney have in common?  They both have a strong connection to the United States central banking system, the Federal Reserve. (OK, that may be a bit of a stretch, but who can resist making a “Hamilton” reference when you’re talking about the Fed?)

They also broke through systematic limitations, ultimately changing the world’s perception about what can and cannot be done. Lin-Manuel Miranda turned the traditional musical on its head, telling an old story using a fresh sound and diverse cast. Madeline McWhinney landed a gig as the first woman Federal Reserve officer in New York.

Post-War Job Security

It was 1943 by the time Madeline McWhinney joined the Fed’s New York bank. She was recruited straight from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts as a junior statistician for the newly established market statistics department.

Madeline said she was responsible for collecting statistics—from banks, stores, etc.—and analyzing them for senior staff and for the public. “For many years, I wrote the then-lead article on the Bank’s monthly bulletin about what was happening in the money market and government securities market,” she said.

World War II required women to step up, not only in the defense industry but in the American workforce in general. When the war ended in 1945, the American economy was in better shape for most Americans than anyone could have imagined. However, it came at a price.

“After the end of the war, a good many of my friends lost their jobs as banks and others made room for the men coming back from the war,” Madeline said. “Fortunately, the Federal Reserve Bank had more work to do than it had before so that I didn’t lose my job. But I wanted to be sure I wasn’t going to, so I did the things that the men didn’t want to do, and one of them in those days was the computer.”

Madeline’s foresight to work with the computers positioned her to organize communications systems for the New York Fed and the other Federal Reserve banks across the country.

“We could receive the data here fast and analyze it and have our weekly data ready for the use within the Bank, and, of course, give it to the newspapers for the use of everybody else,” she said. “The work that we were doing in the Statistics department gave us a lot of light on the kinds of things that might be happening and could happen, and what could be improved.”

On the Outside

Even as she served on and worked with many committees within the Fed, Madeline faced hurdles in the form of societal standards.

For example, Madeline described how then-president (from 1941 to 1956) of the New York Fed, Allan Sproul, discussed her articles with the head of the Economics and Research Function, and said that the articles didn’t always reflect the Bank’s opinion. But Madeline couldn’t accurately reflect the Bank’s opinions in her reports because she—as a woman—wasn’t allowed in the trading room to attend the meetings. (anyone else thinking about “Hidden Figures”?)

“When Mr. Sproul found out about that he immediately changed the rule, and I could get in and know what was happening with the [Federal Open Market Committee],” she said. “And that made it much easier for me to know what they needed and what was happening.”

It wasn’t Madeline’s goal to be the first woman in the room, but by simply being there and doing her job well, she was changing men’s perception of what women could do.

In 1960, 13 years after Madeline started working at the New York Fed, she was appointed assistant vice president, making her the first female officer.

Madame Vice President

Madeline described a general disbelief that a woman would ever become an officer, but she didn’t seem to care about that. She continued to do her job, despite the naysayers. In fact, Madeline described her peers as accepting and cooperative, before and after she became an officer.

For example, when her boss on the Statistics Committee couldn’t attend a meeting, he decided to send Madeline in his place.

“I happened to be in his office when the Chicago Fed called and said ‘No women allowed.’ And he said, ‘She’s going to represent the New York Fed, period.’ When I got out there, I found somebody’s elderly secretary was there to chaperone me,” she said. “She sat behind me at all the meetings and she sat next to me at dinner. They wanted to make sure that I was behaving, I guess.”

Despite her mandated chaperone, Madeline went on to chair that committee for about 10 years.

Madeline’s Shot

After 30 years at the New York Fed, Madeline retired in 1973. Beyond her career at the Fed, she was a mainstay in the industry, serving on many boards including the American Stock Exchange. One year after her retirement, she served as president of the First Women’s Bank, the only full-service bank during its time catering exclusively to women. And surprise, surprise: she was the only female president of a major commercial bank in New York.

Madeline McWhinney may not have set out to make change in the name of feminism, but she set an example for the rest of us. People constantly told her what couldn’t be done. Madeline decided it could.

So what can we learn from Madeline? Don’t be afraid to be the first; do things that others have not done before; and even if someone else says, “no,” you can still say, “yes.”