G.G. Michelson is a corporate and civic leader who has been a trailblazer for women. As chair of the trustees of Columbia University from 1989 to 1992, she was the first woman to head the board of an Ivy League institution. She was also the first woman on the New York State Financial Control Board. In her forty-seven-year career at Macy’s, she rose from management trainee to senior vice president. She has lived in Manhattan most of her life.
Gertrude Geraldine Michelson was born on June 3, 1925, to Thomas and Celia (Cohen) Rosen in Jamestown, a southwestern New York State town where her parents were part of the small Jewish community. She was the youngest child, born after a sister and brother. Michelson’s parents had emigrated in their teens from the vicinity of Vilna in Russia, where they received whatever education they had. Her mother, who suffered from tuberculosis, died when Michelson was eleven. Because of her mother’s illness and her father’s businesses and curiosity, the family lived in various parts of the United States.
Michelson received a B.A. in industrial psychology from Pennsylvania State University in 1945. In 1947, she received her LL.B. from Columbia Law School, one of a few women in her class. Although her father had disapproved of her studying law, she sought credentials, and was inspired by men she met who were going to law school.
Never intending to practice law, Michelson joined the training program at Macy’s in New York, seeing opportunity for advancement in a corporation with a large female workforce. In 1948, she became assistant to the labor relations manager and, in 1963, vice president for employee personnel, at the time the store’s only female vice president. In the 1970s, as senior vice president for personnel, labor, and consumer relations, she ran Macy’s Bureau of Standards (a precursor of government consumer agencies) and Comparison Shopping Office, and negotiated with the Teamsters and fourteen locals representing a total of twenty thousand employees. Macy’s called her their “consumer czarina,” and The Women’s Book of Records named her “the only woman in the United States to deal regularly with a major union.” From 1980 to 1992, she was senior vice president for external affairs, afterward becoming a director of Federated Department Stores (which had acquired Macy’s) until her retirement in 1996.
By 1976, Michelson was a director of Macy’s, Harper and Row, Quaker Oats, Chubb and General Electric; by 1981, of Stanley Works, Goodyear Tire, and Irving Trust. On these boards, she has seen few women’s faces.
A Columbia University trustee beginning in 1980 during Michael Sovern’s tenure as president, Michelson was elected vice-chair in 1985 and chair in 1989. She was known for her ability to get disparate groups in the university community to work well together. Michelson is also a former director of the Rand Corporation and the Markle Foundation and a former member of the advisory council of Catalyst. From 1998 to 2000 she was president of the board of overseers of TIAA-CREF. She is currently chair of the Helena Rubinstein Foundation, an honorary trustee of Spelman College, and a member of the Economic Club of New York and the Women’s Forum.
In 1977, Michelson was one of the best known members of the New York City Business-Labor Working Group. Her many civic roles have included membership on the New York State Financial Control Board and deputy chair of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. She has been a member of the New York City Interracial Council on Business Opportunity, a director of the executive committee of the American Arbitration Association, and a member of the National Commission on Public Service. She has been on mayoral committees including Edward Koch’s controversial commission on commercial rent control. Michelson was also a public governor of the American Stock Exchange, and vice-chair and director of the New York City Partnership.
Michelson has received honorary doctorates from Adelphi University, New Rochelle College, Marymount Manhattan College, and the Rand Graduate School. She has also received Columbia University Law School’s James Kent Award, Barnard College’s Frederick Barnard Award, Catalyst’s Award for Contribution to Corporate Leadership, the American Women’s Economic Development (AWED) Award for Outstanding Contributions to Women’s Economic Development, the Girl Scout Women’s Achievement Award, and the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund Equal Opportunity Award.
In 1947, she married Horace Michelson, who had served in the U.S. Army in World War II and been awarded the Bronze and Silver Stars and a Purple Heart. He was a corporate attorney with the firm of Moses and Singer, from which he retired in 1984; he died in 2002. Their older daughter, Martha Ann, died in a fire as a student at Goddard College. Their younger daughter, Barbara Jane, attended Cordon Bleu after college and has a mail-order baking business. Michelson has three granddaughters.
G.G. Michelson is known for her geniality, sharp intelligence, and resolve. She emphasizes the importance of civic leadership, believes government budgets should be balanced, but not on the hides of the poor, and feels that top law school education for needy, gifted students and those interested in public service merits real support. Her goal as a leader has not been to promote women, but rather to promote the integrity of organizations and the communities they serve. Doing her job well, however, helps women by precedent and example.
Bender, Marylin. “Problems as Executive Aid Housewife.” NYTimes, February 6, 1964, 32:6, and “Yankee Fan Confirms a Maxim: Nice Gals Finish First.” NYTimes, December 20, 1970, sec. 3, p. 5; Cummings, Judith. “Notes on People: First Woman Named to State Financial Control Board.” NYTimes, June 20, 1980, sec. 2, p. 5; Daniels, Lee A. “Columbia Trustee Head: A Low-Key Trailblazer.” NYTimes, June 21, 1989, sec. 2, p. 7; “Executive Suite: Gertrude G. Michelson.” In “Seventy-Five Most Influential Women,” edited by Cynthia Rigg and Pat Wechsler. Crain’s New York Business, March 25, 1996; Fowler, Elizabeth M. “Women in Careers Are Honored.” NYTimes, October 20, 1967, 69:3; Haberman, Clyde. “Three on State Panel Challenge Budget for New York City.” NYTimes, May 12, 1982, 1:1; Lorsch, Jay W. and Rakesh Khurana. “Changing Leaders: The Board’s Role in CEO Succession, A Roundtable with Philip Caldwell, George D. Kennedy, G.G. Michelson, Henry Wendt, and Alfred M. Zeien.” In Harvard Business Review on Corporate Governance (2000); Michelson, Gertrude G. Interview by author, NYC, June 17, 1996; “Michelson, Horace.” NYTimes, April 15, 2002, sec. B, p. 6, classified; “Only Woman Executive to Deal Regularly with a Major Union.” In Women’s Book of World Records and Achievements, edited by Lois Decker O’Neill (1979); Prial, Frank J. “Mrs. Michelson Gets Two Posts in One Day.” NYTimes, January 8, 1979, sec. 4, p. 2; Townsend, Alair. “A View from the Top: Alair Townsend Remembers Her Mentor.” Crain’s New York Business (March 25, 1996); Vescovi, James. “Distinguished Columbian: G.G. Michelson ’47.” Columbia Law School Alumni Magazine (September 1996); Who’s Who in America (1996).
Gertrude Geraldine Michelson passed away in New York on January 10, 2015. For more information, read her obituary in the New York Times for January 14, 2015.
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Mushabac, Jane. "Gertrude Geraldine Michelson." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 20, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/michelson-gertrude-geraldine>.