I’ll never forget the first time I learned that the origin of “Mrs.” was “Mr’s”. As in the possessive.
250 years ago, a woman became her husband’s property when they married. She was no longer even considered a citizen. All she owned became her husband’s.
Undoubtedly, women’s financial rights have come a long way. Women are on track to control the majority of the world’s wealth by 2030. But there is still a ways to go and we should remember where we started.
March is Women’s History Month and next week, on March 8th, is International Women’s Day. Could there be a better time to reflect on our journey?
In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ve put together a timeline of American women’s fight for financial rights. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
Share this post 👇
Before the United States was even officially a country, the colonies adopted an English law that said that women become one with their husbands once they are married. Only the husband was considered a citizen with legal rights, and the woman became his property. This also meant that any property or inheritance that a woman had automatically became her husband’s.
Since the federal government wasn’t fully in charge in the United States at this time in history, most laws were passed by individual states. This means that depending on where you lived, you would have different rights than someone in a neighboring state. By this time, all states abolished the voting rights of women.
What do voting rights have to do with money?
Well, the ability to vote is directly connected to the overall rights of a group of people. If you can’t vote, you have no say over what does and doesn’t happen to you. If you’re not considered enough of a citizen to at least be able to vote, you are less likely to receive any other rights, like ownership over your property, the ability to work, protections against discrimination, and more.
This new patent law made it easier for inventors to apply for a patent in the United States. Before, it was incredibly difficult to receive a patent for an invention or process. This law made it more accessible and severely reduced government oversight.
Unfortunately, very few women actually applied for patents, because many states did not yet allow women to own property themselves if they were married. It wasn’t until 1809 that the first woman in America held a patent. Mary Kies was a black woman from Connecticut, and she patented her method of weaving straw with silk or thread to make women’s hats. First Lady Dolly Madison praised Kies for her contribution to the industry.
Beginning in 1839, individual U.S. states started passing laws known as the Married Women’s Property Acts. These laws helped to fix some of the problems women were facing due to the law enacted in 1769 that made them their husband’s property (and therefore all of their property became their husband’s). Specifically, the law allowed married women to own property, keep their own income, and engage in business.
California passed a law that established a state savings and loan industry that guaranteed that a woman was entitled to maintain control of any money she deposited in her own name. The state recognized the financial independence of women and approved a loan to a woman in the same year.
The U.S. Homestead Act was also passed in 1862, which made it easier for single, widowed, or divorced women to own land in their own names.
Victoria Woodhull, and her sister Tennessee, became the first female stockbrokers and opened their own brokerage on Wall Street. They made millions of dollars.
(Fun fact: Victoria was also the first woman to run for president, just months after she opened her brokerage in 1870.)
In Bradwell v. State of Illinois, the Supreme Court ruled that the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment did not include the right to practice a profession. Myra Bradwell had applied for admission to the Illinois bar, but was denied because she was a woman. This Supreme Court decision allowed states to continue to bar women from professions such as law.
If you’re not a constitutional law buff, you’ve probably never heard of the Minor v. Happersett case. Virginia Minor, a suffragist leader in Missouri, tried to register to vote and was denied because she was a woman. She argued that the Constitution, and specifically the 14th Amendment, allowed for all citizens (women included) to vote.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court disagreed with her, saying that voting was not an inherent right to citizenship. The court also said that only allowing men to vote was not an infringement of the 14th Amendment.
In yet another Supreme Court case, women were found to be lesser than their male counterparts. In Muller v. State of Oregon, the Court ruled that an Oregon law limiting women’s work hours was constitutional. The interesting thing about this case was that it was the employer who sued the state after he was fined for making a female employee work more than 10 hours in a day.
On its face, it might seem like a good thing that women’s work hours would be limited. Who wants to work 12 or more hours a day? But the truth is, there have always been women who can’t rely on a husband to provide for them. Limiting the hours that they could work made it so that they were unable to earn more money to support themselves and their families with. Plus, the Court explicitly called on women’s “physical structure and the performance of maternal functions” when making this decision.
After many decades of fighting for suffrage, women were finally granted the right to vote via the 19th Amendment. The amendment was actually passed by the Senate in June 1919, but it took until August 1920 before enough states ratified it for it to go into effect. This constitutional amendment effectively overturned the Supreme Court’s decision in Minor v. Happersett.
It read: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
That November, over 8 million women voted in elections for the first time. Of course, there were still many limitations and restrictions in place for women of color. So in actuality, the 19th Amendment only really granted white women the right to vote. More on that later.
(Fun fact: Mississippi didn’t ratify the 19th Amendment until 1984.)
The United States government didn’t grant citizen to the Native American population until 1924, after passing the Snyder Act. I won’t get into just how problematic it is that Native Americans needed to be granted citizenship in the first place right now. But basically, if you weren’t considered an American citizen, you had no right to vote. This legislation technically gave Native Americans the right to vote, but there were other racial barriers still in place.
This legislation mandated that American employers adopt an eight-hour workday and a forty-hour workweek. It set a national minimum wage for all labor. It also allowed workers to earn wage for an extra four hours of overtime, which would be paid at one and a half times the normal hourly wage. Children were also protected by these new standards.
The Equal Pay Act amended the Fair Standards of Labor Act. It’s goal was to eliminate pay disparity based on gender. Women’s earnings have increased significantly since this legislation was passed, but clearly, there is still a significant wage gap.
The Civil Rights Act was legislation that both affected civil rights and labor standards. It outlawed discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin”. It also prohibited “unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations”.
This legislation aimed to remove legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote. It prohibited racial discrimination in voting, and outlawed literacy tests at the polls.
Due to generations of oppression, people of color had lower rates of literacy. Implementing literacy tests in order to be able to vote was a direct intent to prevent people of color from voting. Eliminating literacy tests removed a huge barrier to people of color being able to vote.
Even though the 14th and 19th Amendments technically gave all people the right to vote, there were still other measures put into place to prevent everyone from being able to vote. One of these barriers was the poll tax. If you can’t afford to pay a tax in order to vote, you won’t be able to vote. Historically, people of color have had less access to financial capital, and therefore are the ones being targeted by poll taxes.
Even though the Civil Rights Act abolished the poll tax, some states were still enacting them. In 1966, the Supreme Court ruled in Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections that poll taxes were unconstitutional. This change finally made it so that everyone truly had the right to vote.
Title IX, also called Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, outlawed education discrimination on the basis of gender. This also applies to any activities or programs that receive federal financial assistance. Students are also protected against sexual harassment, sexual violence and all kinds of gender discrimination, regardless of the program or situation. By requiring schools (and other programs) to be proactive about these issues, students can have a safe learning environment.
Regardless of your personal or political opinions about abortion, it’s clear that being able to control your reproductive future has a direct effect on women’s financial stability.
The Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade ruled that abortion was a fundamental right under the Constitution due to the right to privacy in the 9th and 14th Amendments.
This legislation made it illegal to deny credit on the basis of sex or marital status (and also race, color, national origin, religion, etc.). The law applies to banks, retailers, bankcard companies, finance companies, and credit unions. It also prohibits asking about marital status and whether or not the borrower has or plans to have children.
When the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, it provided protections to many people who had not been protected in the past. However, that did not include people who were pregnant or who had just given birth. To account for this, the Civil Rights Act was amended to include the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. This statute explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, and related conditions.
As I mentioned earlier, the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963 to address pay discrimination against women. It helped to make a lot of progress, but there is still a persisting wage gap for women, especially women of color.
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act amended the Civil Rights Act and stated that the 180-day statute of limitations for filing an equal pay lawsuit regarding pay discrimination resets with each new paycheck affected by that discriminatory action. This gives people more time to file their complaints, so they don’t miss the opportunity just because they waited too long.
It’s not just legislation or Supreme Court decisions that matter in our history with money. It’s also the work that we are actually doing on the ground everyday. By 2010, women made up more than half of the American workforce.
That’s a huge deal!
Not only are we participating in the economy by spending our money, but we’re actively participating in the economy by making money, as well. Participating in the workforce means that women will have more financial autonomy, as well as the power to influence labor laws and policies within organizations and the government.
In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court ruled that for-profit companies don’t have to cover birth control in their health insurance plans if they cite religious objections. This overturned the birth control mandate in the Affordable Care Act and put many women at risk of not being able to afford birth control coverage.
Contraception is one of the most important ways for women to control their financial future, their career, and their life in general. If they are unable to afford birth control, their whole future is at risk.
Politicians and lawyers have been dictating women’s ability to participate in society, the workforce, and economy for as long as our country has existed. We’ve rallied to fight for our rights and made huge strides forward.
It might not always feel like we’re in control. Like the system is working against us. But financial freedom and equality is always worth fighting for. And it’s always worth fighting for more, no matter how far we’ve come.
This month, do something to move yourself – or women – forward.
Happy Women’s History Month!