The timeline in the article outlines milestones made by women in the fight for financial independence in the United States.
Women Had Financial Independence in Some Ancient Societies
Financial rights and independence are not concepts exclusive to modern society. Many civilizations throughout history have afforded women financial independence.
- In 3100 BCE Egyptian women had the same financial rights as Egyptian men. Egyptian women could acquire, own, and sell property in their name.
- In the 17th century women on the Arabian peninsula could own property, inherit wealth, and had the right to divorce their husbands.
As societies changed and adopted the Christian patriarchal systems of the European continent, women ceded rights to their husbands through a process known as coverture.
These traditions followed colonial Europeans as they settled on the North American continent and formed what is now The United States of America. Some progress was made in the fight for financial rights during the 1800’s but many of the most dramatic advancements occurred recently in the 1960s and 70s.
Beginning in 1839, individual U.S. states started passing laws known as the Married Women’s Property Acts. These laws helped to overturn coverture in the late 1700s that designated women as the property of their husbands.
The law allowed married women to own property, keep their own income, and engage in business.
The Homestead Act is a federal statute that determined how land could be acquired in developing western territories of the United States. Under The Homestead Act titles to new land could be granted to anyone who was the Head of their Household. The legislation inadvertently recognized women as Heads of Households by omitting limitations on gender.
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.
Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin, opened the first woman-owned brokerage on Wall Street. A suffragette, Woodhull would also become the first woman to run for president.
Louise M. Weiser inherited the role at the Winneshiek County Bank in Iowa, following the death of her husband. She held the position until 1892.
The Supreme Court ruled that an Oregon law limiting women’s work hours was constitutional. The employer who sued the state after he was fined for making a female employee work more than 10 hours in a day. The Oregon law impeded a woman’s ability to earn income.
Sarah Breedlove, who found fame under the pseudonym Madam C.J. Walker founded a line of haircare products for Black women. Sales of those products and her success investing in real estate made her one of the country’s first female self-made millionaires.
The 19th Amendment was ratified by most states in 1920. The right to vote is a citicial first step to help women achieve financial independence and equity under the law. Following it’s passage National Woman’s Party, a wing of the suffrage movement, begins advocating for the passage of a constitutional amendment to make discrimination based on sex illegal.
It’s worth noting that Mississippi didn’t ratify the 19th Amendment until 1984. Additionally, voting impediments and other barriers to civil rights for Indigenous and Black women persisted blocking their ability to participate in elections.
At the time Suffragette and Activist Rebecca Felton was 87 years old and served for one day as a symbolic gesture. She calls out southern men for an excess of chivalry and too little concern for women’s rights, writing, “honeyed phrases are pleasant to listen to, but the sensible women of our country would prefer more substantial gifts.”
Indigenous people, including women, were not recognized by the United States Government as citizens until 1924. Unfortunately, the act did not offer meaningful protection from discrimination in state managed elections. Some states barred Indigenous citizens from voting until 1957.
Although the legislation didn’t close the pay gap or require equal pay it did help women, and other low wage earners, claim the right to a minimum wage and to a 44 hour work week.
Winifred Stanley, a Republican member of Congress from New York, introduced a bill titled Prohibiting Discrimination in Pay on Account of Sex. It would have amended the list of unfair labor practices in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 to include discriminating “against any employee, in the rate of compensation paid, on account of sex.” Stanley’s bill never made it through Congress.
The law that prohibits employers from paying men and women different wages for jobs that require the same skill, conditions, effort and responsibility. It is part of the amended Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The legislation would later require expansion in 1972.
Lyndon B Johnson’s Civil Right Act of 1964 is expanded to protect women. The legislation prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin.
Muriel “Mickie ” Siebert becomes the first woman to own a seat on the stock exchange. She allegedly asked ten men to sponsor her application, and was denied by the first nine.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission banned job ads that specified gender in newspapers. While the ruling was eventually challenged, the Supreme Court upheld the original decision in 1973, giving women a path to more lucrative jobs that were once only available to men.
In 1966 a complaint was filed by named female employees of the Colgate-Palmolive Company. The complaint in Bowe v Colgate-Palmolive charged the company for unfair practices including separate seniority lists for men and women, unequal pay rates, and for laying off women with more than twenty years seniority and replacing them with men who had no seniority at all in 1965.
Before the ruling was made The National Organization of Women (NOW) sponsored a boycott of Colgate-Palmolive products to protest the company’s unfair treatment of women.
In 1969 an appeals court ruled in favor of Bowe saying that physical labor cannot be limited to men, which had been a key part of Colgate-Palmolive’s defense.
The Federal Court ruled that jobs need to be “substantially equal” but not “identical” to fall under the protection of the Equal Pay Act. An employer cannot, for example, change the job titles of women workers in order to pay them less than men.
Title IX, also called Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, outlawed education discrimination on the basis of gender. It applied to any activity or programs that received federal financial assistance.
The law also protected students from sexual harassment, sexual violence and all kinds of gender discrimination, regardless of the program or situation. The hope was that requiring schools (and other programs) to be proactive about these issues, students would have a safe learning environment.
Katharine Graham, scion of the company that owns the Washington Post, becomes the first woman to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
The Equal Credit Opportunity Act passes and prohibits banks and lenders from requiring single, widowed or divorced women to bring a man along to cosign any credit application, regardless of their income. Prior to this legislation banks could also devalue women’s wages by as much as 50% when considering how much credit to grant.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s work as an attorney for the ACLU helped pave the way for the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.
The First Women’s Bank, was founded in 1975 to give women equal opportunity in banking. The bank was recently renamed to the First New York Bank for Business.
The bank was a trailblazer of it’s time, but eventually became anachronistic. As more and more mainstream banks marketed services to women, a bank exclusive to women wasn’t seen as necessary.
However, despite more widespread access to financial services since the 1970s women still lag behind in access to capital, particularly with regard to business loans. According to SBA (Small Business Administration) Women receive just 16% of all conventional business loans and just 4.4% of the total dollar amount, limiting the potential of their businesses.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act is an amendment to the Civil Rights Act is passed protecting pregnant women from discrimination or retaliation on the bass of pregnancy, childbirth or related conditions.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was formed in 1964. In the 1980s, commission chair Eleanor Holmes Norton brought the issue of comparable worth to the attention of lawmakers.
White equal pay argues for the same pay for the same work, comparable worth focuses on the value that different jobs bring to a company regardless of job title. It points out that women often make less than men for jobs that bring the same value to the company, simply because the job titles are different.
The argument addresses the legacy of lower pay for jobs that are predominantly held by women, despite bringing equal value to a company as jobs held predominantly by men.
During the 1980s pay equity and comparable worth made little progress on the federal level but did become law in several states.
During the 1990s, there were no major changes in the laws around payment by gender. The gender wage gap continued to shrink, but not converge.
In the early 2000s Lilly Ledbetter sued her employer for underpaying her for 19 years. The case, Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. made it to the Supreme Court and in 2007 she won and was awarded $3.5 million in damages.
However, Goodyear appealed the decision, arguing that Ledbetter failed to file her suit within 180 days of when the discrimination first occurred, as prescribed by law. An appeals court reversed the original decision, and the Supreme Court also ruled against Ledbetter in a 5–4 vote. As a result of this appeal the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was introduced.
The new legislation expanded the period for filing a discrimination claim and making it easier for other women to sue employers that they believed had discriminated against them.
Women now make-up over half of the American workforce. By participating in the economy, making and spending money women are establishing financial authority and autonomy. The hope is that this will translate into power and influence labor laws and policies at all levels within organizations and the government.
Since 2010 that number has fallen several points, but still remains above 50%.
The Paycheck Fairness Act was first introduced in 1997, and again in 2009, 2014 and 2021. It has passed the House four times only to fail the Senate.
The act is an amendment to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards and builds on the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.
The bill would make it easier to enforce prior legislation by requiring employers to prove why a pay disparity exists. It also bars employers from asking employees about their salary history and establishes avenues for recourse if workers feel their employers are paying them unfairly.
It also prohibits retaliation for inquiring about, discussing, or disclosing the wages of the employee or another employee in response to a complaint, charge or investigation.
The Fight to Close the Gender Pay Gap Continues
Although the progress made over the past 180+ years is clear, the gender pay gap is a lingering reminder that there is still work to do.
According to a Pew Research Center report, the gender pay gap has remained relatively constant over the past 15 years. Women typically earn 84% of what men earn in similar roles.