Personal Finance

10 Steps Women Have Made Toward Financial Equality

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When it comes to women and money, we’ve come a long way, baby.

And did you know that today marks an important date in that thorny history?

Fifty years ago — on June 10,1963 — President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, the law which first got around to making it illegal to discriminate against women based on pay.

While we haven’t quite reached parity yet (today a working woman still makes 77 cents on the dollar compared to a man), the law was a landmark achievement for women. And it’s not the only shockingly recent development.

Imagine that being in debt might not have been possible for your mom, because she couldn’t get a credit card in her name. However, she could legally lose her job if she were pregnant with you. And, no matter your gender, 401(k)s just plain didn’t exist.

Fifty years ago it was a different financial landscape, to be sure. This slide show marks some key milestones along the path to women’s financial independence. Where do you think we’ll be another 50 years from today?

Women Can Now Own Land

Before the 1850s, getting married basically meant a woman handed over everything she owned and inherited to her husband, who could then dispense with her belongings, land and money as he liked. But by the mid-nineteenth century, states began enacting common law statutes allowing women to write wills and claim other property rights.

Then, in 1862, the Homestead Act broke new ground for all pioneers looking to remake their lives in the American West—including women. The law made it possible for unmarried, widowed or divorced women regardless of social standing to claim homestead land as a head of household, a key step toward financial independence and potential prosperity.

Banks Extend the First Loans to Women

It’s something we take for granted: if you deposit your own money into a bank account in your own name, you should be able to withdraw it yourself. But that hasn’t always been the case.

In 1862, California passed a law that established its savings and loan industry and guaranteed the financial independence of women—single or married. The San Francisco Savings Union, the first such institution to form under the law, readily advertised its services for women customers and approved its first loan to a woman shortly after it opened.

Finally, Women Get a Vote

It took decades of struggle for all women in the U.S. to be allowed to vote. Many Western states, such as Wyoming, Colorado and Idaho, gave women the right to the ballot box in the late nineteenth century.

After massive marches in 1913 and 1915, Congress eventually passed the 19th Amendment in 1919 guaranteeing that all women have the right to vote. The amendment was ratified in 1920. Mississippi was the last state to ratify the amendment in a symbolic vote in 1984. Thanks, Mississippi.

Equal Work, Equal Pay

As mentioned, it was fifty years ago today that JFK signed the Equal Pay Act, making it illegal for employers to pay a woman less than what a man would receive for doing the same job. At that time, women earned 58.9% of the wages men earned. According to a report by the National Partnership for Women and Families released earlier this year, women now make 77 cents for every dollar paid to men.

It’s progress, but it’s also OK to be outraged that there’s still a gap at all.

Women Need Not Apply

Back when the best way to find a new job was to buy a newspaper, it was standard practice to list employment opportunities for men and women in separate columns: Male Help Wanted and Female Help Wanted (some even specified married men). Often, the jobs listed for women required lower-level skills and paid less. The system served to block women from better-paying jobs with room for advancement.

In 1968 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission struck down these segregated ads, ruling them illegal. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ruling in 1973.

Women Get Their First Credit Cards

Can you believe that every woman who is 38 or older today was born into a world where she couldn’t own a credit card? Regardless, it’s every American woman’s right to have one—or at least it has been since 1974.

That’s when Congress passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which mandated that issuers could no longer take gender into account when deciding whether to issue credit to an applicant.

The 401(k) Is Born

The Revenue Act of 1978 established 401(k) plans as we know them today. They started out as a fringe benefit, but grew quickly to replace employer-sponsored pension plans. Now the 401(k) retirement plan system holds $2.8 trillion in assets on behalf of more than 50 million women and men.

Can you believe there was actually a time when we didn’t have to worry about our retirement savings?

Gasp. Pregnant Women Can No Longer Be Fired

Another jaw-dropper: Can you imagine being fired or denied insurance benefits because you are pregnant? Not so long ago, Congress deemed it necessary to protect Americans against being mistreated by their employers because of pregnancy, childbirth or related conditions. It passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978, paving the way for mothers who value their careers and families equally to have both.

Marital Consent

Imagine if your husband had total control over property you owned jointly. He could decide to take out a second mortgage without your permission, and you couldn’t do a darn thing about it. That was the case in Louisiana until 1981, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kirchberg v. Feenstra that a state law granting a husband unilateral control over property owned jointly with his wife was unconstitutional.The court found that the Louisiana law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Equal Pay, Part 2

The Equal Pay Act took effect in 1963, but that didn’t mean we automatically landed on a level playing field. On January 29, 2009, President Barack Obama made important strides toward equality with the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act.

This legislation, named after a former Goodyear employee who claimed that she earned 15% to 40% less than her male coworkers, allows those who believe they’ve been discriminated against to file a complaint with the government against their employer within 180 days of their most recent discriminatory paycheck.

So there’s a short history. What do you think the future holds?

WANT MORE FROM LEARNVEST?

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6 Real Steps to Closing the Wage Gap

This piece originally appeared on LearnVest, the leading personal finance site for women. Need help managing your money? Our free Money Center will help you create a budget. Our free bootcamps will help you take control of your money, cut your costs or get out of debt. And you might even be interested in one of our premium financial plans–managed by LearnVest Certified Financial Planners.

Image: Hemera

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