Unraveling the Unequal History of Women and Money

Jenny Whichello, Bliss + Wealth
5 min readFeb 3, 2024

Women and money — we’ve never had it better than we do right now. It might be hard to believe that statement, but it’s true. Picture this: you inherit a hefty sum from a dear relative. But wait, the year is 1850, and you’re a woman in the United States. That money, legally, isn’t yours.

Welcome to the historical reality of women and money — a story riddled with restrictions, societal pressures, and a relentless fight for financial autonomy. Let’s crack open the dusty vaults of time and explore the laws and cultural norms that kept financial power out of women’s hands for far too long.

The History of Women and Money

The Early Locks: Married Women as Chattel, Not Choosers

Imagine being married and unable to own property, sign contracts, or even earn your own wages. That was the harsh reality for married women in most states until the mid-19th century. Laws like coverture treated wives as extensions of their husbands, legally erasing their financial independence. Imagine the humiliation of having your hard-earned income handed over to your spouse, with no say in its use.

The tide began to turn in the mid-1800s with the Married Women’s Property Acts (MWPAs). These state-by-state reforms gradually granted married women the right to own property, control their earnings, and enter into contracts. While a landmark victory, the fight for true equality was far from over. MWPAs varied widely, and many excluded certain types of property or had loopholes that limited women’s control.

Beyond Marriage: The Struggles of Single Women and Widows

Even beyond marriage, women faced financial hurdles. Single women often had limited employment opportunities, leading to economic dependence on fathers or brothers. Widows, while able to inherit property, still faced restrictions and societal expectations to remarry for financial security.

The Wages Gap: A Persistent Echo of Inequality

Despite legal progress, the gender pay gap remains a stark reminder of the historical imbalance. Even today, women earn less money than their male counterparts even when doing the exact same work. Corporations can end this immediately, but most choose to perpetuate financial disparities that hinder women’s economic advancement.

Beyond laws, societal norms and expectations played a significant role in limiting women’s financial agency. The “cult of domesticity” confined women to the home, discouraging financial ambition and perpetuating the idea that men were the breadwinners. This cultural narrative, though fading, still casts a long shadow.

The Road Ahead: Paving the Path to Equality

Women have fought tirelessly to shatter these financial shackles. From Susan B. Anthony’s groundbreaking work advocating for equal property rights to the modern-day feminist movement fighting for equal pay and economic justice, women have chipped away at the walls of financial exclusion.

While progress has been made, the journey towards true financial equality is far from over. Addressing the pay gap, ensuring access to affordable childcare, and promoting financial literacy among women are crucial steps. Moreover, challenging outdated cultural norms that equate masculinity with financial dominance is essential to create a level playing field.

The State of Women and Money in America Today

While we’ve cracked open the vaults of history, let’s shift gears and examine the current landscape of women and money in the United States. Have we truly reached a financial Promised Land, or are there still shadows lingering in the corners? Buckle up, because the numbers have a story to tell:

The Power of the Purse:

Controlling the Cash: Women in the U.S. wield immense financial power. We control trillions of dollars in assets and influence 80% of consumer spending. That’s a mighty economic force!

The Rise of the Breadwinner: Gone are the days of the sole male breadwinner. Today, 40% of families with children under 18 have mothers as the primary or sole source of income. Women are increasingly driving our economic engine.

Investing Prowess: Forget the stereotype of the risk-averse female investor. Studies show women outperform men in long-term investment returns, often due to their focus on diversification and a buy-and-hold strategy.

But the Glass Ceiling Still Casts a Shadow Over Women and Money

The Pay Gap Persists: While progress has been made, the gender pay gap remains a stubborn reality. On average, women earn 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, representing a significant financial disadvantage.

Debt Divide: Women disproportionately carry student loan debt, which can hinder wealth accumulation and limit financial mobility. This burden often stems from pursuing careers traditionally associated with lower wages, like healthcare and education.

The Caregiving Crunch: Women shoulder a larger share of unpaid caregiving responsibilities, leading to career interruptions and reduced earning potential. This “pink penalty” further widens the wealth gap.

Closing the Gap and Reclaiming Power

There are a number of steps we can take to turn the tide, but I believe there’s one that all women must take. Build wealth! When we have money, lots of it, we have power. Power to invest in other women, our communities, and ultimately lasting change.

And we can all do our part to press for policies, corporate cultures, and societal norms that support financial autonomy.

Pay Equity Advocacy: Supporting policies that promote equal pay, like salary transparency and pay equity audits, is crucial to closing the wage gap.

Financial Literacy: Equipping women with financial knowledge and tools empowers them to make informed decisions about their money and build wealth.

Workplace Flexibility: Flexible work arrangements like childcare options and paid parental leave can help women stay in the workforce and advance their careers.

The story of women and money in the U.S. is one of progress and persistence, but the journey to true financial equality is far from over. By understanding the current landscape, advocating for change, and empowering ourselves with knowledge, we can continue to chip away at the remaining barriers and write a brighter financial future for all womankind.

Remember, financial equality is not just a women’s issue, it’s a societal one. Let’s keep the conversation going, break down barriers, and empower women to write their own financial success stories. The future is brimming with possibilities, and it’s time for women to hold the keys to their own financial freedom.

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Jenny Whichello, Bliss + Wealth

On a mission to help the next generation of unstoppable women have blissful relationships with money while building wealth! Free resources @ blissandwealth.com