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7 Little-known facts about women’s money history

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By Andrew Housser

In March, we celebrate Women’s History Month. A little-known aspect of women’s history is the story of women and money. Fortunately, history lets us learn from the past. How many of these milestones in women’s debt and financial history did you know?

In early America, married women could not own property. Until the mid-1800s, a husband owned his wife’s property from the moment they married. In 1839, Mississippi became the first state to give women the right to own property. Today, women keep property they owned before marriage. This is true even in community property states.

Women (and men) went to debtors prison. In early America, people who owed as little as 60 cents could be thrown in prison. Congress outlawed this practice in 1833. Today, creditors can sue for unpaid debt, but owing money is not a crime. That’s good news for U.S. households that carry credit card debt today. Their average debt of $16,000 might have generated a hefty sentence in the past.

The Gold Rush helped open up women’s financial rights. The movement west helped some women gain economic footing. In the 1860s, the U.S. Homestead Act let unmarried women claim land in their own names. California women who made bank deposits could keep the money. And in 1862, the San Francisco Savings Union even approved a loan to a woman.

Women did not have a legal right to equal pay until about 50 years ago. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 created a minimum wage. For the first time, male and female hourly workers had the same minimum pay rate. In 1963, the U.S. followed up with legislation requiring equal pay for all kinds of equal work.

Women had to answer additional questions to get a credit card or loan before 1974. Banks asked women applying for a credit card or loan if they were married or planning to have children until 1974, when Congress passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA). The act bans credit discrimination because of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status or age. It says creditors cannot ask whether an applicant receives income from a public assistance program. ECOA also protects people who have in good faith exercised any right under the Consumer Credit Protection Act.

Employers could fire women for pregnancy through much of the last century. At one time, if a woman became pregnant, her employer could fire her. In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act changed that. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives new mothers and fathers up to 12 weeks of parental leave. FMLA leave is not necessarily paid.

Stay-at-home spouses gained credit access just a few years ago. In 2009, the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act (CARD Act) became law. The act was designed to help consumers understand what they borrow. However, it also made it harder for stay-at-home spouses to open credit accounts. Some people argued that this rule unfairly penalized people who rely on a partner’s income. In response, a 2013 amendment changed the rules. Now, creditors can look at household income, not just individual income. This change helps keeps credit available to the 16 million married people who do not work outside the home.

Today, women are more involved than ever in household finances. In fact, a recent study found that women lose more sleep over money worries than men do. To make smart money choices, avoid debt – and get more sleep – women, as well as mean, can educate themselves and plan for the future.

Andrew Housser is a co-founder and CEO of Bills.com, a free one-stop online portal where consumers can educate themselves about personal finance issues and compare financial products and services. He also is co-CEO of Freedom Financial Network, LLC providing comprehensive consumer credit advocacy and debt relief services. Housser holds a Master of Business Administration degree from Stanford University and Bachelor of Arts degree from Dartmouth College.
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