Women have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time. Just 250 years ago, women were seen as the property of their husbands or fathers, and were basically shut out of the financial world. Slowly, the tide turned to give women more power over their money decisions. While we still have a long way to go to reach pay parity and bridge all gender and racial wealth gaps, it’s also important to mark the progress we’ve made.
Today, women successfully lead Fortune 500 companies and the United States has its first female vice president. The paths we walk today were paved and fought for by some incredible and powerful women. In March, as we officially celebrate Women’s History Month, let’s look back at some of the most important dates that ushered in new chapters of financial freedom for American women.
1862: Passage of the U.S. Homestead Act
The Homestead Act offered free federal land, and for the first time, women were able to claim property in their own names. (Previously, only men could claim land.) This was the first time in American history that women were allowed to take advantage of the economic advantage that owning land or homesteading property offered. Particularly during those times, owning land meant having power and being able to build a livelihood for yourself via farming or building homes. The Homestead Act was one of the first stepping stones to help women pioneer their way from financial oppression to financial power.
1920: 19th Amendment Gives Women The Right to Vote
The 19th amendment passed on June 4, 1919, and was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920, giving women the right to vote. For the first time, they could help choose elected leaders and shape their country and their communities. Finally, women were able to vote and have their voices heard as equal citizens of the nation.
1963: Passage of The Equal Pay Act
The Equal Pay Act – which mandated equal pay for equal jobs, regardless of gender – was signed into law by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. It was meant to address the problem of women earning less money for doing the same jobs as men. The road to this act was a long one — during World War II, many women replaced men in factory jobs that were left vacant when men enlisted in the military. In 1942, the National War Labor Board backed policies to grant equal pay to women who were directly replacing male roles. The Equal Pay Act was a significant step forward for financial equality for women, but of course there is still work to do, particularly for Black and Brown women who face gender wage gaps so wide we should call them gulches.
1967: Executive Order 11375 Bans Employment Discrimination
In many ways, Executive Order 11375 was seen as a follow-up to the Equal Pay Act. While the Equal Pay Act sought to end the practice of paying men more than women for the same job, Executive Order 11375 sought to ban hiring and employment discrimination of all kinds. Signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, this order’s goal was to end all workplace discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, or national origin. As a result, U.S. employers began to take measures to ensure women and minorities had the same employment opportunities as men.
1974: Equal Credit Opportunity Act
It’s hard to believe it has been less than 50 years since women were allowed to have credit in their own name. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act made it illegal for financial institutions to deny credit based on sex or marital status. This meant women were able to (finally) apply for home loans, credit cards, business loans, and anything that could improve their financial situation. The financial freedom this gave women was viewed as the final piece of the puzzle for many successful female entrepreneurs who had been unable to properly launch their dreams without access to credit.
2014: First Female Chair of the Federal Reserve
In many ways, this date seems like the one that takes us “full circle” — a woman went from being seen as her husband’s property, to holding the highest office of the central bank of the United States. In 2014, Janet Yellen became the first female chair of the Federal Reserve in its 100-year existence. Today, she serves as the Secretary of the Treasury under President Joe Biden. Her incredible career includes years spent as a member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, and chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Bill Clinton.