Let’s take a look why women have been historically underrepresented as economic actors, plus learn about the barriers women face when generating wealth today.
A quick trip down history lane brings us to the first recorded law on this continent in the late 1600s. It’s from Massachusetts and says: “All women, whether virgins, maidens, or widows, who shall after this Act impose upon, seduce or betray into matrimony any of His Majesty’s male subjects by virtue of their high heel shoeswould be subject to the same severe punishment meted out to suspected witches (DeMello).” These laws actively affirmed fundamental inequality. Women had no control over their dress, little control of how they were perceived, and worse yet faced punitive and lethal punishment for things they could not control. This didn’t just cost them their financial security. The wrong shoe could cost them their life.
The right to propery… Sort of
With the enactment by different states of the The Married Women’s Property Act 1839 between 1839 and the 1890s, married (not single) white (not of any other race) women were able to own their own property.
This meant white women in slave owning states like Mississippi could “own” other Black women (and men). In most states the law also allowed ownership but not control of the property in a woman’s name.
Lacking policy to protect rights at home
Other important areas were the lack of a woman’s right to her children. Enslaved black women and men were the notably the worst off. Their children were property of their slaveowners until the ratification of the 13th amendment.
Sexism as a public health policy
In Illinois in 1851, commitments to state institutions for mental illness required public hearings. Unless you were a woman. A husband could have his wife committed without either a public hearing or her consent. Your spouse annoying you? Lock her up. And throw away the key – women couldn’t leave these intuitions without their husbands (or male relatives) consent.
Domestic violence was considered a private matter. It generally lacked standardized legal restriction or enforcement, which was an issue all the way up until the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. Yep, you read that right, 1994. The problem with that? To this day, 42 million women suffer intimate partner violence with 99% of those suffering financial abuse.
Working While Woman
Women of all colors were called upon to help the war efforts at home and abroad, during the labor shortage of World War II. This changed access to work in the Armed Forces (Women’s Armed Services Integration Act 1948). It also pushed a larger percentage of women into the labor market and boosted economic output.
This economic need paved the way for the Equal Pay Act of 1963 that required employers to pay employees equal pay for equal work.
The Wage Gap Persists
Despite this legislation, a recent study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that women working full-time, year-round typically earn only 82 cents for every dollar men earn. This gap persists even after controlling for factors such as experience, education, and occupation.
Inequalities in the Workplace
Another reason women are not economically equal is that they are often not given the same opportunities as men to advance in their careers. For example, women are much less likely than men to be promoted to high-level positions. A study by Catalyst found that women held only 16.9 percent of executive-level positions in 2016, and only 5.4 percent of CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies.
The Ledbetter Act of 2009 legislation has moderately helped the process. Also, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination by covered employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
And finally, the Pregnancy Act of 1978 prohibited employers from firing a female employee because she was pregnant. This was a major step in protecting women‘s rights in the workplace, but doesn’t address a problem that plagues the U.S. economy today.
The Problem of Unpaid Labor
Another major reason women are not equal economically is that they are more likely to be responsible for unpaid work. We are talking the care of children and household tasks. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women spend an average of twice as many hours as men doing unpaid work. This can have a significant impact on women’s ability to earn money and advance in their careers.
ECOA made it illegal for lenders to discriminate against potential borrowers on the basis of sex and marital status. Until this initial stab at credit equality, lenders could discount a married woman’s income, especially if she was “of childbearing years.” Moreover, single women were all but shut out of banking. Intuitions thought they were too ‘risky’ to lend to.
Shortly after the law was passed in 1974, Congress amended the act in 1976. It was extended to make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, age, religion, or national origin.
If you’ve been following Maia’s journaling through wealth gaps in the US, you’ll realize that this glorified law didn’t quite pack the weighted punch it should’ve. This is especially true with those who continue to be left out of fair lending practices – mainly people of color.
Wealth Gaps and Fair Credit
So, how does the denial of fair credit contribute to wealth gaps in our society? It’s simple. When women aren’t treated equally by financial institutions, they are unable to acquire fair dollar loans to pursue wealth-generating opportunities. These opportunities include mortgages to purchase homes which is how 80% of the population grows wealth. They also include how we build businesses, where women receive just 7% of venture funds for their startups. Moreover, with many businesses requiring credit checks from employees to mitigate risk,’ women who have historically lower scores are penalized before even signing their employment contracts.
Despite centuries of progress, there is still more work to be done.
Women are the unfortunate example of how financial discrimination impedes social and economic equality for an entire population – let alone multiple generations. Despite having made progress during the last century, we’re living through a recession largely impacting solely female breadwinners is evidence that when denied access for long enough, building parity is seldom a reality within one generation.
Women have been historically underrepresented as economic actors, and continue to face barriers when generating wealth today. These include the prevalence of gender discrimination, the lack of women in senior-level positions, and the prevalence of motherhood penalties. In order to achieve true economic equality for women, we need to address all of these factors.
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