Blog, Social Justice

Women’s Financial Liberation Over the Years

Does thinking about personal finance(s) give you anxiety? I know it does for me (and this is coming from a person who runs a non-profit that teaches personal finance!)

Financial discussions are some of the most intimate and emotional discussions that people can have. Women have endured inequalities over the centuries over a variety of issues, but especially when it came to issues of money.  There was a time, not so long ago, where women couldn’t own anything and – in fact – were owned by their husbands. Say WHAT?!

Fortunately for us, there were women in the past who fought hard to become financially liberated and give us the rights we now have today. Here’s a look into the timeline of women’s financial liberation in the United States and how we’re able to now *stress* out about our finances.

Once upon a time in 1769, women lost the right to own anything once they got married. Before the United States was officially founded, women’s property automatically became their husbands, including themselves *cringe*. Let’s put this in modern times. Imagine you worked extremely hard and bought your first car on your own…but when it came time to put the title in your name, it never happened. Instead, your husband’s name was put on the title. That’s gonna be a no from me dawg.

However, there was a light at the end of the tunnel in 1790. A new patent law was introduced that allowed women to apply for them. Mary Kies became the first woman to hold a patent in 1809 when she patented her method of weaving straw with silk or thread to make women’s hats. This helped pave the way for female entrepreneurs – way to go 1790!

A few decades after the “women can’t own anything” fiasco, we finally made it. In 1839, married women could finally own their own property. The bar is unfortunately extremely low. But, at the time, this was a huge win! Individual states began passing the Married Women’s Property Acts that helped women own property and manage their own income and finances.


Now, women are allowed to own property. This is an exciting feat. California decided to take it one step further. In 1862, California allowed women to bank under their own names. We got freedom to own their own property and now their own bank accounts?! This just keeps getting better and better. *Cue Shania Twain* – Let’s go girls.

Now that women have some rights, Victoria Woodhull (pictured right) showed us how it’s done. Victoria Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee, became the first female stockbrokers and opened their own brokerage in 1870. One small step for (wo)men, one giant leap for (wo)menkind!

But wait..there’s more! In 1963, the Equal Pay Act passed which required equal pay for equal work among men and women. Although well intentioned, we obviously still deal with a gender pay gap. This law helped move progress in the right direction but is continuously an issue in with women and minority communities.

In 1981, Kirchberg v Feenstra helped financially and legally protect married women. The Supreme Court decided that it was unconstitutional for a husband to have sole control over marital property. This case is a doozy – in 1974 Joan Feenstra accused her then husband, of molesting their daughter. The husband hired an attorney Karl Kirchberg, to defend himself against the charges and took out a mortgage on their home toward paying the attorney’s fees. Because of the laws in Louisiana at the time, Joan wasn’t informed of this mortgage, the terms under which it was taken, or required to approve the mortgage. Joan ended up dropping the charges against her husband and they separated but in 1976, the attorney Karl Kirchberg, came back and demanded payment for his time/services and threatened to foreclose on the house if he didn’t get paid!


Joan filed a lawsuit against Kirchberg stating that Louisiana’s laws that gave sole control over marital property to the husband, was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court decision was UNANIMOUS in favor of Joan and the Louisiana Head and Master (gag) laws were declared unconstitutional and in violation of the equal protection clause of the constitution. This is the last time a husband can (legally) keep their wives in the dark about financial decisions as it relates to marital property.

Fast forward to better days aka when Barack Obama was president. In 2009, the Obama administration passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act which allowed women to sue companies for discrimination after 6 months. This overturned a previous law that said women had to file their complaints within 180 days (like ???). Thank you Barry. We love you.

Yasi Agah is a born and raised Californian living out her dreams in New York City. She loves to read, write, listen to podcasts, and teach yoga. Becoming by Michelle Obama makes her cry every time she reads it.

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