The Struggle for Financial Inclusion: A History of Women and Bank Accounts

Florence Desiata

Are you wondering when could women open a bank account? 

Women’s right to open a bank account only began in the 1960s. It took another decade before they were able to have their own credit

Their access to banking and other financial services was a decades-long process. In this article, let’s take a look back at the history of women’s fight for financial inclusion.

Timeline of Women and Access to Financial Services

Here’s a quick look at women’s progress from limited access to financial services to the current state of affairs in the modern day. 

1839: Married Women’s Property Act

Under coverture, a legal doctrine, American women were not recognized as full legal persons but as subordinates to their husbands. As a result, they were unable to independently: 

  • Sign legal documents 
  • Create bank accounts
  • Receive paychecks
  • Own and manage properties

These limitation has caused concerns in society, resulting in the enactment of the Married Women’s Property Act. The law was designed to help overcome their challenges under the coverture as it enables women to: 

  • Become independent from their husbands
  • Enter contracts and file lawsuits
  • Work for paychecks

Instead of a progressive view of women’s roles in society, these shifts were driven by a desire to preserve family unity and cushion households from economic hardships.

Women’s property rights reform was championed by northern states. Although the Connecticut legislation permitting a married woman to form a will dates back to 1809, it was not the first law to address married women’s property rights because of its minimal effect on assets and contracts.

In 1839, Mississippi enacted the Married Women’s Property Act, and other independent states followed suit, including:

StateThe Year of the Act’s Passage
New York1848
New Jersey1852

1938: Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

The Equal Pay Act is an amendment to the FLSA that makes it illegal for companies to pay men and women differently for performing the same or equivalent work. This is a crucial gender equality milestone, especially as the number of female workers significantly increased after World War II

In the 1960s, the Married Women’s Property Act, FLSA, and Equal Pay Act paved the way for women to be fully recognized as individuals in the eyes of the law. As a result, they can open a bank account without their husband’s permission as they have the right to earn, own properties, and enter into contracts. 

1974: Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA)

Even as more women gained access to bank accounts, many financial institutions discriminated against them. For instance, women were disproportionately hit by discriminatory lending practices, such as being denied credit or paying higher interest rates. The unequal treatment was a major factor in their ability to gain economic independence and save for the future, leading to the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.

The ECOA was enacted in October 1974. The principal provision of this act was to outlaw lending bias based on a person’s sexual orientation or marital status. 

The Federal Reserve Board oversaw the ECOA’s implementation. They legislate to safeguard borrowers’ interests and instruct creditors on how to provide services without bias. In 2011, these responsibilities were transferred to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

1976: The Expansion of ECOA

Two years following its inception, ECOA was revised to add a clause prohibiting discrimination based on the following grounds:

  • Age
  • Color
  • Race
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Receipt of public assistance (i.e., SNAP or SSDI)

The amendment also required creditors to explain why applicants were denied credit for full transparency.

The 2000s: Current State of Women and Finance

Women’s financial inclusion has progressed dramatically in recent years, with more of them now having access to a wide range of banking options than ever before. If they are of legal age and can provide the necessary documents, they will have no trouble getting a savings account or credit card in their name.

The following are key facts and figures on women’s success in the financial sector in the 2000s:

  • 2017: 54% of women reported having primary or significant authority over the long-term financial planning for their households.

However, despite the lower barriers to entry into the banking system, 55% of the world’s unbanked population are women. The top reasons for this are mainly a lack of: 

  • Funds for maintaining the balance
  • Proof of identification or documents
  • Financial knowledge

It is also evident that there are not enough women working in finance, and the gender pay gap is still prevalent. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Could a woman open a bank account in 1950?

In the United States, women were not permitted to open a bank account on their own until the 1960s. Before that, they must obtain signed approval from their spouses. However, many banks still block women from having their own accounts due to social preconceptions.

When could women get a mortgage?

Once the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was implemented in 1974, women gained the right to get a mortgage.

Can a married woman open a bank account?

Assuming she is of legal age and has the necessary documentation, a married woman may create a bank account in her name.

Wrapping up: The Road to Progress

The history of women’s access to banking services is a story of progress, change, and ongoing challenges. For much of human history, women were excluded from participating in many aspects of society, including finance. However, through the tireless efforts of advocates and pioneers, women gained greater access to finance over time. 

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