Throughout the majority of history, women were not afforded the same property rights as men. While women could technically inherit property in the 18th and 19th centuries, many noble estates were irrevocably tied to a title that could be inherited only by a male heir. This law or idea comes from the medieval “primogeniture system,” which for centuries left women with inadequate property rights.
Under the primogeniture system, European monarchs and noble families’ titles must be transferred through men. When France’s King Charles IV died in 1328, for example, he left only daughters behind, all of whom were unable to inherit the throne. Without a son, the next hair to the throne should have been the king’s nephew. But he was the son of the late king’s sister and thus was also denied the throne, because his lineage ran through a female—that’s how extreme the system was.
This was not an injustice isolated to Europe alone as the foundation of the United States is deeply rooted in British common law. While we adopted some of our greatest legal virtues from Britain’s common law, including the rule of law and individual rights, the U.S. also adopted its draconian views on female property rights.
During the colonial period, when colonists were still subject to the British crown, a husband was given sole control over not only his own property, but any property that he inherited through his wife’s family.
In 1718, Pennsylvania took a then-progressive approach to property rights, extending management rights to women, but only if their husbands were incapacitated.
Just years before the Revolutionary War began, New York carried the torch, giving wives a say in the management of joint assets.
The 1771 New York law required a wife’s consent if the husband was going to sell property that he inherited from her family through marriage. It also gave extra assurance to the wife by letting her meet privately with a judge to confirm that no coercion or forgeries had occurred in the sale.
In 1839, Mississippi became the first state to let women hold property in their own names.
In 1844, Maine granted women the right to “separate economy” independent of a man.
Arguably one of the most important milestones in the fight for female property rights came in 1848 with the passing of New York’s Married Women’s Property Acts. The law was a huge victory because it allowed women to enter contracts without their husbands or male relatives. It also allowed a woman to file lawsuits on her own behalf. Crucially, the Married Women’s Property Acts also allowed women the right to receive their own inheritance.
America’s Married Women’s Property Acts would have far-reaching and radical implications. By 1900, every state had passed similar legislation. However, this law was specifically about married women. It wasn’t until 1862 that the U.S. Homestead Act would remove barriers that made it difficult for widowed, divorced, and single women to make property claims in their own names. That same year California passed a law that recognized the financial independence of women, going so far as to let them control any deposit that was made in their own name.
These victories may seem like relics of a distant, backward past. But the fight for a woman’s right to control her own property, including money, would not be fully won in the U.S. until 1974—less than 50 years ago.
The Equal Credit Opportunity Act allowed single, divorced, and widowed women who wanted to open a line of credit the freedom to do so without a bank requiring a man to cosign.
Finally, after nearly 200 years, U.S. women had equal access to property. It may have taken two centuries for her hope to be realized, but both our American and British female ancestors can rest in peace, knowing their daughters have finally won the right to control their own property.
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