History of Women’s Property Rights and Ownership
In the U.S., the answer to the question "When could women own property?" is, "Not until relatively recently." Here's why.
It’s easy to forget that many of the rights women in the U.S. enjoy today are less than a century old. From suffrage to wage equality, legal protections we take for granted were hard-won, thanks to the efforts of activists and advocates throughout the 1900s.
The battle for women’s property rights and ownership was one of the longest and most significant, stretching from the 1700s to the beginning of the 20th century. Until women were legally granted the right to own property, their husbands or another male relative had control over any property bequeathed or allotted to them. This lack of legal protection severely limited the financial autonomy of women.
Today, women enjoy full property ownership rights and represent a vital segment of the U.S. real estate market. Single women account for about 20 percent of annual home purchases and more single women own homes than single men.
Subsequent legal advances, including the right to apply for a home loan and take out a line of credit, have also made it easier for American women to celebrate the important milestone of homeownership and enjoy financial security and independence.
When Could Women Own Property?
By the beginning of the 20th century, most women could legally own property. However, women’s property rights were slow to progress and scattershot through much of American history. It varied according to a woman’s state of residence and race.
Women’s property rights in the 1700s
During the Colonial period, most of the newly-formed American states followed British common law, which stipulated husbands had complete control of any property their wives brought into the marriage in a trust. This ban on female property ownership in 18th-century England is a major plot device in many Jane Austin novels. And popular TV shows like “Downton Abbey” and “Bridgerton” depicted daughters barred from inheriting their father’s estate.
By the late 1700s, some states had begun to move towards granting women limited property rights. New York was among the first, passing an act in 1771 that gave women a voice in how husbands managed their joint assets.
The Act to Confirm Certain Ancient Conveyances and Directing the Manner of Proving Deeds to Be Recorded required the wife’s signature on any deed to property she brought into the marriage in a trust before her husband could sell or otherwise transfer it. Significantly, it stipulated a judge must meet privately with the wife to confirm her approval was not coerced. Although women were still not allowed to own property independently, for the first time they had some say in how it was managed.
Soon after, Maryland and Massachusetts followed suit, expanding limited property rights laws to include women. In 1787, Massachusetts began allowing some married women to conduct business on their own, so wives of merchants or traders could continue running the family shop while their sea-faring husbands were absent.
Property rights for women of color
The limited advances of female property rights in the late 1700s and early 1800s only applied to women of European descent. Slavery was still practiced in the U.S. during this period, and enslaved women did not have property rights of any kind as they were legally considered property themselves.
Native American women were also excluded from the limited legal protections extended to white women until the mid-1800s, which coincided with emancipation and an expansion of property rights for Black men and women.
19th-century advances in women’s property rights
By the beginning of the 19th century, property rights for women were starting to gain legal traction. Connecticut paved the way by recognizing the right of married women to execute wills and stipulate prenuptial and marriage agreements that allowed a man other than her husband to manage her assets. This law didn’t grant women financial autonomy, but it did prevent husbands from having unfettered control over their wives’ property.
With the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1848 and the Act Concerning the Rights and Liabilities of Husband and Wife in 1860, New York dramatically expanded the property rights of married women. Besides the right to independently conduct business, women could hold sole ownership of any inherited or allotted property, as well as file lawsuits independently.
These two laws became a model for other states to extend legal protection to women property owners over the following decades. By 1900, every state had given married women substantial control over their property.
Women’s right to own property today
The right of women to own and manage property today is equal to that of men, but full financial autonomy didn’t come about until late in the 20th century. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that a woman could access a line of credit independently without a man to cosign her application. It took another decade for the courts to rule that a husband doesn’t have the right to unilaterally take out a second mortgage on property held jointly with his wife.
Despite legal protections for property rights, women still struggle against a real estate gender gap. Women spend an average of two percent more than men to purchase a home and get two percent less return on their investment when reselling, a significant obstacle to economic parity that has yet to be overcome.