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  • Writer's pictureMatilda Butler

Do You Own Land? Does Your Sister? Your Mother?


Today, owning property is primarily a matter of money. If you want a home and can manage a mortgage, you can probably purchase and move in.* BUT that wasn't always true for women.

In the 1700s and 1800s...

In the early days of the United States, women were not permitted to own property. Instead, their husbands or fathers held all of the legal rights to any land or buildings. These men even had the legal rights a women's wages. It wasn't until the late 1800s that women began to win the right to own property in America, a critical step in the fight for women's rights and gender equality.

Some Progress in the Mid-19th Century

The struggle for women's property rights began in the mid-19th century, as women's rights advocates began to challenge the legal and social structures that prevented women from owning property. One of the key figures in this movement was Sarah Grimké, an abolitionist and women's rights advocate who argued that women should have the right to own and control their own property. In a series of letters to her sister, Grimké argued that the laws that prevented women from owning property were unjust and that women should have the same legal rights as men.

Even Having the Receipt for a Property Didn't Matter

Despite these early efforts, it wasn't until the 1860s and 1870s that significant progress was made in the fight for women's property rights. One of the major victories of this period was the passage of the Married Women's Property Acts, which granted women the right to own property and control their own earnings. These laws were passed in a number of states, including:

  • New York,

  • California, and

  • Massachusetts.

Passage of the Married Women's Property Acts represented a major step forward for women's rights.

Another Aspect of the Married Women's Property Acts

One of the most important aspects of the Married Women's Property Acts was that they recognized women's rights to their own earnings. Prior to these laws, any money that a woman earned belonged to her husband, even if she had earned it through her own labor. The Married Women's Property Acts changed this, giving women the right to keep their own earnings and use them as they saw fit.

But What About the Right to Get Credit?

The passage of the Married Women's Property Acts was a major victory for women's rights, but it didn't end the struggle for gender equality. Even after women were granted the right to own property, they faced a number of legal and social obstacles that made it difficult for them to exercise that right. For example, many women were still barred from working in certain professions or from obtaining credit on their own, which made it difficult for them to purchase property or start their own businesses.

My Story About Getting Credit

In 1977, I got a good job that required me to travel. Most of the time, I took flights from the West Coast to the East Coast, stayed two or three nights, took clients to dinner, took cabs to meetings (pre-Uber), etc. My husband had a credit card, but I didn't. It was going to be easier to get reimbursed for my travel expenses, if I could have a credit card. "No big deal," I thought. Ah. But it was a big deal. Visa denied my application (although my salary was more than my husband's). But they said they would up his credit limit. I responded "No. I need my own card." The credit card company said I could have a card in my name but the card would be tied to my husband's account. "Again, I said 'No.'" By then, I was just plain mad. After a couple more rounds of negotiation, I simply responded, "All right. I'll go to MasterCard and get a credit card in my name in my own account."

Suddenly, Visa decided I could have my own account and a card in my name. As a woman I was subject to more harassment than a man. And that was in the late 1970s.

Challenges Still Exist

Despite these challenges, women continued to fight for their rights in the years following the passage of the Married Women's Property Acts. One of the most notable figures in this movement was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who argued that women should have the right to own property, vote, and participate fully in public life. Stanton was a key figure in the women's suffrage movement, which sought to secure voting rights for women and other political rights.

Over time, women's property rights continued to expand, as more and more women gained access to education and economic opportunities. By the early 20th century, women were beginning to make significant strides in a number of fields, including business, law, and politics. These achievements were the result of years of hard work and activism by women's rights advocates, who refused to be silenced or deterred in their pursuit of equality.

In March, Women's History Month, We Need to Work for and Defend Our Rights

Today, women's property rights are recognized and protected under the law, but there is still work to be done to ensure that women have full and equal access to economic opportunities. Women continue to face a number of challenges in the workplace, including wage discrimination, sexual harassment, and lack of access to certain professions. These obstacles make it difficult for women to achieve financial independence and to exercise their full rights as citizens.

In order to address these challenges, it is important that we continue to support women's rights and advocate for gender equality.

* Laws vary by state and in many locations Black women still have a difficult time owning property. So even with all the progress that has been made, we need to work toward a more equitable society.


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Sarah McIlvain
Sarah McIlvain
Apr 27, 2023

My paternal grandmother owned land! (She also was a graduate of NCS and Philadelphia School of Art (major was sculpture). She bought a farm at the beginning of the Depression with a cash crop of apples, and a vegetable garden big enough to feed her family and the tenants' family. She sold the farm in the early 50's in order to build a home for her husband and self that was suitable for an aging couple and big enough to entertain all of her grandchildren.

Matilda Butler
Matilda Butler
Apr 28, 2023
Replying to

What a great story. And I love how proud you (and I'm sure your entire family) are of your grandmother. Such an inspiring story. --Matilda

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