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From Struggle to Triumph: The History of Women and Real Estate

A realtor, showing a house to a couple

From today’s perspective, it’s hard to imagine that there was a time when women couldn’t own property or obtain a home mortgage on their own. The thought that single women were excluded from homeownership unless they could pay cash, or that married women needed permission from their husbands to apply for a loan (or even credit), is as antiquated as the horse and buggy — a relic of an unenlightened time.

 

And it continued until the 1970s.

 

It’s a fact that many Americans are unaware of — that full access to home loans, and therefore entry into homeownership — was still inaccessible to women even after we landed on the moon, elected women to Congress, and unlocked the secrets of the atom. So, as we observe Women’s History Month, let’s look at what it took for this journey to happen, and what it has meant for women’s economic opportunity.


The Old Days


Up through the early 19th century, women’s legal and financial rights were extremely limited. Married women could not own property, enter into contracts, or even keep their own wages.[1] When they inherited property, they were unable to pass it on to their heirs after their deaths, in part because they were not allowed to write wills. (Connecticut became the first state to grant this right in 1808.)[2]

 

In 1848, New York enacted the Married Women's Property Act, which enabled women to retain ownership of their own property when they married and pass it on in wills. Other states followed throughout the 1850s, but critically, these rights did not extend to women of color, whose rights would not fully emerge until the 1960s.[3]  

 

By 1900, all U.S. states recognized women’s property ownership rights,[4] but a key barrier remained: access to credit, bank accounts, and mortgages without a male co-signer, none of which were addressed until the 1960s and 1970s.[5] The watershed change came in 1974 with passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which prohibits creditors from discriminating on the basis of sex, marital status, race, color, religion, national origin, age, or participation in public assistance programs. [6] Finally, all women had access to the financial resources to acquire property.


A Rising Force


Women’s economic opportunities expanded in the next decades as access to higher education and participation in the workforce expanded. This in turn allowed them to enter the housing market and build wealth through homeownership.

 

From 1981 on, more single women than single men have bought homes, and their participation in the housing market has grown significantly.[7]




The Hidden Cost


These gains haven’t come without sacrifices, however. The wage gap between women and men persists, and single women homebuyers are more likely to have children under 18 living with them.[7] This means many have had to make financial sacrifices to buy homes, with the most common being:[7]

 


 

That said, these sacrifices only go to show how committed women are to achieving their homeownership dreams. This centuries-old perseverance means that they will continue to be a driving force in the housing market for many centuries more.


 

Sources:

[1] The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, “The struggle for married women’s rights, circa 1880s,” 2014.

[2] Encyclopedia.com, “Married Women’s Property Act of 1848.”

[3] ThoughtCo, “A Short History of Women's Property Rights in the United States,” July 13, 2019.

[4] Annenberg Public Policy Center, “Women’s Rights.”

[5] Urban Institute, “The State of Women's Homeownership,” March 29, 2023.

[6] U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, The Equal Credit Opportunity Act.

[7] National Association of Realtors® (NAR), “Single Women Buyers Outpace Men, but Not Without Sacrifices,” December 8, 2021.

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