The evolution of women’s financial rights over the ages

In this latest Fearless Woman blog, City Hive explores how women’s financial rights declined throughout history


City Hive

Many of us have never thought twice about being able to open a bank account, take out a credit card or exercise our financial choices.

Yet history tells us that over the years, women’s financial rights have ebbed and flowed according to those in power, the level of resistance received and even based on myths and misconceptions around how women manage their money.         

Here, we explore how women’s financial rights, originally somewhat well balanced, declined over the Middle Ages as male lawmakers began to exercise control over women and their money.   

The advancement of women’s equality in ancient times

Ancient Egyptian gender equality

Ancient Egypt tends to evoke images of gods, pharaohs, and pyramids, but did you know the society was also ahead of its time in terms of gender rights? Back in 3100 BCE, Egyptian men and women had equal financial rights, with women permitted to acquire, own and ‘dispose of’ property in their own name, and without a male partner. Some historians have argued that women hesitated to enact these rights as they were concerned that it would be negatively viewed. However the fact that they existed at such an early era speaks volumes.

Biblical era and Ancient Hinduism

Under both Ancient Jewish and Ancient Hindu laws, financial rights for women were somewhat of a mixed bag. Inheritance laws still were very much in favour of men. Still there was a degree of financial power for women who were allowed to inherit and control property.

The blueprint for modern law, and the powerful woman behind it

Passed around 565CE, the Justinian laws were named after the emperor Justinian and are seen by many as a blueprint for modern western laws. However, it is widely understood that many of the laws that expanded rights in terms of women’s equality were, in fact, introduced by Justinian’s wife Theodora. Credited as one of the most powerful women in the Byzantium era, and an early feminist, Theodora was a former actress, sex worker and courtesan who became Empress after marrying Justinian.

Once in this position of power, she successfully advocated for women’s marriage, dowry, divorce, and property rights to allow women to have control over their financial affairs. While named as co-regent with her husband, Theodora’s name appears in many of the laws of the time concerning women’s rights and she is widely understood to have been the true power behind the regime. 

A step back – restrictions of the Middle Ages. 

Introducing coverture

Over the Middle Ages, women’s financial rights significantly declined. With laws increasingly being written down, and done so primarily by men, there seemed to be a global shift to ensure that patriarchy retained its dominance and women were kept out of power. While Anglo Saxon law allowed women to own property, and Norse law permitted women to conduct business as equals with men, rights in England took a step backwards.

In 1100, English common law combined Norman and Anglo-Saxon law to create coverture. Coverture was a belief that married men and women were a single entity. However, the law more accurately implied that married women were the property of their husbands and no longer eligible to be viewed as individuals. Coverture continued to have a powerful hold over women’s financial rights up until the 19th century and forbade married women from owning property or certain businesses. These rights could however be enjoyed by widows or spinsters.

When Britain invaded America, the laws of coverture were also inflicted on their new colony. Some states did try to make small changes however. In 1718, Pennsylvania allowed women to manage and own their property but only if their husbands were incapacitated. Meanwhile in 1771, New York became the first state to require a husband to gain his wife’s consent if he was selling property she had brought to the marriage.

The wider European View

Liberté, égalité, fraternité were words that also applied to women’s financial rights back in 18th century France, which in 1791 offered women equal inheritance rights. However, these rights would later be lost when the French monarchy fell. France would also prove to be more progressive by granting single women the right to open a bank account in 1881, then extending this right to married women in 1886. You’ll have to wait until the next blog to find out how much later the US and the UK followed suit…    

Sixteenth century Russia, on the other hand, granted the separate economy right for women, giving them the ability to earn and retain their own income for their purposes. This meant that husbands could not demand that wives handed over earnings for their own purposes such as drinking or gambling.  

Don’t miss part two of this timeline when we reveal how women in the UK and US fought their way out of coverture, and onwards to equal financial rights.

ESG ClarityWhat Investment and DiversityQ are delighted to support the City Hive campaign Fearless Woman to celebrate 50 years of women investing in the UK.


Latest Stories