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Women and finances through the ages

Money focus: a Stanford University study found that women tend to be more involved in the household’s routine financial decisions

March 2023 is women’s history month in the United States. We don’t have a similar celebration in Bermuda; so instead, we’ll have a brief look at women and finances along with some observation patterns from my former professional financial practice in two countries.

Women having equality in managing their own finances has fluctuated throughout history. This article summarises segments of a two-part series in ESG Clarity, “The evolution of women’s financial rights over the ages”.

Personal gender financial equality was relatively accepted in ancient Egypt and numerous other civilisations.

Catherine the Great, notable as the female monarch of Russia with extraordinary monetary, economic, and legislative control during her reign, did initiate an educational platform for girls, but information is scant, while the overall serf population had no rights at all.

Over the centuries following, women’s rights to financial and legislative equality were gradually eroded with restrictions such as United Kingdom coverture law (a view that women are property of their husbands).

Then during mid-1800s, the tide turned optimistically again as more educational and legislative awareness became available to populations, both men and women. Almost certainly, women having to manage households, loss of economic stability and their loved ones during and after two tragic world wars increased necessary financial independence.

Still there were caveats, and fluctuating restrictions but change continued to march on.

Women could have control over her personal property acquired during marriage, but it could also be taken to pay off a husband’s debts.

Women had the right to manage and own property if husband was incapacitated. Otherwise not.

Married women could not own property or run a business, but a widow or spinster could.

Inheritance laws favoured men. The English male primogeniture law of the firstborn son inheriting exclusively if a person died intestate was not abolished until 1964.

Life insurance became available to women, around 1840, then wholly embraced by insurance companies as the market share increased exponentially. Bina West Miller started an insurance company in 1892, the Women’s Benefit Association.

According to ESG Clarity: “In 1903, Maggie Lena Walker was the first woman to open a chartered bank in the US.

“However, while Maggie could open a bank, she could not actually open a personal bank account without a man’s help and consent. This was a right that women would not be granted for several decades.

“In Oregon, a law was passed in 1908 limiting women’s working days to ten hours, arguing that they were also required to fulfil their duties in the home.

“Meanwhile, the woman-only First Women’s Bank of Tennessee opened in 1919. Ironically, while all customers, employees and directors were women, all shareholders were male.”

Now, I make some observations from my prior professional financial planning practices.

In the 1960s and later, in the US, a married woman (or single) could not obtain financing for her individual loan, personal or business, without another signatory (spouse, guarantor) leaving a bit, in some cases, of subterfuge pretences to get what was needed.

Yet, in a typical double-edged sword conundrum, however, both individuals signing a tax return, and related type documents were considered individually and severally liable.

A woman could not obtain a credit card in her own name as a single person, married, or as a divorcée, a reality stunner in some cases, until 1974.

Young married women of the day were gleeful in getting a personal chequing account into which a spouse would deposit household money; yet, they had little understanding or even no idea what the spouse earned or any other assets he or they held.

In other instances, married women did not know if they held property jointly with their spouse, making premature death of husband, an estate disaster: a family trust with a single granter, the male spouse, complicated family finance management even further.

Women still tended not to purchase life insurance for themselves, or anywhere near the financial amounts designated for their significant other – in retrospect, probably because there was only one wage earner.

Yet, when a women passed prematurely, a spouse was left severely incapacitated juggling small children, a job, and in mourning, too.

While equality laws and financial access have evened out somewhat, finances have become more complicated, too, but have we changed with it?

I continue to focus on individuals and managing their financial affairs to try to get the best results for all involved.

My concern is not so much about money and relationships between marital or not, or singles; it is more the related concern of the female longevity factor.

A woman may be married or single today, but it is almost virtually guaranteed that you as a female will spend some time in later life solely dependent on yourself financially!

The Stanford University study of February 2020, Closing the Gender Gap: Financial Literacy is not enough, Marie Conley Smith and Hsiao-Wen Lioa, noted that their research findings show that women tend to perform more poorly on tests of financial literacy than men, in a couple of ways.

They tend to get more questions wrong and they are more likely to choose “don’t know” an answer. Yet, their actual confidence factor on financial decisions depended on two categories. They felt confident and involved making routine financial decisions, but far less confident with major financial decisions.

Women still tend to defer major financial decisions to spouses, partners, or significant others. We need to understand our financial world more than ever!

So, ladies, if you are uncomfortable with where you are financially now, take three steps:

• Look at your family history for longevity patterns

• Decide not to leave your future financial security future to anyone else to make decisions for you

• Start now to upgrade your financial education just for you, first — there are numerous (thousands) of websites available for free.

I will be discussing more sources in future articles.


Natasha Turner, editor ESG Clarity

What Explains the Gender Gap in Financial Literacy? The Role of Household Decision Making, National Library of Medicine

Women’s rights and their money: a timeline from Cleopatra to Lilly Ledbetter, Suzanne McGee and Heidi Moore, The Guardian August 2014

Martha Harris Myron is a native Bermudian with US connections and the finance journalist (22 years) to The Royal Gazette. Bio http://marthamyron.com/contact-about Contact her at info@marthamyron.com

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Published March 18, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated March 17, 2023 at 4:31 pm)

Women and finances through the ages

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