The Long and Uneven Journey for Women's RightsSubmitted by Bernhardt Wealth Management on January 14th, 2019
Fair and respectful treatment of women—or the lack of it—has been in the headlines a lot in recent months. The #MeToo movement and other trends have shined a long-overdue spotlight on sexual harassment in the workplace and elsewhere, and recent court decisions and laws have provided some encouraging developments in the ongoing quest for women to be paid on an equitable basis when they perform work equivalent to that of their male counterparts.
But the history of gender-based inequities is long, and an examination of past practices—even stretching back as far as the societies of the ancient Mediterranean world—offers some surprising insights. In ancient Egypt, for example, starting around 3100 B.C., women held many of the same rights as men. Most scholars believe they could own property, run a business, be parties to actions in the courts on their own behalf, and initiate contracts, among other rights. Of course, such capabilities were available only to women of the higher social classes; many women and men were slaves or subsistence laborers who enjoyed few, if any actual rights and protections.
In medieval Europe, Anglo-Saxon law permitted women to own property separately, both as unmarried and married persons. Women in Norse society often engaged in business on a equal basis with men. However, by the 1100s in England, common law treated married women under the doctrine of “coverture,” which held that a married couple were a single legal entity. This eventually degraded into the presumption that women were the property of their husbands.
New York became the first of the British colonies in North America to require, in 1771, that a woman had to give consent for her husband to sell property that she had brought to the marriage. In 1848, New York—by then a state—passed the first law stipulating that a woman was not automatically liable for her husband’s debts. All other states would follow suit by 1900.
It might surprise many younger readers to learn that until the 1978 passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, women in the US could still be legally dismissed from employment for becoming pregnant. Similarly, until 1974’s Equal Credit Opportunity Act, single, widowed, and divorced women could be required to have a man cosign their credit applications, regardless of the woman’s income.
In 1967, affirmative action for women became the law of the land, but many more court battles would be required to make meaningful headway toward ending discriminatory pay and work practices. Not until 1981 would the law require husbands to disclose application for a second mortgage to their spouses, and in 2007, despite Lily Ledbetter’s proof that she was systematically paid less than her male counterparts during her decades-long career at Goodyear, the US Supreme Court ruled that because her lawsuit was not brought within 180 days of the discriminatory action, she was not entitled to legal relief.
In 2009, President Obama signed into law the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which guarantees the right to sue for restitution, even beyond the six-month window.
Clearly, we cannot yet say that men and women enjoy an equal playing field with regard to equal pay for equal work and other workplace factors. But over the long course of history, we continue to progress toward this worthy goal.